By Tom Demerly.
Happy customers, shiny new bikes, talk of rides and races to come on warm mornings and long days. Sunny Saturdays in the bike shop are always fun. We sell toys for grown-ups, and our store is a bright and cheerful place.
Until someone asks about that bike.
It hangs in the back corner of our store, out of the way, near the restrooms. It’s above the drinking fountain over old shoes and helmets marked down for clearance.
Sometimes we lie to people about it.
Because the truth is too frightening.
18 July 1995.
11:46 AM Local, Tuesday, Route Nationale 618, Outside Audressein, South West France.
He’s a fine looking lad.
Eyes look wide apart because a champion pro cyclist has to be so skinny. Dark hair, wavy- like a statue of an athlete in a museum. He’s a hero in his hometown of Como, Italy. This is what boys are supposed to do- grow up to be great athletes. He’s already an Olympic Gold Medalist, 1992 Barcelona. He won the crowning bike event there, the Men’s Road Race. All of Italy went wild.
Fabio Casartelli became their son after that- all of Italy’s son. Their great promise. A rising hero. Italy loves their heroes and Fabio Casartelli is a worthy idol.
Now he is hurtling down a mountain on his team Motorola racing bike in the first hour of Stage 15 in the Tour de France. He is descending the Col de Portet d’Aspet in the French Pyrenees.
Top professional cyclists routinely reach speeds over 50 MPH on mountain descents, and the narrow, spastic roads of the Haute-Garonne region seem to have been planned by a man having a seizure. They wind like a venomous snake held by the tail trying to bite its captor.
Scott Parr is used to this. He sits back seat in a team car that can’t keep pace with descending cyclists in the 15th stage of this Tour de France. The bikes are faster than the team cars going down the mountains, so the cars have to back off.
Parr is an elite level pro team mechanic. The cycling equivalent of a one-man Formula 1 pit crew. He rides in a suped-up Fiat support car for the Motorola Cycling Team. In the car with him are spare wheels, custom tools he’s made just for servicing race bikes, the team director and, a relatively new development in the Tour de France, two-way radios.
Car tires screech on the descent. You can smell brakes and hot rubber. The sports car disc brakes on the Fiat are too hot to touch now as the car heels side to side on the twisted descent. Parr braces himself in the back seat like a pilot in a dogfighting jet.
The two-way radio carries French commentary of the race and official announcements. It’s the usual traffic. News of the leaders, positions of the vehicles in the support caravan. Then the two words that turn warm blood to ice water come over the radio:
“Chute! Chute brutale…!”
Parr is ready. It’s a well-drilled routine. The car will pull to the right. He will have already opened the door when it skids to a halt. Like a bicycle service SWAT team he will run from the back of the car, one front wheel and one rear wheel in hand. He can change a rear wheel in less than eight seconds, a front even faster.
“This radio call was something different” Scott Parr tells me. “Usually they announce the team name involved in the crash. On this one, there was nothing. It was weird.” Scott is glancing around the room now. Uncomfortable recounting that day. Face turning red. Unusual for him.
With a cool head and a steady hand Parr will make a wheel change, bend something back into place, help a rider remount and give him a quick push to get him going again. That’s how it usually goes.
But this stop is different.
The crash scene is a wide, sweeping left-hander on excellent pavement. Bright green trees on either side of the road. Brilliant sunshine. The terrain to the right of the road plummets almost vertically off a cliff through tangled brush. No guardrail, but rather, a series of white concrete blocks about a foot high spaced six feet apart. There is no run-off area. You miss the turn, you go off the cliff.
It is a melee’. Five men are down. Only four are on the road though. That’s important.
The first man is frozen in shock. He seems to be comfortably seated on the road facing outward, as if to take in the view off the cliff. He sits oddly still, no reaction. At his feet is a tangle of racing bikes.
The second man seems comfortably lying in a ball, as if exhausted and sleeping, his legs drawn up with left arm over them. It looks like a position a cat might sleep in, except he is lying in the middle of a mountain road with bike racers and race team cars hurtling within inches of him. He’s motionless.
An expanding slick of bright red blood pours down the slope of the road from his head. So much blood…
The third man is still in the fight. He has gone into the battle drill of a crashed cyclist. He is standing, signaling for a new bike from his team car, he grips his left thigh, presumably where he landed. His only motive is to rejoin the race. Team cars barely miss him hurtling down the descent, horns bleating above the chaos.
The fourth man, it’s hard to tell from grainy race video 21 years later, appears to be sorting out his bike on the pavement.
Four men. Someone is missing.
French rider Dante Rezze of the Aki cycling team.
Rezze is not a handsome man. Compared to the darling Fabio Casartelli, Rezze looks like a boxer who has suffered the blows of a dubious career. His black olive hair stands too high in an awkward pompadour.
Rezze carried too much speed into this wide left-hander, missed the turn entirely and soared off the cliff in an arcing trajectory into open space. The only thing that stopped his freefall were the branches of trees below. Miraculously, he survives. His left leg is broken.
Back up on the road German rider Dirk Baldinger’s face is drawn into a tight grimace. Baldinger’s leg, or hip, are fractured from the crash. He will abandon the race due to his injuries.
Modest Columbian support rider Juan Cesar Aguirre of the Kelme team is also down, less seriously injured perhaps but entirely demoralized by the ordeal. He abandons the race here. He was the waving man, initially fighting to get back into the race.
Rezze and Baldinger are med-evaced by ground ambulance to treat their fractures. An ad-hoc recovery team has discovered the fallen Dante Rezze and is brainstorming recovery techniques for pulling him up the cliff.
But back on the road there is horror.
Dr. Gerard Porte is on the scene now, the official medical director of the Tour de France. Dr. Porte is skilled in the emergency treatment of injured cyclists. He follows the race in a specially equipped medical support car. He is kneeling in an expanding slick of blood streaming from Casartelli’s battered head.
Porte has never seen a cycling crash like this.
Quoted in the New York Times by famous cycling journalist Samuel Abt, Dr. Porte told journalists, “I arrived 10 seconds after the fall. I could tell it was a serious injury. Casartelli had cuts that were bleeding badly. We did everything in the best conditions and as fast as we could. But he had very serious cuts, and when there’s such heavy bleeding you know it was [a] very powerful impact.”
Casartelli was not wearing a helmet.
A French-built Eurocopter AS350 Écureuil helicopter is summoned via emergency radio to evacuate Casartelli to the hospital. Reports say his heart stopped in the medevac helicopter en route to the hospital.
At 14:39 Jean-Marie Leblanc, Director of the Tour de France, makes an announcement on internal race radio.
Motorola rider Fabio Casartelli is dead.
In a gut-punching epilogue Casartelli leaves behind his wife Annalisa who had only just given birth to their first son Marco.
It’s a terrifying contrast: one moment a rising star athlete with a fresh new family gallantly descending a mountain in the Tour de France, the next a contorted corpse in the fetal position on the hot pavement with a battered skull gushing dark blood.
21 Years Later.
Back in our store Scott Parr tells me he was in shock that day. It’s the first time he’s talked about the crash in all the years I’ve known him. He is a quiet and controlled man, not given to emotion or embellishment.
“One by one the other team cars drove up to us, alongside our car. They all said they were sorry- offered their condolences…”
Parr looks to his right. Eyes red now. He has nothing more to say about the accident. The years of silence about the crash had broken momentarily, now the silence returns.
The next day he tells me “You can take some pictures of the bike if you want. Maybe it’s time to write something about it.”
The bike is an Eddy Merckx. Handmade in Belgium. One of Casartelli’s spare bikes. It is Columbus MXL cro-moly tubing. A heavy bike by today’s standards, it uses a series of lugs or joints to connect the individual frame tubes in a difficult assembly and brazing process.
It uses Shimano Dura-Ace components, 8-speed back then. The STI brake/shift levers are old skool, with external cable routing. The stem is a quill-style. The original bike used a titanium Cinelli Grammo stem that has since been replaced.
It was repainted at the Eddy Merckx factory in Zellik, on the outskirts of Brussels, Belgium. The original bike said “Caloi” on it, a sponsor of the team at the time. The new paint is beautiful, with the Merckx logos carefully outlined.
Many of the fasteners are special blue anodized bolts made by SRP, or Specialty Racing Products, an aftermarket manufacturer of lightweight fasteners who sponsored the Motorola cycling team.
A few of the components have been changed, the wheels, a few other things, but this is Casartelli’s frame. And it hangs as a quiet reminder. A quiet tribute. A quiet caution.
Helmets became mandatory in professional cycling soon after the Casartelli tragedy. Even though initial reports suggested a helmet would not have prevented Casartelli’s death a subsequent report revealed that a helmet likely would have saved him. And so, today, we all wear helmets. Mostly because of Fabio.
What happens to a person as they lay dying? Do they know they’re dying? Are they trying to hold on, to tighten the grip on the only fleeting life we know? Does something welcome them? That light people talk about? Or is it just comforting darkness? It’s frightening to ponder. Sometimes when I pass it, Casartelli’s bike asks me that question. And it always reminds me to wear a helmet, be aware of my surroundings on the bike and use caution.
And Scott seldom mentions the bike, but it continues to hang above our drinking fountain.