Above: Jeff Gemar, tandem pilot, and stoker Lex Gillette, a Paralympic Games medalist, ride across the Coronado Bay Bridge during the Blind Stokers Club’s “Bike the Bay.” The organization’s next event, Cycling for Sight, is June 29-30 in San Marcos and will benefit the San Diego Center for the Blind. Members of public are invited to ride. Photo courtesy of Dave White/BSC
REGION — The Blind Stokers Club is more than a cycling club. Membership in this unique organization transforms lives through the alliance of its members — sighted, blind and visually impaired — as they share the joy of recreational tandem cycling.
Teamwork, mentoring and adventure underscore the simple pleasure of cycling with those who can’t see well enough to do so alone. All ages and athletic levels are welcome. Equipment is provided and membership is free.
Founded by Dave White in 2007, the Blind Stokers Club teams tandem cyclists and coordinates rides throughout San Diego’s cycling hot spots, including track cycling at the San Diego Velodrome and North Island’s Naval Air Station.
Sighted captains/pilots are paired “accordingly” to visually impaired or blind stokers. Tandem bikes are donated. Stokers receive clothing, equipment and transportation to and from all rides and social activities. The club even loans home-training systems for riders to spin independently.
The club no overhead, paid staff, or brick-and-mortar facility. Everything is done via volunteers, although the club chooses to sidestep the “v” word.
“We don’t use the ‘v’ word because we don’t feel like volunteers,” White said. “We’re an equal give and take of a two-person team. We collaborate to ride efficiently while having fun and sharing social activities.”
Seasoned cyclists become captains after completing the League of American Cyclists Smart Cycling Course followed by a training program with a sighted stoker to learn the special skills associated with pulling a heavier load.
“As a captain, I’m an extension of the athlete who rides without fear of repercussions,” said pilot Greg Smeltzer. “I can’t trip, crash, or run my stoker into the ground. I’m a tool just like the bike is a tool.”
Smeltzer described guiding as a win-win that “gives back while doing something that I love.”
“We befriend the athletes,” he continued. “We banter, laugh, chat, joke and groove into a rhythm. Pilots learn the stoker’s benchmark to establish and achieve goals. We empower each other, building on the good to promote ability rather than disability.”
Upon the loss of his vision 10 years ago, 65-year old Rocky Camp, a former veterinarian and triathlete, isolated himself into a depression.
“Disability makes a difference,” he said. “It’s hard.”
Camp moved to Southern California after learning about the Blind Stokers Club to become a more active member.
“The BSC enabled me to return outdoors to do things I love,” he said. “Captains are trusted without question. It’s wonderfully freeing. I pinch myself every time we ride. Members are generous, kind and eager to help. I’ve made lifelong friends.”
Today, Camp describes the challenges associated with his vision loss as opportunities for personal growth.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself and the world around me,” he continued. “I no longer take things for granted. The positive experiences I’ve shared with my family because of my vision loss has brought us closer together.”
Legally blind since birth, stoker Terry Meehan lauds the club as an “amazing and brave” endeavor whose real genius lays in its ability to solve the obvious obstacle.
“The Blind Stokers Club elegantly solved the fundamental problem stokers face — getting from point A to point B,” he said. “The simplicity of transportation created opportunities that we wouldn’t have if not for the planning and coordination of family and friends.”
The Kentucky native rides “fearlessly,” enhanced by a freedom to move his legs that sighted people wouldn’t think twice about.”
“The freedom to cruise downhill at 45 miles per hour is crazy, amazing and empowering,” Meehan said. “To pursue athletics for the sake of athletics allows you to grow physically and emotionally and discover what you can do.”
“Blindness is an agency, an independence one has to take back,” he continued. “Athletics supports an inherent dignity for doing your best without competition. Captains ride with pride — sharing what they love with a friend. The BSC is a familial community where the blind and sighted partner-up as equals.”
Meehan commended the valuable experiences made possible by the Blind Stokers Club.
“Participating in a team sport, that is working with someone towards a common goal, is a gift made possible for the unsighted — like me — because of the club,” he said. “Blindness can isolate. Tandem riding is a partnered activity that connects me with the rest of the world.”
White describes the efficient, unincorporated club’s philanthropic path as “unconventional.”
“The BSC uses a lean, no-frills approach that captures in-kind contributions with little cash,” he said. “We’re a true community service, modeled through the simplicity of team work.”
The Blind Stokers Club is a nonprofit organization that partners with the San Diego Center for the Blind as its 501 3 (c) partner.
“These partnerships transform strangers into friends,” White said.
Vista’s Carol Corcoran discovered the club from Vista’s San Diego Center for the Blind. The former swimmer and “never before” cyclist, was paired with Sabine, a “a terrific cyclist and a beautiful person.”
“We immediately became a pair,” Corcoran said. “We had a great time. I learned so much about the aspects of cycling, endurance and nutrition. To this day, I’m very active in the club not only for the cycling events but for the social events. The Blind Stokers Club has become family.”
The club has received multiple requests to open satellite chapters globally. White’s polite denial is accompanied by encouragement.
“We encourage others to use our simple, home-grown and no overhead approach to create a network of clubs tailored to suit local needs, resources and lifestyles,” he said.
The club’s annual fundraising event, Cycling for Sight, will take place in Vista and San Marcos on June 29 and June 30. Benefiting the Blind Stokers Club and the San Diego Center for the Blind, the weekend retreat includes daily riding routes, picnic lunches, a craft brewery social, and fun for the entire family.
“Cycling for Sight is a community fundraiser and reward retreat for members,” White said. “The event is an invitation for local cyclists to share the journey that comes from the enrichment of friends riding thousands of miles while enjoying good times in an around the club.”
Although the year’s bi-monthly rides are scheduled in January, many members conduct rides outside of the club’s orbit.
“The BSC is amazing a diverse group across generations and cultures sharing their love of biking,” Meehan said.
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Lucia Viti is a seasoned journalist, photojournalist and published author who covers all regions in feature and news reporting. Sporting a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from the University of West Virginia, she spent 20 years in New York in the fields of Public Relations, Advertising and Medical Communications. Her love for outdoor sports landed her in Carlsbad in 1999 where she segued into news and feature reporting. Her photographs are sold locally in artisan shops throughout the County.