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Tandem Program Article by John Cushman

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Riding with The Baum Squad
By John Cushman

I brought an iced tea over to our outdoor table for my tandem bicycle partner from the Earle Baum Center.

We had cycled together about a dozen miles to the rest stop at Andy’s Market along the Joe Rodota bicycle trail that connects Santa Rosa with Sebastopol. Along the way she had told me about the day she had been shopping with a friend in a grocery store in San Rafael. That was the day of the accident.

Over tea and coffee I asked her what the accident had changed. She said that one of her favorite jobs was teaching spelunking. It included climbing down through natural caves formed in the granite walls of the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento. Some of the cave descents included ropes and pullies that were needed to enter a natural cave large enough to house the Statue of Liberty. Looking down from a rope suspended 60 feet above the cave floor, used to be pretty exciting she said.

2 riders pose at the Earlebaum sign on Occidental Road

In the first two years after she lost her sight when the automobile crashed into her in the grocery store, she sometimes wished that the car had hit her harder, rather than leaving her blind. She has made progress. She said she had been back to the caves where she used to teach, and descended into the large room. It wasn’t as frightening as when she could see how far above the floor she was. This day, a courageous woman, was my cycling partner.

It is testimonies like Candy’s that energize our bicycle fitness program at the Earle Baum Center for the Visually Impaired in Santa Rosa, California. Our monthly tandem rides, team experienced riders with blind or visually impaired athletes for a morning of cycling on the back roads and trails of Sonoma County. We call ourselves, “The Baum Squad.”

A number of us have been assisting Steven Cozza, a former pro cyclist who used to ride in Europe with the Garmin Professional Cycling Team. Steve started the program when he used some of his training time for tandem cycling with a blind cyclist he met at the Earle Baum center. He said he looked forward to their time together in the saddle. The program has followed Steve’s lead. We have assembled a stable of tandem bicycles for the pilots and stokers who participate in the program. Co-Motion bicycles donated a pair of new road bicycles in response to our request for equipment. We are talking with local rental companies about purchasing safe, used equipment when they sell off their rental fleets at the end of the tourist season. A local bicycle store has discounted products, and contributed mechanical labor for the program. This winter we will be ordering high visibility cycling vests for every rider warning motorists of a “blind rider” ahead. We train pilots in tandem safety, and each new pilot takes a turn in the back seat wearing a blind fold to discover the sensation of relying upon the skills and caution of the pilot.

A flamboyant soker wears a red cape

A few pictures show the enthusiasm of the riders and pilots for this program that is partly fitness, and partly an eagerly anticipated social outing for people who face one of the biggest imaginable physical impairments. It is enriching to both athletes who team up on a tandem bicycle.

I should have expected it, but it still came as a surprise, when I dropped Candy off after our ride. I parked in front of her house, and walked her to the door. She turned the key and opened the door and her dog greeted us. I helped her get to the kitchen table before I turned to leave, and I noticed that as she entered the dark house, she did not reach for the switch to turn on the lights. To her, they made no difference.

I’m writing this article because maintaining safe and reliable equipment for this program is not inexpensive. Equipment must be dependable for both the blind and the sighted cyclists. Flats and mechanicals are to be expected; and some people attempt a longer ride than they can handle, and need a friendly sag wagon to drive them back to the start. We are enlisting support from local programs of philanthropy, and individuals whose families have known the challenges of sight loss and impairment.

Group photo of riders at Earlebaum

The Earle Baum center is a tax-exempt foundation with a wide range of educational and support programs. They have given us a page on their website, and a direct donation link to support our program and equipment budget over the internet. By supporting the Baum Squad, anyone can be a pilot for a visually impaired athlete like Candy.

John Cushman
For “The Baum Squad”
A Tandem Cycling Program for the Visually Impaired.