What happens when a blind athlete, her sighted pilot, a tandem racing bike and a guide dog named Elvis hit the road for 8 days of races?
A lot of #blondesonbikes adventures. As an elite paratriathlete from Greenwich, Connecticut, I spend all my time training and competing in paratriathlons, cycling races and foot races; my goal is to compete on Team USA at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
My most recent trek took me to races in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (home of the atomic bomb, coincidentally) for the Tennessee Paracycling Open and Chattanooga, Tennessee for USA Paralympic Cycling National Championships. I flew to Louisville, Kentucky where my competition pilot Lindsey Cook, my guide dog Elvis and I started the 6-hour road-trip to our first race in Oak Ridge.
To help us on our journey, Chevrolet loaned us a 2015 Suburban. We loved the idea of the Suburban for its sizable cargo space—enough room for the bike, which is 8 feet long, our luggage and for Elvis to stretch out. But road tripping in the Suburban was more like traveling like a celebrity.
Learning to compete in a new arena and not letting blindness win
I became a para-athlete after I lost most of my vision due to a rare autoimmune eye disease and glaucoma. I have a pinhole of light that lets me see the world in bits and pieces at a time, but getting around takes a little more expertise, so Elvis takes the lead in my daily routine. On the racing circuit, though, Lindsey, who is an adjunct professor of kinesiology in Hanover Indiana, is my guide. We ride a custom carbon-fiber tandem racing bike (named “Bomber”) that has carried us to many podium finishes where we have proudly represented our country in international competition. Together Lindsey, Elvis and I, three blondes, have traveled the world racing, training and having fun exploring new places and meeting great new people.
Hoping the Chevrolet Suburban takes us to our next podium
When the car was delivered to Lindsey’s office, she sent me a text message. “Everyone at the college thinks I’m someone really important or something because this shiny black Suburban just pulled up and it looks like a presidential motorcade.” We were both excited to spend the next 8 days getting to know this very cool car.
The Suburban made things easy from the very first moment; when Lindsey picked up me, Elvis and our bike at the Louisville airport, she opened the lift-gate with a push of a button, revealing two rows of seats. The seats handily folded flat to the floor with another touch of a button at the back of the vehicle. Needless to say, we were impressed.
Losing my eyesight meant losing my favorite thing: My car
I stopped driving 8 years ago when my vision deteriorated; despite 17 surgeries to try to preserve my vision or reverse the loss, it continued. I am grateful to at least maintain my tiny pinhole view. But I had to give up driving, and giving up my car was the hardest part. When I was a kid, my uncle held auto shows in our field with the Mercedes Benz Club. My grandfather worked on his convertible Mustang every weekend in the driveway. I got to ‘drive’ on dad’s lap in his Chevy Silverado pickup as a kid, and my favorite chore was washing and waxing my mom’s work truck on Sundays. As a 20 year-old, I got to take hot laps in Porsches on the Nurgburgring in Germany and Lime Rock Park in Connecticut.
As a major in equestrian business in college, I took great pride in hauling my horse back and forth to compete in Florida each winter in my Chevy 2500 pickup, rust and all. And finally, when I knew it would be my last car, I leased a Chrysler convertible with every luxury and tech feature possible and relished every day I got to drive it. To say I love cars is an understatement. So being the passenger in this luxurious, bad-ass Suburban got my wheels turning.
The Suburban connects its passengers to the rest of the world—and its cheat sheet helped me learn how
The day before our first road-trip, as Lindsey taught her final lecture for the week, I got to know the Suburban. As a visually impaired passenger, the feeling was unique. The smell of new leather, the lofty feel of new carpet and the quiet click of the compartments that closed in perfect alignment as only a new car can gave a quiet feel of refined comfort. I realized that time has certainly passed since I had last driven a car, as this car required no key! I pushed the button to start the engine and felt my stomach do a somersault. A fancy console came alive in front with the words clearly spelling ‘My Link’ in large font – easy to see for those of us who are visually impaired. I got out the manual and prepared to become dizzy with information. Instead, I was surprised to find a fantastic ‘cheat sheet’ of the important ‘need to knows’.
Wi-Fi in the Suburban: a game-changer for athletes
Including Wi-Fi. Whoa. WHAT? Wi-Fi? As in INTERNET IN THE CAR? Now you see, Lindsey and I are social media addicts. We love to share photos of us training and racing while we’re on the road so other athletes and our friends, family and fans cans follow along, which has previously proven difficult. Plus, our coach needs data from our GPS watches uploaded to a program in our computer each day to track our progress.
The cheat sheet showed me to press the OnStar button on the rear view mirror, which gave us the Wi-Fi settings, and the password was displayed on the My Link screen. Using the car’s Bluetooth, I could then easily sync my iPhone, and was delighted to see all my music pop up onto the screen. With the voice button on the steering wheel, I made a call to Lindsey in her office. “We have INTERNET IN THE CAR!!!”
Tech that makes even a challenging drive an easy one
For our first Tennessee trip, we drove 6 hours to Oak Ridge. It poured almost the entire way there, but the rain-sensing wipers automatically changed speed to keep up with the downpour. On a steep 6-mile 6% downgrade, the vehicle engaged its automatic braking system. This kept the car at a reasonable speed without ‘riding’ the brakes for an extended period. It made me wish I had owned a vehicle like this back when I was towing horses to and from Florida each winter in my trailer. What a fantastic feature! “Ok, it’s official,” Lindsey said. “This car basically drives itself.” We carried on singing to our new favorite XM station on the Bose stereo, ‘the 90s on 9’. I hope Elvis isn’t deaf from us rocking out to U2 in the front seat. Thank goodness for the zone speaker controls so we could spare his ears.
The envy of the race: Space for changing, and cooled seats that do double duty
The rain didn’t let up once we got to Oak Ridge; we raced in the rain all weekend. But the Suburban had an answer for that: heated and air conditioned seats that doubled as a drying rack for wet cycling shorts and jerseys, and the Suburban was like a changing room on wheels. After the race we journeyed back to Indiana for 4 days of training, only to head to Chattanooga the following weekend for USA Paracycling National Championships, picking up two elite triathletes along the way, complete with luggage, racing wheels and equipment. We were now fully appreciating the sheer mass of the Suburban and especially the impressive gas mileage: We averaged more than 20 mpg for the ride. I was becoming more impressed with each day.
The weekend in Chattanooga was warm and sunny, so Elvis enjoyed the shade of the tailgate while the other athletes oohed and aah-ed in envy of all our cargo room. After the race we luxuriated in the air conditioning and the air-cooled front seats. The final feather in the Suburban’s cap was the exceptional notification systems it has for avoiding collisions. As Lindsey was backing out of the parking spot, her seat vibrated to alert her that a bike was on the ground behind the vehicle. “Whoa!” she shouted as she looked at the rearview camera. “That was awesome!”
Not a chore anymore: Keeping the Suburban shiny is a pleasure
After all the miles of rain, dead bugs and back dirt roads, our luxurious ride looked more like a true 4-wheeler. So both the Bomber and the ‘Bomber mobile’ got a warm sudsy bath. Having limited eyesight made this a bit challenging, (I kept missing spots) but I loved wiping lug nuts with a towel and seeing that last bit of chrome exposed. The Suburban gleamed. The only part that proved frustrating was reaching the top-center of the hood. I managed to climb up onto the front tire and get the final spot that had been eluding me.
Final thoughts: Stately luxury with amazing capability
The 2015 Chevy Suburban has been recently redesigned and has lots of great new features, including the fold-flat seats; but like its predecessor, it’s spacious, and safe, with luxurious finishes and a brawny, polished stateliness. There wasn’t a single feature that wasn’t user-friendly or not well thought out. We were connected to the world, traveling in style and even when we stuffed it to the gills we still had ample leg and Labrador room. My only recommendation for drivers with a Yellow Labrador guide dog in this stunning black vehicle? Invest in a good vacuum!
Oh, and the race? We won the Silver! We drove all the way back to Indiana, two Silver medals proudly hanging from the Suburban’s rear-view mirror.
What We Loved
- Push button fold-flat seats
- Seats 7 or 8 passengers (depending on configuration)
- Heated and cooled front seats
- MyLink connected phone, navigation and 4G LTE Wi-Fi (requires a data plan)
- OnStar for directions, assistance or emergencies
- Room for an 8-foot tandem bike AND luggage, passengers and a dog
- 13 charge ports including USB ports and a household plug
- 121 cubic fee of cargo space (with all seats folded down)
- Rain sensing wipers
- Auto braking on a downgrade—great for towing
What You Need to Know
- Base price: about $49,000; price of the model we drove: about $68,000
- Gets 16 MPG city/23 MPG highway; we averaged about 20 MPG
- Uses regular fuel
- 2 years/24,000 miles schedule maintenance included
- Warranty 3 years/36,000 miles
- Powertrain warranty 5 year/100,000 miles
- 5 year/100,000 mile roadside assistance included
Disclosure: The Suburban was loaned to us by Chevrolet; all opinions expressed here are my own.