Blind cyclist Penny Leclair shares her love for meeting people through cycling.

by Eric Shalit on November 13, 2010

Penny & I after riding 2.5 miles around Seabeck.

I met Penny Leclair back in September, when I was invited to participate at the Lighthouse for the Blind’s Deaf Blind Retreat. I volunteered to captain a tandem bicycle for rides with campers. (See Tandem Cycling at Lighthouse for the Blind Deaf-Blind Retreat). I had a chance to ride and talk with Penny, who unlike me is an experienced tandem cyclist.

Penny has been blind her whole life. Later she became completely deaf. She lived completely deaf and blind for years until receiving an experimental cochlear implant which gradually enabled her to hear and speak again. Penny rode tandem with her husband in Ottawa for many years, until he passed away two years ago. She owns her own tandem and rides with sighted friends from time to time, but not as much as she would like. She told me that tandem cycling is a wonderful way for blind people to be part of the “normal” world and stay healthy. She is actively advocating and promoting tandem cycling through her writing. Penny agreed to share her first-hand story here.

Meeting through the love of cycling

By Penny Leclair

I can’t think of a better way to meet and get to know  someone than cycling. Tandem biking is for when you really want to know someone. It is an engaging activity. For me cycling has to be tandem bike riding. A chance to share the bumps, hills, turns, and speed with good company.

I don’t see anything, my hearing is limited. But put me on the back of a tandem, and I function top notch. I always feel such a bonding to others when I am pedaling behind another person on a tandem bike. Most of the experience comes through touch, smell, somewhat. I only miss the visual details. Some people have a natural knack for sharing. Some see nary with me. It isn’t necessary to verbally communicate while biking, there is a lot to be absorbed, the wind on your face, the changing terrain, the sun shining, the feel of different pavement as the wheels turn and send information through the seat about the type of pathway you pedal along.

It is a joy to team so closely with another person. I find tandem biking is much like dancing together, where the leader takes control and the other person tries to be flexible to follow, without question. It is always interesting to ride with someone, because I learn a lot about a person by the way they approach cycling. I can feel if someone has no confidence, it can’t be faked on a bike. Whether a person is in the moment, or thinking of the next ride.

It is easy to spot the in-the-moment kind of person while tandem bike riding. Some go as fast as they can, the entire time they are pedaling. No option to slow the pace and give some attention to what is happening all round them right now. I can judge more about a person while pedaling on a tandem. Little information comes across when I meet at a social event, compared to meeting while cycling. Speaking to someone for a few minutes doesn’t tell  me much about whether a person is cautious, shy, or full of energy. I might get a little impression, but on a bike I receive accurate information that might take several social parties to acquire. Being close to the action on the street makes me feel so connected to the community I am passing by.

After cycling with Eric for 20 minutes I felt like I knew him for days! That is why I love cycling, you really are in sync with someone and can begin teamwork within seconds. Within the first minute riding with Eric I knew he was curious to know what this experience would be like, and a little nervous because he hadn’t teamed with a person who is deaf-blind before. I felt the nervousness slip away within minutes. As soon as we went over the first rough pavement, and were not affected, Eric gave his full attention to our journey. Time flies when you are tandem riding, We went down hills, turned corners, soon we would be on the finishing stretch. When Eric stopped peddling, I stopped, was it a hill we would coast, or — no hill, darn —  I knew we were almost back.

Because we shared so many moments on our ride, it felt like I had been on a special journey. For me cycling isn’t about exercise, it is all about socializing. Cheers to you Eric. May we be fortunate enough to meet again on a tandem.

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