BELFAST, Maine — As the 130 or so cyclists pedaling with the athenahealth team crossed the finish line of the Trek Across Maine on Sunday afternoon in Belfast, they were met by sustained cheers, shouts, clanging cowbells and clapping.
And not a few tears.
Most of the group wore red ribbons tied around their arms in memory of David LeClair, a 23-year-old athenahealth employee from Watertown, Mass., who was killed Friday morning in a collision with a tractor-trailer about 10 miles into the trek.
“There’s nowhere else we’d be today, that’s for sure,” athenahealth employee Sarah Milne of Rockport said at the finish line. She and many others from the company came to cheer on their co-workers and support them at the end of the emotional ride. “We’re close. When something happens to one of us, everyone feels it.”
The tragedy cast a pall over the 29th annual three-day, 180-mile ride, according to some of the cyclists who had started at Sunday River Ski Resort in Newry and finished at Steamboat Landing Park in Belfast. Last year’s event raised $1.8 million for the American Lung Association of the Northeast, and organizers said they had a goal of raising $2 million this year. Riders had cycling safety on their minds for the duration of the ride, as well as LeClair’s short life and sudden death.
“Road riding is scary. It’s scary,” said Raymond Vought of Wilton, an avid cyclist. “You’re out there riding with very hostile people in two thousand, three thousand pound vehicles. You have to pay attention, be alert and be oriented.”
Matt Coble of Connecticut was riding with the seven-member “Maine Black Flies Breeders’ Association” team, and sported a fabric black fly riding on his helmet as a mascot as well as a red ribbon on his arm for LeClair.
“It was kind of a shadow over it all,” he said of the fatal accident.
Cyclists held a Spirit of the Trek event Saturday night at Colby College in Waterville, according to Kathleen O’Neill, the nonprofit organization’s communications manager. One of LeClair’s athenahealth teammates spoke about him at that event. The trek also retired his number — 1954 — and officials plan to do something special in LeClair’s memory annually.
“Obviously, the accident on Friday, and losing David LeClair, was very heartbreaking for everybody,” Jeff Seyler, the CEO of the American Lung Association of the Northeast, said at the finish line. “It was with heavy hearts that we continued through the weekend.”
He said that the association takes rider safety very seriously. The Maine State Police are continuing to investigate the accident, and identified the driver of a tractor-trailer truck that was stopped by investigators Friday in Rumford after LeClair’s death as Michel Masse-Defresne, 24, of Quebec. No charges have been filed in the matter, according to Maine State Police spokesman Stephen McCausland.
Seyler said that the organization has been cooperating with the police, and if officials determine they need to review rider and safety protocols before next year’s trek, they’ll comply.
It is the first rider fatality in the event’s history.
“Nothing of this magnitude has ever happened,” he said.
At the finish line, the crowds of spectators cheered on every rider — loved ones and strangers, those who rolled into town with a pack of teammates and those who rode alone.
Children with noisemakers applauded the riders, including Luna Carlson, 8, and her sister Story, 5, of Belfast.
“I think it’s really amazing,” Luna said. “I want to do it, and I think my sister’s going to get her training wheels off soon, so maybe we can do it together.”
The girls’ mom, Sarah Carlson, said that the family often likes to watch the riders come to town.
“It’s beautiful out, and it’s Father’s Day,” she said. “It’s really emotional, of course, with the tragedy.”
Seyler said that the bonds that form between the trekkers are “always very strong.”
“Everyone’s here for the same reason: fighting for healthy air and healthy lungs.”
According to LeClair’s Trek Across Maine profile page, he suffered from environmentally-induced asthma.
“This is personal for me,” he wrote.
David Tassoni of athenahealth rode through the finish line with his team, and next to his teenage son. Around him, riders with the company embraced each other as they got off their bicycles.
“We’re a very strong family,” he said of his workplace. “I’m so proud of being part of this whole group. David was an absolutely incredible human being.”
He said that his teammates described the young Massachusetts man as very caring.
“While he died very tragically, he lived every day the way all of us should think about living,” Tassoni said. “That’s probably the legacy he’ll leave behind.”