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Colorado Springs cycling camp gives blind athletes a leg up in competition

By: Chhun Sun
May 13, 2018 Updated: May 14, 2018 at 2:03 pm
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The United States Association of Blind Athletes, or USABA, hosted its annual Tandem Cycling Development Camp May 10-14. The group of 24 pilots and stokers have been training on the roads of Colorado Springs and the Velodrome. Pilot Samantha Goldenstein (front) and stoker Stephanie Zundel ride up Gold Camp Road on Sunday, May 13, 2018. The stoker is the visually impaired cyclist and the pilot is the sighted cyclist. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Tandem bicycling isn't as simple as one may think. It's even harder when you can't see where you're going.

A small group of blind and visually impaired cyclists worked on their ascending and descending skills on the paved section of Gold Camp Road in Colorado Springs as part of the annual Tandem Cycling Development Camp hosted by the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes, or USABA. Three women and three men from across the country were paired with "pilot" riders, who sat in the front of the tandem bikes and gave instructions to their partners about when to slow down and speed up as well as providing a description of their surroundings.

They were training on a road just above Bear Creek Regional Park where cars regularly zipped past them.

Since 1993, the USABA has organized a camp for athletes with Paralympic aspirations. It has taken place at the Olympic Training Center of Chula Vista in San Diego, but in recent years the organization has focused on bringing the athletes to train in Colorado Springs, thanks to such amenities as the U.S. Olympic Velodrome and the area's ideal landscapes for road cycling.

It has produced stellar athletes, including Paralympian gold medalist Pam Fernandes. She now helps coach the athletes and coordinates the camp.

"Through training and hard work, a lot of good role models and coaches, I was able to succeed and win every major competition in the world," Fernandes said. "That's not everyone's goal, but we're here to open the door and to give them the opportunity to take the sport as far as they'd like to."

The five-day camp started Thursday, providing riders with bike-handling skills, safe riding techniques and road and track racing strategies through training at the Velodrome and one-on-one coaching. It ends Monday with a 20-kilometer road trial race for times that the athletes can use to enter competitions.

"We have had proven success in identifying riders, including our blind veterans, who go on and compete in regional and national races," Mark Lucas, the USABA executive director, said in a statement. "Like sighted people, the blind can share in the thrill of victory and the reality of defeat."

In general, tandem bicycling is not an easy thing to do.

Samantha Goldenstein learned that this past week. A sergeant first class stationed in San Antonio, she is a cycling enthusiast who has competed in races over the years. But she wanted to try something new and became a coach at the tandem camp.

Goldenstein was partnered with Stephanie Zundel, a blind cyclist from Nashville, Tenn. They got along right away. But both learned early on that they needed to communicate with each other.

"I know how to control my bike but it's different when you have someone on the back doing different things," Goldenstein said. "You gotta learn how to communicate and work together."

"It's important to stay on the same page at all times," Zundel said.

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