Cyclist rides in patients’ honor

By Wayne E. Rivet
Staff Writer

MIKE LESSAR of Bridgton recovered from a cycling accident, which caused serious damage to his right arm, and will ride in the upcoming Dempsey Challenge. (Rivet Photo)

Mike Lessard understands how life can unexpectedly knock one down, and how it takes sheer determination to get back on one’s feet.

As a pharmacist, Lessard sees patients each day fight for their lives against an unrelenting disease — cancer. He is inspired by their strong will and positive attitudes despite facing life-threatening battles.

As an avid cyclist, Lessard had his own life tossed into uncertainty. While enjoying the thrill of cruising down a mountainside on his bicycle, Lessard lost control and struck a tree. The impact rattled his entire body. He suffered serious injuries, resulting in losing full use of his right arm.

Like his patients, Lessard refused to let the injuries keep him from what he loves to do — ride.

Next month, Lessard will combine his passion — cycling — along with his deep admiration for his patients as he rides in his second Dempsey Challenge.

Last year, Lessard heard about the fundraising event for the Lewiston center, which provides a variety of services for cancer patients and their families, from a Bridgton Hospital technician.

“A 100-mile bike ride? Because of my competitive nature, I first wondered if I could ride 100 miles. The most I had ridden before was 60 miles. I came up with a plan, and came to enjoy road riding,” the converted mountain biker said. “When I did the (Dempsey) ride, people along the route were at the end of their driveways cheering us on. It hit me at that point, ‘Wow! We’re touching a lot of people who I see every day. This is special!’ I realized I want to do this ride every year, in honor of my patients.”

For Mike Lessard, cycling is a true love.

“On a personal level, it’s my ‘me’ time. It’s a time that I organize my thoughts, and I find myself working through emotions,” he said. “On the other side of it, every ride, there is a challenge. There’s that hill you didn’t get up the last time or the downhill that you didn’t dare to ride hard down, and you make it. Those little challenges are what I live for. To ride a few seconds faster than the last time. That sense of accomplishment is what keeps me going. It’s not a team sport. I ride by myself, for the most part. It’s just me and my bike.”

In the cycling world, you tend to side either with mountain or road biking. Lessard’s first love was a good mountain trail.

“It’s (mountain biking) almost a whole different culture. It’s not as polished. You’re not wearing the fancy garb. It’s more of an outdoorsy type activity. I find it a lot more anaerobic. You have small hills that you need to get up, which can burn your lungs out, but you’re not pedaling as much as you do on a road bike,” he said.

His life, and cycling preference, would change after one mountain excursion. Becoming a “serious” rider in 1997, Lessard had purchased a new bike, replacing one he bought in 1992, which he had lost in a house fire.

“I also bought a set of bike tools so that I could get my hands greasy performing my own maintenance. I would joke to my now ex-wife that it was better to have me spend quality time with the bike than try to put up with me when I wasn’t riding. Biking was becoming my therapy; my way of clearing my head, sorting my thoughts and solving my problems,” he said.

On an August 1997 day, Lessard joined his riding buddies to take on a favorite trail — the “root hill” loop, a nasty downhill cluttered with pine tree roots, loose gravel and a quick left turn at the bottom toward a water crossing. Lessard was in the lead when he started his descent.

“I was at a good clip, but in control. At downhill speeds, even with the shorter trail hills, you experience in mountain biking, a lot can happen in a split second,” he said. “To this day, I am not sure exactly what did happen except that I ended up flying over the handle bars of my bike, striking a tree as if throwing a shoulder block into it, and finding myself lying on the ground without noticeable sensation in either arm or leg.”

Feeling would return to his legs and left arm. His collarbone was intact, but his right arm drooped.

“I had actually been thrown off my bike a number of times. In mountain biking, if you’re not crashing, you’re not becoming a better rider. You expect it after awhile. You learn how to fall. How to protect yourself. It was a freak accident,” he recalled. “I happened to hit a tree just right. Even at the time, I didn’t realize how serious an injury it was. I walked a mile out of the woods with a friend of mine, thinking I had a dislocated shoulder.”

The damage was greater than Lessard thought. He was in intensive care for four days. He had suffered six broken bones in his neck, three broken ribs and tore the lining of his right lung. The worst injury was trauma to his back. The collision caused nerves in his right arm to be pulled out of the spine. Lessard underwent 14 hours of surgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, Md.

“The surgeons did some truly amazing things, taking nerves from my neck, diaphragm, chest and leg and rewiring my arm in an attempt to salvage some function for me,” he said.

After wearing a sling for two years, Lessard started to realize some arm strength and function — about 50 to 60%. He will, however, never completely regain full use of his right arm.

But, Lessard knew he could finally get back onto a bike seat and ride.

“I always knew that I would get back onto a bicycle again. I knew I wasn’t going to play baseball or basketball again, but my goal was to get back on a bicycle again. That was the goal I worked toward,” he said. “When I first got back onto a bike, I had no strength in my right arm, so it was a matter of gaining a comfort level as to what I could do. When I first started riding, I couldn’t feel my hand.”

It was actually a little less than a year out that Lessard took a few short rides in Vermont. He took a lot of pictures. Three years later, Lessard was again logging many hours on his bike.  He moved several times — Cape Cod, Louisiana, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and back to Maine.

“The one constant in my life was biking,” he said. “I do believe it kept me sane.”

But, Lessard would also experience a change in cycling preference. Occasionally, he hit the open road for a workout, “only because it made my mountain biking better, he said. “I was still not going to ever be a road weanie.”

Well, he did become one.

“It came kind of gradually. Seven or eight years ago, I bought a road bike, thinking I would ride the road since I couldn’t be in the woods to keep up my fitness. With my arm injury, I wasn’t comfortable with the drop handlebars of the road bike, so I changed them to a flat bar and put some mountain bike components onto the new bike. At that point, I was living in New Hampshire,” he said. “When I moved to Louisiana, the switch to road was timely, since there aren’t a whole lot of mountain biking trails there. I rode in the sugarcane fields.”

Road biking is fast. It also made Lessard a better mountain biker because he got a “better workout experience” on the road bike.

When he moved back to Maine just over two years ago, his full attention turned to road biking. On Ebay, he found his road bike.

“Wow, I was going even faster. My other bike was 21-22 pounds. The new bike is 17.5 pounds. The difference in the stability really showed,” he said. “There are a couple of hills around here that when you head down, you can reach 48 mph. The bike I had previously if I got to 40 mph, I felt timid on it. On this bike, I hit 48, I want to bring more on. It’s a rock going at that speed. An amazing difference.”

How difficult is it to ride 100 miles?

“I would compare a 100-mile bike ride to a marathon. A marathon takes more out of the body due to its impact. As far as the endurance, cycling 100 miles is right up there with a marathon. Someone in decent shape can get ready for the 100 miler in 6 to 8 weeks if they have a steady plan to get there. There are training plans out there that can help you reach that goal,” he said.

This year has been different for Mike Lessard. He hasn’t been training solely for the Dempsey Challenge. The Dempsey Challenge will be the fifth ride this year around the century mark.

“I did a 100-mile ride on my own, which took in Pinkham’s Notch and Evans’ Notch on a 90-plus degree day. That was foolish. The same week, I did at the Maine Bike Rally (in Brunswick) a 97-mile ride. I’ve also done the Kancamagus Highway and back which is about 88 miles round trip,” he said. “Loon Echo will be hard because it’s not the flattest course. Riding in this area gets you ready for the Dempsey Challenge. It makes me a stronger rider. You can’t ride in any direction without taking on a hill. You need to learn how to ride the hills. You still hate them.”

There are a couple of rides worse than others.

“I still plan on doing them. Route 107 to Sebago, that is a beast because the first hill is at about five miles, and you get to the last one at about 10.5 miles. Four hills. First one is steep. Second one is long with a steep section in the middle. You’re exhausted at that point. Third one is steep but not long, but you haven’t had a chance to recover. The last one, alone is not that bad, but you’re so tired from the first three, it’s brutal,” he said. “Route 93 to Sweden to Knight’s Hill Road. It’s long, and wears you out.”

To date, Lessard has logged about 4,500 miles since purchasing the bike last year. He averages about 130 miles weekly.

“I am truly a road weanie. The difference now is that I am just not riding for me, for my therapy, for my fitness, or for my sanity. I am also riding for the cancer patients who utilize the services offered by the Dempsey Center,” he said.

Mike Lessard, who is 42, hopes to ride the Challenge in 5 ½ hours. Last year, he fell short of his goal of finishing in six hours by eight minutes. Whenever he finishes, Mike Lessard will be happy, knowing his effort was in honor of those patients who try to conquer cancer each and every day.

How to make a pledge. Area residents can make a pledge by going to the Dempsey Challenge website, www.dempseycenter.org

There, scroll to the lower half of the home page, and click on the Dempsey Challenge logo. Next, look to the right and click, “Find a Participant.” The page will ask for the participant’s name — Michael Lessard. There, you can make a pledge. As of Wednesday, Mike had $965 in pledges. The Dempsey Challenge is Oct. 2-3.

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