Pretend you're cycling down one of the dangerous mountain roads in the legendary Tour de France - gears shifting, wind blowing, and speeds reaching close to 70 miles an hour. You are on an aluminum frame hanging over two wheels, each less than a half inch wide. The European crowds are going wild. Now pretend that you can't see anything around you.
You're beginning to understand what it's like to be a blind tandem racer. Tandem racers sit on new technology - racing bicycles built for two competitors. Riders combine balance and power to form a tightknit team. Ray Patterson of Escondido, Calif., is a blind American racer who has raced tandem in the Tour de France four times. This sport requires only one sighted rider. Since tandems sometimes race in conjunction with regular bicycle races, Patterson has found an avenue to compete.
For Patterson, a sharp awareness of his partner is important. And for his sighted partner, John Cavanaugh, who is steering the bike, a sharp awareness of the road is critical. Guiding a bike through tight corners or maneuvering in a fast pack requires more than just turning the handlebars.
In a training season, the two can spend as many as 10 hours a day together, working until they think and respond alike. This hard-earned cohesiveness is supplemented with a few vocal signals used in competition.
Choosing the right partner is obviously very important. According to Cavanaugh, a teammate is picked as much for his compatibility as his athletic ability. ``I think I could ride with anybody ... as long as they weren't too intense, but you definitely have to have some of the same interests.''
Patterson thinks that trust is the most important asset a tandem team can share. He explains, ``The team in front of you is only two inches away from your front wheel, the person behind you is about two inches from your back wheel, and you could have people on both sides of you ... so it's an absolute trust situation that you must understand that the person in front knows what they're doing.''
Patterson says racing opportunities for tandems come less frequently for American cyclists than for their European counterparts.
The tandem event in the World Corporate Games, held recently in San Francisco, provided an opportunity for a small number of blind racers to compete alongside sighted cyclists. Patterson and Cavanaugh finished sixth among close to a dozen entries.
From time to time, the Ultra Marathon Cycling Association offers races in many parts of the nation, but for the most part tandem events still come few and far between for those who enjoy competition.
Patterson wants attention focused not on his personal accomplishments but on the possibility of blind people getting a chance to enter the mainstream of many sporting events - even if it's with a little guidance from someone else. He sees tandems as one way to do that and tries to further the sport whenever he can.
Tandems aren't the only way for the blind to get into sports. Patterson, who enjoys cycling recreationally with his wife, Bobbi, a one-person pit crew when he's racing, encourages the blind to try sports like kayaking, sailing, or downhill skiing, or to do triathlons.
``You can participate in all kinds of sports, traditional sports,'' he says. ``The kayaking I did, for instance, was a two-person team, and the ability to see had absolutely no effect.''
He says, though, that organized events for the physically disabled can sometimes feel like ``watered-down freak shows.'' ``The problem is what the handicapped event is supposed to be is a ... base to move out and expand yourself,'' Patterson says. ``What really tends to happen by the handicapped people themselves and the sponsoring groups is to let them go only so far. The common denominator then becomes the handicap, not the hundreds of elements of a person that form the individual.''
Patterson, whose life reads like a boy's adventure tale, with three trips around the world, looks at his blindness not as a limit, but as another obstacle to overcome.
Sometimes he feels it allows him to focus better on the obscured beauty around him. ``Like in Tibet,'' he says, ``there's a certain radiant happiness that comes out of a really bleak environment. If you take a look at that landscape visually, there's nothing there.''
Patterson is fond of pointing out that he is not the only blind cyclist on the globe. Australian John O'Keefe, a friend, also races. Before losing his sight in an accident, O'Keefe was a bicycling champion in Australia, setting a number of records there that still stand.
An indication of O'Keefe's resilience occurred at the Tour de France three years ago, when the bike he was riding hit an oily patch during a downpour and flew out from under him and his partner. O'Keefe broke his collarbone, but finished the race.
Recently he helped to break the longstanding record for cycling between Perth and Sydney, slicing the old mark in half by completing the 2,500-mile trip in 11 days.
For both Patterson and O'Keefe, their bikes have become vehicles to something greater than athletic achievement.
``I think cycling is the way to experience the environment,'' Patterson says. ``You're able to be in touch with what's around you, and know a new freedom of understanding that you might not have had otherwise.''
O'Keefe speaks about the feeling of self-esteem cycling enhances. ``It's good to know you can ride across Australia or get out and compete with any sighted person,'' he says. ``Once you know you've done that, you know you can handle anything else in life.''