WATERVILLE — Riding for a cause and stricken by a tragedy, those who had pedaled alongside the man killed by a tractor-trailer Friday morning said their mission, which is playing out on blacktopped roads across the state, has been transformed.
“It really changed what we were riding for, I think,” Adam Weinstein, a rider from Belmont, Mass. said at the Colby College campus on a cool, quiet Sunday morning.
Weinstein was one of more than 2,000 riders packing up tents, doing stretching exercises, and making other preparations to depart from the college about 7 a.m. on the final day of Trek Across Maine, a three-day fundraiser that has netted $1.35 million for the American Lung Association.
Riders and volunteers join the trek because they care about the association’s mission, summed up in the three-word slogan “Fighting for Air,” to improve lung health and prevent lung disease through education, advocacy and research. The atmosphere on the trek, typically a powerful and positive feeling of shared community activism among cyclists, took on a tragic undertone when one of their own was killed on the ride.
Weinstein was there Friday, when David LeClair, a fellow teammate in a 140-member group representing a company called athenahealth, was killed as a tractor-trailer carrying a load of corn passed them on U.S. Route 2 in Hanover, just miles from the trek’s starting point in Bethel.
Weinstein said he and LeClair were riding as part of a group of six or seven athenahealth riders when the truck, owned by a Canadian transport company, came up behind them.
Weinstein said his observations agreed with statements from other volunteers and cyclists, who speculated that LeClair had been caught up in a powerful draft of air that accompanies any large, fast-moving vehicle, sometimes called “truck suck.”
“I was riding right behind him, so I saw what happened,” he said.
“I saw him just kind of like, start to swerve to his left, wobble a little bit,” Weinstein said. After LeClair swerved to the left, which was toward the truck, Weinstein said he “just fell at the wrong spot.”
Rescue workers and other riders on the scene said LeClair was run over by the rear wheels of the truck and died instantly.
Police investigators believe the truck was driven by Michel Mass-Defresne, 24, of Quebec, who did not stop at the time and seemed to be unaware of the accident, according to Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.
Mass-Defresne, who was pulled over in nearby Rumford shortly after the accident, has cooperated with investigators and has not been charged with any crime. A report from Maine State Police investigators eventually will be made to the Oxford County District Attorney’s office.
Under Maine law, motorized vehicles are required to give cyclists a 3-foot berth as they pass them on any roadway.
Weinstein, one of several riders interviewed by police, said the truck was “not illegally close, but you know, close and pretty fast.”
Weinstein said the tragedy has colored the remainder of the ride for the athenahealth team.
After the accident, police interviewed Weinstein and other witnesses for about two hours, and then offered to drive them to the next rest stop, which would have allowed them to rejoin the rest of the riders.
But Weinstein said the cyclists who had witnessed the disturbing scene were driven to work out the experience in a different way. They wanted to put miles between themselves and the accident site, not in a police cruiser, but under their own power.
“We all said we just want to keep riding,” he said. “You just gotta, we gotta get back on the bike.”
The race’s lead organizer accompanied the lagging cyclists in his van and phoned ahead to delay the closing of the next rest stop, where Weinstein and his fellows were greeted with cheers and support from many volunteers and athenahealth team members who had waited for them.
Weinstein said many team members were “shell-shocked” on the first day and didn’t now how to process the death.
The prevailing sentiment was “let’s just get to the end and then we’ll kind of figure it out,” he said.
Some riders considered leaving the race altogether.
At the University of Maine at Farmington, where cyclists ended the day for an overnight stay Friday, he said the mood among athenahealth members was quiet. Event organizers ensured that counselors were on hand for any trek participants who might need them.
Weinstein said he knew LeClair as a warm, friendly person in athenahealth’s Watertown, Mass. offices, where they both worked.
Joe Holtschlag, another athenahealth rider, said the team held a private, impromptu memorial Saturday morning, which included a moment of silence, before leaving the campus. Executives from the company, who had been in contact with LeClair’s family, flew up to talk to team members.
“People said a few words,” he said. “It was a good blend of somber, but also, uh —”
“Celebratory,” Weinstein said.
Weinstein said spirits were more upbeat Saturday after the meeting than they had been on Friday.
“It had changed it from riding just to, like, ‘we need to get through the day,'” he said. The attitude had shifted to “‘we’re riding this for David’s memory. … We’re going to finish it for him.'”
Preparing for the last day of an 180-mile journey that had turned out to be more emotionally charged than they had anticipated, Weinstein and Holtschlag said they were looking forward to the sweat, motion and sunshine that would get them to an ending they anticipate will be more bittersweet than usual.
“I think we’re just looking forward to a really nice day of good riding,” Weinstein said. “I will be glad to see (the finish line) and get a burger, but I will be disappointed that I won’t get to ride the next day.”
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287