How blind cyclist Alice, 82, got back on her bike

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When Alice Watson, 82, lost her sight she had to give up the bike she relied on, but a chance meeting changed all that. Catherine Scott reports

As someone who relied on her bike to get her everywhere, great-grandmother Alice Wilson was left devastated when she was forced to give up cycling after losing her sight.

The 82-year-old from Pickering became partially blind around four years ago and, despite laser treatment making a difference, she had given up hope of ever getting back in the saddle again.

All that changed following a chance meeting with Rob Brown, from Scarborough and Ryedale Community Cycling, who introduced her to the Coast and Dale Yorkshire Bank Bike Library

“My bike meant everything to me,” says Alice. “When they said I couldn’t cycle any more I was devastated, especially as I have never driven. That’s when I happened to meet Rob while walking my guide dog Quaver.”

Run in partnership with Yorkshire Bank Bike Libraries (YBBL), along with charity Sight Support, the scheme offers blind people the opportunity to ride tandem on restored unwanted bikes for free.

The project has given Alice – who has seven children, 14 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren – a new lease of life and the chance to fall back in love with cycling again.

“I have been partially sighted for four years, ever since my husband Kevin had a stroke and passed away,” says Alice.

“It was the pressure of looking after him that caused all the blood vessels to go wrong in my eye. I went to my doctor and he sent me straight to Scarborough Hospital. If I hadn’t gone then I would have lost my eye. I struggle with faces and when I realised my vision was going, I just cried and cried because I could hardly see until I had the laser treatment. I’ve never driven a car – as I used to cycle everywhere. I didn’t want to give my bike up because it was my main means of transport, but it got taken away and I never saw it again.

“Then one day Rob was walking his dog and I was walking my guide dog. We started talking and he introduced me to the Yorkshire Bank Bike Library and asked if I would like to ride a tandem.

“I told him I would love to and I’ve done it ever since. It’s wonderful to be back on a bike and we went to Leeds and did about 20 miles on one of my first rides. It felt like I had my freedom back and just being able to hold the handlebars again was great. It was the bee’s knees.”

Initially Alice went on a side-by-side bike where she sat next to a sighted cyclist, then she took to the tandem.

“The bike is everything to me. If I see one I just want to get on it,” says Alice, who worked for more than 25 years at Thomas the Baker.

“I would always cycle to work and me and my husband would go on cycling holidays, We had big panniers fitted to our bikes. Every Sunday we would go for a long ride.”

With the help of Sight Support in Scarborough Alice tries to get out as often as possible.

“I would go out every day if I could, but I have to fit in round Rob. But cycling is everything to me. I even went on a cycling holiday but we ended up falling off and I ended up in a ditch. I just couldn’t stop laughing, it was brilliant.”

There are 57 donation stations across Yorkshire where unwanted and unused bikes are donated and refurbished for use across 61 libraries where people who don’t have access to a bike can borrow one for free.

The project was launched as a legacy of the Tour de France Grand Départ in Yorkshire in 2014 – in addition to Yorkshire Bank sponsoring the Tour de Yorkshire since the first race in 2015.

So far more than 6,000 bikes have been cleaned up, repaired, avoided landfill and are now available for children and families to borrow for a range of activities. These include guided rides, basic bike skills, maintenance courses or simply just for riding. Having written off ever being able to ride a bike again after doctors told her there was nothing they could do for her, Alice admits she doesn’t know where she would be without the scheme.

“Yorkshire Bank Bike Libraries help so many people and it’s given a lot of people, including myself, a chance to do things they couldn’t do beforehand.

“It’s a wonderful thing that they’ve started, and I love it. 
I’d never heard of it before 
Rob introduced me, I didn’t know there was such a thing, but it really is a fantastic scheme.

“It was a wonderful feeling getting back on the bike again, you can’t explain the feeling you get when you’re on a bike – the feeling I got was absolutely amazing.

“Meeting Rob and being introduced to this project is one of the best things I could have ever done, because he got me back riding again. The help I get from the scheme means everything to me.”

Rob Brown runs the Coast and Dale Bike Library, part of the Scarborough & Ryedale Community Cycling Centre, from the unique venue of Scarborough Victorian Prison. He has no doubts about the impact it has had on Alice’s life.

“Since joining the scheme, Alice has blossomed as it’s 
given her a new sense of purpose.

“As an elderly lady, it’s easy to feel a bit invisible, but Alice has become an ambassador for the scheme.

“She always talks to other people about it and encourages other members of the sight support group to have a go.

“It’s been lovely to see how it’s given her a new sense of direction.”