The Tour de Poland is a seven-day race that usually covers between 600 and 700 miles. It’s part of the men’s World Tour for cycling, which also includes the Tour de France. Belgian cyclists Bjorg Lambrecht has died at the age of 22 following a crash during stage three of the Tour de Pologne 2019. Lambrecht crashed around 60 miles from the end of the race from Chorzow to Zabrze in Poland. Lambrecht went pro in 2018 when he joined Lotto-Soudal and was considered up and coming talent in the cycling world. Below is an interview with Czesław Lang, the organizer of the Tour de Pologne.
Józef Kącki (JK): My first question concerns the last Tour De Pologne, which was unique, difficult and demanding. It was 5 August, Stage 3 of the 76th edition of TDP, and there was a tragic accident: a young cyclist, Bjorg Lambrecht, went off the side of the road and, as a result of an unfortunate accident, died. What for you, as the leader of TDP, was the most difficult aspect connected with this crisis?
Czesław Lang (CL): It was definitely the feeling of great sadness, because I myself was a cyclist for many years and I know what it means, even more so as Bjorg’s parents had arrived in Chorzow before the start of the stage because he had a good chance of winning it. They were to wait for him in Kocierz and celebrate his victory, but it turned out that, unfortunately, they had come to say farewell to him and collect his body from the hospital. That was really very sad.
And for me as an organiser, as a leader…. Above all, a dilemma: what next? What should we do with the tour? Should we stop it or continue? If we stop it – what are the consequences – we have partners, sponsors, media and supporters. That’s on one side. On the other, we have the cyclists: this is their work, we can not exclude them from it all. We had to find a balance. And it seems to me that, together; after a night without sleep, it worked out. First of all, we decided that the race would continue, but it would be neutralised, in other words, there would be no racing. A ride in respect of Bjorg Lambrecht, showing our sorrow. A farewell ride of cyclists from Jaworzno to Kocierz, during which each team led for some time. We also stopped after 48 kilometres and paid our respects to Bjorg with a minute’s silence. Later, the first team to cross the finish line was Lotto Soudal, we stopped without any fanfare, in a state of mourning.
For all of this to take place in this way, we had to get the agreement of the sponsors – among others, to take down their advertisements, to resign from colours and to do everything in black-and-white (among others, to produce black-and-white elements). Television also took part in this – because how could it show this stage? It is not so easy to show cyclists for many hours when they are only riding and not racing. This, however, turned out very well, and I would like to thank all of the media organisations for presenting such a message.
What really moved me personally was the behaviour of supporters along the route. White-and-red flags on which there were black ribbons, children painted hearts, Polish and Belgian flags together, the number of the cyclist and many other elements. And, most of all, when we rode through various places and the church bells rang out in tones of mourning and the people were dignified and calm. Such a message went out to the world, showing us, Poles, as a sensitive nation able to react in a dignified way to a tragedy that had taken place.
JK: Czesław, that night between the third and fourth stages, as you have already said, was very long and without any sleep, because there were many things to be set up and organised for the next day. It is intriguing for me and the readers how you and the whole team of TDP acted during this crisis. Who took the decisions? Who took part in these decisions which, on one hand, were difficult and, on the other, taken under great emotion?
CL: Definitely, the final decision is always taken by the race director, but here it was all the members of the Lang Team and each person responsible for organising the race – in other words, for the route, for attire, for contact with sponsors, for contact with the media, for contact with teams – the whole team worked together with me in order for the stage to be dignified and for it to take place in such a form.
JK: Was it easy for the other parties (media, sponsors) to cooperate while understanding the gravity of the moment?
CL: Yes, it really was. Even if some sponsors hesitated at the beginning, they quickly saw that it was such a situation where there was no sense in promoting and advertising themselves when everyone was in mourning. So everyone agreed that there would be no colours, music, joy at the finish line, only a moment of pride and reflection.
JK: I think that an important part of this were the cyclists and teams. I know that journalists were thinking about what would be, what the cyclists would say at the end of the fourth stage. Was it also your role to stand in front of the cyclists and explain your point of view?
CL: Above all, that was my role. We had representatives of the cyclists’ association, in other words, people who represent the whole peleton, but we also met with leaders of the Bora group, in which Rafał Majka, who was leading the race, rides. Here, the words of Rafał Majka, who told me that he would never want to win such a stage, that he would feel bad if he had to fight for the win that day, that we did the right thing by neutralising the race, definitely helped and gave me support.
JK: I would like to return to the Lang Team, because you are a close-knit, well-operating mechanism, a group of people who not only have a family atmosphere, but are a family. What did this crisis teach you as a team? What conclusions from a leadership perspective did you draw after this event?
CL: Fortunately, we can not blame ourselves: it was an accident. There are many moments when something could be done better, but this was actually something that happened at a low speed (35 km/h), it’s not known why the cyclist rode off the route, fell into a ditch, hit a sewage channel and did it in such a way that after a few minutes he was no longer alive. So we can not blame ourselves, even in terms of the medical action or anything else…. But we know that it is necessary to pay even more attention to many things so that such an accident will not happen: an island, anything that is dangerous. We will also pay special attention to fast medical action – although in this case we can not blame ourselves, however, it is still necessary to pay great attention to it.
JK: And now the last question: I know that in the UCI ranking, TDP has a high score and that is very important. Each race is assessed, given points and this means a way to become part of the Champions League of cycling, so I would like to ask if these events have any effect on TDP in terms of the sponsors, cooperation with the media or licences? Or perhaps these events do not affect TDP?
CL: As I said, the organiser does not carry any blame for these events. There is no negligence from the organiser. It was an accident. And there are definitely no consequences for us here. On the contrary, after the last TDP, we are now given as a role model. Both the organisers and the fans as a nation in such difficult situations were able to cope. We passed the examination with an A because, when compared with other similar situations, we did something special. Other organisers in such situations neutralised, for example, only the first 10 km of the stage – yet we neutralised the whole stage. We are presented as a role model by UCI, above all, for commemorating the death of the cyclist in such a dignified manner.
JK: I think that we have no influence over many things, but we can influence the way we react to such a tragedy. I believe that it is significant that we were able to rise to the challenge as a nation, but above all you as organisers, for which I congratulate you and your team.