By Lynne Tolman
Looking ahead is the responsibility of the rider on the front of a bicycle built for two, who is called the captain or the pilot. The back-seat rider, called the stoker, can rely on verbal communication without compromising horsepower or handling.
"It feels very freeing, because you're outside and you're experiencing the wind," said Pam Fernades of Brighton, a diabetic who is legally blind. "Walking with a cane or even a guide dog, you're focusing very hard on everything you hear ... You're always on your guard.
"When I cycle, I don't need to do that. I need to focus on the same things as every other cyclist -- powering the bike and breathing."
Fernandes, 32, is a rookie member of the U.S. Association for Blind Athletes cycling team. The ABA's goal "is to mainstream our athletes into sighted events," spokeswoman Kelly Cane said.
ABA cycling coach Peter Paulding, a police sergeant in Plymouth, "has access to some of the best pilots in the country," Fernandes said. For the masters national road championships last month in St. Louis, her pilot was Mike Rosenberg of Eugene, Ore., a five-time winner of the Burley Duet stage race, the country's premier tandem competition. Fernandes and Rosenberg placed fourth overall and first among male-female tandem teams.
"Another thing I like about cycling is you can communicate during the activity," Fernandes said. "You have to."
While any tandem team needs to be on excellent speaking terms, blind stokers require some extra clues from their captains. "If I don't know that I'm in for a one-mile climb and you don't tell me, I might give everything in the first quarter mile and have nothing left for the rest," Fernandes said.
Fernandes is looking forward to the Paramerica Tour in 1995, a fund-raising ride from Los Angeles to Atlanta for disabled and able-bodied cyclists. For more information, call Fernandes, a community relations director for the Massachusetts Association for the Blind, at (617) 738-5110.
Sometimes a blind stoker makes a tandem steadier, because sighted stokers "tend to keep leaning, trying to see what's in front," said Claudia Folska, director of EYECYCLE, a California organization that trains sighted captains to ride with blind stokers. "We tend to stay more centered and balanced," said Folska, 29, who is blind.
EYECYCLE, which has chapters in three western states, is planning a monthlong tandem tour across America next summer, starting May 1 in Santa Monica, Calif., and ending in Washington, D.C. For information, contact Folska at 1714 Armacost Ave., Suite 2, Los Angeles, CA 90025, (310) 207-4154.
Being a stoker is not for control freaks or people who have problems with trust, whether or not they can see, according to Joan Cole, a Worcester massage therapist who lost her eyesight 22 years ago because of a tumor inside her optic nerve.
Cole, 41, started riding a tandem for the same reason as many sighted cyclists. It was something she could do with her husband. She also used to ride regularly with a member of the Seven Hills Wheelmen.
"It's like wild freedom," Cole said. "I kind of equate it with the freedom you might feel skydiving."
Locally, the Massachusetts Association for the Blind occasionally matches sighted captains with blind stokers, and the Worcester office has a willing tandem owner waiting in the wings, said spokeswoman Judith Savage. One interested client is Judy Graham of Worcester, blind since she was born in 1950. She tried a tandem with an MAB volunteer a couple of times and said, "It was such a feeling of freedom -- whoo!"
Captains who own tandems also are in demand for a blind stokers ride and picnic Sept. 26 in Arlington, sponsored by New England Regional Ski for Light. The organization, which teams blind and sighted people for various outdoor activities, used to borrow tandems from the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton for the annual ride, but those bikes are outmoded and in disrepair, said organizer Laura Oftedahl of Watertown, a former ABA team member.
Oftedahl hopes the event, featuring 25- and 40-mile routes, will introduce some captains and stokers who live near each other and can become permanent teammates. For more information, call her at (617) 923-7768.
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