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Hit and run leaves mangled bikes and a friend in disbelief

That can't be them.

The panicky thought churned through Julie Hakim's mind as she drove near the long, straight stretch of March Road, and saw the ambulance helicopter flying in, and the emergency lights flashing. A doctor, she knew it had to be a terrible accident.

Unable to get close enough to see, she headed for the village of Dunrobin, on the Ottawa River, where she'd planned to join up with five friends, a close-knit group of endurance cyclists who biked together every Sunday morning. She'd slept in, and missed their 7 a.m. start.

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As a team, they were as safe as cyclists could be, and March Road, in Ottawa's west end, had a wide bike lane that they'd travelled "a gazillion times," Dr. Hakim would explain later. They were training for a triathlon two weeks away.

It wasn't them, she convinced herself.

But when she couldn't find her friends on their planned route or reach them on their cellphones, and when she started calculating the place and time of that accident, she knew, with sickening certainty, whom the helicopter and ambulances were racing to save.

"I had a pretty bad feeling," she said.

"I just decided, 'Oh, God, I should go back to look at that accident.' And I went back and saw their bikes all over the place."

It was a horrifying scene: Tires and frames lay in mangled pieces along a 120-metre stretch of pavement, crushed helmets, including one split in half, were scattered among bits of glass and gear. Her friends were gone, already being raced to hospital - two of them with life-threatening injuries.

Also gone was the vehicle that caused the carnage - allegedly a brown van that somehow collided with five experienced cyclists shortly before 8 a.m., and sped away, leaving them all injured and unconscious at the scene. "I feel so guilty I wasn't there," Dr. Hakim said.

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Several hours later, a man turned himself in to Ottawa police; officers seized the brown van parked outside his house.

It's not clear yet how the accident happened: the sun was up, the pavement was dry, the bike lane clearly marked on the four-lane road. But not far from an intersection, the van struck with such force that all five cyclists were thrown from their bikes and knocked out. An off-duty city bylaw officer who saw the accident called 911. By the time the first ambulance arrived less than five minutes later, only two of the cyclists had regained consciousness.

Cathy Anderson, 45, who likes to wear her red hair in pigtails when she rides and works for a communications company, was the last in the line. As she would later explain to Dr. Hakim while doctors treated her shattered arm, she remembers only being "hit by something, and going flying."

Ms. Anderson heard Hilary McNamee, a 30-year-old social worker, screaming, but only silence from the three men, including Ms. Anderson's boyfriend, Rob Wein, who'd been riding second from the front. "The next thing she remembers was a paramedic there."

Their injuries were severe. Rob Harland, 45, an IT worker who was leading the group as he always like to at the beginning of the ride, had a broken leg and spinal injury.

Ms. McNamee had a crushed vertebrae and was having trouble breathing on her own at the scene, but after arriving at hospital, Dr. Hakim said, her condition was more stable, and by the afternoon, she could move her hands and feet.

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Mark White, a 33-year-old who also works for an IT company, was cut and bruised, with a suspected head trauma.

Most serious among them was Mr. Wein, a 35-year-old civil servant with two young children, who was quickly rushed into surgery with serious internal injuries and bleeding in his brain. By evening, Dr. Hakim said, he was out of surgery but being kept sedated.

"They are my best friends," Dr. Hakim, 29, said from the hospital yesterday. "They were my Sunday."

They met at an intensive workout "boot camp" called Soldiers of Fitness, and started training more regularly with each other this summer. Every Sunday, they biked about 150 kilometres - yesterday morning, they were bound for Pakenham, a village about 50 kilometres west of Ottawa, with a planned breakfast stop en route.

As cyclists they took every precaution. All of them were wearing helmets. Mr. Wein and Ms. Anderson had driven the route the day before to make sure there weren't any unexpected obstacles. They always checked the weather and the direction of the wind, Dr. Hakim said, and travelled in careful formation, one behind the other. If someone fell behind, they waited for them to catch up.

"We are always very safety-conscious," Dr. Hakim said, preparing to spend the night at the hospital. "I mean Cathy stops at every stop sign, even if there is no car anywhere in the vicinity. We could be in the middle of nowhere, and she stops."

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More

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