Legally Blind Couple Takes to Bikes, Skis

Husband and wife Bob Hartt and Bonnie O’Day of West End Alexandria are cycling enthusiasts who ride tandem with captains.


About this sponsorship: In honor of the 60th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary’s historic ascent of Mount Everest, Patch and Grape-Nuts are teaming up to highlight those who inspire people around them to climb their own mountains.

One nice spring afternoon or evening, you might spot West End Alexandria residents Bob Hartt and Bonnie O’Day on a bicycle built for two — or, in their case, on two bicycles built for four.

Hartt and O’Day, who live in Seminary Heights, are legally blind, but that hasn’t stopped them from enjoying cycling and cross-country skiing. The couple rides tandem bikes, which allows a guide—the captain or pilot—to ride on the front of a two-seated bicycle, and the visually-impaired person, called “the stoker,” to apply power as needed from the rear.

Hartt, who has a retina condition that has nearly destroyed his eyesight, said getting on a bike wasn’t intimidating.

“For me, it wasn’t, because I grew up with pretty normal vision, and I’ve lost vision gradually as I’ve gotten older,” he said. “ ... I skied downhill and cross-country before I lost my vision, so for me, it’s like what they say, it’s like riding a bicycle. You don’t forget.”

O’Day, who has vision in only one eye and grew up legally blind, rode bikes as a child, but in a neighborhood with little traffic.

“You do things as a kid that you would never do as an adult,” she said. “So, I hadn’t ridden for many years and certainly would never pilot a bicycle here. There’s just too much traffic for me to feel comfortable doing that. So, I knew how to ride a bike, too, and had ridden a tandem before, so it wasn’t hard to get used to it.”

Getting Hooked

Tandem-biking brings benefits to the bike captain, too, O’Day said. “One of our captains, somebody that I happen to work with, said, ‘Oh, this is great! It’s like having a little motor on the back.’ ”

The couple met after O’Day started a book club along with members of the Ski Club of Washington DC. Hartt heard about the book club—they both listen to audiobooks—and met O’Day when he joined. They married in 2001 and have lived in Alexandria since.

O’Day works in the district for Mathematica Policy Research, where she primarily evaluates federal policy. Hartt is manager for legislative affairs and program outreach for the Arlington-based U.S. AbilityOne Commission, which finds employment opportunities for people with significant disabilities.

The pair has cycled on the Washington & Old Dominion and Holmes Run trails and around Mount Vernon, Bethesda, Reston, National Harbor and Alexandria’s Dora Kelley Nature Park. They like to ride 20 to 30 miles at a time.

Hartt and O’Day began tandem bike-riding about a year ago. They’d always talked about doing it, so they bought two used bikes to see if they’d like it. “We got hooked pretty quickly,” Hartt said.

From Slopes to Trails

The pair rides on evenings and weekends. They also belong to a cross-country skiing group, Ski for Light, a group that aims to enhance the quality of life and independence of visually- or mobility-impaired people through skiing. They’ve skied in New England, Michigan, Oregon, Colorado and Utah.

Ski for Light matches visually-impaired skiers with partners who give them audible directions. The tracks in the snow from the guide’s ski help them know where to go. Both are on the Ski for Light board of directors, and next year the group plans to ski in Alaska.

Skiing actually led the couple to cycling, O’Day said. “We were kind of looking for an exercise that would help keep us in shape during the summer,” she said. “So that’s how we got interested.”

The only thing that made O’Day nervous about cycling was finding captains to ride with them. “But,” she said, “you keep at it, and when someone offers, you make yourself available when they’re available and you do what you can to facilitate making it happen.”

“We’ve met a lot of great people through this experience,” Hartt said.

“We have,” O’Day said.

Wien April 24, 2013 at 01:09 PM
Come on, can we leave the irrational dislike of all things biking out of a positive article on some very inspiring people who have nothing to do with the mythical cyclist you almost hit? Hatred of all bikers based on a small sample size is hardly healthy.
Wien April 24, 2013 at 01:14 PM
Though this article has nothing to do with irresponsible bikers, yes, they are ticketed. There have been operations on the W&OD, District, and Haines Point through various jurisdictions to ticket both pedestrians and bikers; and Patch has had several articles on pedestrians/bikers being ticketed or warned crossing Gallows. Regardless of sample size of bad bikers to bad drivers, a 20-pound bike with a 150-pound rider is not going to be a priority to police compared to distracted drivers in 3,000-4,000 pound vehicles. All that being said, this article is not about bikers versus cars, but about some amazing achievements in overcoming what would stop most folks to go on to bike and ski. Added to the many blind runners completing marathons and ultras, one of whom is seen running the W&OD at times, it's a reminder than no obstacle is too great and nothing cannot be overcome to do what you love. Let's leave it at that and leave out the "biker hate" for one article.
Ross McDonald April 24, 2013 at 07:32 PM
We went on Zip lines in Costa Rica with Bob and Bonnie about ten years ago. Imagine climbing a rope ladder 30 feet up a tree then stepping off a small platform into midair, zipping down the cable line at 50 mph to the next tree station 200 yards away. Yup it took a bit of courage for me to do it sighted, but since Bob went first I had to do it! Bonnie stepped right into her fear and sailed through the treetops also. There is no stopping this dynamic duo; they are always up for engaging in any of life's challenges and opportunities. Ross McDonald
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