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On Biking: what is it like to ride if you are blind?

Posted by Your Town  October 3, 2011 02:54 PM

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What is it like to bike without sight?

To find out, I tied on a blindfold and climbed on the back of a tandem. My husband climbed on in front. The double-seated bike with its double set of handlebars felt as unwieldy as a semi-trailer as we walked it across the road to a bike trail on Cape Cod.

We had never ridden tandem before, a ride that requires teamwork and communication. Which, at first, we weren't managing so wonderfully. My shins took a battering as we crossed.

"Be careful,” my husband cautioned.

“Be careful yourself,” I replied.

He paused. “You've heard what some people call these bikes, haven't you?” my husband . “Marriage-busters.”

Yikes. And I wasn't even wearing the blindfold yet.

Why the blindfold? I'd tried to get my brother, who is blind, on a bike just a few months before. Andy stopped riding years ago when his lost sight, due to a slow but progressive eye disease called Retinitis pigmentosa, made biking dangerous.

“But I do miss biking,” he said wistfully one beautiful day last spring. Wait, I thought--we could ride a tandem! I reserved one at the local bike rental place.

Unfortunately, on rental day, my brother backed out. “I'm worried about my knees,” he explained. “Plus, Sue, you know I gave my bike away for a reason.” There had been a last, nasty crash. Andy still had the scars.

And maybe biking without sight, even on a tandem, would be scary. Would it?

Just before my husband and I pushed off on the tandem, I tied an orange bandanna around my eyes. Tying it correctly ate up some minutes. It was a warm late August afternoon. Sunlight filtered through the tree leaves and dappling the bike path in gold.

Then I couldn't see the path anymore.

We pushed off awkwardly, only narrowly avoiding a double face-plant,. Once we got rolling, the balancing grew easier.

Still, the handling stayed tricky, I think because I couldn't see. My husband was busy navigating heavy summer bike path traffic. Without timely or specific directions, I didn't know when to accelerate, slow, coast, or even stop. All I could seem to do was to plug along a beat or two behind, messing things up. More than once, as we passed other bikers at speed, centrifugal force nearly launched us into the bush.

“Maybe this is just tandem riding,” my husband said. Meaning hey, we're new here, maybe we just don't know what we're doing. By the end of the ride he'd see it differently. “This bike is bloody uncomfortable,” he'd spit. Meaning I never want to sit on a tandem again.

But that would come later. In the meantime, we were biking. And I was blindfolded.

At first the world seemed muffled to me without sight. I felt a little remote. It was like listening to music through a wall, or trying to walk but zipped into in a sleeping bag. Plus we were biking at a decent clip, which made me feel vulnerable and was a little unnerving at first.

That changed quickly as I tuned in to my remaining senses. I noticed as we picked up speed a rush of cool, delicious air on my arms. Ah, I thought: So this is what arm hair is for.

I noticed smells: wood smoke near the campground. Salt air. Hot tar.

There were sounds, too: birds calling, water gushing, the low tired exhale of car engines on a nearby road. Other bikers passed us on the path and I caught snatches of their conversations. There was the whiskery whine of our bicycle chain, the chunk-chunk of shifting gears, and the high-strung squeak of brake pads on wheel rims.

We ran over a stick. It cracked like a gunshot.

The funniest, maybe most poetic moments of the ride came as we followed the sound of a wailing baby. “Mama!' the baby cried, far away, then closer, closer, up a rise, and ever more miserably. Mama, wherever she was, did not answer. Finally we passed and I heard all the damp, teary desperation up close and stuffed into a baby seat, or so I imagined. I couldn't see it.

I had an old, flavorless piece of gum in my mouth that I was dying to spit. But should I? What if I spat it into another biker's hair? “You're safe,” my husband said. I spat.

It was strange to ride without sight. I was acutely aware of my physical contact points with the bike: my feet pressing the pedals, my legs churning in circles, my hands on the rubbery handlebars, and my seat on the saddle. Even so, I felt oddly out of touch, somehow, perhaps because I was new at it. At its worst, I felt like a hamster in its wheel, running in circles.

The bike path was long and mostly straight, paved and mostly level. I knew the route well, but it surprised me how much I missed knowing precisely where we were. My husband was working hard to keep me informed, but every time we hopped off the tandem, our communication collapsed. I got whacked hard in the calves with the pedals twice, walked into a wooden post once, and was kicked a few times crossing a street. I didn't know to get out of the way.

Then my shoelaces got caught in the chain and I couldn't disentangle myself. I had to hang on for dear life and wait to be rescued

At the end of our ride, I slid off the bike and peeled off my bandanna. I reeled a little, as if I'd just taken a quick turn on carnival ride, but the feeling passed.

What has stayed with me since that ride, however, is a slightly sharper understanding of what it feels like not to see. I know a little bit more about what it has meant for my brother to lose his sight. I plan to tell him about my experience. Maybe he'll warm up to giving a tandem bike a whirl with me.

I am glad to see again, but I am glad for that hour of blindfolded biking, too. Sighted bikers, I challenge you to grab a friend, rent a tandem, and tie on a blindfold of your own. Notice the smells, the sounds, all of the sensations of biking. Then find someone who is blind or low-vision, take them out riding, and see what else you can learn. I promise you, it will be an eye-opener.

Susan Meyers is a Brookline writer. Her memoir about sight, blindness, and her relationship with her brother, titled Check This Box If You Are Blind, was published last June by Climbing Ivy Press.

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