Harry Nickell was riding his bicycle Sunday morning on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 27 near the Lakeridge Winery when a car traveling in the same direction wandered off the road and slammed into him from behind.
In a blink, Lake County's unofficial ambassador for bicycling and triathlons was gone forever.
Nickell died at the age of 53, passionately pedaling his way to the "Horrible Hundred," a challenging bike ride that has drawn thousands of cyclists to hilly south Lake over the last 30 years.
In a way, Nickell was luckier than most. Would that we all could depart this life doing something that we care about so much.
"He lived for it, he loved it," said Diane Travis, his longtime fiancée and a fellow triathlete. "That's how we met. That's all we did — biking and running.
"We just did everything together."
That changed on Sunday.
Nickell, who lived with Travis in Blue Springs Reserve south of Howey-in-the-Hills, was killed when 84-year-old Jessie Leiser, driving a 2009 Toyota Camry, strayed onto the paved shoulder of the highway. Friends said they were told that the early-morning sun may have blinded the driver.
The accident occurred about a mile from a billboard warning motorists that the law requires them to give bicyclists at least 3 feet of clearance when overtaking them.
A relative at the home of Leiser and her husband, Charles, 85, said Sunday that the couple were too distraught to talk. They suffered minor injuries.
Nickell, a project manager for Ciraco Underground Inc., had spent his career supervising construction projects, often in The Villages retirement community. That paid the bills.
A 'unique person'
He spent nearly every free moment training for triathlons or competing in them.
"He was one of those guys I could never beat," said Ken LaRoe, who competed in Nickell's age class. "He was an aerobically-gifted athlete. This is absolutely sickening."
LaRoe is the person behind the billboard near the scene of the accident and similar ones across the county. He, too, rides hundreds of miles as he trains for competitions.
Leah Dearman said Nickell was an original part of a triathlon community that has been growing in Lake since the mid-1990s, and he was an enthusiastic promoter of biking and running, two of the three-part competition. (Swimming is the third.)
"He has a funny, happy, come-up-hug-on-everybody attitude. There's not anyone who doesn't know Harry. He has a big, warm smile," said Dearman, a triathlete and manager of rehabilitation services at the National Training Center in Clermont. "He doesn't know a stranger."
Indeed, Nickell's smile was mentioned by everyone who reminisced about him this week. It was his trademark, his beacon, his card of introduction.
"He always smiled, and he had happy, happy eyes," Travis said.
Julia Flohr, who met the couple when Nickell was "literally and figuratively" running after Travis said, "Harry was such a unique person — driven and passionate. Harry had two speeds — sleeping and out cold or full throttle."
Sometimes Nickell could be "completely infuriating," she said.
"He didn't pause and think about things. He just embraced life with such a passion," she said.
'Great times' remembered
One of Nickell's favorite tricks involved the portable signs that law enforcement uses to clock the speed of oncoming cars and display it, typically with a warning to slow down.
"He would see one of those things and take off [on his bicyle] and gun it as hard as he could. He would get that thing to say '32' and that would make his day," Flohr recalled.
But he took time for the small things of friendship that endear people to one another.
Former neighbor and triathlon friend Kevin Grogan said Nickell left his canoe for Grogan's children when he moved to the Howey area because he knew how much the kids enjoyed it. He wanted them to be able to keep going out on the water.
And Fred Sommer, who produces triathlons, said he was out of town a month ago when he learned his dog had escaped. He knew whom to call: Harry. Nickell rounded up the wayward pooch and "was happy to do it," Sommer said.
"It kept me up all of last night thinking about all the great times we had together. Every time you go on a bike ride, you think this could be your last time because cars and bikes don't mix," Sommer mused the day after his friend died.
And when they do, the outcome is nearly always bad for the cyclist.
What some folks don't realize is that bicycles have the same rights and responsibilities as cars on the road. They don't have to — and for safety reasons shouldn't — get off the pavement. Bicyclists can too easily be thrown by uneven ground and end up soaring into a passing car. Vehicles overtaking them are required by law to give bikes at least 3 feet of clearance, said Deputy Gabe White, the sheriff's liaison for bicycle riders.
'I can't wait to see you'
Travis said Nickell's family has begun gathering in Clermont. His mother, who lives in Oklahoma, had a mild heart attack when she learned of her son's death. But she was hoping to travel to Florida within a few days. His daughter Lacey, a 21-year-old Valencia Community College student, lives here, and her twin sister Meagan, who attends Regis University in Colorado on a basketball scholarship, was on her way. Nickell also had a son, Brian Fuller, who lives in San Diego and serves in the Marine Corps.
An informal remembrance service is set for 4 p.m. Friday at Clermont Waterfront Park. Friends said Nickell recently had said he wants to have his ashes scattered in the lake he so often ran and biked around. Friends and well-wishers may leave messages at the Facebook page R.I.P. Harry Nickell.
Travis said it was rare for her not to be with Nickell. She had gone to a cabin they owned together in North Carolina to get ready for Thanksgiving, and he was to follow on Tuesday with their dogs, Riley, a white Labrador who often ran with him and Star, a rescue dog that is a lab-hound mix.
When she learned of Nickell's accident, Travis had hadn't even unpacked her suitcase. She rummaged through it, looking for something to wear on the tearful airplane back to Orlando.
And that's when she saw the envelope.
Inside was a big card with this message: "I just want you to know that I really love you and appreciate you. I can't wait to see you with the dogs on Tuesday."
Lauren Ritchie can be reached at Lritchie@orlandosentinel.com You may leave her a message at 352-742-5918. Her blog is at OrlandoSentinel.com/laurenonlake. Joe Williams and Arelis Hernandez of the Sentinel staff contributed to this column.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times