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GILLETTE (AP) — On a warm Sunday afternoon in early April, Nathan McLeland decided to take his light, fiber-carbon bicycle out for a ride along the winding roads of Gillette.
The 38-year-old pedaled east on Southern Drive toward a loop he likes to ride and powered up the hill. As he began his descent down the other side, McLeland said he remembers feeling good. With legs pumping, adrenaline coursed through his body as he sped up to 30-35 mph.
That’s when everything went wrong.
A pickup truck turning south onto Magnuson Boulevard struck McLeland, shearing his self-built bicycle into pieces and throwing him through the air and across the pavement.
“I remember seeing the truck at the last second and I knew I was going to be hit,” McLeland said. “I kind of remember coming to and looking up at the sky and couldn’t figure out where I was. Then I remembered what happened.
“And I realized I couldn’t feel my arm.”
McLeland is just one of a growing list of bicyclists who have clashed with automobiles in Wyoming this spring, including a few others that resulted in serious injuries in just the past week and a half. Those have resulted in two fatalities and another critical injury.
Two cyclists in Sheridan were hit on U.S. Highway 87 about a half mile from Sheridan College on May 31 by a minivan driven by a woman who the Wyoming Highway Patrol believes was under the influence of a controlled substance.
The two cyclists were traveling single-file on the shoulder when the minivan entered the lane traveling the same southern direction and hit them from behind. They were thrown some distance from their bikes.
Larry Hurst, 65, was pronounced dead at the scene, while Sara Hurst, his 56-year-old wife, was taken by Life Flight to Billings, Montana, where she was listed in critical condition and has since improved to stable.
The 34-year-old woman driving the vehicle faces charges of aggravated homicide and driving under the influence of a controlled substance — charges that carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
On May 29 — just two days before the Sheridan crash — Matthew Harker, 39, was struck by an SUV in downtown Casper while riding his bicycle. Authorities said he was riding west on First Street and attempting to turn south when the vehicle, traveling east, collided with him.
The crash carried Harker about 50 feet from the impact. He died from brain trauma the following day. Authorities believe alcohol also played a role in that accident. No arrest has been made in the case, but the investigation is ongoing.
McLeland blacked out for a short time after he was hit.
When he regained consciousness, he was aware of excruciating pain in his left leg. And he wanted to call his wife.
The driver of the truck called 911 and McLeland’s wife, Robbie, and stayed with him. A woman next on the scene covered him with blankets until an ambulance arrived.
Other people, including a family friend and Robbie and their children, arrived to help in any way they could.
“There was no time to think. I just got the kids in the car, told them something’s wrong and we’ve got to go,” Robbie McLeland said.
When she arrived, her husband had been partially covered with a blanket, and he complained of the pain in his leg.
“I kept screaming that my leg hurt,” he said.
She reassured him that they could deal with a broken leg. At least he’s alive, she thought.
At the emergency room, she was stunned to hear the word “amputate.”
They hadn’t realized until then just how severely McLeland was hurt.
His left arm was almost completely severed between his elbow and shoulder. He couldn’t feel the injury because of the severe damage to his nerves. Compared to that, the injury to his left leg, where his kneecap was shoved straight back into the leg, seemed minor.
McLeland was quickly flown to Swedish Medical Center in Denver, where he spent more than a month. Doctors at first believed he would have to lose his arm for good and there were other severe problems as well, Robbie McLeland said.
“They told us immediately that he was going to live, but that he had an amputated arm and had lost circulation in his leg,” she said.
Over the course of seven surgeries that ranged from micro-vascular to reattachment to recirculation, the arm was saved. He also received surgery to repair the damage to his leg and knee.
More than a month after his April 6 accident, McLeland was finally released from the hospital to return home and return to work as an attorney for M&K Oil in Gillette.
“I really feel lucky with the way things have gone,” he said. “That was a life-changing thing.”
When it comes to a 3,500-pound car colliding with a 30-pound bicycle, there’s little question which will come out on top.
Safe riding and awareness of both motorists and cyclists becomes imperative. Riders in all of the accidents in the past 10 days were wearing helmets, and while two of them still died, the helmet Nathan McLeland wore very well could have saved his life.
“If Nathan hadn’t have been wearing his helmet, we would have had an even worse outcome,” Robbie McLeland said. “He was just 2 miles from the house when it happened, so it goes to show that these things can happen so close to home.”
Even with awareness and safe riding with helmets and bright clothing, accidents still happen. Wyoming Highway Patrol Lt. Will Zilka, who serves in the Gillette area, said there is an inherent risk of bicycling on the road that riders need to be aware of.
“There’s an accepted risk people take in riding their bike on the roadways,” Zilka said. “We don’t want to place any blame on the victim, but that risk is a fact of reality.”
According to Wyoming Department of Transportation statistics, the state has had 427 automobile vs. bicycle accidents that have resulted in reported injuries since 2009. So far in 2014, 13 such injuries have been recorded.
Campbell County — the state’s third-largest county — has been home to 54 of those bicycle-related accidents over the past five years, representing the fourth most in the state. Accidents occurring while bicyclists are crossing or entering a road account for 257, or 60.2 percent, of those injuries recorded during the time span, including McLeland’s and Harker’s.
McLeland, who used to practice personal injury law before his current job with M&K Oil, said the recent spike in injuries can most likely be attributed to simple lack of awareness on the road and people who are in a hurry to get wherever they want to go.
He said those issues, along with a rise in the popularity of biking, make riding a risky activity.
“I’ve been thinking about it and (cycling) is a lot more popular than it used to be,” he said. “The Wyoming statute for bicycles gives them the right to be on the road just like any other motor vehicle and people just need to be more aware.”
The popularity of cycling in Wyoming may not be more apparent than in biking clubs, where members join to engage in their common love of bicycling.
Jordan LeDuc, president of Bomber Mountain Cycling Club based in Sheridan, said there are roughly 130 members in his growing club. LeDuc bikes four to five times per week and promotes safe cycling principles throughout the club.
“We really emphasize safe riding,” LeDuc said. “We use stop signs, hand signals and really try to push riding with traffic and not against it.”
The Gillette Cycling Group also has been shaken by the recent tragedies. Club member Tom Hammerquist said the club has about 20 members, including McLeland.
Hammerquist has been an avid cyclist for many years. The accident involving his friend has prompted new feelings.
“I have been riding for 25 years and I’ve never felt as nervous going for a ride as I do this year,” he said. “A lot of the drivers I see around have a cellphone in their hand or have ear buds in their ears. Those people who don’t pay attention scare me more than drunk drivers.”
That’s a reality cyclists are well aware of, LeDuc said.
“We know we’re the smallest men on the totem poles out there,” he said. “We need to have proper etiquette and awareness, because the pathways are limited. But I also think other entities in the towns need to know what is going on as well.”
In McLeland’s case, there was no evidence of any impairment with the 55-year-old man who drove the pickup that hit him, but he was ticketed with failure to yield right of way. McLeland said it was just a bad accident and the driver simply didn’t see him as he made the turn.
“I appreciated that (the driver of the pickup) stopped and tried to help me. I’ve heard he was really shaken up about it,” McLeland said.
But his case appears to be the only one of the recent serious accidents that didn’t involve an impaired driver.
Zilka said that is unacceptable.
“Each case looks very similar, but we want to prevent the ones that are the most preventable,” Zilka said. “For example, no one wakes up impaired. No one in this country doesn’t know the consequences of driving while impaired. Something has to change.”