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‘A sensory experience’: DeafBlind Leavenworth woman excels in 50-mile gravel bike race

Jenee Alleman of Leavenworth, Kansas, received her first tandem bike four years ago, after the birth of her daughter.

On Saturday, Alleman and her husband biked 50 miles across Emporia’s Flint Hills in the Life Time UNBOUND Gravel race, placing second.

“I really just wanted to accomplish something and just feel that accomplishment,” Alleman said. “And so that’s really why I wanted to be in races in general, you just get such a sense of accomplishment and I really enjoy racing.”

It’s a big accomplishment, made even more noteworthy because Alleman has Usher Syndrome, and is DeafBlind. She was born deaf, and became legally blind when she was 35, she said.

“And so that’s how I got involved in biking, because I was losing my vision, and you know, it’s a really important part of my identity now being in the biking world along the same time that I was becoming legally blind.”

With Alleman’s vision loss, she lost the ability to balance herself on a bike. Alleman heard of a DeafBlind camp that offered adaptive equipment with a tandem bike and asked her husband to try it out with her.

“I really enjoyed it and I was excited about it,” Alleman said.

After Alleman’s daughter was born, her husband surprised her with a tandem bike of her own. On Alleman’s tandem bike, the person in the front seat balances, steers and changes the gears of the bike, she said. The person in the back seat keeps centered and pedals.

“This is really a sensory experience for me when I’m on the bike, because I know I’ll be completely blind one day,” Alleman said. “But I can still feel the sun on my face, I can still feel the wind on me, I can still feel when we’re going over a gravel or bumpy terrain, and, you know, I eat dirt just like everybody else.”

Jenee Alleman became legally blind at 35. She said biking is a “sensory experience” for her because she can feel the wind, the sun on her face and the gravel beneath her. She trains with her husband on Kansas City routes on the weekend.
Jenee Alleman became legally blind at 35. She said biking is a “sensory experience” for her because she can feel the wind, the sun on her face and the gravel beneath her. She trains with her husband on Kansas City routes on the weekend.

Alleman’s husband is a triathlete, and wanted to find an activity he and Alleman could do together.

“Once we saw this bike, we realized oh, this is really something that I’m really good at, I’m able to do and I really enjoy,” Alleman said. “So, that’s what got me motivated to stay in with biking. And so, you know, we work together as partners. We’re a really good team.”

The Alleman’s biggest challenge is communication on the bike. Alleman and her husband created a system of touch signals to use when Jenee needs to communicate with him.

“You know, it’s still kind of a struggle, but these signals have really helped,” Alleman said.

This is Alleman’s second year in the race. In 2023, she competed in the 25 mile division. This year, she moved up to the 50 mile division.

The 2023 race was uneventful, Alleman said, but this year that was not the case. This year, the race was muddy and gravelly, she said. Alleman and her husband had to push their tandem bike through the mud for what Alleman estimated to be around 20 to 30 minutes, but which “felt like forever.”

Because of its weight, the tandem bike requires two people to push it through the mud. After finally making it through the mud, Alleman said she felt, “like oh, that was a lot to do, it was a lot harder. But it was still a lot of fun.”

To train for the race, the Alleman’s practice on a home bike after work and lift weights. On the weekends, they take their tandem bike to routes around Kansas City, where they bike anywhere from 15 to 25 miles with their daughter.

“So we have to find routes that have a playground, because we always tell her, ‘Okay, after we go on our bike ride and then we can take you to the playground!’” Alleman said. “And so that way she’s more excited to go.”

The Alleman’s are a military family, and don’t have anyone to watch their daughter while they bike. Jenee, who is originally from Louisiana, takes her daughter with her on weekend bike rides, enticing her with a trip to the park.
The Alleman’s are a military family, and don’t have anyone to watch their daughter while they bike. Jenee, who is originally from Louisiana, takes her daughter with her on weekend bike rides, enticing her with a trip to the park.

Their goal for the race this year was to snag first place. But a few mistakes and a leg cramp set them back about ten minutes.

“There were a lot of people that passed us and I was like, ‘Oh, no, we lost our chance,” Alleman said.

But the Allemans pulled through to earn their second place spot, and they aren’t done yet.

“But it was funny because, personally, I’m not usually a competitive person, but with biking, I realized I could be good. I’m good at it. We could win something,” Alleman said.

The pair plan to compete in the 50 mile division again next year, hoping for a first place finish.