Jul 8, 2024

Blind Guy Biking: Enduring the Trails for Stargardt

Beacon Stories

DIY Campaign Success Stories

Chris Smith, a mountain bike enthusiast who was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, transformed his bike into a lifeline after losing his driver’s license. Now, 15 years later, he’s tackling the grueling 2,745-mile Tour Divide race while raising funds for the Foundation Fighting Blindness.

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Chris Smith describes himself as an endurance athlete and a mountain bike coach. But Chris admits that years ago, he never would have imagined the path he is now navigating.

Chris had always loved mountain biking growing up, but he stopped riding in college. In 2000, Chris was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, which was a complete shock. Although Stargardt disease is an inherited disease, no one in his family had ever been affected before him. And when Chris lost his driver's license in 2009 after being declared legally blind, he turned to his bicycle, which became more than a mode of transportation; it became his lifeline.

Chris riding his bike on a trail with trees surrounding him.

Every morning, regardless of weather or season, Chris mounted his bike. He pedaled to work, to daycare, to the grocery store—each ride a testament to his resilience. His coworkers noticed his dedication, and they invited him on weekend rides, and Chris eagerly accepted. He then started searching for more challenges and got competitive in races.

"At first, I spent more time crashing than riding, but eventually it started to click, and with help from advances in bike technology, I progressed and was eventually able to hold my own when riding with fully-sighted riders," says Chris.

When participating in a group ride, Chris doesn't often tell anyone about his visual impairments.

"A lot of times, it isn't an issue, especially on something where we have smoother terrain, or I know the people," says Chris. "I just follow along with everyone else, and no one can even tell."

Now, 15 years after being declared legally blind and getting back on the bike, Chris is honoring this milestone by taking a solo challenge called the Tour Divide. It's a grueling race along the Great Divide mountain bike route—from Banff, Canada, to the Mexican border. It's the longest mountain bike route in the world, stretching 2,745 miles. Chris aims to conquer it in just 35 days.

"I'm both terrified and excited; I mean, it's objectively monstrous," says Chris. "The idea of spending over a month riding a bike every day, 80 to 120 miles a day on dirt over mountain passes, is huge. On the other hand, I get to ride my bike every day, and I get to do it in some of the most spectacular places. So I feel pretty lucky I get to do this."

Chris' bike, which is adapted for his visual impairments, has sports-wide tires and suspension to absorb unseen bumps. He'll also use a GPS computer with an easy-to-read display perched up high so he can easily see it while he rides. Alone on the trail, he'll navigate both physical and mental challenges.

"I'll be thinking about family, friends, the support I have back home, and all I'm able to do," says Chris. "Before I was diagnosed with Stargardt, I couldn't ride a bike for more than a couple miles. And now to be taking on a challenge like this, that's something that will really motivate me, just being able to reflect on where I've been and where I'm going."

Chris is also riding for another purpose: to raise funds and awareness for the Foundation Fighting Blindness.

"They're the organization that is driving the research that's on the leading edge; they're pushing new technologies and new options for people," says Chris. "That's why I've chosen to do my fundraising and awareness for the Foundation Fighting Blindness."

Chris started the Tour Divide on June 14th and will be filming a video travel log along the way for supporters to follow his journey. Ultimately, Chris hopes his fundraiser will continue to further the Foundation's mission of driving treatments and cures for diseases like Stargardt disease.

"When I was diagnosed 24 years ago, they told me not to expect any significant research into Stargardt," says Chris. "Now there's so much research going on, and I can't keep track of everything, so it's exciting. I am really optimistic about the future of potential treatments for myself."


To follow Chris' ride and support his fundraiser for the Foundation, visit BlindGuyBiking.org.


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This Beacon Story is sponsored by Johnson & Johnson.