FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — A year after the accident that left racing cyclist Thad LaVallee vowing to never again get on a bike, much less race, the 39-year-old crossed the finish line of the Spud Cycle Classic in second place.
The 25-mile road race is part of the annual Potato Blossom Festival in Fort Fairfield and this year drew racers from around New England and New Brunswick.
“That was really fun,” LaVallee said Sunday morning, minutes after coming in behind his Velocite teammate and first-place finisher Steven Connors of Dedham. “It feels great.”
For LaVallee, riding in the Spud Classic was as much about mental healing as it was about competing.
Just a year ago, while racing in the annual Presque Isle Time Trial on Parsons Road, LaVallee collided with a pickup truck driven by Kenneth Ayotte of Presque Isle.
The impact threw LaVallee across the road and left him with multiple broken bones and a 6-inch gash that narrowly missed his femoral artery.
As he recovered at The Aroostook Medical Center in Presque Isle, LaVallee gave a lot of thought to what could have happened.
“All I can think of is how close my kids came to growing up without their daddy,” LaVallee said last year from his hospital room at The Aroostook Medical Center.
Once he got back home to Sharon, Mass., LaVallee found himself with a lot of time on his hands, something to which the teacher, doctoral candidate and cycling team leader is not accustomed, he said Sunday.
“I spent a lot of time in bed once I was home,” he said. “I was on pain medication and was very down in the dumps.”
To fill the hours, LaVallee said he began reading running magazines and gave serious thought to taking that up in place of cycling, or maybe even fly fishing.
“But then my wife, who was the last one I thought would encourage me to ever ride again, told me, ‘You have to ride,’” he said.
The LaVallee home had long been the epicenter of the Velocite team training rides, and in the weeks and months after his return home, LaVallee’s teammates would stop by to lend a hand around the house.
“In late October or early November, when I finally got off the crutches, some of the team members said, ‘You will start riding,’” LaVallee said. “I told them I was not quite ready.”
Not long after, however, LaVallee decided he was ready.
“It took me about a half hour to get my cycling [clothes] and shoes on,” he said. “I went on a one-mile loop around the neighborhood and it really hurt.”
But soon he was doing two laps and those laps lead to 10-mile rides. Eventually he was riding with his teammates again.
“They were so patient with me,” he said. “They were just so supportive [and] the whole cycling community has been like that.”
By January he was starting to feel like a racing cyclist again, logging 60- to 80-mile workouts on his indoor bicycle trainer.
In February, the Velocite team was invited to participate in a 110-mile race in Cocoa Beach, Fla.
“My goal was to make it to mile 70 and see how I felt,” he said. “In the first 50 miles we averaged 29 mph at a blazing pace.”
LaVallee said he went on to finish the race 13th overall in a field that included pro riders and former pro riders from around the United States and Europe.
“We left to drive north right after that race,” he said. “I don’t think I slept once until we hit Pennsylvania, that’s how excited I was.”
This spring LaVallee has raced every weekend around New England, placing in the top four in every race.
But the journey from Parsons Road last summer to Fort Fairfield on Sunday was not an easy one, mentally or physically.
Painful hours were spent in physical therapy and hours more building up the muscles that had atrophied in his right leg.
Nerves in his face have not healed properly, leaving LaVallee with odd sensory experiences.
“If I drink ice water, my eye gets cold,” he said.
For months, LaVallee suffered a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that left him shaken and cringing whenever a vehicle approached the car in which he was riding from the right.
“The biggest challenge has been playing with my kids,” he said. “They like to climb on me and play ‘daddy jungle gym’ and I really can’t bend all that well.”
But the accident also has left him looking at his family life a bit differently and not taking anything for granted.
“Every time I leave the house now, I give my kids and wife an extra hug and kisses and tell them I love them one more time,” he said.
As for the accident itself, LaVallee said he bears no ill will toward anyone involved.
“Accidents are a part of life,” he said. “In some ways, this must be harder on [Ayotte] than it was on me.”
On Sunday, Ayotte, who has not spoken to LaVallee since he went to see him in the hospital last summer, said he was glad to hear the cyclist was racing again.
“I know he was in pretty bad shape,” Ayotte said. “I think about [the accident] every day and it is nothing I am going to ever forget about [but] knowing he is doing good and able to race makes me a little happier.”
Sunday’s strong finish at the Spud Classic was not lost on race organizers.
“I was very impressed by his efforts today,” Tom Towle, Fort Fairfield recreation director, said. “It says a lot about his character as an individual to get back on his bike and race again like this.”
For teammate Steven Connors, LaVallee’s return to the race circuit was not a total surprise.
“I remember him saying he would not race again,” Connors said. “And I remember telling him, ‘maybe not, but this is not the way you want to go out.’”
LaVallee credits a big part of his recovery to the care he received at TAMC and the attention he received from the local cycling community which included visits from complete strangers, gifts of magazines and delivery of Houlton Farm Dairy chocolate milkshakes.
In fact, LaVallee was greeted with a milkshake at the finish line.
“I have said, if you are going to have an accident like mine, have it in Presque Isle,” he said. “The care I got here was amazing.”
Among his plans while in Aroostook County was a stop at TAMC to personally thank the doctors and nurses who cared for him last year.