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  • Writer's pictureSteve

RetinaUK Tandem Challenge2019

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

Saturday morning sunrise.

A message tone beeps on my phone, the email is from Jon Pett, the manager of the British Cycling Team. The mail is about a trip to Tokyo, a recce funded by UK sport to take a small group of riders to see the courses they will be racing on at the Paralympic Games next August. The email explains the plan for the trip, just a week long, but it’s busy and will interrupt your training plan if you choose to go. I am one of the selected riders along with Adam my pilot. It’s great news to get the nod, however the dates are not yet confirmed, and

they are talking anywhere between the 10th to the 22nd of October. My heart sinks, there is a high chance I will be away for mine and Caroline’s wedding anniversary. We have a weekend away planned, which has been in the diary for months now. Caroline is very well-accustomed to being married to an athlete, where birthdays, weddings, catching up with friends all go out of the window when British Cycling come calling. The other thing that I’m concerned about is the RetinaUK tandem ride. I have told them I’m going to ride. I’m an ambassador and I really don’t want to let them down, especially at short notice.

After chasing Jon, I finally get the news I’m after, we fly to Japan Monday. This means the turn around will be a quick one, and it will be seven weekends in a row I’ll be away from home.

Gearing up at the start

Caroline and I step off the bus on a chilly morning in Bowness on Solway, the grey clouds hang low and a gentle breeze cuts into the lycra clothing I’m wearing. Our bike, the Random Tandem stands out in a group of conventional tandem bicycles. The other people in the group stare at it while going about getting their bikes and gear sorted. Some ride up and down the narrow road by the sea for practise, before a group photo and everyone gets underway. You can see there is both excitement and worry on the faces of the crowd, some riding a tandem for the first time and others in their element on these large beasts. Caroline and I are one of the last to leave, and I’m surprised how fast the group has set off. It’s not long before the rain starts and we stop to add waterproof layers on top of the thin lycra. We chat to folk as we pass them, the typical British chat of the weather and where you are from are the common ice breakers, but like the start of similar events, it’s with a slight awkwardness. With a minor tail wind, the miles fall by easily, and by early afternoon we find a fancy cafe to re-fuel with food, beer and wine. It’s lovely sat inside in the warmth, watching cyclists come through the doors two by two, and you see their shoulder drop and relax with over half the ride complete. The warm air soaks into their bones as they clasp hot mugs of coffee or tea.

For Caroline and I it’s that dreaded moment of getting out of that warm cosy chair and heading back out into the cold. But the weather is kind, and the sun peeking through the clouds gently warms us between the parting clouds. We are greeted with an unwelcome climb straight after lunch, and we pass riders heading back down the hill. Unsure of the route, we follow the Garmin cycling computer, which I have loaded the GXP file onto. The climb gets our heart rates racing but it’s over and done with soon enough and we roll the last few miles into Haltwhistle without trouble, to cheers from the staff and fellow riders. With tandems hidden away, we stand in the evening sunshine, beers in hand and sharing stories of the road. The group grows as the hours pass by, more bikes arrive, some with shared delight, others with looks of relief. Standing on the kerb, and with the sun dipping behind the high street buildings, we cheer each other to the finish, and change from individuals to a team.

Showered, warm and happy, we sit down for food together. Stories of this and that, and tales of adventures are laughed around the room, but silence falls as quick as a tandem in descent as the food enters the room. We waste no time replacing the valuable energy lost throughout the day, washed down with a cracking sticky toffee pudding and local ale. The projector comes out and I stand up to do my bit for a charity who give so much to so many. I share stories and crack jokes to people like me. It’s rare I speak to people who understand my condition, who are my equals. My tales of adventure draw out some interesting questions. My new friends are keen to know the difference between them and me, to which I assure them, there isn’t one. Like being in school, the questions come slowly at the start, but they last into the late hours of the evening. I feel humbled as people thank me before they disappear off for a well-earned sleep. As I lay in bed, I smile at the thought that Retinitis Pigmentosa was a curse, when how little did I know, it was a gift.

The Random Tandem!

Sunday is a different kind of day as we roll out of this small centre of Britain town. The weather has changed and it’s a wet day, but spirits are high as we catch up with other tandems. The topic of the weather is short lived now, as we now have far more to chat and joke about. It’s a hilly start to the day, but worth every second as we roll down into the first cheer point of the day. Hot tea and coffee from the support crew are a welcome treat, the only problem being that the welcome is so warm we get chilly off the bike and have to drag ourselves away to get more miles covered. It’s refreshing for me to have this time with

Selfie on the tandem

Caroline and no distraction. We talk about a number of things, plan out adventures for after the Paralympics and how our lives will be. My life is so wrapped up in performance and numbers, the sport turned into a science, I relish the day I can ride my bike for fun again. I love riding my bike, I’m trying to make the most of it, before I can no longer ride on my own, and Caroline and I swap seats on our wacky tandem. The rain continues to pour as we ride under the bridges and push through the bustling Sunday markets in Newcastle. The last few miles are slow on the cycle path, stopping and starting for traffic. I always struggle during these parts of the journey. After riding remote back roads taking in the scenery, we now travel through built-up areas, passing man-made structures that lack the inspiration of nature. As the last couple of miles roll by, the rain seems colder and wetter, the body starts to hurt, my mind playing tricks as it wants it all to be over. Nothing has actually changed, just my mind set. The last climb sees us arrive on the point of Tynemouth, greeted by the tiny figure of Emily hunched under her black umbrella. The soddened RetinaUK banner flaps in the breeze as Emily awards us with medals. A giant effort of organisation from her and the support team at RetinaUK, to get us all to the finish.

I’m so pleased the email from Jon Pett had me flying to Tokyo on the Monday after this ride. I’d like to thank the everyone who took part in the Tandem Cycling Challenge, congratulations to you all on your efforts weather on the bike or off. Thank you also for making Caroline and I feel so welcome and sharing your stories with us. We hope to see you all again soon, but until then, all the best.



Celebrating at the finish.

If you would like to take part in this years challenge (2020) and support this amazing charity, please follow the link below for details, and I hope to see you there.



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