Outdoors Blog

For Idaho’s blind, cycling can be a ‘white-knuckle’ — and rewarding — experience

Al Schneider hasn’t driven a car in 20 years because he’s legally blind. But he can still get around by bicycle on the Boise River Greenbelt.
Al Schneider hasn’t driven a car in 20 years because he’s legally blind. But he can still get around by bicycle on the Boise River Greenbelt. ccripe@idahostatesman.com

Al Schneider learned more than 30 years ago that his eyesight would deteriorate, potentially until he was completely blind.

He has an eye disease for which there’s no cure, treatment or timeline. He has lost his eyesight “from the outside in,” he says, but he has been “lucky enough” to retain some useful vision.

“It was always in the back of my mind as a fear,” he said of going blind.

[Related story: Boise Bike Week details]

That changed six years ago when he went to training at the Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, where he learned how to live with limited visibility. He also moved into a Garden City home on the Boise River Greenbelt, which allows him to pursue his passion for cycling without the challenge of dodging cars.

“It changed my life,” he said of the training he received. “My whole attitude changed. I don’t want to go blind, but it’s not scary anymore.”

Schneider, who is legally blind because he lacks peripheral vision, has combined cycling and support for the blind by helping organize Cycle for Independence, the annual fundraiser that will be staged Saturday in Boise, Eagle, Star, Middleton and Caldwell. The 100-kilometer ride is the event’s most popular division, used as training by serious riders.

Schneider, 62, rides on the Greenbelt most days, either for recreation or transportation. He parks his bike and walks to appointments in Downtown Boise. He has been in a couple of accidents the past two years because of a bump and a branch he didn’t see in his path. Still, during a ride earlier this month, he was able to avoid a person with a dog when they unexpectedly popped out of the trees.

“It just feels good being on a bike,” the retired Emmett High English teacher said. “The movement of the air. I have to visually concentrate on the road more than you do, which takes some of it away, but still it’s just that feeling of being on a bike and getting the exercise.”

For others in the Treasure Valley’s blind community, bike riding is a team activity. Cycle for Independence will include 10 or so blind people riding on tandem bikes with sighted “captains.”

Lisa Baker, an instructor at the Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, has been “functioning as a completely blind person” for about 15 years. She coordinates tandem bikes and captains for blind riders for Cycle for Independence and has participated in the event in the past.

She started riding after she was convinced to try Cycle for Independence.

“It was so much fun that I ended up buying a tandem,” she said. “... I tend to kind of space out a little bit. I’m just hanging out. I don’t have to worry about anything. I’m not in charge.”

Tandems can be difficult to master, regardless of vision capabilities. One bike Baker received as a donation was from a couple that explained the tandem was going to destroy their marriage.

Alison Steven of Boise, who is blind, rides with her husband as her captain. Their tandem bike features connected pedals, so they move when either rider pedals. But that doesn’t mean the effort exerted is equal.

“I’ve actually heard that it can break up marriages,” Steven said. “There’s less of a conflict when there’s no choice about who goes in front, and I can’t argue with the decisions he’s making.”

Like Baker, Steven enjoyed bikes as a child. Riding tandem allowed her to reclaim an activity that initially was lost when her vision faded.

“It was definitely pretty scary at first,” Steven said. “I was definitely doing the white-knuckle thing, worrying about what I’d do if we crashed. My husband and I have it down pretty well. We’re a pretty smooth team. I actually love it. It gives me the opportunity to be on a bike and to be out getting exercise. At the same time, we can chat to each other.”

A common ride for Steven and her husband involves going 7 miles on the Greenbelt to Downtown Boise for a cup of coffee, then riding home. They rented a tandem bike on a visit to San Diego.

“My husband will often describe stuff that we’re passing, or funny things, or interesting things, that he’s seeing,” she said. “I get the smells and the breezes. It’s quite a physical experience for me.”

Cycle for Independence

The annual bike ride is Saturday with 10-mile, 25-mile and 100-kilometer divisions. The rides begin at Riverglen Junior High in northwest Boise. Registration ranges from $25 to $40. Start times range from 8 to 9:30 a.m. The event benefits local and national efforts of the National Federation of the Blind. More info: cycleforindependence.org.