Life Health & Wellbeing

Thursday 20 June 2019

Celebrities and visually impaired cyclists saddling up to raise €1m for Fighting Blindness

Visually impaired Peter Ryan and his Ronan Holahan
Visually impaired Peter Ryan and his Ronan Holahan
Aine Lennon, one of the tandem cyclists taking part

Ailin Quinlan

Some of Ireland's most high-profile chefs and businessmen are preparing to don their cycling shorts and saddle up for the cycle of a lifetime later this month.

Superquinn's Eamon Quinn; Derry Clarke of the Michelin-starred l'Ecrivain restaurant (below); Ross Lewis from Chapter One; Larry Bass, producer of Dragons' Den; and Tom Roche from the National Toll Roads are among some 100 cyclists who have been in training for months for the formidable Paris-to-Nice charity cycle.

Derry Clarke.jpg
Derry Clarke

Taking place between September 20 and 25, the event aims to raise around €1 million for 18 charities.

However, while it's certainly no cake-walk for the 100 or so riders taking part to raise funds, the challenge facing three visually impaired cyclists and their pilots participating in the event on tandem bicycles will be a significant one.

The trio will be piloted throughout the 700km journey in a bid to raise money for the Fighting Blindness organisation.

Former welder Peter Ryan (24) is one of the riders with impaired vision taking part in the journey, which takes in some breath-taking countryside and the picturesque towns of Montargis, Nevers, Carpentras, Aix-en-Provence and St Maxime before arriving in Nice.

From Drombane near Thurles in Co Tipperary, Ryan was diagnosed with a hereditary eye condition called Leber's Hereditary Optic Neuropathy four years ago.

"I'd noticed something was up in March of that year and went to my GP," he recalls.

"I was referred to Waterford Regional Hospital where I had three or four months of tests."

He finally received his diagnosis in July 2010: "It is hereditary but as far as we know has only occurred in a very distant relative.

"Over the space of nine months in 2010 my central vision went completely. I am left with peripheral vision, but I can only see shapes rather than specifics," he explains.

He was working in the construction industry as a welder at the time, but had to stop and switch to labouring work for 18 months after being diagnosed.

The diagnosis came as a "bombshell" recalls Peter, who is starting college this month.

He plans to take a sports programme in Strength and Conditioning at the Limerick Institute of Technology's Thurles campus.

Fighting Blindness, he recalls was hugely supportive during the transition - Peter received support with everything from counselling to practical issues like mobility and lifestyle advice, to receiving the necessary encouragement to get back into sport.

However, before any of that, he had to come to terms with a seismic lifestyle change dictated by the condition.

"I was very sporty. I'd played hurling and football all my life, I was on the Tipperary Minor Hurling team in 2008 and loved sport.

"It took me at least two years to come to grips with my situation and the loss of sport left a huge void. However, through Fighting Blindness I learned I could go back into sport," he says.

He's currently training for up to three hours a day, six days a week, and is really looking forward to the challenge of cycling from Paris to Nic.

"It will be great fun - everyone who is on the cycle has a story. They're all doing it for a reason and there is genuine goodwill there."

Peter will be piloted throughout the event by 47-year-old Ronan Holahan, who is closely linked with the Fighting Blindness organisation.

Not only is Ronan a member of the board of Fighting Blindness, but one of the founding members of the organisation is a Holahan family member.

Ronan has another strong link with the organisation - his seven-year-old daughter has been diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, which is a family condition.

Although it has not affected her sight, he says, a number of members in his extended family network have some form of visual impairment, while some uncles who began to lose peripheral vision in their 30s and 40s, were blind by their 50s.

"Some years ago our family started fundraising to pay for research by the genetics department at Trinity College Dublin into the gene that causes Retinitis Pigmentosa in the family.

"The research project is being managed by Fighting Blindness," explains Ronan, who also participated in the Paris-Nice cycle last year, raising €15,000.

"Last year I went from being overweight and unfit to being very cycle-fit," he quips.

He's strongly aware of the different responsibilities involved in being a pilot: "There is a bit of technique but you will pick up 80pc of it in the first hour in terms of balance and pedalling. Turning can be a bit more difficult," he acknowledges.

He is also aware of the challenge involved in supporting and enabling a visually impaired person to complete such a cycle: "I only hope that I am up to the job!"

Being a pilot is a challenging prospect, agrees Aine Lennon, another of the Fighting Blindness tandem cyclists participating in the trip.

Aine.jpg
Aine Lennon, one of the tandem cyclists taking part

"Cycling tandem requires careful co-ordination and the pilots have a lot of responsibility," she says.

"They have to keep up a running commentary on the road ahead and tell you when they are changing up and down gear.

"You have to concentrate carefully and synchronicity is very important - it is definitely more complicated than cycling an ordinary bike," says the 23-year-old from Borris, Co Carlow.

Being born with the rare eye condition Retinal Dystrophy meant Aine was severely short-sighted from birth.

Her eyesight deteriorated further in 2010 when she experienced retinal detachment in the left eye - this eventually left her completely blind in that eye.

Three years later, in December 2013, a cataract in her right eye meant she had to have an artificial lens implant.

"However, my sight was not good - I now have peripheral vision in my right eye with some impaired central vision, but my left eye is blind," she explains.

Aine only began cycling in February and March of this year. She holds a degree in business from Carlow Institute of Technology and had always been involved in sport, but had to give it up after her sight deteriorated.

She became involved with Fighting Blindness and after hearing about the Paris-to-Nice Cycle, and began training for it.

"I managed to find someone with a tandem bike in Carlow and I go out twice a week doing 64 kilometres each time.

"I've also taken up rowing, which is certainly helping out as I am training four times a week.

"Rowing is great for endurance and strength," she says, adding that two pilots - Aisling Tohill and Tom Metcalfe - will share the job of navigating her on the trip.

"The two pilots are based in Dublin, but we meet up to train together every now and again. In the meantime they're training in Dublin themselves, while I'm training with a local man in Carlow who has cycled all his life and is as fit as a fiddle, so he's perfect!

"I can't wait for it - the countdown is on! I haven't done this before, it's totally new to me and I don't know what to expect but I hear that it's great craic!

"People who have done it before tell me it's a life-changing experience so I'm really looking forward to it."

While there are a number of women participating in this, the fourth year of the cycle - Aine; Fighting Blindness Senior Fundraising Manager Audrey Jones; and Ronnie Saul of Roly Saul's Restaurant are three of them - about 80pc of the cyclists are male.

"There are 10 people on the Fighting Blindness team, and we're hoping to raise about €70,000," says Audrey.

Other charities set to benefit from the cycle include Console, Barretstown, Cerebral Palsy Sport Ireland, Cystic Fibrosis Ireland, Headway, the Irish Hospice Foundation, Laura Lynn House, the Make a Wish Foundation, the RNLI and the Irish Cancer Society.

"The event is great fun - it's a challenge, but doing it for charity really motivates you," she adds.

"I made some great friends on the trip last year, it's life-changing! I hadn't sat on a bike for 20 years, but I became involved in sports again, made some fantastic friends and raised money for charity, which was something I had never done!"

To support Team Fighting Blindness visit fightingblindness.ie/donate.

For more information on the Paris to Nice cycle or to donate to any of the other charities involved, visitparis2nice.com.

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