Alex Pepper, 27, has been sight impaired his whole life and lost his functional sight in early 2016. Alex, a Project Coordinator at Thomas Pocklington Trust, has written about his experience training for and cycling in Prudential Ride London 46.
Entering the Ride London 46 was something I hadn’t really planned to do initially. It came about after speaking to Wheels for Wellbeing about arranging some tandem cycling track events in Croydon for the local visually impaired (VI) residents to try out. Abigail, who worked for the charity, told me about her experience doing the ride last year, and I decided I fancied giving it a go. I wasn’t sure I’d even get in to the ballot as it was a very last minute entry but when the confirmation email came through that I’d got in it hit home that I better get training.
I had been on a tandem bike for the first time a few weeks earlier at one of the Disabled Cycling Hub events at Herne Hill Velodrome that British Cycling was running and had really enjoyed the experience. I’d recommend going along to one of these events for anyone considering trying out tandem cycling, they run at least once a month at either Herne Hill or Lee Valley Park at the Olympic site in Stratford.
Other then that cycling experience, I hadn’t been on a bike really for around a decade so I definitely needed to get some rides under my belt.
Finding a front rider wasn’t difficult for me. Greg, who was my rehabilitation officer from the Croydon Sensory Impairment Team when I lived in the Croydon area, had kindly offered to bravely pilot the tandem ride if I got in. Greg is a keen and experienced cyclist and had trained to be a tandem pilot with British Cycling late last year so it was a no brainer for me to accept his offer. It quickly became obvious to me once we started training in May that having trust in your front rider is essential on a tandem and I had built up a great amount of trust and respect for Greg when he had taught me how to mobilise using the long cane whilst I went through my sight loss in 2016. I’d put my trust in Greg to help me navigate the streets with the cane so to me this was no different, just on two wheels.
All of that being said, it was still a bit daunting to think that we were going to start riding on the open roads. Being sight impaired my whole life I had never really ridden on the open road. I’d spent a lot of time on a bike as a child, but this was mostly off road or around a very quiet residential estate. Once we got out there on the roads I absolutely loved it! We were spending a lot of time cycling through country lanes in the evenings in the sun. It wasn’t long until I was trying to pick up some serious speeds and increase the distances.
Strangely it has been my sight loss that has led me to enjoying the rush of cycling on the open road. I’d never had the confidence when I was young to do this, as my sight probably wasn’t quite good enough back then to do it safely. Losing my functional vision last year has led to so many things not being possible anymore, so it has been great turning that on its head and actually being able to say that it’s the loss of vision that’s led to this great experience – every cloud and all that.
Come the day of the Ride 46 I didn’t feel nervous at all. Even at the start line, surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of other riders, I felt nothing but excitement. Perhaps not being able to see the huge crowds ahead and behind was a benefit. Throughout the 46 miles you end up kind of feeling like a bit of a celebrity. You constantly get spectators and other riders shouting “tandem” and you could hear the genuine excitement in their voices. It didn’t get old and made us laugh every time, and was certainly a good motivator.
We had said we would be very pleased if we managed to complete the ride in under 3 and half hours so we were absolutely buzzing when we rolled over the finish line at 2 hours and 46 minutes! It didn’t matter that I couldn’t see the final stretch of the ride, when cycling that last few hundred metres up the Mal, I could hear and feel the atmosphere. It was such a rush and made me feel I could blast another 10 miles at least.
I’d definitely recommend trying out tandem cycling if you are visually impaired. For me it has been such great fun and I will be continuing to cycle, and will be back at the Prudential Ride 2018 for sure!
Alex did Ride London to raise money for Guide Dogs. You can still donate to his Just Giving page here.
You can find a calendar of British Cycling events to try here.