When navigating the world is a constant battle of bumping into things, the freedom of a bicycle is incredible.
Although I was born visually impaired I did learn how to ride a bike as a child. My mum thought it was a rite of passage that I should experience. I was pretty late to the party and only got the stabilizers off at about 11 years old. Unfortunately, during the learning process there was one incident when I sped down a hill in the local park and crashed straight into a pensioner! He was fine, I was mortified. Whilst Mum thought it was important that I mastered the technique, she was rightly too terrified to ever let me loose on a road. Family cycling was limited to a disused railway track and local trails in the countryside. As a teenager I soon abandoned cycling. My pals got to ride round to the local shops or to other friend’s houses, but I was forbidden from going anywhere alone.
So after nearly two decades of feeling utterly excluded from the cycling world we have finally made the plunge, Other Half and I are now the proud owners of Tabitha the Tandem. Isn’t she beautiful?
We first tried a tandem at Centre Parcs last year. It was a rattling clunky old bike that had clearly had many an adventure. To be honest we were pretty wobbly to start with. Other Half said he felt very unsteady and unfortunately the Centre Parcs was exceptionally hilly. We had to get off and walk a lot. We gradually got into a bit of a rhythm and could do ten minutes or so at a time, but I was pretty out of puff by the end. Despite the challenges of getting back on a bike for the first time in years, I did really enjoy it!
Other half was a keen cyclist when I met him. He did sponsored events and would regularly disappear off on a Saturday with a pal or two and enjoy a bike ride. However, the pals moved on and without someone to share his hobby, the bike gathered dust in the shed. Although he used it occasionally to cycle to the train station, a busy work schedule and new job offered very few opportunities to get in the saddle.
So after our first attempt at Centre Parcs I was keen to try again. I knew it could be a hobby we could share together and a great accessible way for me to get some exercise. I had so enjoyed the wind rushing through my hair and the feeling of speeding down hills. Cycling is a really sensory experience, especially for a visually impaired person. It takes a lot of effort and concentration for me to navigate the world, so moving so freely under my own steam is an incredible experience.
So we rented a tandem twice in Richmond Park. There is a rental bike place in the park and you can reserve a tandem in advance. We wanted to see how a different bike would feel and how we would manage around cars (Centre Parcs is almost entirely traffic free). Again we had mixed success, the first time we enjoyed the ride but I found the seat pretty uncomfortable. It was like a racing bike and I didn’t like the bent over position I had to cycle in.
The second time we went out with my parents for a family ride. However, this was a different tandem, and evidently meant for a child and adult. I immediately got cramp and felt like a clown on a toy bike with my bum sticking out and my knees hitting the handlebars.
Although this made for a pretty awkward ride, we felt much more stable and confident. Once again, I really enjoyed the satisfying feeling of climbing a hill and whizzing down it. There was something so unique about travelling under my own steam at such speed. So we came to the conclusion that we would just have to get our own tandem. We initially considered using Charlotte’s Tandems to do a long term rental, but Other Half started enthusiastically researching bikes on Ebay. We decided to invest in a good bike that we could adapt to suit out preferences. The most important thing was getting the right sized frame, which was a bit of a challenge considering our respective height differences (5ft 2 and 5ft 11).
After some disappointing failed bids, we found Tabitha online and Other Half collected her last weekend! We did an initial 5 minute cycle around the block and I immediately concluded that I wanted a comfier seat. I’ve opted for a touring style upright seated position so I got new handle bars and a squashy large saddle. After spending a week tinkering, Other Half concluded Tabitha was ready for her first proper ride.
We spent 40 minutes circling round our quiet neighbourhood back streets, getting used to signalling and turning, and being around a few cars. Other half was so confident we even did a short stint in a cycle lane on a main road. I came home from the ride and burst into tears. I had felt comfortable and safe, we’d worked together as a team, and instead of being exhausted I was buzzing with endorphins. Finally a sport that I could participate in, no more sitting on the side lines for me!
So now begins our new Tandem Adventures! I have big ambitions, but we’ve set mini goals to start with. First, cycling on the road to a local park, then perfecting our route to our favourite pub (only for a swift half of course) and hopefully a sponsored event by next year!
I’m really lucky to have an enthusiastic Other Half who knew how to research and adapt the right bike for us. However, there are lots of disabled people that can’t access sport or outdoor activities. In fact, a recent report found that a third of disabled people would like to get into cycling. A lack of opportunities, support or prohibitive costs can mean that disabled people are prevented from accessing cycling.
If you’re a keen cyclist or want to embrace a new challenge why not find a local disability cycling group? I’ve put together a list of great organisations on this twitter thread, plenty of schemes need volunteers!
Accessible cycling has opened up a huge new opportunity for me and I know it will help me get outdoors and enjoying a better level of physical fitness. I’m so excited for all the new adventures I will have!
After all, who knows what will happen when you’re on a bicycle made for two?