'I literally couldn't sit down': The visually impaired rider who took on the British coastline record

Hungry for a journey of self discovery, Gavin Towers cycled the entire perimeter of mainland Britain

Gavin Towers at John o' Groats
(Image credit: Shaun Waldie)

“When I was racing, I’d miss a turn or make a strange mistake. I remember once doing a race in France and getting eight punctures – clearly, in hindsight, I just wasn’t seeing stuff.” Gavin Towers is reliving his late teens as a highly competitive triathlete, usually at the sharp end of races but too often derailed by inexplicable errors. The dawning realisation he describes – past blunders suddenly making sense – is only too familiar to me: Towers and I have the same eye condition, retinitis pigmentosa (RP)

Caused by an inherited genetic glitch, RP slowly kills off the specialised cells of the retina, the part of the eye responsible for turning light into visual signals that the brain can convert into images. The early symptoms include failing to spot objects (e.g. road debris) in peripheral vision during daylight, and Chaplin-esque clumsiness anywhere dark or dimly lit. I was diagnosed about 15 years ago, aged 24, after knocking over one too many barstools; for Towers the moment came 10 years ago when, aged 34, he went for laser treatment to correct his short-sightedness. “They did the initial tests and came back with a look of horror on their faces,” he laughs. 

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David Bradford
Features editor

David Bradford is features editor of Cycling Weekly (print edition). He has been writing and editing professionally for more than 15 years, and has published work in national newspapers and magazines including the Independent, the Guardian, the Times, the Irish Times, Vice.com and Runner’s World. Alongside his love of cycling, David is a long-distance runner with a marathon PB of two hours 28 minutes. Having been diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) in 2006, he also writes about sight loss and hosts the podcast Ways of Not Seeing.