It’s what creates so many success stories at The Seeing Eye.
What makes this particular Seeing Eye story different is that no guide dogs are on the team.
“It’s like any team sport. You and your teammate really have to know each other and what you’re going to do,” said Jim Kutsch, president of The Seeing Eye, after pedaling to Marty’s Reliable Cycle in Morristown on Wednesday to register for the Gran Fondo NJ.
Gran Fondo is Italian for “big ride,” and there will be three of them--103 miles, 63 miles and 43 miles– starting and ending in Morristown on Sept. 18. Two of those loops will include timed hill-climb competitions with prizes for King and Queen of the Hill.
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Jim, who is blind, rides in the second seat of a tandem, a position called the “stoker.” Up front is the “captain,” Seeing Eye volunteer Rob Steidlitz of Morristown.
Jim’s wife Ginger, also blind, rides as stoker for Rob’s wife, Kirsten Hotchkiss. Kirsten describes the terrain and calls out commands to pedal harder or signal a turn. Occasionally, Ginger gives the instructions.
“‘Can you shift into an easier gear?’ That’s my favorite command,” Ginger said.
The two teams are not likely to stick together during the 43-mile Piccolo Fondo in August.
“They’re much faster than we are,” Rob said of the wives.
Proceeds from the Gran Fondo will benefit The Seeing Eye, Grow It Green Morristown and Homeless Solutions Inc.
Fundraising is difficult these days, Jim said, and he is glad for the chance to showcase The Seeing Eye, which pairs nearly 300 blind people and guide dogs annually at its headquarters in Morris Township.
“What we do makes an incredible difference in the lives of blind people,” Jim said. The Seeing Eye will host a rest stop on ride day.
Marty Epstein of Marty’s Reliable Cycle has patterned the Gran Fondo NJ after European Gran Fondos. His courses, which head west from Morristown into hilly terrain, are deliberately tough.
“It’s not an easy ride,” Marty said. “But people who do Gran Fondos do not want easy rides. This is a ride that will challenge people, and it will go to places other rides don’t go to.”
About 500 people have registered so far. Prices range from $79 to $129, depending which ride you choose and when you sign up. Marty also seeks volunteers. A green expo, local rides, kids activities, and the Fourth Annual MorristownGreen.com Film and Music Festival are among the festivities planned for the Gran Fondo NJ weekend of Sept. 16-18.
The Seeing Eye teams were cheered at Marty’s on Wednesday by Morristown Councilwoman Rebecca Feldman; Simon Gallery owner Harry Simon and Lala, the seventh puppy Harry has raised for The Seeing Eye; Stephanie Litwin and Peggy Grow, area volunteers who also raise puppies for The Seeing Eye; and Bill Ruddick, who competed last month in the first Marty’s Commuter Challenge.
“Many other towns get tremendous economic benefits from being a cyclists’ destination. Morristown offers cyclists much more than a destination, but a dream home-base,” said Rebecca, who plans to ride the same loop as the Seeing Eye teams. She was excited to help “three of our fantastic nonprofits.”
Cyclists also used the occasion to appeal to motorists to share the road.
Linda Wells, a Dover resident who rides in a tandem club called Doubles of the Garden State (DOGS), brandished a bandaged hand. A motorist veered in front of her bike a few weeks ago in Denville, sending Linda and her husband to the pavement.
Kirsten chimed in with stories of close calls with motorists on her training rides with Ginger.
“The biggest issue is cars trying to beat us, making right turns in front of us, passing us on the right. They don’t gauge how fast we’re going,” said Kirsten.
There are other hazards for Kirsten and Ginger. Like tree branches.
“She ducks, and I get it,” Ginger said with a laugh. “But she breaks all the bugs.”