Cycling without sight – my tandem experience

I didn’t go for long bike rides as a child. We went walking with the dog, and my Granddad drove us for miles around the UK in the Summer Holidays, but I only discovered cycling as an adult.

I would say the easiest and safest way for people like me, who have no sight, to cycle, is to do tandem cycling.

My first introduction to it was on an activity weekend. Half of the time was to be spent canoeing and the other half cycling. As it turned out, I preferred being out of the water, but having tried both, I definitely prefer canoeing to kayaking because I don’t like being closed in, and if the thing tips, it’s easier to get out of a canoe than a kayak!

Anyway – back to the cycling. As a child, I didn’t have balance issues, but I didn’t have enough confidence in where I was going to pick up enough speed to stay balanced. Having someone else in charge of the direction took this problem away, but there is still an element of trust involved.

I don’t just mean you’re trusting the front rider not to stop peddling and let the blind person do all the work! I mean you need to communicate about what the other person is going to do – if they are going to turn, slow down or need to stop suddenly. You need to react quickly to what the other person is telling you. The faster you go, the more you need to trust them!

It was also my first time covering longer distances, so I was fighting with the fear that I’d do something stupid and everyone would think I was an idiot, but fortunately that didn’t happen either! After a couple of hours I was fine!

After the introduction weekend, I went on a week-long cycling holiday in Dorset with a mixture of blind and sighted cyclists. I was paired with a sighted cyclist at the beginning of the week, and it was great that we got on, because we spent the rest of the week together on the same bike. The evenings were for socialising, but the point of the trip was mainly to get in as much cycling as possible. The weather was mostly kind to us, but I got to experience cycling in heavy rain showers as well!

The blind person always goes at the back, because they are not in charge of steering. My front rider gave me information about what was coming up, where the hills were,, whether there were any sharp bends, intersections, or loose dogs! But we had time to chat as well and enjoy the countryside. You have to find a rhythm and work together – if you fight for control, you will just annoy each other and topple over! That didn’t happen to us! Generally I let the other person set the speed, especially where other traffic was around, but made sure I pulled my weight as well, especially on the uphill stretches.

I knew nothing about bike repairs or looking after the bike. The guy with me was more experienced, and explained things, but I felt an equal share of the responsibility for helping out if there was a problem.

That week I shared a room with a Paralympic cyclist. I was a complete beginner, and I enjoyed listening to her stories as someone who had got really good, and really fast! We didn’t do anything like that during the holiday, but it was great to see how this is a sport that is not only a fun thing to do, but also something at which blind people can become successful.

After the holiday my front rider and I stayed in touch for a while. I stood in for another blind rider who was unable to make the yearly cycling around churches in Kent – I believe to raise money for them. The idea of visiting a bunch of churches wouldn’t usually have interested me, but the bike ride did!

I’ve cycled with a few different people, and the most relaxing experiences were with people who were relatively confident and who didn’t lose their nerve and swerve around all over the place, though I have experienced that too! It makes life interesting!

You don’t experience the same sounds and smells if you’re in a train or a car. It’s different when you’re outside and responsible for getting where you want to be with your own energy! I enjoy walking too, but obviously you can cover more ground on a bike. Or a horse!

I’m not sure how the experience is different for the person on the front of the tandem. Again there is that element of trust, so you need to believe that the person behind you won’t do anything erratic. Your bike is twice as long and twice as heavy as normal, because of the extra seat and extra weight behind you. You need to be able to look ahead and communicate.

I have heard of one student who cycled to school on a tandem with an exchange student for a while, which I think was cool. The tandem was used in just the same way as other students would use a bike. For me, tandem cycling has been more of a fun thing to do, rather than a means of getting from A to B. You always need to have someone who needs or wants to go to the same place at the same time, and in most situations such as going to work, that isn’t the case. Still, I know that some blind people get their own tandems – which is fine as long as they have someone, or some people, with whom they can cycle regularly.

Now all the cycling I do is just the exercise bike in my fitness room, but if I had the opportunity again to get on a tandem, I’d definitely take it.

A blind person may not be able to see everything around them on a bike ride, but it’s a good way to keep fit, and it’s good to be outside and enjoy nature.

More from Unseen Beauty

If you’d like to get my catch-up emails, usually once a week, you can sign up using this form.

The emails contain news of my new posts, other things that I’ve enjoyed (podcasts, posts from other bloggers, interesting articles etc), and any UK shopping information that I think my readers might like.

Interview with Mel from Blind Alive

Today I have something a bit different for you. It’s an audio interview, in which I talk to Mel from Blind Alive about her Eyes Free Fitness programmes.

Mel produces described work-outs so that blind people can take part in them and keep fit.

I first heard about Mel’s work through a comment on my blog post about keeping fit, and I wanted to find out more about what’s on offer, why Mel decided to make the audio exercise materials, and how they have helped people so far.

You can find the interview as episode 27 of the Unseen Beauty podcast, which is available on iTunes or Player FM, or you can listen to it directly here.

I hope you enjoy the interview and that you find Mel’s advice useful.

Have you tried any of the Eyes Free Fitness work-outs or exercises? If so, let me know in the comments.

More from Unseen Beauty

If you’d like to get my catch-up emails, usually twice a week, you can sign up using this form.

The emails contain news of my new posts, other things that I’ve enjoyed (podcasts, posts from other bloggers, interesting articles etc), and any UK shopping information that I think my readers might like.

This post contains some affiliate links, but I only promote things that I’ve tried and tested.

Keeping fit when you can’t see

Being unable to see doesn’t mean that you can’t stay fit! This is what I do.

Keeping fit when you can’t see
When I worked in London, I got daily exercise without even thinking about it. I had a 30 to 40-minute walk to the station, which I usually power walked with my guide dog – not really to keep fit, but just because we enjoyed it! Then there was a 40-minute train ride followed by a 10 to 15 minute walk to the office – which was much better after I’d discovered a back way to avoid all the tourists. Seriously, if you go on a city break, please spare a thought for the people who actually live and work there! Some people have places to go and they don’t want to have to fight through crowds of people who won’t let them through. Some of the other pedestrians walked in the busy roads to get round them, but I invariably made the tourists move!

Anyway, apart from days when it was pouring with rain, or snowing, I really enjoyed these walks. Still, over 2.5 hours of travel every day is a lot. I was always happy when I negotiated a working from home day – partly because I didn’t have to commute, and partly because I felt I made much faster progress in my quiet cottage than in the noisy open-plan office.

Taking action

When I decided to set up my own business, I still took my dog for a walk, but I didn’t miss the commute. However, as my dog grew older, the walks were usually not as long as the trip to and from the station, and I realised I needed to do something more for my fitness.

I decided to invest in an exercise bike. Something that I could put in my spare room and use whatever the weather to make sure I got my daily exercise. Well, buying the bike was the easy bit. I said I’d use it when I had time, which often meant that the free time never came. Planning to do exercise when you have time is a bad idea!

When I moved in with my boyfriend, I brought the bike with me and he brought his cross-trainer. I decided something needed to change in terms of my exercise routine, so I now put it in the diary, like a meeting that I have to attend. Monday to Friday. Every day. It’s ok if the meeting gets put back a couple of hours, but the meeting has to happen! Only then can I click away the Outlook reminder and know that the job is done! This is important to me, partly because I have a desk-based job and no walk to work, and partly because there are some considerations to do with being blind that mean you sometimes have to be a bit more proactive if you want to stay fit.

I’ve heard some positive experiences about blind people going to the gym, but I’ve also heard of people struggling with staff who are not particularly helpful, or machines that are not accessible.

I would rather make the initial investment in the equipment and have it in my own home, where I know that I’ll use it. I don’t use any of the features on the equipment, but there is nobody who will change settings and make it harder for me to use. I don’t have to queue, work out which machines are available, or take time out of my day to get to and from the gym. Ok and I don’t have to listen to anyone else’s music choices either – I listen to my own music or podcasts to make sure I don’t get bored!

As I can’t use the display on either of the machines, I generally do 20 minutes on the bike and 45 minutes on the cross-trainer and use the step counter on my iPhone to measure the distance. I like to use the app from Withings, which is generally accessible, apart from some buttons that I had to label myself. I don’t use all of the functions, but I can keep track of how far I’ve gone each day, which is what interests me.

For anyone who wants to measure their blood pressure or heart rate, the Withings wireless blood pressure monitor is fully accessible because you use it with the app. I think this is a better alternative than some of the talking blood pressure monitors on offer because you can store your activity and your heart and blood pressure measurements in the same place, whereas some of the so-called accessible talking stand-alone devices say in the instructions that you need sighted assistance for some functions.

I did try a device that you put on your wrist instead, but it annoyed me because it didn’t seem to track all of my steps, and I could only read my progress score when I synchronised the device with my phone, which was a faff. I’d much rather check the total going up in realtime on the app. However, if you can see enough to read the screen of the device, it might be ok for you. Here’s the link for the Withings pulse activity tracker.

Last Christmas, my mum bought us a set of York Fitness cast iron dumbbells. I like this particular set because you can change the weight of the dumbbells by adding or removing the metal discs. They come with a set of exercises, which my boyfriend showed me last week, and I plan to include using the weights in my fitness routine – ok, when my arms have recovered, that is!

I think it’s good to do other activities as well. I enjoy going for walks, I’ve been on tandem and canoeing holidays, and I used to do a lot of horse-riding as a child. However I see these things as additions, whereas I need some kind of plan to make sure I get enough exercise whenever I need it, and by doing activities that don’t rely on someone else being available. For me, the exercise regime with the bike and the cross-trainer is the ideal solution.

I have heard about some audio exercise classes specifically for blind people, which means that the exercises are described. This is something that I would be interested in exploring, because I can’t follow normal fitness videos or Youtube classes. If I decide to try them out, I’ll report back later here.

I know there are many blind people who are interested in sports and who play team games or take part in local activities. I don’t really do this, because I need my fitness plan to fit in with my schedule, and for me it’s about keeping fit rather than finding additional social activities.

I think there are a fair number of blind people who struggle because they haven’t yet found good and accessible ways of keeping fit. However exercise bikes don’t have to be expensive, especially if you’re not looking for features on the electronic display, and when you consider the price of a gym membership, I think they are a good investment. If that is too expensive, finding a friend who can describe exercises and then writing down the exercises is also a good work-around. If I’m away on business and I don’t feel like investigating the hotel gym on my own, I often use these exercises from the NHS fitness pages. However I still think it’s a good idea to get someone to check the first time that what you are doing is in line with the images on the page.

Do you have any tips to add?

Let me know in the comments if you have any tips or resources to add, or share with me what you do to keep fit!

More from Unseen Beauty

If you’d like to get my catch-up emails, usually twice a week, you can sign up using this form.

The emails contain news of my new posts, other things that I’ve enjoyed (podcasts, posts from other bloggers, interesting articles etc), and any UK shopping information that I think my readers might like.

This post contains some affiliate links, but I only promote things that I’ve tried and tested.