My most heartfelt thanks to Geza Fenyo for sharing his cycling experiences with me. This story, one of my favourites, was a really hard one to cut from the book. If you find Geza’s chapter inspiring, imagine how the stories that make up One Block North will make you feel!
In his soft-spoken manner, Geza Fenyo—a forty-four-year-old with a slight build and an enormous heart—has been recounting his many training rides for me while his mother listens behind us on the couch, her hands folded in her lap. She speaks little English, but she occasionally interrupts Geza in Hungarian, to explain things he might miss.
“I like the recreational Trailblazer rides, but I prefer riding with the TBN for my longer training rides,” he explains. The TBN (Toronto Bike Network) offers social rides for cyclists of all speeds, talents and mindsets. “I’ve done short city rides through the Don Trail, the Humber Trail and to Toronto Island, and longer country cruises to Markham and Stouffville. A couple of times I’ve done a century ride to Caledon,” he smiles gently in my direction.
“Wow. That’s a lot of riding!” I gasp, feeling exhausted just listening to him.
“Actually, it’s not enough,” he smiles again.
His mother gently tells him how many pages I’ve written and how fast my hands are moving. The son wouldn’t be aware of this detail, because he’s blind. He trains this hard because he is also a paralymic hopeful.
“Oh!” he turns to me, his voice full of concern. “Should I slow down?”
“Not on your life!” I exclaim, not wanting to be a weak link in this powerhouse’s chain. We all laugh.
Unfortunately, Geza can’t yet compete, because there aren’t enough captains—in this case, sighted people who ride in the tandem’s front seat—available. He waits on the sidelines for someone to step forward, but until then, Geza is training hard.
When I meet someone who is disadvantaged, I usually feel the motherly urge to brush their hair from their eyes. With Geza, I’m overwhelmed with the desire to beg advice from him.
In Budapest, Geza suffered retinal detachment and lost his sight at the age of fifteen. Unfazed, he continued to live an active life. He’s competed as a wrestler, a swimmer, a runner and a cyclist. In Canada, Geza was introduced to tandem cycling.
“How can you do all that?” I ask as I write. “I mean, you’ve got to be fearless!”
“It’s just my personality. Sport gives a person confidence to confront problems directly,” he smiles warmly. I admire the mother as much as the son: it must be hard to overcome the desire to protect him.
A tandem is exactly like any other bike: it has two wheels and both riders have their own handlebars, seat and pedals. The cycling experience is identical but better, especially if you like speed. Unlike a regular bike, because there are two riders you ride as a team. The two positions are captain and stoker. The captain sits up front and is the brains of the operation; the stoker is the brawn. This position is ideal for Geza’s situation but he insists that if you’re a sight-impaired stoker and want to compete, you must be skilled enough to facilitate the ride for your captain.
“What’s it like to get a new captain?” I wonder, thinking how unnerving a new pairing must be.
He laughs. “Don’t think about I’m a blind person. Just go!” Geza has been taking captains out on orientation rides and pairing up tandem couples for several years. The best recreational couplings are usually one weak/one strong, while the best competitive couplings are always two strong. Geza has a preference for someone socially knitted to his own soul, because of the inter-dependence. Any team is only as good as the weakest member and Geza does not intend the weak link to be himself.
Geza loves to train in Toronto events. He joins city rides like the Ride for Heart and the Ride for Rouge. He prefers cycling the Don Valley because it allows him to do hillwork. This year, he has taken on the Ride for Cancer, which is two century rides (one hundred kilometres, each ridden over twelve hours or less) back to back—one day to Hamilton and the next day to Niagara. The Trailblazers offer a bike-a-thon each year, which he wouldn’t miss. I resist the urge to look under the tablecloth to see if he’s plugged in.
Some of Geza’s touring captains have also been mountain bikers. I think he hears my heart stop because he grins at me reassuringly.
“Don’t worry! Trails are manageable but scary.” The trails are very narrow and often captains are unwilling to take a tandem on a technical course. He knows only one captain who is willing to do trails with him. For these rides, they take a crossover tandem rather than the Trek touring tandem he uses for his recreational rides.
All of Geza’s competitive captains are also trialthetes, which has resulted in Geza being invited to join the national training team. For these races, he competes at Olympic distances (a fifteen hundred metre swim, a forty kilometre cycle, and a ten kilometre run.) This year he’ll enter three major trialthons: in Kelowna, B.C., in New York City and in Colorado. He also enters all the Toronto half marathons. I peek at his mother, who is beaming. She rises and shows me a heavy box of medals. I recognize a lot of the race names.
His training schedule is rigorous. On Saturday mornings, he runs. If he has a guide, they run at Leslie Spit where he doesn’t require feedback on obstacles and direction.
For the cycling element, he has various options. If TBN is offering a long ride and a captain is available, he rides on the weekend. He and his captain visit the CNIB shed—where the club’s tandems are stored—two to three times a week; otherwise, Geza uses the stationary bike in his gym. On Friday mornings, he takes spinning classes at the YMCA.
I ask gently, “Isn’t your having to manage all your training around partner availability a little frustrating?”
His kind response is “A little bit, yes.” Proudly, he names those men and women who have partnered with him over the years, offering their time and talent to help him succeed.
For the swimming practices, Geza trains with his triathlon coach. She books a dedicated lane for them at a pool, which allows him to swim at his own speed, which I’m imagining to be ramming speed.
There are both intrusive and non-intrusive techniques for coaching a sight-impaired athlete. For his swims, his coach touches his body. On a tandem, Geza can feel when it is time to lean into a turn, when an incline or decline requires him to sit forward or back, and when to let loose. Cycling requires the least intrusive coaching.
Unfortunately, tandem training is only possible outside the city. Although he and his captain seldom need to talk to each other, the captain has to speak repeatedly to drivers and pedestrians on city streets. Geza only hears about potential doorings and cars parked in lanes, people stepping unexpectedly into traffic and drivers who cut them off because they misjudge the bike’s speed.
On runs, Geza races tethered. Geza’s mother hands me a photo of Geza racing beside a guide. I see the tether, which is attached to a very young man towering above Geza. Geza stands about my height (5’8″); he has a runner’s lithe body. The barrel chested guide looks to be about 6’5″; Geza tells me at the time of the photo (two years ago) the guide was twenty-eight. He’s running slightly behind Geza. I suspect the tether is useful to prevent the guide falling behind.
“I have trouble finding guides who can keep up with my four minute pace,” he says slightly disconsolately, confirming my suspicions. “I’m currently running with a thirty-eight-year-old.”
Out of curiosity I ask, “What do you estimate your time will be at the triathlon?”
“I should finish at about two and a half hours.” My eyes widen further. Geza can only enter three races this year because tandem bikes are considered dangerous by the insurance companies. Tandems are frequently not allowed to draft during a race. You ride as if in a time trial, in this case. Many Toronto races disallow tandems entirely, complicating Geza’s training schedule. And while cross-training would be invaluable, most technical mountain bike courses in the area disallow tandem use.
As I shake his hand, Geza says, “Why don’t you captain a tandem ride with me?” Such an opportunity would let me experience it for myself, and I’ve only ever sat in the stoker seat.
My heart stops, and then it does a somersault. Actually, I can’t wait! I will be riding on the shoulders of a giant, and seeing the world better, through his eyes.