Biathlete’s death spurs ideas for road safety

Posted July 30, 2009, at 10:05 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:45 a.m.

FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — The sight of biathletes training and competing is common in many Aroostook County towns.

In the wake of 19-year-old biathlete William “Willie” Neal’s death last month after he was struck by a car, area officials as well as people involved with training facilities are talking about steps that could be taken to ensure that everyone is safe on the roads.

The biathlon is a winter sport that combines Nordic skiing and rifle marksmanship.

Neal was training with the Maine Winter Sports Center at the group’s Nordic Heritage Sport Club in Presque Isle when, on June 21, he was hit by a car in Fort Fairfield while roller-skiing with a training partner.

Neal was struck from behind and killed.

Erik Lundquist, 18, of Fort Fairfield was heading west on North Caribou Road about 8:30 p.m. in a 1997 Eagle Talon when he came upon the skiers, who were heading in the same direction. No one else was injured.

Fort Fairfield police did not return calls made Wednesday and Thursday to determine whether the accident investigation report had been completed.

Authorities had said previously that the roller-skiers were on the correct side of the road and that alcohol was not believed to have been involved.

Andy Shepard, president of the MWSC, said this week that Neal’s death remains fresh in the minds of the organization’s athletes and staff. In the wake of his death, the MWSC athletes and staff have been talking about safety, but that is not an unusual conversation at the training facility.

“Safety is always on our minds,” Shepard said, speaking by phone from Vancouver, British Columbia, where he is attending meetings regarding the 2010 Olympics. “We are always talking about it, not just at the sports center but industrywide.”

Shepard pointed out that biathletes are not the only athletes training on local roads.

“There are runners, bikers, walkers, it goes on and on,” he said. “Not everyone realizes that we must share the road. It is not just for cars, especially in a rural area.”

In Fort Kent, the MWSC operates the 10th Mountain Ski Club. Athletes live and train in the area year-round.

Town Manager Don Guimond said Wednesday that he has received comments from people about the safety of athletes training on area roads.

He said town officials have been talking with Eileen Carey, vice president of the MWSC, about posting signs to alert motorists about athletes who may be training.

“The signs could help us improve safety,” Guimond said.

Guimond said no final decision about signs has been made.

Fort Fairfield Town Manager Dan Foster said that the town has not been approached about putting up such signs, but he added that he felt it was “a great idea.”

“No one has come to us about it, but I would be in favor of it,” he said. “I would be in favor of pretty much anything that could keep this from happening again.”

Foster said that he would like to sit down with MWSC officials so that they could identify roads that are best for training. Foster said that would help raise awareness among motorists about which roads are being the most heavily used.

The manager said North Caribou Road was not ideal for training because it does not have a paved shoulder.

“If you are out there, you are right in the roadway or you are on the gravel shoulder,” he said. “But some roads do have paved shoulders that might be better for training.

“I would certainly be supportive of any conversation around safety measures,” he said.

City officials in Presque Isle could not be reached for comment.

Signs such as the ones being considered for Fort Kent are already on the roads in Lake Placid, N.Y., where budding and professional athletes train both indoors and outdoors. The site was host to the Winter Olympics in 1932 and 1980, and its Olympic venues are training grounds for elite biathletes, skaters, skiers and more.

Jon Lundin, director of communications for the Lake Placid Essex County Visitors Bureau, said Thursday that the powder blue signs have been posted for three months. They state that the roads are being used for more than just driving an automobile.

“They let people know that we do have limited space on our roads, and that people should please be courteous and share,” he said.

Lundin said that, besides cars, bicyclists are the most common sight on area roads. Local roads do not have special lanes for running or biking, he said, but added that he feels the new signs are a good reminder to be cautious.

In Aroostook County, Shepard said that athletes take steps to stay safe while training, such as wearing helmets and other protective gear, along with staying on the proper side of the road.

“The most important thing is to keep the roads as safe as possible for everyone,” he said. “People are out on the roads while biking and running, even just walking their dogs. We must be aware of that to keep everyone safe.”

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