Vision impaired riding: eyes open to adventure
Rhiannon Riches finds low vision does not have to mean the end of adventure – it can be the start.
Sharing elbow room around a table in the meal tent on the RACV Great Victorian Bike Ride, it was hard not to notice the rider sitting across from me peering intently at his mobile phone; it was almost touching his nose.
He was eyeballing it so closely, I guessed his vision was not 20/20. I was curious: if he had to hold his phone that close to read a text message, how did he manage to ride on the open road?
The answer was sitting next to him.
Michael Fogarty has a rare condition known as optic atrophy, rendering him legally blind. He was completing the Great Victorian Bike Ride by cycling tandem with a front-rider, Jim Allen, who was seated beside him.
“I can see in front, beside and around me,” Michael explained. “I have more sight in my left eye than my right, but I can’t see things in the distance, like road signs ahead.”
I remembered passing the odd cattle-crossing sign and steep-descent warning during that day’s ride through dairy-farming country.
This was Michael’s first attempt at the Great Victorian Bike Ride.
“I first thought about doing the bike ride about 10 years ago after reading an article in Australian Geographic. The story was about a team from Vision Australia riding on tandems,” he said.
Michael said he began to get involved in other Vision Australia rides, including riding the Lilydale–Warburton Rail Trail, riding a single bike and following someone, and then riding a tandem bike.
“That’s how I met Peter Howell, from Pegasus tandem bikes. I had done a few rides with Peter and mentioned I would like to tackle the Great Victorian Bike Ride. He put out an ad for a front-rider for me.”
“Then a friend who is also legally blind put me in touch with Jim Allen. Jim had done front-riding before and been involved in the Lions Ride for Sight, a charity cycling event held in Gippsland,” Michael said.
Jim is a dairy farmer from Gippsland and first met Michael on AFL grand final day in Inverloch last year, when they went for their first tandem ride.
“The next time I saw him, it was at the start of the Great Victorian Bike Ride,” Michael said.
At another cycling challenge, talking to Andrew Devenish-Meares, I lost track of the number of cycling groups he has pedalled with. Sydney, Wollongong, Armidale … their names rolling easily off his tongue as he retraced his movements over the years.
“I was born in Sydney, and my family moved to Armidale in late 1993, so I finished high school here, and then went to the University of New England. I worked for the university radio station until 2007, when I got a job at the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia in Sydney. We moved to Wollongong and I commuted to Sydney for work,” Andrew said.
Andrew, like Michael, has optic atrophy, but unlike Michael, who was born with his condition, Andrew’s vision has progressively deteriorated since he was 20 years old.
“I have no vision in my right eye and can only make out shadows, light and dark contrast and some movement in my left eye,” he said. He uses visual aids including a screen-reader, Braille display, a long cane and audio devices to complete daily activitites and interact with friends, family, colleagues—and cycling mates.
Andrew, 37, just completed his second Bupa Around the Bay in October, tandem cycling 210km anti-clockwise around Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay with his ‘captain’, Tim Manton. The captain has control over gears, steering and brakes as well as providing half the pedal power. The ‘stoker’ sits at the rear and provides the other half of the team’s speed.
“We met through the Illawarra Bicycle Users Group in 2008, and we started riding together. Shortly after that we met Geoff Stratton, another blind cyclist, and his captain, Peter. From there, Geoff started organising Exsight,” Andrew explains.
Exsight Tandems, a group for vision impaired riders, started in April 2008 and is based in Wollongong. Its website reveals humble beginnings: “from one blind person getting a group of sighted cyclists to ride with him on a tandem, the group has grown rapidly to include a regular roster of able cyclists riding with a group that includes blind, low vision and people with other disabilities.”
The group aims to get those who wouldn’t be able to ride on their own out exercising in the Illawarra area of New South Wales. A branch is also starting up in Sydney.
In case you think advanced age, limited hearing and blindness must stop you from riding, let me introduce 73-year-old Ron Hooper. Ron was not at home the first time I called; he was out on a clear Melbourne day training for his second Bupa Around the Bay ride. When I called back the next day, he’d already finished that day’s 30km jaunt.
“I can’t see anything,” he explains. “I lost my sight when I was 23-years-old, when my retina broke-up and detached – and in those days, there was nothing they could do.”
Ron also wears a hearing-aid. “My front-rider wears a microphone around their neck so I can hear them through my hearing aid,” he explains.
“I had a bike when I was a boy, but I didn’t start cycling seriously until six years ago,” Ron says.
“Our church has a cycle club and I hired a tandem to join them on a ride. After that, I bought my own tandem bike.”
Ron has ridden with several front-riders since that first church club ride.
“But it’s hard to find front-riderst—here is a lack of them around. I’ve got two front-riders I train with; they alternate each weekend. We usually ride 40km every Saturday.”
“It’s harder still to find a front-rider for the longer rides, like the 80km from Preston to Warburton.”
Last year was a big year on the bike for Ron. He completed 600km over six days to Lakes Entrance for Bikes for Bibles, a fundraising ride. He also completed Bupa Around the Bay and a ride to his home town among the foothills of Mount Buller.
“I wanted to take on the challenge of riding from Preston to my hometown, Alexandra. It’s quite a hilly ride. I think we broke the record for downhill speed: we were going 76km/h downhill. My helmet was almost lifting off and my front-rider said his heart was beating out of his chest,” Ron recalled with a laugh. “I don’t think anyone could beat that record with me.”
Apart from having nerves of steel to navigate a fast downhill descent, what other qualities does a front-rider need?
“None—just a willingness to have a go,” he said.
Peter Fletcher operates Tandem Bike Victoria, an organisation that has helped Ron find a front-rider. Peter sends out emails about upcoming rides, and helps pair vision-impaired cyclists with pilots.
Ron, Andrew and Michael prove that you don’t need to have 20/20 vision to be active on two wheels, though you might need a front-rider. Follow the links below for organisations where you can volunteer as a front rider or, if you’re vision impaired and want to ride, where you can register to team up with a front rider.
Lions Ride for Sight: Sheila Johnson 0408 514 287
Exsight Tandems http://www.exsighttandems.org.au
Tandem Bike Victoria https://sites.google.com/site/tandembikevictoria
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