Mettle tested, blind racer takes medal
Wendy Werthaiser was just starting to get serious about bike racing about four years ago when she realized she couldn’t do it anymore.
The degenerative disease that had already stolen her mother’s eyesight – cone-rod dystrophy – had sunk its teeth into Werthaiser’s, and the Ashland Middle School language arts teacher was forced to accept that riding fast was out of the question.
Werthaiser’s racing ambitions were too big to quit, though, and since she couldn’t replace her failing eyes she decided to do the next best thing and borrow a pair. Now part of a tandem racing team with Jennifer Sharp, an accomplished solo rider from Colorado, Werthaiser is a newly crowned national champion.
Racing for the first time since placing fourth in the 2019 Pan American Games, Werthaiser and Sharp earned a double victory at the USA Cycling Para National Championships recently in Boise, Idaho, winning both the women’s tandem time trial on Friday, July 9, and the women’s tandem road race two days later.
Both wins were special for their own reasons for Werthaiser. Standing on the podium following the time trial win, she became emotional when the announcer told the audience that Werthaiser was racing for Flywheel Bicycle Solutions, the Talent bike shop that sponsors her which burned down in the Almeda fire.
The road race proved to be the perfect cap to a great weekend. Werthaiser and Sharp had talked for years about how fun it would be to cruise to victory across the finish line as Werthaiser threw her hands up. When the opportunity presented itself at nationals, they didn’t pass it up.
“So as we were getting close to the finish (Sharp) was like, ‘OK, this is it. I’m going to get down … so you need to get up and swing your arms crazy,’” Werthaiser said.
Did she do it?
“Oh heck yeah,” she said, laughing, “I screamed like a 12-year-old.”
The duo completed the time trial in 52 minutes, 38 seconds, about nine minutes faster than the second-place team from Clackamas despite wiping out while making a U-turn, and won the road race in 1:58.28, about 10 minutes faster than the runners-up from New London, New Hampshire.
Werthaiser was still in her 20s when she found out that she had cone-rod dystrophy and would eventually lose most if not all of her eyesight. She was able to bike for years before it became unsafe to continue riding alone, and that’s when she began looking into the possibility of tandem racing.
“I know that there lots of blind athletes out there so I started investigating and seeing what other people do that have visual disabilities,” she said.
She found an organization that holds a training camp at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, about four years ago. For somebody who was used to riding alone, almost everything about tandem biking was new. Riding in back as the stoker, Werthaiser had to learn how to work well with her partner, the pilot.
Once she adjusted to the weight distribution and balancing act, however, Werthaiser was surprised at how quickly she became comfortable with the arrangement.
“Actually, it was very easy for me,” she said, “because to be on a single bike myself requires a lot of concentration and focus in order to be able to see and pay attention and take in everything in order to be safe. Being on the back of a tandem I really get to let go of that kind of responsibility. All I have to do is focus on pedaling as hard as I can. I don’t have to worry about obstacles, I don’t have to worry about the hill that’s coming up or the sharp turn.”
From the pilot’s perspective, Sharp said, chemistry develops over time and goes far beyond the sport’s physical demands. You have to be strong, of course, but tandem bikers must work with synergy. “Because,” Sharp said, “if they’re pushing and you’re not pushing or vice versa then you’re wasting energy. You have to figure out not only how to communicate when to push but you also physically feel that motion together.”
That on-the-bike chemistry usually develops over time, Sharp added, but that’s not enough. What she has with Werthaiser is a product of much more than synchronized pedaling and sheer leg power.
“In my experience that I’ve had with other stokers I think the chemistry off the bike is so much more important,” Sharp said. “You’re helping them on the bike, yes – you’re their eyes and you’re their engine guiding them through this. However, I’m going to push so much harder for someone’s that there is mutual respect for than somebody who is not a very nice person. And Wendy is an incredibly nice person.”
Trust is also vital, especially from the perspective of a stoker, who pumps her legs madly, whistles past signposts with reckless abandon and leans into corners – all without the benefit of functional photoreceptors. In Werthaiser’s case, the world looks like a Claude Monet painting. Her central vision is mostly gone, so she relies solely on her remaining peripheral vision.
“You can kind of make things out to what they are but you can never fully bring it into focus,” she said. “So for me, it’s that that’s the tricky part. I might be able to see a large mass of something but there’s no telling – is that a shadow from a tree or is that the back of a pick-up truck?”
In Werthaiser’s case, it’s usually not the back of another biker. She also has a victory in the 2019 track nationals under her belt, and finished fourth in four different events in Peru during the 2019 Pan American Games. Now, she’s about to start training for the next big race even though she’s not sure what that will be. That means about 100 miles of riding every weekend, 4 a.m. wake-up calls, and the joy of stationary bike duty. She’s game.
“I don’t know what’s next,” Werthaiser said. “I know I’m going to continue training after I take a couple weeks off here. And then hopefully by the beginning to the end of September we’ll know what’s the next competition.”
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org.