Color & Control:

Trailblazers Tandem Cycling in Toronto

abl_cycleBy Tammy Thorne
Imagine being on a first date and being asked to share your weight. Well, that’s not exactly how it happened, but when Lynda Spinney joined Toronto-based Trailblazers tandem bike riding club in 1999, she had to share her weight, height, and the fact that she is legally blind so that she could be matched up properly with her co-pilot. “But don’t worry,” she says with a laugh. “You don’t have to share your age.” The “first date” analogy isn’t lost on Spinney.

She met her husband at Trailblazers, a cycling club that provides recreational cycling opportunities for people with limited or no vision. Blind cyclists ride with sighted volunteers on a bicycle built for two. “He joined the same year as me,” says Spinney, who has been president of the organization since 2003.

Her husband, Chris, is now the club’s operations manager. He not only keeps the bikes in shape, but also provides specialized training on how to optimally ride a tandem bike and, most importantly, makes sure the two riders—the blind adult, or “stoker,” and sighted volunteer, or “captain”—fit the bike together. “Weight and height is very important when it comes to matching the captain with the stoker properly,” he says. “[The captain] must be equal or more in weight. We don’t want the tail wagging the dog.”

Having two people on board makes for lighter work. “Stokers use hand signals, while captains change the gears,” Chris says. But the most crucial ingredient for an enjoyable ride, he says, is communication. For example, “speed bumps and potholes need to be warned about ahead of time.”

Gears are a really big deal on a tandem ride too, Chris says, because the bikes are so heavy. “Everyone says they know about bikes and have been riding for years, and yet a lot of people just don’t know how to change gears. If you are going up a hill, you have to get into high gear right away. You cannot change gears going up a hill on a tandem—you can rip out a derailleur or break a chain, or worse, hurt your legs.”

But, he says, don’t worry: “If you can ride a single bike confidently, then you can probably ride a tandem.” It’s all about trust. Besides gearing up, and matching the riders up size-wise, trust is the next big item on the ‘must have’ list for an optimal ride on a bicycle built for two. When Chris joined as a captain and Lynda was paired with him as a stoker, they enjoyed many a ride around (and out of) town before tying the knot.

They built trust quickly during their rides in Toronto’s ravines. Now it’s their love for each other, and the love of the cycling club itself, that keeps them rolling. Successfully running and growing, this unique charity is something for which they both share a deep passion. (They finished each other’s sentences as they did this interview together.)

Their number one goal right now is to keep the club going. So far, so good. It started in 1987 and has grown leaps and bounds since they joined in 1999. Today, they’ve built the club to 25 bikes, which are spread across town in five different sheds (with the majority of the bikes being housed at CNIB). The club hosts approximately four long-distance rides per year, including one to Collingwood (with Cycle for Sight) in June. Other locations include Lake Simcoe; the Dundas Rail Trail in Hamilton; Barrie to Orillia; and their very popular Niagara-on-the-Lake ride in the fall. As well, they host at least one ride per month locally around the city, utilizing Toronto’s many amazing trails. Lynda says the majority of their riding is done March through October “just like most Torontonians.”

Nicely affordable

There are sometimes small additional fees to cover gas and food for the out-of-town rides, but otherwise all it takes is a $50 annual membership fee. “It’s one of the cheapest clubs around,” they say. They also hold an annual fundraising ride: the Blaze-a-Thon. All proceeds from fundraising go toward the maintenance and repair of the bikes.

Trailblazers receives some grants, too. They recently received another Ontario Trillium Foundation grant, which made it possible for them
to buy four more bikes. “If it weren’t for [Trillium], we wouldn’t have half the bikes we own now. We’re able to buy [new] bikes, and upgrade others, each time we receive that funding,” says Lynda.

Some of the members do have their own tandem bikes, and although Trailblazers doesn’t rent out their bikes, they will allow members to use the tandems for charity rides such as Cycle for Sight. (Eight of their tandems were used for the 2014 Cycle for Sight ride, which raises money for research to find a cure for vision loss.) Some of their members have even ridden tandem in the epic Ride to Conquer Cancer from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Tandem bikes cost from $1,500 upward of $3,500 and since around 100 different people ride them at various times, they do get lots of wear and tear. The club regularly needs to buy new parts, locks, and accessories such as helmets and bells.

Tim Woods is a captain who rides with one of two stokers who is also deaf. Woods has been volunteering with the club for about five years and loves cycling “almost more than anything.” He says his stoker, a middle-aged father of two, communicates with him using (super-large font) BBMs. At one point, when they were rolling at a fairly good clip down a leafy trail, he heard his co-pilot laughing out loud, and that hooked him on Trailblazers. “It has changed my life,” he says, adding that the group ride around Niagara-on-the-Lake is something he looks forward to every year.
Lynda, who was registered as blind when she was 16 years old (legally blind is defined as having 10 per cent or less vision with corrective lenses), says: “Our goal is just to be available for blind people to enjoy the outdoors, and cycling.”

“For me, it is very exciting to be able to continue cycling and not have to give it up.”

Right now, Trailblazers has 25 bikes—but they have more than 25 members, and that’s why they need to keep fundraising. For more information, visit
Tammy Thorne is the editor and publisher of Dandyhorse, the Toronto-based cycling magazine. She is also part of the media group at Canada’s World Wildlife Fund.

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