Blind cyclists set sights on Alaska

Christiana Bruchok didn't learn how to ride a bike solo until she'd already travelled on one from Argentina to British Columbia. "I felt like I was 10 years old," Bruchok, 32, said of her first circles and figure eights.

Christiana Bruchok didn’t learn how to ride a bike solo until she’d already travelled on one from Argentina to British Columbia.

“I felt like I was 10 years old,” Bruchok, 32, said of her first circles and figure eights. She was “stuck” in Dease Lake, B.C. with her boyfriend, Tauru Chaw. The two are riding a tandem bike from Ushuaia, Argentina to Deadhorse, Alaska.

They’ve been on the road for nearly 18 months and expect to finish their trip in the next few weeks. They stopped in Whitehorse last week. But their trip was stalled when Chaw, 43, tore his Achilles tendon.

The weather was nice, so she mounted the bicycle. After a few tumbles, she ventured out on her own.

“I rode to the gas station just to buy a soda because I could,” said Bruchok.

But she won’t be ripping down busy streets soon.

“I’m still not sure how I’m going to do with traffic,” Bruchok admits. “I’m still like the eight-year-old that you have to keep in the driveway.”

Cycling can be difficult when you’re legally blind. Bruchok has, once corrected, 20/200 vision, which means she has to be 20 feet away from objects most people see from 200 feet away. And because her right eye is completely blind, she doesn’t have any depth perception.

Driving a car? Out of the question. On the tandem, she sits on the back.

That’s not unusual. What is unique is the fact that her captain, Chaw, is legally blind as well. So much for a sighted guide.

This really confuses people, said Chaw. Most people don’t know he has a visual impairment, he said. Bruchok has nystagmus, which means her eyes move uncontrollably. She can’t focus on people. Strangers notice that.

But it can be harder to tell Chaw has a visual impairment – and his sight is set to get worse. Chow was officially diagnosed with retinitis pigementosa when he was 30. It’s a degenerative, hereditary condition that means the photoreceptors in his retina don’t pick up light and are slowly dying. He can’t see at night, and during the day he views the world as if seeing it through a toilet paper roll.

He doesn’t have peripheral vision, so as a child he was often banging into things. “All my life I knew there was something wrong,” Chaw said. But because he’d grown up with it, he grew accustomed to the limited vision he had.

Neither Bruchok nor Chaw have let their visual impairments hinder them much. The two first decided to take up biking when they were backpacking through Asia several years ago. They met a man in India who was travelling on a bike, and they decided to give it a try. They’ve already biked across the United States.

This trip was Chaw’s idea. “He said, ‘Do you want to go travel the world?’” Bruchok remembers. “And I said, ‘Yeah.’” So they quit their jobs in Phoenix, Ariz. and flew to Argentina in January 2012.

They’re not raising money, but they do want to increase awareness. They visit students in schools to remind them not to make assumptions about others’ abilities. And when they stop by schools for the blind, they remind students not to be bound by the expectations others put on them.

Bruchok summarizes their message this way: “Only you can know what you can do, and you’ve got to keep pushing yourself to do that.”

But not every culture teaches this.

In many South American countries, there just isn’t a wide cultural shift to support independence, said Chaw. Some teenaged students arrive at schools for the blind unable to bathe themselves, not because they can’t, but because no one taught them, he said.

And other places just don’t have basic things – like ramps and railings – to support independence for people with disabilities, said Bruchok.

“My perception is that the heart’s there, (but) the techniques for engaging with the visually impaired person is not,” said Chaw.

Things are better in North America, but there’s still a lot people can learn. Some people will still take them by the arm and ask if they’re OK, even after they’ve explained how they’ve cycled by themselves from South America, said Bruchok. “And it’s like, ‘Gosh, we got here OK without you.’”

Sometimes people try to build a connection by talking about how hard it is to see without their glasses. But the analogy doesn’t always work, said Chaw.

Neither are able to correct their vision. He can’t stop by Wal-Mart and purchase a new pair of eyes, he said.

“I want to tell them, ‘Get on your bike, throw your glasses away, and ride that thing and see how it feels.’”

How does it feel? For the most part, pretty good.

They’ve only taken seven tumbles, said Chaw. But they have been travelling pretty slowly – their pace is about 16 to 18 kilometres an hour, he said.

“We try not to get too much speed because that could be problematic,” explains Bruchok.

Chaw may be the captain, but he can’t always tell what colour streetlights are, so Bruchok has to tell him when they can stop. She tried riding in front once, but it was hard for her to listen to Chaw. When she rides, she has to constantly remind herself to look at the horizon because her eyes don’t focus on it naturally.

“If you look at the ground, you will fall over. It’s just not possible. You have to constantly remember, ‘Focus on the horizon, focus on the horizon.’ And I have to keep telling myself that the whole time, otherwise I forget,” she said.

“Hopefully, one day it will come naturally, but for now I keep thinking, ‘Horizon, horizon, horizon.’”

And those horizons include the Yukon. They saw the start of the Yukon River Quest while they were here. They’ve got the bug, and want to return to paddle the Yukon River, said Bruchok.

Bruchok and Chaw have been chronicling their adventures online. You can visit their website at www.twoblindtoride.org.

Contact Meagan Gillmore at

mgillmore@yukon-news.com

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