FARMINGTON — Participants in the Trek Across Maine woke up early Saturday morning to begin the second day of their journey, which took an early tragic turn Friday morning when a cyclist was killed by a tractor-trailer.
Cyclists and volunteers spoke about the death’s effect on their personal journeys and about the ongoing danger posed by trucks who fail to observe safety rules when sharing the road with cyclists.
Maine State Police have not determined yet whether the truck’s driver was at fault in the accident, and they are conducting an investigation.
Volunteers said the death of David LeClair, a 23-year-old cyclist from Massachusetts, might be the latest example of a common danger, “truck suck,” which refers to the powerful draft of air created when a large vehicle passes too close to a cyclist at a high speed.
Cyclists said organizers and police have taken pains to make sure the 180-mile route is well-marked to warn motorists of the presence of cyclists.
Nancy Grant, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, said a team of 30 riders acts as a safety patrol and takes extra care to warn motorists in potential problem areas.
News of LeClair’s death spread among the group of more than 2,000 cyclists and volunteers by word of mouth, social media sites and fliers offering counseling services distributed by organizers of the event, which raised $1.35 million for the American Lung Association.
At 5:45 a.m. Saturday, a steady stream of cyclists, many wearing bright safety yellow or orange, entered the cafeteria at the University of Maine at Farmington to get a hot breakfast before heading for Colby College in Waterville.
Most described the first day of the event as a success, citing the beautiful weather and the sense of community they enjoyed while bringing awareness to a cause they care deeply about.
When asked about LeClair’s death, they turned somber.
Susan Surabian, a 62-year-old registered nurse from Skowhegan, was participating in the trek for the first time since 1986. She said she was motivated to ride by her colleagues at Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan, and by her love of riding.
After leaving Bethel on Friday morning on U.S. Route 2, she said, she happened upon the immediate aftermath of the accident.
“I was behind him and I just heard everyone screaming, all these women screaming,” Surabian said.
Hoping that she could use her medical training to help, she said, she approached as quickly as she could, but there was nothing she could do.
“He was dead when I saw him. You could see it in his eyes,” she said. “I think he must have died instantly.”
Surabian said the scene, which she called very sad, bothered her to the point that she considered leaving the race altogether.
As a hospital nurse, she said, “you see tragedy, but not with young people.”
Ultimately, she said, she decided that the death had to be put in perspective and that it was important to complete the charity event.
Stephanie Sleeper, 38, of Waterville, is volunteering this year as co-captain of a team of about 35 members, many of them children, representing the Community Bike Center of Biddeford.
She said she first learned something was wrong when she saw a flurry of emergency vehicles — including four ambulances, Rumford and state police, a firetruck and a Maine Department of Transportation vehicle — pass by the Rumford Diner on U.S. Route 2, where many of the team members had stopped for breakfast.
Sleeper said she was relatively sure that the accident hadn’t involved a member of her team, because she is listed as the emergency contact for team members, and she hadn’t received a phone call.
She didn’t learn the full story of the accident until later in the day, when she checked her Facebook page and saw messages from friends asking her whether she was all right.
Sleeper said there are problems every year when the cyclists descend, en masse, to share the road with trucks, which sometimes fail to give riders the 3-foot-berth required under Maine’s motor vehicle laws.
“Every year, there’s been some truck story,” she said. “This year, it’s more tragic.”
Sleeper said a 13-year-old in her group, whose name she declined to release because she had not spoken with his parents, had a close enounter with another truck not long after the accident that took LeClair’s life.
“I almost got sucked in,” she quoted the 13-year-old as saying. She described the boy as a capable rider with a lot of road experience.
She said motorists sometimes get a taste of “truck suck” when they are passed on a major interstate highway by a large truck and feel their cars wobble.
On Saturday evening, at the Harold Alfond Athletic Center on the Colby College campus in Waterville, hundreds of cyclists attended a presentation called Spirit of the Trek, during which Jeff Seyler, chief executive officer of the American Lung Association, called for a moment of silence to honor LeClair.
He noted that many cyclists were wearing “as many red ribbons as we could get out” to memorialize the fallen cyclist, who he said he had learned was a special and caring person.
The crowd broke into spontaneous applause when Seyler announced that LeClair’s number, 1945, would be retired from the Trek Across Maine.
Coordinator Kathryn Libby became briefly emotional when she addressed the crowd, whom she thanked for an outpouring of support.
“For us as a staff, it has been a tough couple of days, but we all feel really supported by all of you trekkers,” she said.
At the time of the accident, police said LeClair was riding abreast with a friend on U.S. 2 in the Oxford County town of Hanover, and that LeClair was closest to the road when the tractor-trailer passed them. The vehicle did not stop, but police pulled over a tractor-trailer in nearby Rumford that matched a description given by witnesses.
The tractor-trailer is owned by Transport Beauregard Inc., a Canadian transport company whose operator, Serge Beauregard, did not return a call seeking comment.
On Saturday morning, an accident on Route 139 in Fairfield closed the road for about three hours, causing a short detour for the cyclists. Fairfield police said the accident did not involve a cyclist.
Maine Sunday Telegram staff writer Matt Byrne contributed to this report.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287