June 27, 2013

Maine cyclist's death shows risks of draft from big vehicles

A preliminary report says turbulence from a passing truck probably caused the Trek Across Maine rider to lose his balance.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The death of a cyclist in the Trek Across Maine fundraiser earlier this month has focused attention on the risks that bicyclists face from the draft created by passing vehicles, especially large trucks.

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David LeClair, 23, is shown in an undated photo from the Athena Health team web page.

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PDF: Read the crash report

Police say David Leclair, 23 of Waltham, Mass., was probably knocked off balance by the air turbulence from a passing tractor-trailer. They say he died either when he hit his head on the truck or after his arm hit the truck and he was thrown onto the road.

"It would be very difficult to be a cyclist and not have something like this operate as a wake-up call, just in terms of vulnerability out there on the road," said Brian Allenby, spokesman for the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. "It also throws into focus the need to be hyper-vigilant and aware of surroundings and really riding defensively."

The Maine State Police's preliminary investigation concluded that the possible cause of the June 14 crash was the draft created by the truck, which caused Leclair to move to his left, hitting the rear tires of the truck.

That assessment is consistent with what troopers said was a possible contributing factor, and state police Lt. Walter Grzyb said Thursday that nothing in the subsequent investigation has changed that theory.

Police also learned that Leclair was taking a drink from his water bottle and had only one hand on the handlebar, which made him less steady.

The power of the "drag" created by a passing truck -- the force of the wind as air is pushed away from the front of the truck and then fills in behind the rig as it passes -- is familiar to many cyclists.

"It's something I personally have experienced many times as well as every other cyclist I know who's ridden on the road," Allenby said. "The trucks don't even have to be doing 50 or 60 mph, they could be going 30 to 40 mph. Any time you're moving a mass that large through the air, you're creating quite a bit of turbulence."

Police have said that Leclair was riding about 2 feet inside the breakdown lane, based on witness statements. The truck was about 2 feet into the travel lane, leaving about 4 feet between the two as the truck passed.

The law requires motorists passing cyclists to stay at least 3 feet away.

Grzyb said the investigating trooper is still interviewing witnesses and hopes to have a final investigative report finished in another two weeks, although it may take longer.

The Trek Across Maine is an annual fundraiser in which more than 2,000 cyclists ride over three days from Sunday River ski resort in Newry to Belfast to raise money for the American Lung Association.

Leclair, part of the athenahealth cycling team from Massachusetts, was killed when he crashed on Route 2 in Hanover just a few miles from the ride's starting point.

The crash report completed by Trooper Ronald Turnick on the day of the crash was approved by Trooper Kyle Tilsley on Tuesday.

The report indicates that Leclair was riding east, "near the breakdown lane." The tractor-trailer driven by Michel Masse-Dufresne, 24, of Quebec, also was headed east.

Masse-Dufresne was apparently unaware that the rear of his 80,000-pound truck, which was hauling corn, had collided with Leclair. Masse-Dufresne continued driving until he was pulled over about five miles away in Rumford.

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