Those of us with five senses firing on all cylinders have a tendency to take the simple things in life for granted. We rarely wake up and internally comment ‘I’m so glad I can just look out the window to see if it’s raining’. When we’re on the bike nattering away to a friend whilst focusing our eyes on the road ahead it rarely occurs to us that a deaf person who needs to lip read to hear simply can’t have that conversation.
The difficulties that a deaf person is presented with in cycling aren’t always visible, but they are there. This said, as deaf rider Fiona Brookes tells us, they’re far from insurmountable.
Brookes came to cycling when a back injury prevented her from continuing to compete in tennis, where she represented GB at the Deaflympics on multiple occasions. A Podiatrist by profession and mum to two daughters, she became a member of Redhill Cycling Club, and has been riding for four years. Last summer, she completed the Raid Alpine, a 754km ride featuring a whopping 16,212 metres of climbing (where she was also the only woman... a whole other type of being 'different' more of us will identify with).
Having personally ridden with Fiona on countless club runs and Mallorca trips, I can say with confidence that as well as being one of the sunniest personalities I know, her past sporting achievements and athletic build mean she’s incredible on the climbs and a hard wheel to follow. It occurs to me as I type that the only time we ever miscommunicated was when Fiona told me we were riding ‘100 miles, but flat’ and it turned out 40 miles in that we were heading to Puig Major (a 14km climb in Mallorca). Only now, having spoken to her about how being deaf affects her as a cyclist, do I realise that the ‘out of control’ feeling that comes from being in the middle of a group ride with no idea what the upcoming terrain will hold is something she experiences on a regular basis.
Deaf with a big D
Describing her approach to the ‘D’ word, Brookes, tells me: “Some people are deaf with a big D, other people deaf with a small d. If you’re deaf with a big D, you’re totally involved with the deaf community, your social community is deaf, or you’re deaf with a little d, where you’ve opted not to be very much in the deaf community and you’re sort of getting along in the hearing community. I think it’s great to have a balance of both. I think I’m deaf with a big D. It comes down to how you’ve been brought up. I have a deaf family, I was born deaf and I’ve been brought up as a deaf person, rather than a hearing person who has difficulties with hearing."
Brookes took up cycling initially to gain the fitness fix she missed from tennis – saying: “To begin with, cycling was more about fitness. My husband Nick [who is also deaf] was doing lots of cycling for triathlons and I tried that – but I was riding his bike, and I was getting so sore – I thought maybe I wasn’t made for cycling. Then we went down to the shop and they said ‘er, but the bike is too big!’ – I changed the bike and that was it, I’ve never looked back. Then it was less about exercise, and more about the social element - going out, seeing places you would never normally see. Going to the Alps on a bike not in a car. How much better can you get than that?"
"Going to the Alps on a bike not in a car. How much better can you get than that?"
Brookes joined the cycling club her husband Nick belonged to, but it wasn’t easy initially. Four years ago, she had a Cochlear Implant fitted. This involves an operation to fit an electronic system that stimulates hearing – and allows deaf people to hear more sounds at a greater range of frequencies. It made a big difference. Brookes tells me: “If I was any more deaf – if I didn’t have the Cochlear implant, I don’t know how long I would have managed in the club. The thought that we were going to get to a tea break and you wouldn’t be able to understand anything, and you couldn’t be yourself. I loved the cycling and I thought ‘I’m just going to have to tolerate the tea breaks.’ Now I’ve had the implant, things have changed dramatically. Being able to stop for a tea break and think ‘wow, I can actually listen to this person’ and have a meaningful conversation with them. So that has helped a lot. Being deaf you are limited there."
Silent riding is still sociable
Now that Brookes can enjoy tea stop chat, she’s got two remaining struggles: explaining to people she can’t talk and ride, and dealing with the way most ride directions – changes in route, information about upcoming climbs, descents or sudden bends, are communicated via voice. Both are issues that can be overcome as long as people realise they’re there.
"We talk all our lives, it's nice to ride in silence too."
Brookes explains: “People have got to know me now, they know not to talk to me as we’re moving along. I just can’t look away from the road [to lip read]. I have to be focused on where I’m going. Hearing people can just talk and look ahead, I can’t do that. I don’t mind – but it’s awful when someone keeps trying to talk to me – I have to say ‘it’s really nice that you’re trying to talk to me – but I really can’t! Let’s talk at the tea stop! But please stay there because it’s lovely to have you next to me’. We talk all our lives, it's nice to ride in silence too."
Brookes talks a lot about control, and the struggle of not knowing where the ride is headed: “On a club ride, most of the time I have no clue where I’m going. I didn’t hear where we were going at the beginning. And when we set off in a certain direction, I’ll think ‘ah, we’re going to Kent’ or ‘oh we’re probably going over to the Surrey Hills’. So you’re guessing as you go along. Or maybe people might change things along the way and I wouldn’t know. So you’re cycling a bit blind. I often don’t know if a climb is going to be long, or if there’s a steep descent with a sudden bend. So when I cycle with a group of totally deaf people, it’s so lovely. You’re in total control, it’s a very different cycling experience, and we’ll stop to discuss where we’re going if something changes. But I do love cycling with my [hearing] club. It’s really enjoyable and I’ve got to know people riding various sportives, and people have got to know me, so they know who I am, why I don’t make conversation on a bike, so now I feel a lot more equal which is lovely."
One thing that you might imagine to be an issue is cycling in traffic, but Brookes tells me that concerns here certainly don’t need to put deaf people off cycling. She told me: “People ask me how I cope with things like a car being behind me. But how is me being deaf going to change things? As long as I hold my line. And when I turn, I’m going to look. There’s no problem unless something has to change on the road for me, and I look every now and then. If a car then zooms in front of me, it might surprise me, but there shouldn’t be an issue. I’ve been cycling now for quite some time, and I’ve not had any close scrapes. So I reckon I must be doing it right. So as far as how I’m holding my line and dealing with traffic it is ok."
People that know Fiona and understand that she deals with difficulties most of us don’t make an effort to help make life easier. Strangers can be less sympathetic. Describing her London 100 experience of 2014 she says: “My hearing aid conked out because of the rain – it was awful. Such a bad experience. Lisa [my friend] told me some guys were saying to me ‘move out the way’ and she had to say to them as they passed ‘she’s deaf, she can’t hear anything’. And on Raid Alpine when we went up a Col in really bad rain, my hearing aid went again, I couldn’t hear anything on the descent. It was weird. So they put my hearing aid in the van and turned on the heater, and it worked."
The Raid Alpine trip was tough – an undertaking such as this meant lots of logistics, lots of planned stops verbally communicated – but Brookes was never going to let her lack of hearing get in the way – she says: “Setting off in the morning, you’re not really with it. You don’t know when you’re going to stop. But it was minor in comparison to the experience we were having. I thought ‘I’m not prepared to let that bother me’. It wasn’t easy, but you have to be determined not to let these things bother you, otherwise you would never do it. It was an incredible ride. On the first Col, I couldn’t believe how many more we had to go – but by the time we got to Nice [754km later] it just felt like you could keep going forever."
Advice for deaf cyclists
Deaf and thinking of taking up cycling? Brookes couldn't recommend it more - and gives us some advice: “First do your research, see if can join a group of deaf cyclists, just whilst you’re trying to improve and get to a stage where you can join a club. Get your road sense first, because going straight into a club as a beginner could be nerve racking. When you join a hearing club, persist, eventually people will work out what you’re about, just persevere, it will get easier. If you just want to go out on your own, then no problem – but it’s nice to cycle with a group whilst you’re learning the ropes."
We hope you found Fiona's story both as inspiring and as insightful as we did. We're always thrilled to feature an unsung hero - check out more interviews with incredible women in cycling: