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Vision impairment made Conception Harbour man a hardcore cyclist

Lawrence Penney has three bikes he moves between depending on the sort of terrain he’s preparing for.
Lawrence Penney has three bikes he moves between depending on the sort of terrain he’s preparing for. - Andrew Robinson

Lawrence Penney organizes annual research fundraiser with hope that children, grandchildren won’t face his challenges

CONCEPTION HARBOUR, N.L.

It’s hard to slow down Lawrence Penney of Conception Harbour.

Since his 2010 diagnosis for retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary form of degenerative tunnel vision, he’s taken on a newfound passion for cycling.

Any given day, he’ll ride 40-50 kilometres (Penney aims to do a minimum of 100 kilometres each week). Penney has put almost 26,000 kilometres on his bikes since 2012.

The soon-to-be 66-year-old reckons he’s in better shape now than he was in his 40s easily, and he hopes to keep it up for at least a few more years.

“I just like feeling healthy and strong that way,” Penney told The Compass during a recent phone interview.

But that interest in cycling also fuels a charitable cause. For the last two years, he and his wife Amy have co-chaired the St. John’s Cycle for Sight, an event benefiting the Foundation Fighting Blindness, a group spearheading research to prevent, treat and cure retinal disease. For Penney, his reasons for getting involved are pretty personal. Three of his siblings also have retinitis pigmentosa, and it’s highly likely some of his seven children and 12 grandchildren will show symptoms eventually.

“There’s a lot of good research on the go, but hopefully that’ll be more for my grandkids and kids than for my benefit,” Penney said, noting some of his children ride in the Cycle for Sight as well.

50-50 chance

His mother Lillian always experienced night blindness and wasn’t diagnosed with the disease until she was in her 50s.

“If either of your parents have it, there’s a 50-50 chance you’ll pass it on to your kids,” explained Penney, who grew up in Tacks Beach, Placentia Bay, before his parents resettled the family in Fortune.

It was fortunate the disease didn’t come into play until his career with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was just about finished. But he did find himself forced into making a tough decision about his transportation options — having lost most of his peripheral vision, Penney could no longer drive a car.

“After all the field tests, (the doctor) recommended that I shouldn’t drive,” Penney recalled.

With vehicles a no-no, Penney was able to find a new ride courtesy of his two-wheeler. He’s very careful and comes to a full stop for multiple scenarios, including those where he’s coming towards a merging lane. Off-road riding on his new fat-wheeled bike is ideal (he also has a road bike and mountain bike). With his wife still working in St. John’s, he’ll sometimes hitch a ride to the city with her and then find his way back to Conception Bay via his bicycle.

Cycle for Sight

Through the 2012 Vision Quest conference held in St. John’s, Penney became aware of the 150-kilometre Toronto Cycle for Sight event, held every June. He started working with a trainer in hopes of taking part in the 2013 ride, which he did.

He continued to travel each year to Toronto for the event, and in 2016, a conversation started about hosting Cycle for Sight in Newfoundland and Labrador. Penney was fully onboard. The inaugural ride was held in 2017 and it took place again this past summer. In two years, the local event has raised $35,000.

“The number of riders is only in the 20s or 30s, but we hope to keep building it up,” Penney said.

editor@cbncompass.ca

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