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 that 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 OK.
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 encounter with another truck not long after the accident that took LeClair’s life.
“I almost got sucked in,” she quoted the teen as saying. She described the boy as a capable rider with a lot of road experience.
Maine Sunday Telegram staff writer Matt Byrne contributed to this report.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at: