Saturday, July 2, 2011
Impact of loss won't stop Tyler Farrar
By Bonnie D. Ford
TIFFAUGES, France -- Tyler Farrar is a sprinter disguised as a gentleman. He has all of the drive and passion but none of the abrasiveness often associated with the specialty. At 27, he is one of the most good-natured, composed presences in the peloton, and he is not one to wear his emotions on his jersey sleeve.
That was partly why it was so heartbreaking to see him grieve publicly. Farrar's dear friend Wouter Weylandt, a Belgian from the American rider's adopted home in Ghent, died after crashing in the Giro d'Italia on May 9, leaving behind a pregnant partner. Farrar learned the news in the most jarring manner possible, from a reporter at the team bus. His Garmin-Cervelo teammate David Millar tried his best to console an inconsolable young man that night.
The next morning, Farrar set off with the rest of the field, riding 134 miles at a deliberately neutralized pace to pay homage to Weylandt. It took more than six hours. A short distance from the finish, Weylandt's Leopard-Trek teammates went to the front and beckoned Farrar to join them. They wrapped their arms around each other's shoulders. The images of Farrar inclining his head slightly, making no effort to hide his raw, stricken face, are not easily forgotten.
The Leopard-Trek team asked Tyler Farrar to join them as they honored their teammate Wouter Weylandt at the Giro d'Italia.
"I'll always owe them a little something for that," Farrar said, sitting in the empty breakfast room of Garmin's team hotel in the tiny town of Tiffauges in the Vendee region in northwest France where the Tour de France began Saturday. "They didn't have to do that. I didn't ask for it and they certainly didn't have to take me into account on a day like that. That meant a lot to me."
Farrar had just rolled his bike downhill from a school building where the team held its pre-Tour news conference in the library. Church bells chimed in the background. Residents smiled at him as he slipped by; they seem to enjoy the fact the team had taken over the town like a benign occupational force.
None of this was assured six weeks ago. Farrar didn't assume he would be at the start line of this Tour, although that was his intention. And, he said he is fully fit and prepared to take on the race for the third time. This weekend is a huge one for Garmin, which is still lacking a Tour stage win after numerous close calls over the past three years.
The team previewed the last part of the course for Saturday's Stage 1, which has a short, steep uphill finish "that's too hard for me," Farrar said with typical matter-of-factness. Instead, he'll work for Thor Hushovd, the powerful Norwegian world champion, just as Hushovd is expected to work for him in flatter sprint finishes. (Update: Hushovd finished third in a crash-marred first stage on Saturday, six seconds behind the victor, Belgian star Philippe Gilbert. Farrar, caught behind a mass pile-up in the late going, came in four and a half minutes after the leaders but was unhurt.) Sunday, Garmin will bolt out to try to win the team time trial.
In the immediate aftermath of Weylandt's death, racing felt irrelevant to Farrar. He pulled out of the Giro the day after the neutralized stage and traveled back to Ghent. One of the team soigneurs accompanied him so he wouldn't come home to an empty apartment; his longtime girlfriend Stephanie Wade was in transit back from the United States.
Farrar spoke at Weylandt's well-attended funeral. Then he tried to focus on what to do with the days yawning ahead, when he was expected to be in Italy.
"JV [team manager Jonathan Vaughters] said, 'No pressure, just when you're ready to start thinking about it, give me a call and we'll make you a race program and move forward.' After things had settled a little bit, I thought, 'I can't just throw away the rest of the season.'"
But Farrar couldn't stomach the thought of training on the same roads around Ghent that he'd so recently patrolled with Weylandt. So he and Stephanie flew back to the Seattle area, where they fell for each other in high school. It was the first time Farrar -- who moved to Belgium several years ago, immersed himself in the culture and now glides easily into Flemish and French -- had been in his hometown in the spring in many years. He drank in the unaccustomed sight of mountains unobscured by fog and clouds.
"I was out doing all these rides that I'm normally doing in miserable cold rain, and it's sunny and nice," Farrar said. "It was really enjoyable. Other days I'd go ride and even though it was beautiful and fun, I just wasn't in a good place in my head ... You can't say, 'OK, I've grieved for a week, now it's finished.'
"I started training and the first couple days were hard, but it was actually quite helpful to get out on the bike. Long rides, alone with my thoughts."
One of his inner debates was whether to remain in Ghent, where the memories, he said, "are heavy." The support network he and Stephanie have there answered the question for him.
"Ghent will always be a little different for me now, but I still love the place, I still love Belgium," he said. "You can't run away from reality. I could pack up everything I own and move to Spain or Italy or whatever, but what does that really accomplish? I think I'm better off to just face the issues and work my way through them."
Farrar returned to racing in mid-June at the Criterium du Dauphine, a Tour tuneup race in the Alps. He won a stage in a race in Holland a week later and made a skyward-pointing "W" with his hands in tribute to his friend. "I suffered like a dog [in the Dauphine], but it's paid off, and I think the form's pretty good now," he said. "It hasn't been easy, but life isn't easy all the time."
He has more than the usual authority to say that. Farrar's father, Ed, a spinal surgeon, lost the use of his lower body three years ago when a car hit him on his way to work -- on a bike. The two losses were entirely different to deal with, Farrar said. Ed Farrar "can't walk, and his life has changed a lot, but he's still alive. I can't go for a bike ride with my dad, but I can still go see him and hang out with him."
Still, that trauma compelled Farrar to re-examine his life and gave him a deep appreciation for his own health and talent in a way that most athletes in their mid-20s are not inclined to do. It prepared him to cope with the permanent loss of a contemporary in a way he couldn't have foreseen. "If anything, this just reinforces those conclusions I came to," he said.
"If you stop and let your life fall apart too, then it's a double tragedy."