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.

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