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I have been involved with FIT-Ability tandem cycling for a little under a year and a half.   I arrived in Canberra three and a half years ago.

Despite enjoying success in my professional life, as a guide dog user I found myself remaining socially isolated and struggling to settle into the Canberra community with a view to making the Australian Capital Territory my permanent home.

I attended a “come and try” sports day for vision impaired persons and happened across the tandem cycle display and made contact with one of the volunteers with FIT-Ability.  The volunteer brought the tandem bike around to my home and took me out for a gentle ride around the city area, describing to me the various buildings and features which I could not see, nor had any idea that they even existed!

From that moment I was hooked on tandem cycling!  That day there were a great many cyclist out in the city partaking in Urban Polaris, and I was just one more of them – a regular citizen out enjoying the afternoon sunshine and exercise as part of the community.

I began joining up with the FIT-Ability tandem cycling group for short social rides along with Pedal Power.  I met a great many volunteers who collected me from my front door and took me to the start of the rides, piloted the tandem with confidence and safety, and offered me encouragement, friendship with good grace and humour.  The social rides were between 25 and 30 kilometres long with the opportunity to socialise with other members of the cycling community.  I remember sitting at a coffee shop with a group after a ride and someone asked me why it was that I rode a tandem bike?  Amongst this group of cyclists I was just another cyclist – I was not a person with a disability.  That was a pretty amazing feeling!

As my confidence and skills grew I volunteered with great gusto to undertake a ride with the Northern Wanderers – of course, with having almost no realisation with what I was actually in for!  Following “gentle counsel” I was teamed up with a pilot and off I went to Lake George on the back of a tandem... on a 39 degree day... up lots and lots of hills.

It would be safe to say that the ride to Lake George was an enormous shock to my system!  Between the heat, the hills, and the bicycle seat I can truly say it was one of the hardest physical challenges I had faced in as long as I could remember.  My legs screamed in pain and half way I just wanted to quit, throw up or do both!  My pilot worked with me, encouraged me, coached me through and at times dragged me up the hills.  She was amazing!

And yes, I finished that ride, and felt an enormous sense of achievement.  I learned a lesson that day: I was capable of far more than what I had come to accept from myself.

After that day I have gone on to do many long and difficult rides as part of a tandem team, and amusingly, my legs still scream at me, the seat is still uncomfortable, and I now know that no matter how hard things get out on the road, I am absolutely capable of pushing myself to achieve whatever distance and difficultly it is that I have set out to do.

And now, one of the biggest physical challenges I have ever faced in my life is looming at the end of November 2011 in form of the Hartley Life Care Challenge – a 450 kilometre bike endurance event to up through the mountains over three days as part of a tiny team of cyclists with disabilities and our pilots riding tandem alongside single bike competitors up some of Australia’s most challenging terrain.

This is indeed something the average person would not tackle – let alone a person with a disability!  But I think that is why I have decided to try – aspects o f my life because of my disability are really hard – but doing something like this is really hard for anyone.  It is teaching me to extend my comfort zone, expect more of myself and work as part of a committed team of people who are striving to achieve the same thing.

I have met a wonderful circle of volunteers through FIT-Ability.  We have all come together as a result of our love of cycling.  The volunteers put in an enormous amount of time and effort to keep the tandems on the road, organise social rides, Hartley team training rides and race rides to cater for the broad interests and abilities of we “stokers” (riders with a disability).

Running the program is akin to a military operation.  The bikes take a significant amount of maintenance, adjustment and transportation; pilots and stokers require training; the organisation of participants in the various rides; the recruitment of volunteer pilots to maintain the program, and the teaching of organisational and bike maintenance skills to stokers to enable them to take a proactive role in the process.  FIT-Ability facilitates people with disability to participate in a range of public cycle events, and provides the opportunity for families to access tandem bikes so that they can ride with a disabled family member.

This is a group of amazing and truly dedicated people whom I am grateful and honoured to be associated with.  The cycling provides me with a sense of physical freedom to move through my environment, something which my loss of sight does not allow me to do.

I have developed wonderful relationships in a network of people which has improved the quality of my life enormously.  I have improved my physical strength and emotional confidence, and yes, I have even resorted to wearing lycra the same as every other cyclist in Canberra.  Who would have thought it!  All participants, whether having a disability or not – work together, we achieve together and we learn from each other.