There was a time when Pune-based Nupur Pittie enjoyed riding her bicycle solo. All that changed when she discovered the world of tandem cycling around five years ago. The joy of sharing her ride with another person was quite unlike anything she had experienced. Since then, she’s gone on a number of cycling rides and expeditions around the country.
“The first time I rode a tandem bicycle, I fell some five times over a very short distance. But since that day, I’ve gone on to ride with 15 different partners. I just don’t enjoy cycling alone anymore,” she says.
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Tandem rides have made cycling accessible to many people with disabilities (PwDs). One of Pittie’s first teammates was Sanket Bhirud, who has permanent blindness due to a condition at birth. While swimming was his forte as a youngster, he discovered cycling a few years ago. His first few rides were solo and in a controlled environment—in his building compound or while being accompanied by someone on a motorcycle late at night. He enjoyed those experiences thoroughly, but yearned to ride longer distances. Folks like Pittie made it possible for him.
“Tandem cycling is a game of coordination. I have to completely rely on my sighted partner when it comes to navigation. On the other hand, the other person relies on my actions for a smooth ride. For instance, when there’s a hairpin bend that needs to be tackled at a high speed, it’s my responsibility to control the rear wheel from sliding and transfer my weight accordingly,” says Bhirud, who hails from Mumbai.
The basics of tandem cycling begin with coordination between the pilot, the one who leads the ride, and his partner at the back, the stoker. There’s a lot of verbal communication at the start, which soon makes way for an implicit understanding of what needs to be done based on the pilot’s actions. “Riding a tandem cycle is not hard at the start. It’s only when you are looking at performance, say during competition, that things get difficult,” Bhirud says.
At the same time, there’s a fun element too. Tandem cycling starts with two people on board the same bicycle, sharing jokes and stories when the going gets tough. With a blind rider around, there’s another job on hand for the pilot, who has to bring to life the landscape around them. Pittie says it has made her a good storyteller over the years. “I started connecting with nature very differently, so that I could describe what I see in the best possible way,” she says.
With two riders pushing together, there’s also a common misconception that riding a tandem cycle is easier than riding solo. “It’s twice the weight and the rolling resistance doubles. Hence you need more power to push ahead. Most forget these basics,” Bhirud says.
Three years ago, Bhirud met Arham Shaikh, who widened his horizons by exposing him to the world of competition. The work on coordination became more intense while tackling difficult terrain, doing high-speed descents or negotiating traffic en route, especially given the longer frame of the bicycle. During the early days, Shaikh even rode blindfold to understand what he could do to make his partner more comfortable.
“The efficiency of training drops because you have to focus a lot on synchronisation and communication. There is a lot of unlearning and relearning I have to go through because each individual is different. And I am the one who has to lead them. But today we’ve reached a stage where we’ve found other means to communicate. If I set my pedals in a certain position, my partner is aware that we are approaching a speed breaker. Then, if I reduce pressure on the pedal, it is clear that I’m going to switch gears,” Shaikh says.
Last year, Niket Dalal became the first blind Indian athlete to finish an Ironman, facilitated by Shaikh. Shaikh had to supervise everything, from heart rate to power training—for himself as well as his partner. The first few weeks were spent just working on synchronisation, after which they could focus on performance. In the months ahead, he hopes to participate in an Ironman with Bhirud.
As part of their preparations, Shaikh and Bhirud raced the Great Himalayan Ultra in Ladakh this year—a long-distance cycling race from Leh to Dras and back. To gear up for the inclines, they took on the Sahyadri Classic in 2020, a race that features a 2,000-metre elevation gain over 90km. Shaikh remembers being at the end of his tether, until Bhirud pushed him on. “I was running on fumes and his pep talk did wonders for me. That is how it goes back and forth, where we are always trying to help each other,” Shaikh says.
At the heart of it is a trust factor and deep respect that is developed after spending many hours in the saddle. Divyanshu Ganatra lost his eyesight as a teenager and founded Adventures Beyond Barriers Foundation in 2014 to spread the word on inclusivity when it comes to the disabled. Tandem cycling became one of the mediums—first around his hometown of Pune, followed by gruelling expeditions from Manali in Himachal Pradesh to Khardung La in Ladakh. He remembers a time when he realised his pilot was in trouble due to altitude sickness and insisted on stopping instead of pushing on. Another time, he asked his exhausted captain to put his legs up and navigate, while he did all the heavy pedalling.
On a lighter note, he recalls having a flat tyre towards the end of one race, when in a moment of madness, the two decided to carry the bicycle and run with it until better sense prevailed. During another ride, he remembers his pilot taking off without him at the back.
“It’s never going to work if the pilot thinks he is this champion captain who is going to do all the heavy lifting, while taking his blind partner for a ride. He has to understand what skills I bring to the table. And I need to pull my weight to earn that respect. That’s when you develop a language of understanding, a deep bond. A lot of things happen unconsciously there on,” Ganatra says.
“By default, cycling is a solo act. But tandem cycling makes it a team activity where you can motivate and push one another, while also looking out for each other. I always say if you want to marry someone, go on a tandem adventure and if you survive it, you are fit to get married,” he adds, chuckling.
When the odds are stacked up, breaking into a Bollywood melody or cursing the bad roads is welcome relief. Just realising that there’s another person in it with you makes all the difference. The highs are shared, as are the lows, while getting across the finish line.
At the heart of these activities is a message—that of inclusivity. One of the main goals is to sensitise others such that tandem cycling becomes the norm instead of a unique occurrence. Shaikh hopes that they can inspire more people to take up cycling, including able-bodied riders, so that there are more pilots in future. Pittie swears that having the right person on board is like riding a bicycle with wings.
“The relationship is like that between a husband and wife, a sister and brother, or a teacher and student. You’ll have your differences, there will be challenges along the way. But the idea is to treat them as equals. And once a blind rider puts faith in you, the partnership is unlike anything between two sighted people,” she says.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.
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