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October 21, 2016
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The Heart of the Matter

While my primary cycling fandom allegiance is to Team Type 1, since our household worships at the shrine of La Grande Boucle, you'll often find me streaming the day's race video on my computer, or when Versus or Universal Sports covers it, on the TV. So it was this morning, as the first of the three Grand Tours, the Giro d'Italia, played out its third stage.


There is a certain level of risk associated with taking to hard roads at speeds faster than the human body can traverse unassisted, wearing nothing to protect you but a contraption of foam and plastic on your head and a thin layer of lycra on your buttocks. Bumps, bruises, and road rash are par for the course even for recreational cyclists. Commuters and serious cyclists also have to worry about motor vehicle collisions. For racers, the increased speeds (and often dicier road conditions) of their travel means that crashes and collisions can result in broken bones, internal injuries, or -- on rare occasions -- death.


Today was one of those rare occasions. Professional cyclist Wouter Weylandt was reported as having "fainted off the bicycle" on a descent; real-time videos showed him bleeding as paramedics loosed his helmet and performed CPR on an unresponsive body. We saw a medevac helicopter waiting to extract the rider, but heard nothing more until about an hour after the first rider had crossed the finish line, when the RAI (Italian news media) and other news outlets reported that he had not survived.


Race, medical, and other authorities are in the process of reconstructing the turn of events to understand both the crash and its tragic aftermath. I am hardly an expert in this field, but the initial reportage caused me to pose a question the media missed: was the crash the cause of Weylandt's death, or was his death (or a sudden medical emergency), the cause of the crash?


The key words for me were "fainted off his bicycle". Without my bifocals on, they read "cardiac emergency or cerebral hemorrhage" -- key events that would have transpired before the young man's lycra livery touched the pavement. They, in turn, brought to mind the too-early passing of colleagues in their early twenties, and it brought to mind some other recent happenings "in the peloton" (i.e., amongst professional cyclists).


It may be rare for someone in his 20's (or younger) to suffer a heart attack, but every year we hear one or two reports of high school or college athletes dying suddenly -- either on the playing field or shortly after competing. The cause is almost always an undiagnosed heart condition.


Professional athletes' physical exams are much more detailed than the ones teenagers get in order to play varsity football -- and indeed, Team Type 1's pre-season exams uncovered cyclist Ivan Melero's career-ending heart deformity before it became a life-ending one. But even these detailed examinations sometimes fail to uncover serious medical issues. During last year's Tour of Switzerland, cyclist Kim Kirchen suffered cardiac arrest, spending time in an induced coma until doctors could figure out what caused his collapse. The cycling news media reported this turn of events as likely to end Kirchen's racing career, keeping him alive as a husband and father.


As people with diabetes, not only are we more prone to heart disease than everyone else, but diabetes also has the potential to make cardiac events more devastating than they might otherwise be. On the other hand, exercise -- including aerobic activity such as bicycling -- helps keep our hearts, blood vessels, and blood glucose levels healthy. Incidents such as the ones above -- which can happen to the seemingly-healthiest of athletes -- remind us and our doctors to take care of our hearts along with the rest of our bodies.


While we won't learn exactly what killed Wouter Weylandt until the results of the post-mortem are published [later reports indicate his bicycle brushed a barrier, throwing him over the side of a mountain], we can honor his life by continuing to be active, and ours by making sure our hearts and lungs are sound enough to take whatever exercise we throw at them.

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