PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A lot of thoughts and emotions have gone through Thad LaVallee’s mind in the 10 days since a bicycle-truck accident sent him to the hospital.
But chief among them is the fear that comes with the knowledge of just how close he came to being killed on Parson Road that Sunday afternoon and what that would mean.
“All I can think of is how close my kids came to growing up without their daddy,” LaVallee, 38, said earlier this week from his hospital room at The Aroostook Medical Center where he continues to recover from broken bones, reconstructive surgery and a deep gash to his upper thigh which narrowly missed his femoral artery.
At the same time, he knows just how lucky he was and is choosing to remain upbeat. He says he looks at the accident as an opportunity to advocate for the importance of cyclists and motorists being aware of and having respect for each other at all times, despite the fact he may never get on a bike again.
On Sunday, July 22, LaVallee was about six miles into the Presque Isle Time Trial and on pace to win the 14-mile bike race when he either struck or was struck by a Ford F-150 pickup truck driven by Kenneth Ayotte.
Last week Ayotte was charged with failure to yield to traffic on entering a public road, according to investigating Officer Roy Guidry of the Washburn Police Department.
“I have no memory of the impact from about 30 seconds before it happened until I was in the ambulance,” LaVallee said earlier this week from his hospital room at TAMC. “I guess I was out of it for quite awhile.”
Attempts to contact Ayotte for comment by calling a Presque Isle number listed to his name and through his Facebook account were unsuccessful.
However, LaVallee said the driver had been in to visit him in the hospital and LaVallee stressed that he bears Ayotte no ill will.
LaVallee said he prefers to keep what the two men talked about private but did say he was thankful Ayotte took the time to visit.
“I really admire him for coming to see me,” LaVallee said. “Any one of us could have been unlucky enough to have an accident [and] I can’t hold a grudge.”
Having logged hundreds of thousands of miles over two decades racing in North America and Europe, LaVallee said safety is always his top priority.
“I really had not thought about winning the race that day,” he said. “But whenever I ride, whether it’s for racing or training, safety is No. 1.”
While cycling, LaVallee said he makes sure his head is up and that he always makes eye contact with drivers in approaching vehicles.
For those reasons, along with some basic laws of physics, he said he is fairly certain the truck struck him and not the other way around.
“I ended up on the other side of the road [from the truck],” LaVallee said. “Based on what I know about old Mr. [Isaac] Newton, there is no way I would have ended up where I did if I had hit a parked truck.”
Witnesses gave conflicting accounts of the accident and the investigating officer said after Ayotte was charged, “The only thing I can say conclusively is [Ayotte’s] vehicle was at least partially in the road and the bicyclist was in the road.”
While the broken bones, lacerations and road rash are healing, the emotional scars may take a great deal longer, if ever, to fade.
“I’ve crashed a lot of times in a lot of races and I’ve always come back,” LaVallee said. “But being hit by a truck is totally different. Is this career ending? I think so.”
In fact, LaVallee said he may be hanging up his bike shoes and helmet for good.
“It’s really a mental thing,” he said. “Every time I pass a driveway now I will be wondering, ‘Is someone going to come out and hit me?’ My kids came within 2 millimeters of losing their daddy and I can’t consciously put myself in that position again.”
He has won more than 100 races in his career but LaVallee said cycling is far from the only thing in his life.
For one thing, there is his family back home in Sharon, Mass., where his daughter will turn 4 years old later this month.
“She’s already riding her own bike [with training wheels] and has a little helmet and racing gloves,” he said. “My son is scooting around on his tricycle.”
LaVallee said he also has thought about his students back at Compass High School, where he teaches history to underprivileged youth.
Amid all this, LaVallee also finds time to pursue his doctorate in education policy and lead the Designturn-Velocite USA cycling team.
When he does leave TAMC, which may be this weekend, LaVallee said he’ll be leaving new friends.
“If something like this is going to happen, I’m glad it happened in Presque Isle,” he said. “Everyone here and at this hospital have been beyond outstanding.”
With no family in the immediate area, members of the local cycling community have taken the racer under their wings, bringing him everything from magazines to Houlton Dairy Farms milkshakes.
“Folks I’ve never even met before have come in to sit with me,” he said. “The humanity has been overwhelming [and] it’s filled in the gaps from not being at home.”
He’s hoping his accident will be a springboard for that notion of humanity to translate into bicyclist-motorist relations.
“When we are called ‘cyclists’ in the media or conversation it tends to dehumanize us,” LaVallee said. “People see us as objects or obstacles and not as someone’s father, husband, wife, mother, child or best friend and someone who is the most important person in the world to someone else.”
He’s looking at months of physical and occupational rehabilitation therapy, but LaVallee believes some good is going to come from the accident.
“I’m alive,” he said. “And if one person is saved because someone is paying better attention because of what happened to me, it was worth it.”
Looking back, LaVallee said it would be fitting if his racing career ended in Aroostook County, where he said he won his very first race at the 1995 Potato Blossom Festival in Fort Fairfield.
He won that same race again, hours before participating in the Presque Isle race, edging out his friend and fellow racer Von Perry of Presque Isle.
“If ever there was a time to quit, maybe it’s now,” LaVallee said. “I’ve come full circle. I won Fort Fairfield again and I beat Von.”
In fact, while he has no memory of it, LaVallee said Perry told him he was joking around while they waited for the ambulance immediately after the accident.
“I guess I told Von to get back on his bike and keep racing because now he’d be able to beat me,” LaVallee said.
Once the ambulance arrived and Perry was assured his friend was in good hands, he did rejoin the race, according to LaVallee.
“Von told me, ‘I was 50 yards from the finish line and what did I see?’” LaVallee said. “The ambulance with you in it passed me and crossed the finish line first.”
Life, LaValle said, is a lot like a long-distance bicycle race with different stages.
“Sometimes you are in a flat stage and sometimes you are in the mountains,” he said. “Right now I’m halfway up the Alps.”