Difficulty is often a matter of perspective.
Riding a bicycle 24 kilometers from Arad to Masada and a day later taking on a course of 125 km – including 1,873 meters of accumulated vertical climbing through the wild scenery of the Scorpion’s Pass and Hatrurim windy climb – would be regarded by most people as an all but impossible challenge.
Almost anyone would agree that doing so without being able to see is nothing short of ridiculous. But that is exactly what Oren Blitzblau is setting out to achieve next weekend when he will ride a tandem bike with partner Yossi Pocker at the Israeli Gran Fondo which will take place in the Dead Sea and the city of Arad over March 23-24.
Tandem is a para-cycling classification for cyclists that require a sighted pilot for a non-sighted rider.
A Gran Fondo is an Italian tradition of a major cycling event on a challenging route closed to traffic.
This will be the sixth time it is being held in the Dead Sea.
Blitzblau, who has never previously competed in the event, was severely injured in a terrorist attack in Gaza during his IDF service in 2005 and was rendered permanently blind. He had been a promising swimmer prior to his army service and turned to riding a tandem bike as part of his rehabilitation process.
In time, Blitzblau began participating in para-triathlons. In 2012 he came in seventh in the world championships, and second in the European championships. In 2013, he moved up to fifth in the world and, in 2014, won a bronze medal in a World Paratriathlon event in Madrid and first place in a sprint in Brazil.
He was honored as an outstanding soldier by IDF Chief of Staff Lt.- Gen. Gadi Eizenkot in 2015.
Blitzblau, married and the father of two, was released from the IDF after 20 years of service in September 2014 and currently works as the mentor of the social responsibility program at Sygnia, an elite cyber consulting and incident response firm. He also gives talks explaining the cyber world in schools, as well as lectures about his personal story, including in English.
“Nothing is obvious after an injury like that. There is no such thing as a certainty after a terrorist explodes in your face,” Blitzblau told The Jerusalem Post. “You have to first learn to breathe and then move and understand that you have lost your independence.
You receive your independence back when you get a guide dog and after that you might learn how to ride a bike, but every rehabilitation process has its own rhythm. It doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with the healing of the physical and mental wounds.”
As crazy as it may sound, in many ways the Gran Fondo is just a preparation race for Blitzblau ahead of his main target in the upcoming summer, taking part in a full Ironman competition in Sweden.
The Ironman Triathlon consists of a 3.8-kilometer swim, 180km bike ride and a full marathon of 42.2 km. Blitzblau has completed half-ironman events in the past, but this will be the first time he is attempting the full version.
“I like to work salami style [a divide-and-conquer process of eliminating opposition ‘slice by slice’], taking small steps each time,” he explained. “I’m not 18 anymore.
I’m 42 and I also have to see how things work out with life at home and the kids.
“My upcoming goal is the Gran Fondo and at the end of April I’ll take part in the half-Ironman competition as part of the Jordan Valley Triathlon. Then in the middle of August I’m planning to do a full Ironman event for the first time in Sweden.”
The 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo could become a target for Blitzblau should the International Paralympic Committee decide to include a race for the blind at the Paratriathlon, which wasn’t the case in Rio.
For the time being, Blitzblau is focused on racing with Pocker in the Gran Fondo, which will include 1,000 riders from 30 countries, including five local tandem teams.
“Yossi is the definition of a professional when it comes to tandem,” said Blitzblau. “He’s one of the most experienced riders in Israel. He has been competing for 40 years and has been riding tandem bikes over the last decade.”
The 55-year-old Pocker was still racing at the elite level not that long ago, but has increasingly turned his focus to tandem over recent years, including trying to promote the sport in general in Israel.
“You need to first of all understand the limitations with which your partner is dealing. To understand his concerns and fears,” said Pocker, trying to explain what it takes to be a captain of a tandem team.
“There are riders who just want to go as fast as possible and there are others who are more cautious.
The person riding at the back has absolutely no control. I’ve tried it and whenever I train a rider to be a tandem captain I always let them also see how it feels to be riding on the back.
“Cycling for me began as something which I would do by myself, but when you are with a blind rider you are essentially responsible for him,” he added. “You have to communicate all the time and with someone like Oren who can’t see at all you have to explain everything you see.”
Pocker is hoping that by next year he will be able to set up several more local tandem teams and bring blind riders from abroad to create a true race at the Gran Fondo.
In the meantime, he has his sights set on registering the best possible result with the inspiring Blitzblau.
“It is a great gift to be able to help someone realize their dream by simply riding a bike with them,” noted Pocker. “It makes you feel great and is a true privilege.”