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16/12/2010 // INFO 2 Comments

Two’s company – Boneshaker Magazine


Two's company

This article was originally written for issue 3 of Boneshaker Magazine which is a new magazine that celebrates cycling and the people who do it. To buy a copy, click here

Ever closed your eyes as you ride? On a long straight path – no-one around – I give it a try. A briny tang; the slack-tide river sliding between sheened and bird-printed flanks. The sweetness of buddleia. A thrush sings, an insect wings my cheek and is gone. Away left, the sigh of rush-hour. There’s much to a bike ride for which sight is not needed, but soon enough fear and good sense compel me to open my eyes. I swerve to avoid a dog.

For obvious reasons, bike rides are not a pastime many blind people get to enjoy. Tonight though, half a dozen blind and partially-sighted riders are gathering in a riverside car park, exchanging friendly banter before an evening tandem ride organised by cycling charity Life Cycle UK, as part of their ‘Two’s Company’ project. The idea’s simple enough – on the front saddle rides a sighted person, and the blind or partially-sighted rider sits behind.

The project began when visually impaired people told Life Cycle of the lack of opportunity for them to take exercise and get out into the countryside. Many had ridden bikes when they were young, but lost their vision in later life and had to give up cycling.

Others had never been able to try it at all. But all were keen to taste the pleasures of riding free, the wind in their hair, the whirr of crickets, the scent of earth and grass and flowers – the simple pleasure of moving quickly and quietly under one’s own power.

Life Cycle now owns eight tandems and has a team of regular volunteers to fill their front seats. Some of the volunteers, and indeed some of the sight-impaired ‘stokers’ (in tandem-riding terminology, the front rider’s called a ‘captain’, the back rider a ‘stoker’) have tandems of their own, meaning Life Cycle has access to more than twenty machines in total.

Tonight there may only be five tandems, but seen together they’re still an impressive sight. Buzzing between them is ride leader Sally, who’s riding a folding bike. She rolls her eyes. ‘My hybrid died; let’s hope the fold-up doesn’t disintegrate off-road!’ We head out across an old railway bridge, under a graffiti-scrawled flyover and away into greenery. Cow parsley throngs the hedgerows, swallows loop around our heads.

Tonight’s trip is more off-road than most, and there are some pleasingly rugged two-seaters in our ranks. The route takes us past the grandeur of a stately home, then climbs between towering beeches and though a faun-springing deer park. There’s some friendly racing on the hill and a Tour de France-style battle for the summit, but those who prefer a slower pace are under no pressure – the speed demons sit at the top and admire the view: the city laid out below, the greenness beyond stretching away to the hills.

We reconvene, then swing off tarmac and into the woods. Soon we’re weaving between trees, warning those behind of head-height dangers with shouts of ‘branch!’ We climb and then race down steep valley side trails, bouncing over roots and rocks. Barrington, a stocky and fearless stoker, goads his captain on the hillclimbs, then lets out a joyful, ululating war cry on the way down.

The convoy rolls homewards riverside through a cliff-sided gorge, a suspension bridge spanning the valley far above. Back at the car park  where we began, we pause for a breather, and I try a little experiment.

Blindfolded, I swing clumsily onto the rear saddle of a tandem. “Ready?” says a voice from in front. “One, two, three, go!” and we lurch away. Surrendering control to a relative stranger is exhilarating and odd, especially on the corners. The first time we turn I’m sure we’re leaning too far, feel myself tensing for a fall. But soon it becomes more natural, and we get faster, even try some zig-zags. When I climb off again, my hands are shaking but there’s a huge grin on my face.

We reconvene and meander towards a dockside pub. The prospect of a cold pint as the sun dips behind the trees is all too tempting, but there’s more to our lingering than that; the sense of camaraderie is palpable. No-one quite wants the evening to be over yet. This goes beyond the simple pleasure of a bike ride – the joint effort and shared satisfaction of tandem riding, the sense of responsibility each front rider has, the trust each stoker places in his or her captain.

There’s a glow around us to match the sunset refracting through our well-earned beer. Heather, a smiling silver-haired stoker, leans over: “When you’re blind, you always move slowly, even with a guide dog. You have to. But on the back of a tandem you’re the same as anyone else. You can feel the speed and the wind, the change from a path through the woods to a path by the river, you can smell all the different plants, hear everything flying past. But it’s more than that – on a tandem I feel free.”


Two’s Company rides head out every three weeks from March to October, working with adults and children who are visually impaired or have a disability which means they can’t cycle independently – see www.lifecycleuk.org.uk for details.

The US has a hub for visually impaired cycling: www.bicyclingblind.org and there are specific tandem clubs in San Diego: www.blindstokersclub.org and in Toronto: www.torontotrailblazers.org… and doubtless many more around the globe. If you can’t find one near you – start your own!

Article © 2010 Boneshaker Magazine

Words Mike White

Images © 2010 / Peter Locke (www.whatwouldpeterdo.co.uk)

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