These days, with skateboarders and BMX bikers doing backflips and covering 50 foot gaps from giant ramps, it’s probably hard for youngsters to think of the Tour de France as a dangerous sport. However, in the golden tradition of the Tour de France, there have been three tragic deaths due to injuries sustained while racing. While it’s not very pleasant to talk about the tragedies that have occurred during the most prestigious cycling race in the world, it does highlight the dangers that cyclists face, the amount of skill that is required by the sport of cycling, and the importance of safety measures in the sport itself.

The first cyclist to die during the Tour de France didn’t actually perish as a result of the race itself. Instead, French rider Adolphe Helière drowned during a rest day. The site of the tragedy was the French Riviera, where Helière was resting and relaxing before heading back out on the course to finish the race.

It was 1935 before the sometimes treacherous, always challenging Tour de France saw the death of a rider during the actual event itself. In a tragic and terrible twist of events, Spanish cyclist Francisco Cepeda passed away after falling down a ravine in the Col du Galibier stage. His skull fractured, Cepeda sadly died three days after the fall.

We often think of performance enhancing drugs and other methods of cheating as a problem of modern sports exclusively, but the next death at the Tour de France was directly related to the issue, and it happened way back in 1967.

English cyclist Tom Simpson died of heart failure that was brought on by the combination of the conditions, the stress on his body from the demanding race, and his use of amphetamines. Simpson was the first English rider to ever wear the yellow jersey, and his determination showed through even on the day he passed away.

Exhausted, dehydrated, and suffering from the heat and his amphetamine use, he fell against an embankment as he couldn’t go on during the climb of Mont Ventoux. Even though he was barely conscious, he insisted on being put back onto his bike, and he managed to ride on for several hundred meters before he feel unconscious. He passed away when he arrived at the hospital.

The only silver lining after Simpson’s tragic death was that it accelerated concern over substance abuse by riders. Eventually, more knowledge of nutrition, hydration techniques and the dangers of many substances helped to ensure that others would not suffer the same fate as Simpson.

The most recent death in the Tour de France is also perhaps the saddest. Fabio Casartelli of Italy, a former Olympic gold medalist, was descending a dangerous part of the Portet d’Aspet when he crashed, along with several other cyclists. Unfortunately for Casartelli, his injuries were much more severe than those of the other riders. Casartelli slid and hit his head on a concrete railing area and didn’t live long enough to reach the hospital. The next day, the entire group of Tour de France participants dedicated the stage to Casartelli, as Casartelli’s team was allowed to finish first and as a group, with the rest of the field finishing behind, riding slowly. A fund was also set up to help out Casartelli’s wife and infant son, and riders donated their day’s purses to the fund, with the Tour de France organizers matching the donation.

Like Simpson’s unfortunate death, Casartelli’s led to change within the Tour de France. Helmet rules were established and consistently made stricter, until recently where it has gotten to the point that riders must wear helmets at all times or be fined.

As you can see, cycling is not a sport for the faint of heart. Each year, heart stopping crashes occur at speeds of 40 or even 50 miles per hour. Even with helmets, it’s clear that cycling is a dangerous sport, especially in events like the Tour de France, where steep mountain climbs and descents demand tremendous skill and resilience from the athletes competing. Even if you’re not a cycling fan, you should definitely respect the great athletes of the sport, who bravely risk their well-being and ride with the determination and passion of champions.

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