The Tour de Pologne paid a moving tribute to Bjorg Lambrecht on Tuesday, with Lotto Soudal and then other teams taking turns on the front during the neutralised stage to remember the 22-year-old Belgian rider who died after a crash during stage 3.
The day of mourning began on Tuesday morning when riders and teams gathered at the stage start of Jaworna for what became a 133-kilometre procession in his memory.
All start ceremonies barring the sign-on in the small town in southern Poland were cancelled, with sombre music playing quietly in the sign-on area and the publicity hostesses dressed in black. Riders, many wearing black armbands, spent much of the pre-start time on their buses, before making their way through sideroads to the sign on. Team staff went about the standard last-minute preparations, in one of the few other semblances of normality on a stage that is anything but.
In warm, clear weather, team management, directors and a number of riders made their way to the Lotto Soudal bus, parked at the end of the line of team vehicles about a kilometre from the start, to pay their condolences. Race director Czeslaw Lang, his lead car with black streamers attached to its antennae for the stage, stopped briefly by the bus to express his sympathy.
Finally, as the non start-time approached, riders gathered under the inflatable start banner. Many removed their helmets and sunglasses as a sign of respect and mourning.
Lambrecht’s six Lotto Soudal teammates were the last to arrive, making their way through the peloton in silence to move to the front of the bunch. Faced by a line of photographers and camera crews, some were close to tears as they removed their helmets and the massive emotional charge of the occasion began to tell. Then, shortly after a nearby church bell had struck twelve, there was a minute’s silence and the race slowly moved off.
Show tribute to this great kid
“It’s definitely the right decision to neutralise the stage, and also Lotto being here, to show tribute to this great kid,” Dimension Data’s Bernie Eisel told Cyclingnews before the start.
Eisel said, like many riders, it will take considerable time to sink in that Lambrecht is no longer in the peloton.
“Yesterday evening I spent about three hours looking at social media, just reading what people were saying about him, and I still can’t believe it, it can’t be right.
“He was one of the most talented, skillful riders out there. I remember talking to [Belgian Cycling Federation president] Tom Van Damme years ago about him, and he said Bjorg was the future star. It’s just a really sad story, no explanation – just ‘rest in peace, mate.’”
A message read by the organisation over the public address system preceded the minute’s silence.
“We are incredibly shaken by this tragedy and are united in pain with Bjorg’s family and the cycling community,” the message ran. “Bjorg will forever remain in our memory.”
The Lotto Soudal riders were again at the front of the peloton when the stage moved off for a lap around the start town, with the rest of the bunch following at a short distance behind.
With racing cancelled, the stage had the feel of a procession of mourning. The peloton stopped at kilometre 48.5, the distance where Lambrecht fell and died on Monday’s stage, for another minute’s silence. Then the bunch continued towards finish at Kocierz at a controlled speed of between 30 and 35kph. The Lotto Soudal riders will cross the line at the front of the pack in Kocierz, where there will be no banners.
Organisers have instead designed a special black finishing arch with Lambrecht's name and race number, which riders will pass beneath at the end of the stage.
The peloton’s reaction to Lambrecht’s death recalled the response to the death of Wouter Weylandt on the 2011 Giro d’Italia. On that occasion, Weylandt’s Leopard Trek teammates and his close friend Tyler Farrar, then with Slipstream Chipotle, led the peloton across the line in Livorno the following day. On the 1995 Tour de France, the Motorola team led the peloton home the day after Fabio Casartelli was killed on the Portet d’Aspet.
“It’s similiar conditions, a freak accident,” CCC general manager Jim Ochowicz, who directed Casartelli’s Motorola squad, told Cyclingnews in Jaworna. “This just happens and then you pick up the pieces.
“Back then, we had to make the decision to start the next day, and we felt an obligation to talk to the family first and his wife and parents said we should carry on and that’s what we did.
“Then the peloton decided, during the stage that that was how the race was going to go.
“But whatever the way it’s decided, it’s the right thing to do. These are professional athletes, they take risks, but you hope these things never will happen.”
“I said only to the riders, that each team will do a few kilometres on the front, then the Lotto-Soudal team come in the end to cross the line,” Cofidis director Roberto Damiani told Cyclingnews. “It’s only respectful to Bjorg and to all the riders.”
Such situations, Damiani said, are not straightforward, but one thing is clear to him: “We are people before we are sports directors or riders and, in this moment, it’s people that are talking, not athletes.
“I respect Lotto’s decision, whatever they decide. Sometimes in cycling we forget our humanity, but in these moments, we remember it very well.”
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.