Mountain biking for the blind

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“But you’re blind, you can’t go mountain biking!”

Well, quite. I should sit at home over Christmas reading Braille or playing tactile Scrabble with my cat. However, I don’t have a cat, and my Braille skills are so terrible that I lose the will before I get to the end of a single sentence. Anyway, who are you to say I can’t go on a mountain biking holiday? My stubborn and obstinate nature is fuelled into action when it hears such comments. Witness my first obstacle – the arguments with the tour operator Exodus about my suitability to go on such a trip (2 weeks’ mountain biking in Namibia, classified at a Moderate/Challenging level of difficulty). If anything is going to make me determined to go on such a trip, it’s somebody saying I can’t. Luckily, after lengthy discussions with the Operations Director, they relented, subject to various conditions (basically, agreeing to whatever restrictions the cycling guide decided to impose on me). The thing that irks me the most about all this procedure is not that they have to vet me first (after all, mountain biking is dangerous and they’d rather keep their accident ratio to a minimum – just think how much paperwork, not to mention adverse publicity, someone dying on a trip would involve!). It’s that they don’t vet anyone else first, so you could have never even ridden a bicycle before, or be 20 stone, and no one would even ask questions if you signed up for the trip. But such is the cross we bear, and I’d rather everything is upfront before we start. As I posted previously, I also did a little bit of preparation before the trip by having a day of 1:1 instruction from Peak Mountaineering, which boosted my confidence and generally improved my offroad riding skills.

It turned out that, as I had anticipated, the actual cycling was never a problem on the trip. I think in many ways, being partially sighted can make you a better cyclist. You have to be that much more cautious, because you can’t spot obstacles as early as other people. You learn to cycle offroad “by feel”, which means that you’re hyper-aware of every nuance in the track’s surface, and you use this to guide your path through the ever-changing conditions – from hard-packed dirt to treacly soft sand to juddering corrugated ruts – to find the best route, to anticipate what’s coming when even the best naked eye cannot spot the textural changes. Your balance and ability to right yourself on a wobble are good because you’re used to dealing with changes underfoot – not just when cycling but even when walking. When I walk alone at night, I use feel rather than sight to detect obstacles, steps, potholes and all sorts, but of course, I don’t always get it right). You learn to use your ears and other senses, and to make use of any non-visual clues you might get – this gives you what in dance terms is called floorcraft, so I guess here might be called roadcraft, namely knowing what’s going on around you and reacting appropriately to it. I use what sight I have, combined with sound, to constantly appraise the situation, where other cyclists are and what they’re doing, what unexpected things might happen, and so on.

It’s not all plain sailing – or cycling – however. Simple instructions about directions are not easy to follow when you can’t read road signs or spot landmarks. You can’t see your fellow cylists or the support truck once they’re more than a hundred yards away, so it can feel very lonely not knowing where everyone else is, or even if you’re going the right way! You also miss a lot of the interesting scenery and wildlife going on around you. I got an enormous shock when an oryx ran straight across the road twenty yards in front of me – the others had been tracking its progress for a while as it ran alongside the road next to us, but of course I hadn’t been able to see it until the last second when it made its dash for freedom. And when the inevitable pothole suddenly rears its ugly head right in front of me, a swear word escapes from my mouth as I realise I have no time to correct and can only hit it hard and hope to make it through in one piece. But hey, I get the added bonus of exhilaration from that terrifying moment that others do not. Every cloud has a silver lining.

At the end of the trip, I came back with no more bruises than anyone else, and I was declared by the guide to be one of the best cyclists in the group (though admittedly, we were cycling very non-technical routes, and I certainly wouldn’t compare to any half-decent experienced technical mountain bikers). My biggest issue was the 5 punctures I had, but I could hardly be blamed for that. I should, however, offer my wholehearted thanks to Roger our guide, who was happy to trust in my abilities, but who kept a watchful eye just in case, and to all the group for making sure that I never got lost.

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