06 August 2008

Off to a spinning start

Wilma Stassen took up tandem cycling with a blind partner. They've just completed their first race.

Wilma Stassen took up tandem cycling with a blind partner. They've just completed their first race.

It all began when, on the eve of the Cape Argus Pick 'n Pay Cycle Tour in March this year, I was introduced to an aspiring blind cyclist at a get-together for the South African Tandem Association for the Blind. The excitement and fellowship of the group was contagious, and pretty soon I found myself agreeing to take some guy's bike out for a spin.

The guy turned out to be Paul Dixon, now my cycling partner and good friend.

So the very next weekend we set off on our first ride. My first time on a tandem as a driver, or "pilot", and Paul's first time on a bicycle since childhood, he confessed. We didn't make a pretty pair – we could only pull away on a downhill slope, we were swerving like drunkards, and we huffed and puffed like a pair of steam engines.

We soon realised the importance of talking to each other all the time. With Paul being blind, I need to warn him before we take a corner so he can lean his weight in the right direction – because, if you value the skin on your knees, you don't want one rider turning right while the other one is going left. I have to warn him when we're approaching an intersection, when we're going up a hill, and more – really no time for the niceties of getting to know each other, as I had to boom out orders from the word go. He yielded gracefully, and that was the start of our partnership.

Every weekend since then we've been cycling, starting out on short 10km bouts, pushing up to 20, 30, 50km and more. Getting to know the bike and figuring out the gears, figuring out each other while getting to know the countryside, learning about your own limits and what 'a pain in the butt' really means.

More than just exercise
All jokes aside, for me tandem cycling is a great way of getting fit and making friends, but for Paul it is one of only a few options to enjoy sport, and the only way he can experience the joys of cycling. "It's difficult for a blind person to get fit," he often complains. For obvious reasons it is not advised for a blind person to go running on his/her own. They have the option of going to the gym, but getting there and back could be a mission in itself. So home training equipment is the obvious choice, but (as so often happens with people with or without sight impairments), home exercise becomes boring after the first couple of sessions and your brand new exercise bike becomes a white elephant even before the dust has had a chance to settle.

Then, as is the case with most things in life, cycling is also a lot more fun when you do it in a team. Getting up at 6am on a Sunday is tolerable when you have someone to complain to about getting up so early.

Our first race
Just over a month after we started cycling together, Paul and I decided signed up for a 45km race on the West Coast.

"It's no biggie," I told myself. "We've ridden further than that." But the night before the race I was tossing and turning, worrying about everything from crashing the bike to having a mild heart attack from over-exertion. But the excitement of the big event and my partner's confidence in me eventually overshadowed my fears and, before I knew it, we were on the road, peddling our hearts out.

I wish I could say it was easy, but it's not – the bicycle seat eats away at your unmentionables, your hands go numb from the vibration on the handle bars and your legs, well… they hurt for the first couple of kilometres and then they just turn to jelly.

It took 01:45 min to cross the finishing line. We ended 64th out of 156 riders in the same category and averaged a speed of over 25km per hour.

Not bad for two novices who have only been cycling for just over a month.

- (Wilma Stassen, Health24, April 2008)


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