FORT KENT, Maine — Those of us who enjoy being active in the outdoors know that with that joy can come great risk.
Last Sunday’s horrific bicycle-vehicle collision in the middle of the Presque Isle Time Trials was a pretty good reminder of that fact.
Thad LaVallee, one of the top time trialists in New England, continues to recover at The Aroostook Medical Center where friends say he has undergone surgery for multiple broken bones, fractures and a deep laceration to his thigh.
Time trials are shorter-distance races — the one in Presque Isle was 14 miles long — during which the riders go as hard and as fast as they can, leaving the start in 30-second intervals.
A friend of mine decided to participate and before I quite knew what was happening, I’d entered along with him.
An aside — averaging just under 16 mph over the 14-mile course, I surprised myself and won my age division. OK, so maybe it should not have come as such a surprise given I was the only one in my age division, but why focus on details? I did get a shiny medal for my efforts.
I’m not sure if LaVallee rode out ahead or behind me, but either way he was in front of me by several minutes (as were most of the riders) when the accident occurred around Mile Six of the race along the Parsons Road.
The incident remains under investigation by the Washburn Police Department, as we had crossed that town line by that time, but what seemed pretty clear to those of us who saw the aftermath is somehow LaVallee came into head-on contact with a pickup truck facing the wrong way in the right-hand lane.
Fellow teammates of his say it’s quite likely he was traveling close to 30 mph at the time.
The impact tossed LaVallee — and his high-end carbon bike — onto the opposite side of the road. There is no need to go into details except to say the result was not pretty.
However, what is even less pretty has been the reaction among some drivers around the state who have seen fit to use this accident as a springboard to condemn our sport.
As cyclists — especially those of us who ride on the roads — we are well aware of the risks that come with sharing space with 5,000-pound machines that average speeds in the high double digits.
We mitigate those risks as best we can by always being aware of our surroundings, riding as far to the right as we can, wearing helmets and — this is key — riding defensively.
“Cars and bicycles are supposed to share the road and cars are legally required to give all cyclists three feet of space,” Nancy Grant, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, said this week. “For their part, cyclists are supposed to stay as far to the right as is practicable — and this is different from ‘practical.’”
Maine roads often lack wide, paved shoulders, especially the farther north you go, so riders can’t always hug that right hand side as much as some motorists feel we should, thus, Grant said, we try to stay as far over as is safe.
The tires on my road bike are race-thin and, like my fellow road cyclists around the state, if I am forced off the tar and onto a soft shoulder, I’m looking at a pretty good fall.
Though not legally required to do so, my cycling friends and I keep to a single file as we pedal along the paved highways and byways of northern Maine.
“No law says you can’t ride two or more abreast,” Grant said. “But a lot of motorists and police think it’s against the law to ride more than single file.”
Likewise, many motorists believe we cyclists should be off the road altogether and up on sidewalks.
“That is against the law,” Grant said. “Sidewalks are for pedestrians.”
As cyclists, we are bound to the same rules of the road as motorists and Grant said getting that message out — especially to newcomers to the sport — can be a challenge and remains one of the coalition’s primary missions.
“At the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, we have tons of printed and online materials to teach Maine bike laws and how to ride safely,” she said. “Right now there are so many new cyclists and an explosion of new learners.”
Grant asks motorists to be as patient with new cyclists learning the rules of the road, as they would be fellow new drivers.
“When you have 5,000 pounds of steel up against a biker, it will often be a fatality,” she said. “Drivers need to understand that.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. Just ask Mark Rossignol, a longtime Aroostook County cyclist who has logged thousands of miles across two continents.
“In Italy and around Europe, they expect to see cyclists on the road,” he said. “They have respect for the cyclists and treat them like another automobile.”
I got to see that firsthand last fall when riding with Mark and his Freshtrails Adventure group around Tuscany.
No matter how slowly I was pushing my way up the hills — and let me say, it got pretty darn slow at times — never once did a driver crowd me, honk at me or otherwise invade my cycling space.
Rather, they slowed and waited for a mutually safe time and place to pass, often with a wave and smile of encouragement.
“I don’t know why people in this country resent waiting for five or so seconds to pass us,” Rossignol said. “Especially in northern Maine there is not that much traffic [and] they can wait and go around us.”
That being said, Rossignol agrees with Grant that cyclists must take responsibility for their safety.
“Cyclists should use every precaution,” he said. “Pay attention, don’t use iPods while riding, have a helmet and be aware of traffic.”
In the event of an accident, as became clear last Sunday, cyclists should carry some form of identification and emergency contact information.
A contact number for LaVallee’s family was found only after friends went through his cellphone — which was in his car back at race registration.
To get a decent workout on our bikes, we need to be on the roads. Bike paths or parks simply don’t offer the miles needed for those of us looking to log 20, 30 or even 100 miles in a day.
“Following the same rules as motorists will cover 90 percent of the issues between cyclists and drivers,” Grant said, and encourages drivers who may have lost touch with the joys of two wheels to get back out there.
“Jump on a bike,” she said. “It’s all kinds of fun and you can see things from the perspective of a cyclist [and] please give us room. It’s very scary when a car gets too close, or a driver throws something or yells at us.”
Biking is fun, but as cyclists like LaVallee know all too well, not without its dangers.
From all of us: Please share the road.
Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer who writes part time for Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.