A project with vision

Nahariya is about to get its very own tandem bicycling club, pairing sighted people with visually impaired riders.

Group of cyclists 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Group of cyclists 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Being self-sufficient is something most of us take for granted. But for Bracha Ben-Avraham, keeping her independence has been a lifelong battle.
“I’ve always had poor vision but it’s been steadily deteriorating over the years. About two years ago I received a guide dog, Suki, from the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind. I don’t know what I would do without her,” says Ben-Avraham, 61, who now serves on the board of the Israeli Guide Dog Users Association. “Even though Suki helps me stay mobile and active, as my eyesight gets worse I find I have to relinquish activities that I used to do on a regular basis. I used to love riding my bike through the fields of my moshav, near Nahariya. But about four years ago I had to stop. Until now.”
Several months ago, at an event hosted by the Guide Dog Center, Ben- Avraham was introduced to Nir Sheffer, 51, of Kibbutz Kabri. He in turn introduced Ben-Avraham to the joys of tandem bike riding.
“I feel like I’ve been able to go back in time. I can do something that I once had to give up,” Ben-Avraham says with a smile. On a borrowed tandem bicycle, she and Sheffer ride as often as they can. They dream of having a group to ride with, and Rotary Nahariya has recently pledged to take an active role in creating such a group.
What can a visually impaired person possibly get out of bike-riding? “Out of the house,” answers Ben- Avraham.
“An opportunity to interact with other people,” says Sheffer. “And sometimes muddy.” He laughs. “A few weeks ago Bracha and I were riding through fields after a rain. The bike got so encrusted with mud that something broke. We ended up having to push it the whole way home.”
Bicycling, normally a solitary sport, becomes a shared experience when riding tandem. The sighted person, who rides in front, is called the “captain.”
He or she becomes the “eyes” of the visually impaired person riding behind, called the “stoker.” A stoker is the person who tends the furnace on a steam locomotive. Similarly, in tandem bicycling, the stoker is an equal partner in supplying power to the bicycle. Communication is the key.
As they ride, Sheffer, a skilled captain, keeps up a running commentary: estimating how much longer the uphill section will be, warning of an upcoming curve, pointing out interesting sites. He says tandem biking is as rewarding for the captain as it is for the stoker. Before Sheffer teamed up with Ben-Avraham, he rode with a Nahariya resident for about five years. On one ride, he remembers, they stopped at the top of a hill to rest. The stoker, who was completely blind, looked around as if he could see, and said, “It’s so beautiful here!” Being outdoors means coming into contact with the scents and sounds of nature, the feel of wind on your face; you don’t need to see with your eyes to recognize beauty, says Sheffer. With support from Rotary Nahariya and encouragement from the Guide Dog Center, Sheffer adds, more people will be able to enjoy this type of experience.
THE ISRAEL Guide Dog Center for the Blind, located south of Tel Aviv in Moshav Beit Oved, sponsors a large group of tandem bicycle riders. The group was established in 2006 by Brig.- Gen. (ret.) Moti Regev of Yavne, a longtime cyclist. As he rode past the center one day Regev noticed a pair of tandem bicycles leaning against a wall.
When he learned there was no organized group he asked if he could volunteer.
Under Regev’s guidance the group has grown to 26 tandems, 20 visually impaired riders and more than 40 sighted riders who train weekly, and sometimes more. The group is called Canvelo. “Velo” means bicycle in several European languages.
In Hebrew the group is known as Ken Velo – “yes and no” – riders who see and riders who don’t. Their motto (adopted long before US President Barack Obama made it famous, says Regev) is “Yes We Can,” and Canvelo is dedicated to raise awareness of the center and its activities.
Wearing outfits printed with the group’s name and sponsors, participants take part in biking events all over Israel and abroad. In 2011 they went on a week-long ride across Switzerland and the same year five members completed the 42-mile Five Borough Bike Tour around New York City.
Regev says that sometimes when people see the Canvelo riders they ask, “What? You’re blind?” They’re surprised to learn that blind people can take part in challenging sports.
Although guide dogs don’t come on the rides, they are often waiting at the finish line. Sometimes this casual contact is enough to convince someone who might benefit from having a guide dog to give it a try.
Betty Ben-Bassat, 48, of Givatayim, was a serious cyclist before she had children. At 30 she was discovered to have a genetic problem that caused a decline in her vision. When her children got older and she had more time to exercise, Ben-Bassat realized she could no longer see well enough to bike or run. She joined a gym but couldn’t follow along in the exercise classes. And she longed to be outdoors. So she joined Canvelo.
When asked what riding tandem feels like, Ben-Bassat, project manager for the Israeli Guide Dog Users Association, who has some sight and doesn’t use a guide dog, tries to explain.
A blind person is never able to move quickly unaided, she says, adding that this is hard for a sighted person to understand. “When you’re blind,” she says, “you’ve already had to learn to depend on others, in the hardest way possible. So the trust that you have to have for your captain is not anything new. Still, the stoker has no control over the bike and that can be very scary – especially when you’re speeding along. The stoker and the captain must work together.” A captain has to have it in their soul, says Ben-Bassat.
The ride across Switzerland, over 400 kilometers from Zurich to Geneva, was incredible, according to Ben-Bassat.
“It’s a unique way to experience a country – by riding through its fields,” she says. She also participated in the New York ride. “Amazing! The cars, the crowds – it was an unforgettable experience.”
The only time she went on a night ride Ben-Bassat found it terrifying. Her captain had no problem seeing by the light of a full moon; but to her it seemed as though they were riding in pitch darkness. She says she won’t repeat the experience.
Regev says he learned a lot about teamwork from piloting a helicopter; riding tandem is not much different. A captain should be in good shape, but not necessarily athletic, according to Sheffer. The more they ride the more fit they become. Captain/stoker partnerships aren’t usually permanent but when pairing people up, height, weight and personality are taken into consideration. The captain must always be aware of the responsibility he or she has for the stoker. Safety and security are definite priorities.
Always looking for volunteers, the Guide Dog Center offers training for captains. They must practice being a stoker – at first with sight, then with a blindfold. Volunteers are also being sought for the new northern group.
Inquiries may be e-mailed to Bracha Ben-Avraham: bracha@igdu.org.il.
Rotary Nahariya, a branch of Rotary International, has agreed to fund and provide real-time support toward the establishment of “Canvelo North.”
“It’s an excellent idea,” says Pinchas Lazmi, club member and past president, “It fits right in with the types of projects we like to sponsor.” Rotary International is recognized as the world’s first volunteer organization.
The Nahariya club provides support for from six to eight ongoing community projects, and adopts at least one new project each year.
Typically, once a project is accepted, a working plan is drawn up and one member assumes responsibility for a two- to three-year period. Once it is up and running they hand over administration to those involved.
“At the meeting,” Lazmi says, “seven Rotary members immediately volunteered to work on Canvelo North. Martin Acker will direct the project.”
A tandem bicycle costs about NIS 10,000. Rotary Nahariya and its sister club, the Inner Wheel, have budgeted NIS 100,000 to NIS 150,000 toward six to 10 bicycles and assorted expenses, which will be financed through private donations and various fund-raising events. Rotary is buying the first bike this month, according to Lazmi, and by the middle of March it plans to have the beginnings of a tandem bicycling group securely in place. Naturally, Ben-Avraham and Sheffer are thrilled.
“We are extremely grateful for the support of Rotary Nahariya,” says Ben- Avraham. “And it all fell into place so quickly.”
Out of the estimated 100 visually impaired people in the city of Nahariya alone, not everyone is able or willing to ride. But for those who are looking to get outdoors and get moving,