Meet the sight-impaired cyclist who wants to ride around the world

As his eye condition deteriorates, Gavin Towers is planning his biggest adventure yet

Gavin Towers cycling British coastline
(Image credit: Shaun Waldie)

Gavin Towers’s website is confusing at first glance. When you land on the homepage, the words disappear behind a heavy blur, only to be revealed by hovering the cursor over them. “The way you’re reading this webpage is how I experience the world around me,” it reads. 

Twelve years ago, Towers was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, an eye condition that breaks down the retinas, causing partial sight loss. Now, as his condition worsens, he wants to become the first visually impaired person to cycle around the globe. 

And he plans to do it unsupported. 

“[My eyes] are getting worse and worse,” the 45-year-old tells Cycling Weekly. “It’s one of the reasons I’ve wanted to do around the world for a lot of years - I’d say at least 20 or more years. And I’m really mindful that it won’t be possible, or it certainly won’t be by myself, if my eyes continue to deteriorate.”

Due to his condition, cycling carries different challenges for Towers than it does for those with full sight. His reduced peripheral vision means he often fails to spot obstacles in the road, potholes are his enemy and riding at night is not an option. 

Multi-tasking, too, poses an issue. “If you’re only focusing on, for example, the computers to see where you’re going, and there’s a hedge there, well, you know, you may well end up in the hedge,” he jokes. “I think back to some of the crashes I had when I was an awful lot younger, and I remember just wondering how on earth did that happen?”

Before his around the world attempt, Towers has to deal with the comparatively small matter of riding from Land’s End to John O’Groats. Starting his trip today, he hopes to complete the 900-mile journey in nine days, less than half the time it took him last time he undertook the challenge. 

“I did it a few years ago with my daughter. Well, she cycled it when she was 10, and I supported her on the bike and my brother supported us in a van.

“It was possibly one of the hardest [rides] I’ve done, because obviously you’re worried about your daughter, right?” he says. “But it was an epic one, I have to be honest.”

Gavin Towers with his daughter, Evangeline

Gavin Towers with his daughter, Evangeline.

(Image credit: Gavin Towers)

As far as endurance challenges go, they don’t come much bigger than circumnavigating the globe. To constitute an official attempt, Towers will have to cycle at least 18,000 miles continuously in one direction. He hopes to set out early next year, leaving London on a route that passes down through Europe, India, Australia and America.

“Without wanting to sound too dramatic,” he says. “I’m trying to make the most of the sight I’ve got and do things that count, in some senses, while I still can.

“I suppose one of the positive things about it being degenerative, if you like, is that you can try to adapt as well.”

Already this year, the endurance cyclist has completed 10 back-to-back Fred Whitton Challenges and hiked the three peaks, travelling the 430 miles between them by bike. This time last year, he was busy riding the perimeter of mainland Britain

Some might wonder what his doctors think about his cycling adventures. Not Towers, though. “I haven’t asked,” he laughs. 

For Towers, cycling is a matter of confidence, something he now has by the bucketload. “It’s difficult to be constantly pedalling into the unknown,” he says. “But you get that intrinsic feel for your bike and your handling.

“The fears are constant, you know, it could freeze me to the spot. But I’ve always found that you can’t solve every problem. You can find solutions that work, but that only really kicks in once you’re on the road and actually moving.

“It’s about trying to feel, I suppose, empowered or positive instead of feeling negative.”

Now, as he plans out the logistics of an 18,000-mile bike ride, Towers’s fears take a backseat and his optimism comes to the fore. 

“Fundamentally, the idea of cycling around the world unsupported just feels like a massive ask, a massive undertaking,” he says. Towers leaves a few seconds’ pause and adds: “I relish that challenge.”

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