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Originally published Friday, May 4, 2012 at 10:03 PM

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US cyclist Farrar returns to Giro after tragedy

The news came tearing through the peloton on that awful spring day, in whispers passed from rider to rider following Stage 3 of the Giro d'Italia.

AP Sports Writer

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The news came tearing through the peloton on that awful spring day, in whispers passed from rider to rider following Stage 3 of the Giro d'Italia.

When the news finally reached Tyler Farrar, he nearly collapsed in anguish.

"What happened in the Giro was pretty horrible," he recalls. "There's no denying that."

It was nearly one year ago that Farrar's good friend, Belgian rider Wouter Weylandt, was killed during a crash on a fast, technical descent. The affable, well-liked Weylandt became the fourth rider to die in the history of the race, and the first in one of cycling's three main tours in nearly two decades.

Farrar had spent countless hours with Weylandt on training rides around Belgium, where the American makes his in-season home. He was so grief-stricken that he pulled out of the race after riding a ceremonial Stage 4, crossing the finish line with Weylandt's teammates.

"It was a rough time," Farrar says now, with the Giro set to start Saturday in Herning, Denmark. "That kind of thing doesn't go away. I don't think it ever completely goes away. But cycling is my life, my job, and even though it happened, I still love the sport. I still love racing my bike."

That has helped Farrar not only cope with the passing of a close friend, but with all the other heartache that bikes have caused him.

There have been his own crashes, too numerous to count, including the one a couple years back in the Tour de France, when he broke his wrist. He suffered through 10 stages before the pain became too much, finally pulling out of cycling's premier race.

Then there was the day he received a phone call that his father, Edward Farrar, an orthopedic surgeon back home in Wenatchee, Wash., had been hit by a car while riding to work. The elder Farrar had played linebacker at Georgia Tech, climbed some of the world's highest mountains and become an accomplished cyclist in his own right. Now he's paralyzed from the chest down.

"Cycling has certainly taking some things away from me in my life, but it's also given me a lot," Tyler Farrar says. "There's been rough moments, and moments where it wasn't my favorite thing in the world, but in the global picture, it's given me the life I have.

"I've wanted to be a professional cyclist since I was about 14 years old," he added, as if trying to convince people he's not crazy. "You just have to deal with the hard part."

The 27-year-old Farrar has persevered through those many hard parts - those dark days after Weylandt's death, when he would lay in bed sometimes all day long - to emerge on the doorstep of what could be the brightest of summers.

Farrar will be sprinting for stage wins with his powerful Garmin-Barracuda team at the Giro, and then shift his focus to the Tour de France, where last summer - on July 4, of all days - he became the first American rider since Levi Leipheimer in 2007 to win a stage.

And then, assuming he makes the U.S. team, he'll head to England for his first Olympics.

The course over some of London's most famous thoroughfares passes some of the city's most famous landmarks, and ultimately finishes near Buckingham Palace, where it is widely expected that the sprinters left at the front of the race will decide who wins gold.

"He's had a number of crashes, and a lot of frustration along the way, and hopefully he has all that behind him," said Steve Johnson, the CEO of USA Cycling. "It's going to be a hard course, I think, and the race can be made by the field, but it's a great opportunity for Tyler. He's definitely going to be one of the contenders."

Another is Mark Cavendish, widely considered the best sprinter in the world.

The reigning world champion from the Isle of Man will be wearing the colors of Great Britain on home soil. He'll be favored to add Olympic glory to a list of accomplishments that includes 20 stage wins in the Tour de France and nearly a dozen more in cycling's other Grand Tours.

Farrar has beaten Cavendish before, though.

"He's the No. 1 sprinter in the world, and he has been for a few years now, and I'm one of the guys trying to beat him," Farrar said. "There's no one else that has the same resume, but there are a handful of us on our best day who are capable of beating him."

Farrar speaks brightly when he talks about racing - the tactics, the competition, the burn of lactic acid that builds up late in a race - his voice conveying the message that he's never truly satisfied unless he's standing on the pedals with his hands in the drops.

He'd wanted to be a professional cyclist since he was a kid, when he would ride home from school, conquering the mile-long ramp that led up to his family's home overlooking the Columbia River. Others his age wanted to play football or basketball or baseball, but Farrar was enamored of the European cycling culture, just like Dave Stoller in the 1979 U.S. film "Breaking Away."

Unlike the fictional character, though, Farrar actually made it to Europe.

Farrar signed with French team Cofidis in 2006, and joined his current team at Slipstream Sports two years later. Along the way he learned to speak French, and when he moved to Belgium, picked up Dutch, instantly endearing himself to a cycling-mad nation.

It was home in Belgium where Farrar retreated during last year's Giro.

Looking back, the day should have been one of celebration. Farrar's teammate, David Millar, had taken the overall lead. There were chances still to come for Farrar to nab a stage win, and perhaps knock off Cavendish, who is fast becoming his biggest rival.

Instead, the news filtered through the cycling world that Farrar's good friend had been involved in a horrific crash. Other riders who saw Weylandt's fall said he appeared to catch his handlebar or pedal on a small, stone fence beside the road, catapulting him across the pavement, the force of the impact causing a fracture at the base of his skull.

"I was in the Giro when it happened, and we finished the day, and it was just a hard race, and it was trickling through," said Farrar's teammate, Peter Stetina. "The media wasn't sure - he was dead, no wait, he's in critical condition, no, he's alive. There were all these questions.

"I think that hurt the most because there was hope for a while," Stetina said, "but then we knew in fact he died pretty much on the spot, then it really hit home."

Farrar signed in for the start the following day, but it was merely a ceremonial ride. He officially withdrew once he crossed the finish line.

"I didn't know whether he'd even compete for the rest of the season after that happened," said his team manager, Jonathan Vaughters. "I just felt, gosh, this will be such a big blow to Tyler. When he went home, I don't know if he went outside for a good two weeks.

"But he turned it around and started racing again," Vaughters said. "Then in the middle of June, he said, `I do want to try to go to the Tour de France.'"

Vaughters put him on the team, setting the stage for something special.

With about 100 meters left on a 123-mile course from Olonne-sur-Mer to Redon, Farrar laid siege to the world's best sprinters. With a finishing kick honed on the hills back in Washington, Farrar put enough distance between himself and second place that he had time to form the letter "W" with his hands as he crossed the finish line in tribute to his fallen friend.

"You have to be a hard athlete and so on and so forth," Vaughters said, "but to me that showed the degree of fortitude that I think is unmatched."

There will certainly be difficult times over the next couple weeks, especially as Farrar is reminded of that fateful May day. Already, Giro organizers have said that no other rider will wear Weylandt's No. 108, and several tributes are planned during the race.

"It was painful. There's no denying that, but that's life," Farrar said. "You know, it's not nice. It's not the way anyone wants it to happen, but you don't have a say in it sometimes. You have to roll with the punches. You have to work through the hard to get to the good."

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