Exsight Tandems Illawarra: eyeing up a bicycle ride for two

Joint venture: Geoff Stratton pedals while Pamela Dunn keeps her eyes on the road on their tandem bike ride at Barrack Point. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER
Joint venture: Geoff Stratton pedals while Pamela Dunn keeps her eyes on the road on their tandem bike ride at Barrack Point. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER

Geoff Stratton cannot see the coastline when he's on the back of a tandem bike but he can feel the sunshine on his face, smell the salty air and hear the waves crashing onto the sand.

The 71-year-old's love of cycling is not diminished by the fact that he lost his sight at age five and he's helping other vision-impaired people saddle up through his group, Exsight Tandems Illawarra.

The group pairs people who are blind or have low vision - as well as those with other disabilities - with able cyclists on rides throughout the Illawarra.

"Sight is such a powerful sense that it often overtakes other senses - so if you have low or no vision you experience those other senses much more keenly," Mr Stratton said.

"You can hear the leaves rustling in the trees or the cars on the street; you can feel the bumps in the track or the way the bike turns; you can feel the wind or the sun - all these things help to build a picture.

"You still get that adrenalin rush when you go down a hill; you still feel that exertion when you're climbing up a hill; and you still get that uplifting feeling that you're connecting with nature."

The tandems ridden by Exsight are synchronised, so both the "captain" at the front and the "stoker" at the rear have to work together to keep moving. It's great exercise for both, and can be a way to meet like-minded people.

"You might go for a ride, then stop for a coffee and a chat, before continuing on your way," Mr Stratton said. "We often go on group rides and so you get that benefit of socialisation, too. A couple of people who come along have said that the rides have made a real difference to their lives, and have lifted their depression at losing their sight."

Mr Stratton was born with retinablastoma, a childhood cancer. Surgery saved his life at five years old, but took his vision.

"From the day I was born I had low vision and then at five the lights went out," he said.

"In this day and age those born with the condition can usually have their sight saved, but back in those days the laser technology was not around."

It was in 2008 after enjoying tandem bike rides with a friend, that Mr Stratton decided to create the group.

"The group aims to get those who wouldn't be able to cycle on their own onto a tandem bike and out enjoying the wonderful environment here in the Illawarra," he said.

The group is always looking for captains - visit exsighttandems.org.au to register.

lwachsmuth@fairfaxmedia.com.au