Bike Shopping for Blind athletes

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I’m still grinning from ear to ear.  Remember the first time you rode a bike as a kid?  The first time you completed a ski run without falling?  The first time you cantered on your pony?  How about the first time you got up on waterskis?  Or when you completed a flawless “Ollie” on your skateboard as a boy?  Yeah, it’s kind of like that.

I’ve been training for the sport of Paratriathlon as a Visually Impaired athlete now for a little over a year, thanks to the kindness and encouragement of one enthusiastic triathlete and sighted guide for the blind, Miss Caroline Gaynor.  Her singular belief that people with ALL types of disabilities can complete a triathlon, led me to believe that I too could do it.  Thanks to her, after completing my first sprint distance triathlon, I signed up for my first Olympic Distance, and finished in second place.  I was hooked.

Fast forward a year, and I am training towards a spot on the US Paratriathlon Team, and headed for my first National Championship, having qualified after finishing on the podium at several races in my first season.  I have product sponsors, who keep me stocked in yogurt, pain relief gel, wetsuits, and Chocolate Milk.  I made the NY front page of the Wall Street Journal, and have been written about in three magazines, along with Fox News, the Today Show, and now have an interview as a host for a travel show for the blind.  My life looks nothing like it did one short year ago.

Generous organizations such as Team Red, White and Blue, Achilles, and the Challenged athlete Foundation have sent me to camps, helped me with coaching,provided sighted guides for races, and finally helped defray the cost of a campaign for a National Championship through grants and scholarships.  In two short weeks, I’m headed out to Colorado to train at the US Olympic Training Center with USABA for Paracycling camp.  I am both honored, and humbled in their belief in my abilities.

A blind athlete needs to ride a tandem cycle to complete their race safely.  A pilot, or captain rides the front of the bike, shifting, steering and braking as needed, and the team provides synchronized pedaling power.  A tandem is a great deal heavier than a single bike, weighing in at around 35 pounds, and can be a bear to ride up inclines.  However, on the flats and on ascents, the tandems FLY, passing bikes weighing less than half their weight.  Momentum is our friend.

I was generously given a 35-year old steel tandem weighing in at over 50 lbs last year.  I completed one race on it, and attempted some training, but the bike is fitted for two large males, and alas, the sport of triathlon requires that my guides in racing be of the same gender.  It was extremely difficult to find men to train with, and I was fortunate to have a friend with a good quality tandem to borrow his bike for the important racing events.  While it still did not fit my female pilots, it was slightly better and MUCH faster at nearly half the weight.

As the races this year become increasingly important to gain points towards the Paralympics in Rio in 2016, having a bike that fits both me, and my training and racing female partners is essential.  So off I went shopping.  The array and price ranges of the bikes was overwhelming.  A kind stranger, through the power of social media, offered to supplement my grant from CAF and to drive me to the largest tandem dealer in the country, a 3 hour drive from my home in Connecticut.

Coordinating the trip was a challenge, as the shop owner, Mel, was traveling in Europe over the weekend.  He literally hopped off the plane and enthusiastically greeted Ron and I at his home workshop and warehouse, along with his wife Barbara and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Bella.  Behind the doors of this modest 4 car detached garage, were more than 80 tandem bikes to drool over.  They ranged in price from $2500 to more than $15,000, depending upon the materials used in building the bike.  There were steel bikes, aluminum, Carbon Fiber, Titanium, and even Bamboo!  I was in blind girl biking heaven.

Mel measured me, and started pulling bikes out one by one.  I told him to start with the cheapest of the bikes, and that we could go up from there.  My grant would cover the entire cost of a Cannondale, but was nowhere close to touching the pricier machines in his stable.  Mel suited up, and Ron followed on his single bike as we took the Cannondale out for a test ride.  The bike constantly vibrated, and I was turned off to the ‘tinny’ feel of the suspension and lack of quickness to the bike.  It felt a little clumsy and definitely inferior.  Sadly, I knew already where this was going.  Out of my budget,,,,,

I then hopped on a nice steel CoMotion tandem.  They are largely considered one of the best bikes you can buy, and come in either aluminum or steel.  This bike was steel, but had lighter components and wheels to give it a little more speed.  It held the road nicely, and had a much more solid feel to it.  While it wasn’t as quick as my friend’s aluminum CoMotion, it was definitely a HUGE step up from the Cannondale.  Of course it was nearly three times the price at $6500.

I was hesitant to hop on the ‘Ferrari’ of tandems, as it was SO far out of my budget, I didn’t WANT to like it, and walk away disappointed.  My friend and fellow blind triathlete, Tina owns one, and I see it at all the races, where I walk up to it each and every time, and gently pick it up, marveling at the lightness of such a giant piece of equipment.  Plus, it’s pretty.  Carbon fiber leaves no seams, so the geometry and lines of the bike are impeccable.

I stood looking at the bike for a great long while.  Mel finally remarked, “Are you going to take a picture of it or do you want to RIDE it?”  The choice was obvious, but I still was afraid to fall in love.  Not only was the BIKE carbon, but it used a unique carbon BELT instead of a standard chain to drive the gears of the bike.  This thing was no joke.  We took off out of his driveway, leaving Elvis with the shop mechanic watching us anxiously as we sped down the road.  I shouted “WOOHOO” at the top of my lungs as we passed the first car.  We were flying.  Mel encouraged me to drop the hammer on the speed.  Ron had left ahead of us to take some photos, and we blew past him in a cloud of dust.  We had to stop to allow him to catch up, and when he did, we took off again.  The bike WANTED to go fast.  It was like driving that highly tuned V8 sports car, that you have to simply THINK about touching the gas, and the car JUMPS forward.  The response to your need for speed was nearly visceral and instantaneous.

The feel of the bike reminded me of the first time I skied on the fancy new ‘elliptical’ shaped snow skis.  One would simply THINK about turning, and gently bend one knee, and the skis would immediately take off in that direction.  NO EFFORT whatsoever.  The same happened with this gorgeous Carbon fiber Calfee.  The bike made everything effortless.  We rode the same route as the previous bikes we had tried.  Cornering was nimble, climbing the hills was unbelievably quick.  The flats were a breeze, and there wasn’t a SINGLE sound coming from the bike- no chain noise, no vibration, and the position it put me in felt like I could stay there for days.  My mind suddenly wandered to my goal of completing an Ironman distance triathlon.  I thought about how I would feel after riding a bike like this over 112 miles of mountains in Lake Placid.  I knew that the level of fatigue I would encounter would be exponentially less on such a bike.  I had to have it.

As we pulled back into Mel’s driveway, I couldn’t stop shaking my head.  My smile was involuntary, and I was awestruck.  I hated myself for even sitting on this bike.  I had no business looking at such a machine, so far out of my price range.  I convinced Mel to pull out a few more bikes, praying, hoping and wishing that somehow, someway, that I would prefer a cheaper bike.  That I would fit a cheaper bike.  My greatest challenge was my stupid long legs.  While I’m not tall, I do have freakishly long legs, making fitting most ‘off the rack’ bikes impossible.  To purchase a bike that is small in front for a female pilot, and a medium in the back for freak-like Amy would require a custom bike.  ‘Cha-ching’ was all I could hear in my head.

We thanked Mel after nearly 4 and a half hours of riding, testing and measuring, and hit the road home, armed with lots of great education on the world of tandem cycling and fitting.  Ron told me that we were going to find a way to get me that bike.  I was uncomfortable with the idea of fundraising, as despite my disability and health challenges, there seems to be so many more deserving friends and athletes out there, who too are struggling with a way to pay for this expensive pursuit.  Why was I worthy?  Ron and I discussed it at length, and I suppose he explained it best.  “You’re out there in the community giving back through Guiding Eyes, the Lion’s Club, Achilles, and the World Glaucoma Foundation.  It’s your turn, and people want to help people who pay it forward.  You’re that person.”  I quietly shook my head and reluctantly agreed to the notion.

Less than 48 hours later, Ron has helped me raise almost 15% of the cost of the bike through a crowdfunding website, and my local Lion’s Club has generously been accepting tax deductible donations towards this bike.  I can’t wait for cycling camp this May, and my first international race in June.  What an amazing journey I’m on, and it’s barely even started.  I don’t feel like I deserve this, but I hope to prove that I’m a worthy individual, and can make my supporters happy that they were an integral part of my success.  You can help with my amazing bike purchase here:

http://www.youcaring.com/help-a-neighbor/blind-triathlete-s-racing-tandem-bike-fundraiser/165760

 

 

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