Scott Kurtz has always been into sports and exercise. That’s why he chose to be a physical therapist.
After earning his degree in physical therapy, Kurtz and his cousin bought bikes and rode 1,860 miles from Minnesota to Maine. The duo rode 80 miles a day, camping two nights a week and staying at a hotel every third night to clean up. When they reached their destination, they celebrated with some lobster before riding to Boston to take a plane back home.
They didn’t train for the ride, but at 24 years old, Kurtz wanted to see that part of the country before he lost his sight.
By the time Kurtz was 30, he was legally blind.
As a student at the University of North Dakota, Kurtz noticed he was having trouble seeing the board, prompting a visit to the optometrist. Kurtz thought glasses would fix the problem, but an exam revealed he had spicules in his eyes – a symptom of retinitis pigmentosa, a rare disease that affects 1 in 4,000 people in the United States in which the light- sensitive retina of the eye slowly and progressively degenerates.
An electroretinography confirmed the findings and Kurtz knew he would go blind someday.
Kurtz was diagnosed in 1996, came to Bakersfield in 1998, stopped driving in 2002, was legally blind in 2003 and stopped working as a physical therapist in 2012. He worked for the Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired from 2015 to 2017 before going back to school to study computer science.
Kurtz’s condition is more severe than other retinitis pigmentosa cases. He says he’s “pretty close” to total vision loss. He has no central vision and while he still has some light sensitivity, Kurtz can’t see his hand in front of his face except under “perfect conditions.”
“I saw my first son born,” Kurtz, now 45, said. “But next year when my second son was born, I wasn’t able to see his face.”
I’m With the Band
As a singer with the Bakersfield First Church of the Nazarene worship team, Kurtz met guitarist Todd Bentley.
During Bible study, they talked about Kurtz’s ride from Minnesota to Maine and Bentley, who’s constantly pushing himself to discover what the human body can endure, was naturally impressed.
“I’ve done marathons, ultramarathons, 24-hour runs around the park – anything and everything that makes you question if I’m sane or not,” said the 38-year-old, who works in the IT department for the Kern High School District.
Bentley, a Bakersfield native, has been cycling for over 10 years. After witnessing someone riding a bike to work one morning, he went to Target and purchased a bike, riding it “until the pedals fell off.” He then transitioned to road cycling after being constantly told he needed to get something faster.
It wasn’t long before the idea of entering an endurance race on a tandem bike materialized.
“I don’t know if I actually asked Scott to do it or if it was more, ‘Hey, I think I have a bike for us and we’re going to sign up for this race,’” Bentley recalled.
The latter was “more how I remember it,” Kurtz said, laughing.
Broken Chains and Water Under the Bridge
Working with Action Sports owner Kerry Ryan, Bentley and Kurtz were able to get a tandem bike for the Solvang Century, a 100-mile race taking riders around rural routes in the Santa Ynez Valley and Central Coast region.
In addition to riding on stationary bikes at home, the duo went on a couple of practice rides on their Santana tandem bike.
The first took them from Beach Park through Hart Park, up Rattlesnake Grade and Morning Drive toward Panorama Drive until they found themselves riding uphill, spinning the pedals but not going anywhere.
“What happened?” Kurtz asked.
At that point, Bentley looked down and found the source of the issue.
“Dude, we don’t have a chain anymore,” he said.
A broken chain cut the ride short, but a return trip to Action Sports got the bike in working order again.
The second practice ride went a lot smoother – until the pair reached the Manor Street bridge.
Heavy rains earlier in the week resulted in some flooding along the underpass. Bentley told Kurtz that there was some water ahead and that his feet might get wet, but as they approached and turned the blind corner, they soon found themselves floating. At its deepest point, the water was almost up to their knees.
“Couldn’t we go around?” Kurtz asked, wondering why they went the way they did.
They unclipped, took photos and got back on the road.
Aside from wet, cold feet, the rest of the 30-mile practice ride went smoothly.
The following week was race day.
Oh Captain, My Captain
On a tandem bike, the rider up front is called the captain and the rider in the back is referred to as the stoker.
The captain steers, pedals and controls the brakes, while the stoker, sometimes called the navigator, pedals and helps provide additional stability and balance. The cranks are mechanically linked by a timing chain, so riders must be in sync when it comes to their pedaling cadence. But the dynamic changes when one rider is blind.
“It takes a lot of coordination and trust between the two riders, even if you had two seeing guys on the bike,” Bentley said.
Communication is key when riding on a tandem bike. The captain is responsible for letting the stoker know when they are approaching bumps, potholes, debris and other obstacles on the road, while the stoker needs to let the captain know whether the cadence is too high or too low or if they want to stand.
“They must stand in unison,” Ryan said. “One standing while the other is seated is inefficient and can throw the bike out of balance, risking a crash.”
To get a better idea of what Kurtz would be experiencing, Ryan had Bentley ride on the back of the tandem bike with his eyes closed.
Trust is the key component to riding on a tandem bike, as the captain and stoker need to be on the same page, even for something as simple as mounting and dismounting.
“I have to trust Todd,” Kurtz said. “I don’t know why I did that.”
“I’m not sure, either,” Bentley replied. “He’s either a saint or an idiot.”
More Rides, More Adventures
The Solvang Century on March 9 brought back good memories for Kurtz.
It was the first time in two decades since he took part in a serious ride, not counting the mile or two he rides with his wife on their tandem beach cruiser every now and then.
While he couldn’t see the scenery, he still enjoyed the wind in his hair and the sounds and smells of his surroundings.
“It was exciting to get back on the bike again and be with nature,” Kurtz said. “There’s nothing like being on the road and cruising. It’s freeing – as freeing as I can be.”
As they pedaled, they reached cruising speeds of 28 mph on flat roads, passing riders on high-end road bikes like $12,000 Cervelos and $10,000 Pinarellos, and topped off at 52 mph going downhill on Highway 101.
“The great part about that was we’re going downhill and I can hear him going, ‘Wooooooo!’” Bentley said. “It’s just freedom. It’s nice to put Scott or anybody back in that place.”
Despite the hiccups on the practice rides, the race itself saw no complications.
It marks the first of many endeavors the pair will take on, as more rides and more adventures are on the horizon.
Reflecting back on the first practice ride, Bentley remembers taking off from Beach Park and Kurtz immediately asking, “How fast are we going?”
Initially thinking his stoker might be a little spooked at the rate they were going, Bentley soon understood that it was a realization of childlike excitement that Kurtz was finally going fast on a bike again.
“That would be me if I was in his shoes,” Bentley said. “If I couldn’t see anything, I would try to find any which way I could to keep up with this lifestyle that I love. I think that was something for me that I took away – not to take advantage of these moments that you have of doing cool stuff, whether it’s just going down the bike path or going down the hill. There are people out there who can’t do this, not because they can’t, but because of whatever life threw in their way that limits how or when they can do things.”
And if Bentley can provide that excitement to Kurtz, as well as others, he will.
“I just plan to keep on doing it if Todd’s willing to be my captain,” Kurtz said.
Despite no words being exchanged at that moment and not being able to see Bentley’s smile, Kurtz knows what the answer is. ￼