Ray Duckler: After the horror, Wheelmen pedal down a new path
David Ross adjusts the mirror on his bicycle helmet while hanging out at Merrill Park before a ride on Wednesday, October 2, 2013. Ross and his girlfriend Anne Gwynne are avid cyclists and were near the scene of the accident during the Granite State Wheelmen's Tri-State Seacoast Century Ride last month.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
From left, Anne Gwynne, Gordon Rhodes, David Ross and Cathy Yeager gathered in the parking lot of Merrill Park before a club ride on Wednesday morning, October 2, 2013 in Concord.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Some saw blood, twisted bicycles, people lying on the bridge.
But they hoped things weren’t as bad as they seemed.
After all, members of the Granite State Wheelmen bicycle club figured, accidents happen, right? Spills leading to scraped skin, deep bruising, even a broken shoulder blade are part of the sport.
So the riders who pedaled upon the tragedy near Seabrook less than two weeks ago, some arriving before rescue personnel, thought that maybe everything was okay.
“You didn’t want to look, but you wanted to look,” said Rich Maher, a builder from Concord. “It’s one of those things where you gulp and say to yourself, ‘I hope those people make it.’ ”
Two Massachusetts women, Elise Bouchard and Pamela Wells, did not make it, allegedly struck by a woman, Darriean Hess, who did not have a driver’s license. Two other riders were seriously injured.
All four were hit on Route 1A while crossing the Neil R. Underwood Memorial Bridge from Hampton to Seabrook. They were among 1,500 riders, forming a colorful, serpentine flow near the ocean, who participated in the Seacoast Century, a three-state adventure celebrating its 40th anniversary.
About 500 participants were members of the Granite State Wheelmen, and many of those cyclists were from the Concord area.
Like Maher, 58. He’s been riding with the Wheelmen for 17 years, a regular presence on the three-days-a-week trips to New Boston, Warner, Webster and the Eggshell Restaurant in Loudon.
He had ridden to Salisbury, Mass., that day and was heading back to Seabrook with friends when his mind began racing. He saw crowds of people, debris in the road and someone directing traffic.
“Where were the people who’d fallen from their bikes?” Maher wondered.
“Usually the person is sitting up and dusting themselves off and lamenting the fact that their bike had been damaged,” Maher said.
Then he saw the bikes involved in the wreck. “You could barely notice that these had once been bikes,” Maher said.
Maher and others soon realized what had happened, that people had died and other lives had been changed forever.
But they discovered something else as well, something that scared them and injected them with a feeling of helplessness.
The people hit had followed the rules. They wore bright colors, rode in single-file, had rearview mirrors in place.
With a guardrail hugging the bridge instead of a shoulder, these riders had no place to go, no place to escape.
“They did nothing wrong,” Maher said. “There’s nothing they could have done better. It does make you realize, make you think more about the fact that this is a potentially dangerous activity, and we need to reduce the danger as much as we can.”
Anne Gwynne of Hopkinton had the same thought. The retired employee at Russell Animal Hospital arrived at the scene shortly after the sirens and spinning lights.
Her boyfriend, retired Concord pediatrician David Ross, had already arrived, before cops and ambulances.
“It really shook a lot of people up who were in the vicinity,” Gwynne said. “People were really upset about the deaths, but also about the fact that it was such a needless accident. The riders were riding safely.”
What was already a horrific day actually got a little worse for Gwynne. She rode 10 miles from the crash scene and came upon a friend, a fellow rider, who’d been hurt in a bike-to-bike accident.
Gwynne later drove to Portsmouth Hospital to visit her friend, who was not seriously injured.
Driving on busy Route 1A, she saw cars and bikes, and bikes and cars, and she saw them all through a different lens.
“There was no shoulder, and a lot of bikes appeared not to have a mirror,” Gwynne said. “I was pretty stressed at that point, and I saw people in the road not paying attention. I wanted to lean out the window and yell. We have to live with the cars and not think we own the road.”
Eugene Smith, a club member for more than 30 years, coexists with motorists constantly, since he doesn’t own a car.
He rides his bike to work and avoids the shortest route, near the Exit 14 underpass, where Loudon Road meets Interstate 93.
The funnel of death, he calls it.
He and friends chose to ride locally on that awful day. But he felt the pain, reinforced by the fact that the dead and injured followed all rules.
“This was a statistical aberration,” Smith said. “Cars do not cross the center line and hit us head-on. The cyclists are doing everything right. There are no lessons to be learned by this.”
There are reminders, though. For example, Maher’s common sense clicked into place before a recent ride.
It was dusk.
“I could have worn a black shirt, but I knew I should be wearing bright yellow, so I put a bright-yellow jacket on,” Maher said. “This made me think, that you can get hit out there. It can be a shot out of the blue, like getting struck by lightning, but you still need to prepare.”