Cotswold cycling: When a tandem means freedom
PUBLISHED: 09:31 27 July 2017 | UPDATED: 09:36 27 July 2017
The Reeves family, from Dursley, have always loved cycling through the countryside with daughters, Hannah and Charlotte. But as Charlotte, now 19, grew older, her special needs made cycling increasingly difficult. Their solution – Charlotte’s Tandems – is now an innovative UK-wide charity, as Katie Jarvis discovered
It’s a tough climb up Stinchcombe Hill. The old ways lead through shadowed woodland, sunlight dappling the leaves; until, as you near the peak where the skylarks nest, the vale opens out before you: down to the sparkling Severn and the ancient Forest beyond. That’s when you realise it was worth all that strenuous footwork.
You can see the hill from the Reeves’s sitting-room window. It’s one of the places they head on family walks or for cycle rides in the valley below – there, or to the open spaces of Cam Peak, behind them.
We’re sitting looking out at it today, when a school-taxi pulls up.
“It’s Charlotte!” 17-year-old Hannah exclaims, with a warmth and pleasure that are striking; and she immediately gets up to greet her older sister.
And then Charlotte appears, accompanied by the hustle and bustle of the end-of-a-school day. Bags dropped; DVD chosen; telly turned on
“Would you like to go out on the tandem?” her dad, Alex, asks, despite the drizzle outside.
Charlotte’s answer is unhesitating. “Yes, please!” she signs.
Charlotte doesn’t have just one tandem – she has 100. One hundred tandems based all over the country, for people to borrow for free. People just like her. People for whom getting on a bike and cycling out into the countryside would normally be impossible.
These people are children with autism; adults who are blind; the elderly, with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s: all sorts of needs. But they have one thing in common: thanks to Charlotte and her family, they can all climb onto a saddle, let the wind ruffle their hair, stick their noses into the breeze and inhale deeply the scent of spring flowers spreading their pollen or hay being cut; enjoy the speed; feel the pedals rise and fall under their feet.
Charlotte, at 19, is a joy and a pleasure. She sits beside me on the sofa, gently touching my shoulder, getting to know me in her own way.
Of course, as with all teenagers, that’s just one side of the picture. Charlotte has severe learning difficulties and autism, which means, for her, that she cannot talk. Her behaviour is often delightful; sometimes erratic and challenging.
But there’s one thing guaranteed to give her pleasure: going out for a cycle.
“Charlotte really enjoys it,” her mum, Kate, says. “She likes the sensations; she likes the noise.”
“She even likes going over potholes,” Alex laughs. “This last week, we’ve had the wild garlic coming out and all the muck-spraying, and she loves that. One of her favourite things is to whizz down a hill, very fast.”
How does she express her pleasure?
“She’s often smiling or making a happy, screeching noise. We’ve got picture-cards – a photograph of the tandem – and she’ll ask to go out on it when she comes back from school, whatever the weather: rain and snow. In fact, she loves the wind and the rain in her face.”
It’s a hobby that stretches back over the years. When the girls were little, Alex and Kate would take them out on tagalongs – half-bikes that attach to adult frames. This is a family who prefer to leave the car on the drive and get out under their own steam.
The problems began when Charlotte turned eight. Always tall for her age, the tagalong began to be impractical: physically, she was big enough to ride her own bike; mentally, she just wasn’t able.
“Charlotte doesn’t understand the dangers,” Kate explains. “She doesn’t understand how to use the brakes - she set off out of sight, once, and came back with a black eye. We knew she wouldn’t be able to cycle on her own.”
Many families might have given up at this point. The Reeves do things differently – they went out and bought a tandem. The transition was so smooth, they can’t even remember putting Charlotte on it for the first time. With dad providing the guidance and pedal-power, she loved it from the off.
It’s a fun machine, a tandem, better known for its ‘Daisy, Daisy’ romantic associations than as a therapy. But the Reeves quickly realised they were on to something. It’s easy – and understandable – to want to protect a child with special needs to the point where only disabled-friendly (and often expensive) activities seem suitable. Here, however, was something the family could do together, at minimum cost and maximum fun.
“And because Charlotte loved it so much, we thought it would be nice to have one to lend to another family, such as her classmates at school,” Alex says. “So I applied to the Tandem Club and asked if anyone had a spare bike we could buy cheaply. Someone came back to us, knowing what we wanted it for, and said, ‘I’ve got one you can have!’”
The owner was a visually-impaired chap, who’d moved from flat East Anglia to Teignmouth in Devon, “where it was too hilly – he couldn’t get anyone to ride with him! So I took him for one last ride, and then brought the tandem home.”
That was in 2010. Within a couple of months – without Alex even asking – two more club members offered tandems: one from a lady whose husband had died; another from a man whose children had grown up, leaving the bike gathering dust in the garage. Before they knew what had hit them, the Reeves were running a charity: Charlotte’s Tandems.
“I just thought: How come no one has ever done this before?” Alex says.
One of the great pleasures of running the charity is seeing how children and parents can gain confidence in a matter of minutes. Alex will take the youngsters for a trial ride: “I’ll meet the parents turning up in their cars with the child belted in, all looking terribly worried about how he or she will cope. They’ll often say something like, ‘I’m sure he’ll jump off the bike as it’s going along’, and I’ll say, ‘Don’t worry – just walk with us, if you want to.’ We’ll start with mum or dad jogging alongside, and, finally, we’ll be sprinting down the road. When we turn round and come back, mum will be looking relaxed and happily waving.”
Six years on, Charlotte’s Tandems has got 25 depots run by volunteers all over the country, from Inverness in the north, to Plymouth in the south west, and Belfast over in Northern Ireland. As well as tandems of all shapes and sizes, they lend out – always for free – tagalong bikes, tandem trikes and a tagalong trike.
Alex works fulltime in Bristol, and Kate works part-time, teaching pupils with dyslexia at the local secondary school. Sometimes, it seems as if every spare minute is spent answering charity emails. But, like a walk up a steep hill, the view from the top makes it all worthwhile.
“You get comments like, ‘It’s the first time we’ve ever been able to ride as a family’. Or, ‘It’s given my son confidence to ride on his own.’ Blind people say they love to hear the sheep bleating as they go along the road. For some people, it’s the only exercise they do. It gives people freedom. Lots of people with disabilities think they have to go off in a car somewhere, to some specialist activity that costs a fortune. Whereas, they can just get on a bike and go where they want.”
The charity lends out each bike for two-month stints. If no one is waiting at the end of that time, the borrower can keep hold of it – or reapply to have it again. “Quite a few have gone on and bought their own bikes,” Alex says.
Charlotte herself is president of the charity and always goes to the AGM.
As for Hannah, she might not be as keen on cycling as she once was – A levels are currently taking priority – but she’s always supportive.
“And whenever there’s a spare tandem,” she adds, “I always want to be on it!”
If you would like to borrow a free tandem or tagalong for someone with special needs or disabilities, visit CharlottesTandems.co.uk