As an avid cyclist, Mike Dayton has powered through at least one 200-kilometer trip every month for the last 13 years – a streak that impressed even his toughest riding companions.
By age 60, he’d finished the famous slog across half of France – from Paris to Brest and back – four different times.
As a leading member of the N.C. Randonneurs, a club dedicated to long-distance rides with no roadside assistance, he has regularly spent his Saturdays in the saddle, crossing the state on its country roads.
“For us and many other people, Mike is the archetype of the gentleman cyclist: a leader by example of cycling etiquette, safety and grace,” wrote Ann Groninger, a friend and attorney who specializes in bicycle law. “And he is a whole lot of fun.”
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Starting on Saturday, Dayton and three fellow Randonneurs drew prayers from as far away as Canada and Korea. On a 200-kilometer ride from Raleigh to Godwin in Cumberland County, all four were knocked off their bikes by a car that state troopers said struck them from behind while they were riding single-file along the right side of the road.
The most seriously injured, Dayton remained unconscious at WakeMed for many hours until friends reported that he opened his right eye on Monday. Two other riders – Christopher Graham, 34, and Joel Arthur Lawrence, 57 – were discharged with chipped and broken bones while the fourth, Lynn Lashley, 57, reportedly underwent back surgery.
“She’s crushed emotionally as well as physically,” said fellow rider Geof Simons. “She’s wondering if she’s ever going to ride again.”
Charges against the driver, 50-year-old Donnie Marie Williams, haven’t been filed but are under consideration. Efforts to reach Williams were unsuccessful Tuesday.
State troopers have ruled out alcohol, but cycling advocates are howling over the wreck near McGees Crossroads, which they insist be called a crash and not an accident. It’s clear from posts about the Randonneurs that regular riders feel slighted by the driving world, both on the road and by lawmakers.
“We are a car-centric culture,” Groninger said.
But I’ve also heard that Massengill Pond Road, where this happened, is a narrow place with no real shoulder. The cruelest detail in this case, for me, is that Dayton went to such lengths to promote safety and was nationally certified in the subject. As the webmaster for www.bikelaw.com, he blogged obsessively about accident statistics, road hazards and bike regulations he considered wrong-headed.
In November, he wrote about a near-accident near the Haw River in which three riders were nearly clipped by a passing truck on a country road. In that case, he chided himself and his fellow riders. “Our group broke rule #2,” he wrote, “which states: BE PREDICTABLE. Make your intentions clear to everyone on the road.”
Dayton had set up the route they rode Saturday, and the riders knew it well. It can be windy there, Simons said, but not very hilly. He noted it’s common to ride for miles without seeing a single car, and when they do appear, they often seem to come in each direction and meet at your bike, passing within a foot as you’re pedaling 45 mph.
“You can live your life in fear,” Simons said, “or you can do what you love.”
Another Randonneur, Jerry Phelps, noted that the sport is so noncompetitive that ride results are posted alphabetically, not according to fastest time. Its riders, Dayton especially, pride themselves on being helpful. Phelps remembered struggling to finish his first 200-kilometer ride in 2006 until Dayton pulled alongside and rode with him for the last 30 miles when he might easily have pedaled away.
“He was wearing his Paris-Brest-Paris jersey,” Phelps said. “I got home knowing the following summer I was going to France. And I did.”
By the time I checked on Tuesday, I’d found tributes to Dayton by the Randonneurs from Missouri, Iowa, New York, Michigan and Washington, D.C. They know the thrills and the risks, and they salute their brother on wheels, hoping he will soon feel the wind back in his hair.