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Blind Ambition: Trust on a Tandem

Equals Freedom on the Road

By Sheila Ascroft

WC-Leona-tandemSwooped up by a passing cycling group, Leona Emberson experiences her first time riding in a pack. She listens to the cyclists’ chatter, feels the increasing speed from drafting and delights to be part of it. Leona is nearly blind yet she was riding a tandem in the annual Cycle for Sight last summer. With Dawn Lomer as her pilot, the duo rode 100 kilometres to raise money for the Foundation Fighting Blindness. The 2013 event runs on June 2 and any cyclist is invited.

“We spent the first part of the ride from Manotick to Merrickville (and back) alone on road, and it was starting to feel like a long ride,” Leona says. But then a group of eight or 10 cyclists in the event invited them to join in.

“I had never ridden in such a way before, and my pilot had never done it on a tandem, but soon we took our turn up front. It was so encouraging to be surrounded by other riders and the ride went so quickly!”

The 29-year-old athlete says she has “all the usual reasons” for wanting to ride – “the speed, the sound of tires on the path, the wind in her face. “I even love the heavy wobbly feeling in your legs when you first step off that lets you know you have worked hard.”

Leona has other reasons for loving tandems, which she’s been riding for the seven years.

“I don’t have to worry about what is in front of me. I must give up total control and trust my pilot … if the pilot does something wrong, it’s both of us going down. I have no control, so all I have to do is pedal.”

Dawn Lomer, her main pilot especially in triathlons, is a writer and amateur athlete, into cycling, marathons and triathlons.

“I’d been running with Leona for about a year when she started having knee issues and decided to try cycling. The next thing I knew, we were riding along the canal on a yellow rental tandem with a silly front basket, trying not to crash into all the other cyclists. We’ve come a long way since that first ride.”

Dawn, 45, says tandem cycling is “not nearly as scary as it might seem.” She enjoys both the training and racing with Leona, but says it’s also fun to just get on and ride around town.

“I tell her if we are passing something remarkable, interesting or beautiful, and tell her when I see friends. We talk a lot less during races, except to confer on our strategy.”

There are drawbacks to a tandem, like its size. “When she got her bike, it took about half an hour to stuff it into my car. Those things are huge!” says Dawn.

As well, it takes a bit of practice to get the stopping and starting smooth.

“We had some rocky moments on our first few rides, but once you’re moving it’s not much different from riding a single bike. Tight turns are still a challenge and they still get my heart pounding.”

Despite putting her well-being in the hands of a pilot, Leona says she doesn’t worry about safety. “I trust my pilots. As long as we have good communication for stops so that we unclip and put our foot down on the same side, we are fine.”

Dawn, on the other hand, tries not to think about the burden of trust. “If I did, I’d be a nervous wreck!” As for being the only eyes on the road, “thankfully, I only have to pilot one bike so one set of eyes is enough.”

Leona’s attitude is summed up neatly: “Everything we do in life has a risk. Every sport we participate in has risk, sighted or not … the risk of not participating and living in isolation out of fear of risks is the greater danger.

Leona began riding tandems with the National Capital Vision Impaired Sports Association. Lacking her own bike limited her to the association’s bimonthly rides. But the next year, she took up triathlons and borrowed a bike from the Canadian Council of the Blind. It’s still on loan, but she hopes to get one of her own soon.

This athlete’s limited vision doesn’t keep her from the workplace. “I work part time for Accessible Media Inc. as a reporter [to bring] events and issues, which are relevant to the disabled community, into mainstream media” She also works full time for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind as a specialist of independent living skills.

The vision impaired sports association is a non-profit made up of blind, visually impaired and sighted members. It has seven tandem bikes and rides take place roughly twice a month on Sunday mornings. If you want to participate as a rider or volunteer pilot, contact Manon Valin or Gord Wilson at 829-3183 or email them at [email protected].

Sheila AscroftSheila Ascroft has been cycling for 26 years and writing about it for the last 13. Her articles have been published in newspapers and magazines — and on the women’s cycling website! She currently write for Ottawa Outdoors Magazine (www.ottawaoutdoors.ca). She’s a member of the Canadian Kilometer Achiever Program. www.sheilaascroft.com
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