on A bicycle built for two

KIRKCALDY ; 'Ken Mowbray of Talking Tandems, with Jan Brereton,  on a tandem bike for feature on this service. 'Photo ; WALTER NEILSON
KIRKCALDY ; 'Ken Mowbray of Talking Tandems, with Jan Brereton, on a tandem bike for feature on this service. 'Photo ; WALTER NEILSON
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there’s no better way to enjoy the sights and sounds of the countryside up close than on a bike.

And going out for a cycle when the weather is nice is something most of us take for granted.

But just imagine if you were blind or partially sighted. Then taking to the saddle is not quite as straightforward, and many people whose sight starts failing just pack their bikes away for good.

However a Fife charity is doing its best to ensure that limited or no vision is not an obstacle to getting on your bike by offering its members the chance to go out cycling in tandem with a sighted partner.

And Talking Tandems has proved a great success since it started up in 2009 with the view of promoting cycling for blind and partially sighted people, bringing them together with sighted people to take part in cycling and improve the overall health and fitness of everyone involved.

The charity, which covers the whole of Fife, initially started as a pilot project with funding of almost £9000 from the National Lottery’s Awards For All, enabling it to purchase six tandem bikes, six sets of cycling accessories and 12 cycling helmets. This was supplemented by £840 from NHS Fife’s Health Improvement Fund to train 12 volunteer pilots (front riders) and first aid training from the British Red Cross.

Since it started out the group has continued to grow and flourish and has managed to purchase extra bikes and train more pilots to take partially sighted or blind riders (known as stokers) out on regular cycle rides.

Tandem runs vary from individual outings to monthly group runs, plus a few annual weekend and longer trips, and the club owns 10 tandems and special tandem bike car racks to help with trip logistics.

The individual runs can be set up informally between members, but the monthly outings are planned in advance by email to allow members to be picked up and taken to the rendezvous point. Runs will normally be between 25 and 35 miles and always include a refreshment stop and a chat.

There are also longer outings including an annual Forth Bridge to Tay Bridge run of over 50 miles. Last year the group took part in the Cycling Scotland cross country Pedal for Scotland event and trips to the Aviemore area and Mull.

Talking Tandems has also taken part in a tandem cycle run from Lands End to John o’Groats to raise funds for the group.

Factfile: Talking Tandems is looking for 10 additional sighted cyclists to join the group to ensure that everyone who would like to take part in its monthly trips can do so.

Pilots need to have a good level of general fitness and be competent on a bike, but full training will be given before they are allowed to participate, and Disclosure checks are also necessary.

Ken said: “We hope that the current cycling boom will encourage potential recruits to contact us. It’s a great wee initiative and involves a group of really nice people, and you get a great satisfaction from taking part.”

If you want to find out more about the group and becoming a pilot, or if you are visually impaired and would like to find out more about joining Talking Tandems, call Sheanagh Swanney on 07810 292237.

Ken Mowbray (67), from Kirkcaldy, joined Talking Tandems not long after it started, when a friend was attending a meeting for interested cyclists and asked if he wanted to 
join him.

He explained: “I was intrigued by the concept right away and liked the theory of helping someone who could not see where they’re going to get out cycling regularly and safely. I always liked outdoor exercise, including cycling and tandem cycling is particularly sociable for obvious reasons and this is part of the appeal particularly on group outings. I particularly like Talking Tandems’ relaxed ‘do as much as you want when you want’ approach and the opportunity to meet and chat with such a diverse group of people.

“Subject to the weather I go out three times each week, one-to-one, with three different cyclists, two of whom are completely blind and one whom diabetes has left partially sighted and a bit unstable on his feet but less so on the back of a tandem.

“Outings last from an hour and a half to three or four hours. For one I cycle a tandem solo to pick him up from work, dropping him off at Kirkcaldy station for his train home, for another I take the tandem on a special car rack owned by Talking Tandems and pick him up before parking in the countryside and going for a run which will include a cafe stop for a cup of tea.

“There are also monthly outings for those who can make them and interest from blind and partially sighted members sometimes means we cannot offer them all a run. This is one reason we’d like to get up to nearer a ratio of 3 to 1 of sighted pilots to stokers.

“I really enjoy the outings and when you are describing what’s going on around you to someone who can’t see, you do take in more of your surroundings yourself. Communication is absolutely necessary as you have to let your stoker know when you are going downhill or approaching a junction, and seeing them enjoying getting out in the open air and enjoying the experience makes it all 

Jan Brereton (57), from Kirkcaldy was one of the main instigators of Talking Tandems.

Despite being born with a condition called cone dystrophy, which means she can only see out of the corners of her eyes and can’t see colours very clearly, she has been able to lead a very independent life, and was a keen cyclist as a child before she was diagnosed with her sight problems.

She explained: “My theory has always been that life is about what you can do rather than what you can’t, so when it came to cycling and I couldn’t find a group that could help me, I thought why not set one up? We held a meeting of interested parties and it all started from there.”

She goes out on regular cycle runs with Talking Tandems and says she looks forward to the outings.

“My thinking is that this is about bikes, not barriers and it is great to see people who start out saying ‘I won’t be able to do that’ changing within the space of a few outings to become more confident and looking forward to their next run.

“Personally, this year I have decided that, through the season, I want to cycle 1000 miles and I am now putting things in place to help me get there.

“We are currently organising a coast to coast trip of 135 miles over four days, with 14 people taking part – six tandems and two solo bikes.

“The group is very popular and that is why we need to have so many volunteer pilots.”