Death of a cyclist

I was profoundly shocked when I read the news. With utter disbelief I read that a man so fit and so healthy should die suddenly, unexpectedly, on his bike. The shock was compounded when on the same day I heard the news that a highly promising cyclist should also die in a crash on the Giro d’Italia.

Ton van Attekum had been a staunch counsellor and advisor for me in his capacity as company doctor. He had become a firm support during the years of my wife’s terminal illness. He listened carefully, astutely assisting me in making my own decisions, intervening wisely behind the scenes when necessary, and after my wife died, he continued to provide regular pastoral care and advice. I had seen him last only a few weeks ago, and looked forward to our next regular meeting. He would enquire about personal mental and physical health and professional matters that cause undue stress. He never seemed to forget what we had discussed during the previous meeting, even if I might have. He would bring issues up to check on progress or otherwise. Although I only knew Ton in his professional capacity, he succeeded in creating that bond of trust where professional duty and responsibility meld with warm friendship. I shall miss him keenly but his counsel will long endure.

Ton died on his bike. So did the young Belgian cyclist Wouter Weylandt. A horrific crash during a descent at high speed on the 3rd stage of the Giro. His death is a huge loss to professional cycling, as the tributes have shown. It serves to remind us of the dangers inherent in this seemingly tranquil means of transportation. We have witnessed mass injury-causing crashes during high-speed sprints for the line, but this is different. Fellow Giro riders paid a day-long tribute, and professionals as they are, the show goes on.

My mind goes back to the cyclist who inspired me, years ago, and who too died in a Grand Tour: Tom Simpson, who died on the Mont Ventoux in the Tour de France in 1967. The title above comes from a piece written by the author René Fallet in the introduction to an art exhibition in Paris on the theme ‘The year 1967’. Fallet wrote, ‘We called him “Joyful Tom” or “Major Simpson”. I want to preserve the memory of that joy. Simpson died without knowing it. He died winning, not placed. First. First. Simpson! Crowned. Not like the fallen horse, but like the hero. He won’t have known, poor boy, that he had two toe-clips in the tomb. The race continued without him. Let’s turn back again to shout him on: “Allez Simpson!”. He goes. He leaves the asphalt. He rides across fields, rivers, and skies.’ [translation]

‘The year 1967’ was the auspicious theme of the 17th ‘Salon’ in Paris, ‘Les peintres témoins de leur temps’ (Painters witnesses of their time), an exhibition held in January-February of 1968. Bernard Buffet provided the thematic image. Was this the cyclist? .

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