Blind People Ride Bicycles in Germany, Thanks to Tandems

Along with a rider who can see, visually impaired people cycle through the countryside on two-seater, four-pedalled bikes

Published: 09th May 2015 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 08th May 2015 01:54 AM   |  A+A-

Ready, set, go!” It sounds so easy, but steering a tandem bicycle for the first time in your life is a wobbly experience.

“No problem,” says Barbara cheerily from behind.

“We are still upright.” But only just.

I take the first curve a little too tight and the long bike sort of vibrates underneath us. “I’m sorry,” I say, and mean it. Barbara, who is the captain of this vehicle, has put her blind faith in me. Literally. She is visually impaired.

Ernst-Ullrich Staniullo partnered us up an hour ago. He is kind of the admiral of Weisse Speiche, a cycling club for the blind. “I like exercising in the fresh air and I like communication between those who can see and those who cannot. It is very amusing,” he said. Known as Ulli for short, he has cataracts and sees things hazily.

But that does not stop the 69-year-old from putting together diverse twosomes with the goal of getting to know one another.

Ulli put me together with Barbara, who has already taken a few tours and is not fully blind, which helps with the coordination on our tandem bike. Such as when I forget to announce a tight corner or that we will be stopping at a traffic light.

Germans love cycle rides in the countryside, where there are plenty of smoothly asphalted lanes where you can ride through farms and forests with little fear of passing cars.

We ride a good 30 km from Norderstedt to Pinneberg, suburbs of Hamburg. The back-lane route is circuitous. As tour guide Hella Kurznack explains: “We don’t want to ride on the big roads.”

Kurznack and her blind husband Klaus planned the tour, initially on the computer and then taking out their tandem bike to test it, looking for the best short cuts. “Our first route was just too short. Even now it’s only 70 km,” says Klaus.

Only? I marvel at a retired couple who are pushing the tempo. On flat stretches, you can really build up some speed with two people pedalling. And there are not too many inclines on the course.

Hella loaded the route onto her smartphone, thanks to a sat-nav app. That way she doesn’t have to continually look at a map. The tour leads us around the Norderstedt city park, through bogland and into a forest.

“Now it’s really dark, I don’t see anything,” says Barbara as we enter the forest. The 59-year-old has retinitis pigmentosa, an advancing retinal disease which continues to narrow her field of vision.

Before the disease hit, Barbara worked as a freelance illustrator and did a lot of cycling. Then she had to say goodbye to work  and to independent cycling. “That was not so easy, but since then I have come to terms with it. You cannot change it,” she said.

We ride through a marsh and then along small roads we pass by pleasant smelling farms. After passing the pedestrianized shopping mall of the county town of Kaltenkirchen, we come to a large children’s playground in a forest, where we stop to take a break.

“We have ridden through many small villages with very few houses where I certainly had never been in my life. It was nice to shut down and enjoy the peace and quiet,” said Guido.

On the last stretch of the route, airliners kept passing overhead. “I did not know how the flight paths around Hamburg Airport were laid out,” he said apologetically. As they rode, his co-pilot told him about a lot about farming and corn cultivation. Guido has been blind for a few years.

I was so nervous that I did not even hear the airplane noise and I failed to describe the landscape as I should have.

But Barbara was encouraging about our collective progress on the tandem bike. “Now it will go like clockwork,” she says as we take off again after the forest break. “Ready, set, go.” We will practice that a couple more times, such as at a major road intersection.

A van provided by the St John’s Ambulance Society of Germany accompanies us at a distance. There is enough space on its big trailer for 30 tandem bikes and, if necessary, seats inside the van if someone gets tired or injured.

We travel along a section of the Ochsenweg, a historic overland road between Denmark and northern Germany which is now traffic free and a bike path. We travel past the Rose Garden at Uetersen, a suburban town. Club members know the area. Every third Wednesday, there are tours around Pinneberg, so-called Litera tours, after which books are read aloud.

Weisse Speicher means White Spoke, which is meant to suggest that the white stick which blind people use can be swapped for a spoke-wheeled form of transport if you go about it intelligently.

On this day, besides a new perspective of the landscape, I also have a teachable moment.

Barbara said: “Over the years, I took on the habit of not always worrying about the things that I cannot do, but of paying attention instead to the things that I can do. And to be thankful for that.”  —DPA


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