Turning Pedals and not Moving

If you’re going to compete in any sport, there’s one thing you have to do: train. When it comes to being blind and a para-cyclist, things can get a little more tricky. Trying to coordinate a pilot and stoker so they can find time to ride together between family and work commitments is tricky.

If you’re following Tandem Armidale on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or Google Plus, you’ll tend to see when we get out on the tandem, often at lunch and on weekends. The rest of my training is done solo, but how does that work for someone who only has light perception?

In a post on Facebook earlier this year, OzTandem stoker Matt Formston said “…managing pilots and developing and maintaining relationships is the biggest part of being a tandem stoker. Riding an ergo is also a big part and it’s just part and parcel.”

Trainer attached to the rear wheel of a bicycle

The axle of the trainer goes through the rear wheel axle, while the roller at the bottom left pushes against the wheel.

For those not familiar with an ergo trainer, it’s a device that clamps onto the rear wheel of your bicycle, and presses a resistance roller against the rear wheel. While there are some fancy variations, including expensive electronic devices like the Wahoo KICKR, (or a complete bike like Watt Bike) which can monitor power outputs and provide variable resistance to simulate a particular road course, a basic model can be had for under $100.

But being unable to see anything other than light sources limits my ability to track and record my training. While Garmin seems to be the device maker of choice for many cyclists, they’re not built with someone who can’t see in mind. Cyclists with little to no vision are not a big market segment.

Meanwhile the not-so-humble iPhone has emerged a a great tool for people with low and no vision. iOS comes with a built-in screen reader, Voice Over and with apps for Optical Character Recognition, Colour Identification and Light Detection, to name a few examples, a set of tools that make life easier are available at a comparatively small cost. While you pay for an iPhone, the devices that these apps can replace were once sold for almost as much. (As an aside, Android has been playing catch-up in a accessibility game for some time, and now offers a similar experience, and possibly at a lower price point).

You can replace a one of those high-tech cycle computers, such as a Garmin, with an iPhone as well. Strava, Map My Ride, Training Peaks and a slew of other training tracking sites offer iOS apps, with varying levels of accessability. At present, Strava is reasonably easy to use with VoiceOver. I’ve not tried any of the other site based training apps recently.

Strava doesn’t provide a great interface when you’re trying to read real-time stats, and if you can’t see the screen, its harder to find the small targets on the screen with your finger while on the trainer.

However Wahoo Fitness is here to help. Wahoo produce a variety of sensors and devices for cycling, running and other fitness tasks. Initially working with ANT+, they produced a key for the iPhone so it could communicate with that protocol. As of the iPhone 4S, they’ve produced devices that use Bluetooth LE, and now a new set that support both ANT+ and Bluetooth 4.0.

Beyond the hardware, they also produce the Wahoo App for iOS and Android, which turns your device into a complex cycle computer. Using wireless sensors and a bike mount for your phone, you can potentially use this in place of a Garmin.

The app will give you a variety of information, depending on which sensors you have. You can set up screens to give you live and average statistics, and most usefully, at least for me, automated audio announcements.

You can set up the app to announce a variety of statistics based on a number of events. These events can include elapsed times, laps, heart rate data and gestures. Data can include distance, time, current speed, average speed, current heart rate, average heart rate, heart rate zone, cadence and more.

So here is my set up:

Bicycle on trainer

Wahoo SC on the chain stay

The Wahoo speed and cadence sensor.

I have Wahoo Fitness set up to give me announcements of my heart rate each time I move between zones, and also to give me an overview of statistics periodically. For most rides that’s every 5 minutes, however, I have some other options set up should I wish to use different intervals.

The Wahoo App Screen shotBeyond that automated stuff, the app works well with VoiceOver. As the display is laid out much like a classic cycle computer, with large fonts the areas to touch to get spoken feedback via VoiceOver are easy to find for spot checks of current stats.

Using the timed audio announcements, I can keep track of my performance on the trainer, and if I’m doing efforts I use the times announcements to track those.

Wahoo summary screenOnce I’ve finished a ride, the Wahoo App then provides a neat summary screen, which includes some graphs and the like. You then have the option of exporting to third-party sites such as Strava, Training Peaks and Map My Ride where you can share and compare with others. Beyond that, though, you can email or export to drive services like Dropbox where you can potentially manipulate the data to your hearts content. Exports happen as gpx, tcx (Training Centre XML from Garmin), pwx (Training Peaks XML), CSV (Comma Seperated Values), wf (Wahoo Fitness? – it’s a headed Comma separated data file) and PDF (of the app’s result screen).

I upload my trainer sessions to Strava, because they do one thing well: Heart Rate Zone analysis. Strava present a simple break down of the time spent in various zones as a table, which is easy to understand with a screen reader.

Strava Heart Rate Zone screen shot

The simple breakdown of time and percentages for each zone is easy to understand with a screen reader

My post-ride analysis, whether on the trainer or a tandem ride in the great outdoors, is still a little lacking as most tools graph ride data. This makes sense, as a lot of data is gathered and graphing is a great way to display the information. It just doesn’t help when you can’t see the graph. I’ve been playing, on and off, with some text-based analysis in perl which gives me some idea of the trends on a given ride. Sometimes, though, there are some things you just can’t replicate in text.

It’s a fundamental fact of being blind that you miss out on visual data. However, as I’ve described above, it’s possible to get access to a reasonable amount of this information to manage a training program. Technology, such as modern cycle computers, bring a lot of training data that wasn’t available before, but they’re not generally accessible if you can’t see. Other tools, such as iPhones, can bring at least some of that information to someone who can’t see. As we move forward, technology can be a great leveller of playing fields, but it can be hard for some of us not to be left behind.

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