CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Theoden Janes | The Charlotte Observer) - Robert Lyew didn't see the car coming. Never even heard it.
"One second I was riding my bike, and I was enjoying the day, and in the next ... it felt like someone took a sledgehammer to my back, and I felt myself flying through the air."
Then as abruptly as the driver slammed into the 24-year-old Hartsville, S.C. resident's bike from behind, the car was gone — leaving Lyew in a ditch with three broken ribs, a punctured lung and a 4-inch gash etched deeply into his face by a roadside bramble, and his bike's carbon frame sheared into pieces.
Lyew, a design and production engineer for Stingray Boats in Hartsville, was in the area last weekend visiting his girlfriend, Callie Rumfelt, who lives in Mount Holly. On Sunday, after Rumfelt headed to her job as a nurse at Caromont Regional Medical Center, Lyew headed out at about 8 a.m. to do a 30-mile ride: starting through downtown Mount Holly, taking Charlotte Avenue across the Catawba River, then turning left to pass the U.S. National Whitewater Center on Belmeade Drive, a generally quiet road commonly traversed by cyclists heading to and from Gaston County.
His plan was to stop at a cafe in the city, then head back to shower before making the 100-mile drive home to South Carolina. But 3.5 miles in, just past the entrance to the Whitewater Center, Lyew's Sunday-morning ride was violently cut short.
Lee Flythe says he and his girlfriend were driving in the opposite direction on Belmeade, on their way to ride mountain bikes at the Whitewater Center, when they saw Lyew on his bike coming toward them.
Flythe says a black Mercedes sedan drifted onto the shoulder as it came up behind Lyew, "and just ran right through Robert at full speed. Obviously I couldn't see his tail lights, but ... you can kind of tell when a car hits its brakes. It did not look at all like they touched the brakes. It actually seemed to accelerate right through him." (The two men didn't know each other before the accident, but have communicated since, in case you're wondering why Flythe talks about him with familiarity.)
"The bike just shatters — just explodes — Robert flies backward over the hood of the car into the windshield, and then gets bounced upward. He flies through the air and lands in the ditch," Flythe says, "a good ways from the edge of the road. It was really intense. It looked like the scene that they would make of the dramatic incident in a movie or something."
Flythe says he and his girlfriend immediately pulled over but that the black Mercedes was already out of view and there had been no opportunity to get a license plate number. (He says other motorists who arrived at the scene shortly after him also reported seeing a black Mercedes driving past them with a broken windshield.)
Lying in the ditch on the side of the road, Lyew says, "I immediately thought to myself, 'What happened?' And then my second thought was, 'Oh, I probably just got hit by a car,'" Lyew recalls. "I moved my arms and my legs around ever so slightly, and then that's how I knew I wasn't paralyzed. So I was like, 'OK, that's good.' Spit up a good bit of blood probably from where the branch pierced the inside of my lip. And a lot of people were yelling. 'Hey, are you OK?' 'Someone call 911.' 'Someone go after that son of a b----.'"
Flythe seems convinced it was intentional.
But he admits one has to wonder what kind of person would do that and for what reason, knowing that it would cause certain damage to their luxury car, aware of the fact that there was a car coming from the other direction that could clearly see what was happening.
On the other hand, he says, if the driver had been distracted, or falling asleep, or under the influence, wouldn't there been at least a moment of surprise, a natural reflex to touch the brakes and go, "What did I hit?," before fleeing the scene?
In any event, paramedics arrived and took Lyew by ambulance to Carolinas Medical Center, where he received treatment for his injuries including 22 stitches on his face and six more on the inside of his upper lip. He spent the night in the hospital; Lyew says his doctor told him that it would take at least a month for his broken ribs to heal, and recommended he not return to work for a week. When he spoke to the Observer by phone on Tuesday afternoon, he was in his hometown near Atlanta for a consultation with a plastic surgeon.
Lyew says he competes in cycling races in the Southeast, and had more events on his schedule this summer, but that this effectively ended his season. He says he's looking into whether his insurance policy might cover some of the damage to his $6,000 Boardman road bike, and that there may be ways to salvage some pieces of his wrecked bike in building a new one, but that he can't afford to replace it.
In other words, the hassles are plentiful. At the same time, Lyew simply feels fortunate to be alive.
And he hopes the driver who hit him is eventually caught, because he feels that having him off the roads will make them a safer place — but also because it doesn't seem fair that the thought of things like this happening would keep cyclists from doing something they love.
Flythe, the witness — himself an avid road cyclist — agrees.
"Somebody out there lives next to that guy. Somebody saw a busted car pull into the garage on Sunday morning. Someone works at a windshield repair place that's gonna fix that car. Someone is gonna have to interact with that car again, unless he just went and drove it in the river and walked away from it."
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department says it is investigating, but Flythe says "I doubt that they have the ability to canvas every auto body shop in the two-state region. So the more the word is out there in the news, in the newspaper, on social media ... I mean, hopefully someone that saw something has not yet been exposed to this story, and when they are exposed to the story, they'll realize, 'Oh my God, that dude that lives down the street from me.'"