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Aug 12, 2019

Talking Tandem at Cycle for Sight

Cycle for Sight is one of Fighting Blindness Canada’s (FBC’s) most beloved fundraising events, and it’s not difficult to know why: sunny skies, challenging routes, and a focus on fun make it the perfect one-day ride for cyclists of all ages!

Cycle for Sight is also an event for people with all levels of vision. Thanks to our partnership with Trailblazers Tandem Cycling Club, Cycle for Sight encourages blind and partially sighted riders to join in the festivities by partnering with a sighted captain on a tandem bicycle. 

FBC sat down with one of Cycle for Sight’s tandem teams, Laura Feltz and King Lam, to learn more about their experience riding tandem at Cycle for Sight Toronto.

What got you interested in tandem biking?

Laura Feltz: I started riding tandem when I began losing my sight. Before, I was an avid cyclist: I had a solo bike and lived by the waterfront, which was a great place for cycling. But when I got to the point where I couldn’t see what was coming up in the road, I stopped: I was no longer safe riding alone. My bike sat for two summers in my storage locker before I decided to sell it.

A few years ago, I met Mark Ralph, who captains a tandem bike for Cycle for Sight, and he shared the idea of tandem cycling. I was still fairly new to the blind community, so I didn’t know much about tandems, but that conversation ended up opening a whole new world to me. I started riding tandem and rode in my first Cycle for Sight two years ago. Being able to be outside and feel the wind on my face again… I’ve been an avid spinner for 20 years but there’s something different about being able to go outside. Tandem biking opened up that opportunity for me, and it’s had a huge impact on my life.

King Lam: When I first signed up this year to ride in Cycle for Sight, I signed up as a solo rider. After I found out I could volunteer to ride tandem I decided to do it, because I figured it was a rare opportunity. All of the other rides I’ve done didn’t have a tandem option. It was also a way for me to contribute to the cause in a different way.

Laura: For me, riding tandem is the difference between participating in Cycle for Sight and not. I really appreciated King for putting his hand up, and for making sure we got the training and orientation we needed before the ride itself. I’d ridden tandem before, in past Cycle for Sight events, but this was my first ride with King. He did a great job learning how to communicate.

What are the different roles for riders on a tandem bike?

Laura: There’s the captain, who sits in the front, and the stoker, who sits in the back. The captain has to manage the weight of the bike and the stoker. The stoker is the engine of the bike – once we’re on, we don’t put our feet down.

How did you get paired as tandem riders?

Laura: Mitch, who I’ve ridden tandem with before, always keeps an eye out for a suitable partner for me. Trailblazers does a great job of teaming people up: when you sign up, you share your height and weight so that you can be paired properly. The stoker can’t weigh more than the captain, because the captain needs to be able to control the bike.

King: Trailblazers was fantastic. They held the training sessions, and they paired me up with Laura. They arranged an orientation for the two of us to get to know each other and to teach us how to ride tandem. Their website had a lot of informational videos that allowed me to prepare for the orientation and for the ride. It was great.

Laura: Trailblazers also supplied the tandem for the ride and took care of bike maintenance. We did our orientation at Sunnybrook Park, and King did a great job of getting up to speed. We practiced stopping, starting, and getting into the rhythm. Those training practices really helped us become a team and helped set King up for success as a captain.

What surprised you about riding tandem?

King: I didn’t expect the level of communication that was needed. The first time we trained together, I found it a bit overwhelming: I needed to communicate everything I was thinking and doing on the bike. That’s why I was glad to have a few practice rides before the big day. It really put cycling in perspective: when you’re on the bike there’s so much happening around you that you take for granted, but on a tandem you have to communicate. Are you speeding up? Turning? Changing gears? Coasting? What does your partner need to know about your surroundings? It takes a few rides to figure out how much to communicate with your partner.

Laura: Communication is key. Not only do you have to communicate in order to get into the rhythm of stopping and starting, but I also need to know any bumps that are coming up in the road, how steep an incline will be, how much longer we have to go until the rest stop. And then I appreciated that King shared the scenery, too – although I can make out a blurry picture, I can’t see finite details. At one point King told me, “There’s a really beautiful house on the hill in the distance,” and it would have been totally lost to me if he hadn’t pointed it out.

How did you find riding on the day itself?

King: It was very well organized. There were a lot of volunteers who came out to make sure everything ran smoothly. It was all so seamless that all I really had to focus on was the riding. There was food, service stations, bike mechanics – everything we needed was there.

I was really enjoyed cycling with Laura. She was a terrific partner, and so motivating throughout the entire ride. I don’t know if I was just lucky to have been partnered with someone so experienced, but I like to tell people she really was the engine of the bike. All I had to do was steer.

Laura: King was a fantastic partner. One of the nice things about riding tandem is that you feel like you’re part of a team. Yes, you can get that team feeling riding solo, but you’re riding alongside other people. With tandem, you’re in it together, literally on the same bike.

What would your advice be to anyone who might want to try tandem?

King: Anyone who might be worried that they’d have to do more work on a tandem, that’s not true at all! The riders you get paired up with are very experienced.

Laura: Do it! It’s a win-win. You get exercise and you get to contribute. There’s a blind or partially sighted person who may not have an opportunity to ride without a sighted captain. And for those in Cycle for Sight as solo riders, having tandem bikes riding alongside is a great reinforcement. You’re riding with the people that the research we’re funding can impact. That connection to the overall purpose is right there.

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