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Bicyclist sees the light

With 15 percent of sight left, mechanic makes good on a lifelong love
by:  JIM CLARK, Steve Long, legally blind from a rare genetic disorder, fixes bicycles in the garage of his Westmoreland home using mostly his hands and ears.

Brandishing a wrench and a screwdriver, Steve Long steps up to the red Raleigh on the stand, reaches a grimy hand for the pedal, and gives it a powerful shove.

Over the blur of the spokes and the merry chatter of the freewheel, Long squints intently at the bike's hub, inspecting it for signs of wear, but he's not really looking.

He's listening.

Awkwardly, he gropes for the brake to stop the wheel in its tracks - gropes because he cannot really see.

Long, 46, lives in a world of light and shadow, a world drained of color, glimpsed through a long tunnel that grows darker with each passing year.

He suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder that is progressively destroying his peripheral vision and will culminate in total blindness. Long already has lost about 85 percent of his sight and probably will be blind by age 60.

But he refuses to be idle while his eyes grow dark. Instead, he has launched a business from the garage of his Westmoreland home, fulfilling a childhood dream to be a bike mechanic.

'I didn't want to sit around and feel sorry for myself,' he says. 'I was determined to do something for myself, instead of waiting for something to come to me.'

Clumsiness made its mark

From the beginning, he was kind of a klutz - so clumsy and accident-prone that kids in his Hillsboro neighborhood used to poke fun at him.

By the time he was a teenager, his propensity to bump into things was family legend but was always considered a quirk of personality, not a medical condition. In his senior year at high school, he was misdiagnosed with a 'lazy eye' and prescribed glasses, which did little to help.

Year by year, as his peripheral vision deteriorated, Long's discombobulation progressed from a family joke to a serious handicap.

It began to affect his job performance - he worked for an auto parts company and kept picking out the wrong parts. It put a strain on his marriage, which ended in divorce. He repeatedly sought medical advice, only to be told that he should exercise more care in his daily activities.

'I had doctors saying there was nothing wrong with me,' he said. 'They said I was going for sympathy.'

After a stint in the Army, Long worked a series of blue-collar jobs, including forklift driver, delivery driver, hot-tar roofer, warehouseman and warranty clerk, but his inveterate klutziness made finding and holding a job increasingly difficult.

Long had no explanation for his problems until 1996, when neuro-ophthalmologist Dr. Tom Shults at the Devers Eye Institute of Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital and Medical Center finally diagnosed him with retinitis pigmentosa. He was 34 years old.

'I thought, It's about time that someone finally believed me,' Long said.

He applied for disability payments from the Social Security Administration (he currently receives $900 a month) and took classes at the Oregon Commission for the Blind, learning how to adapt to his darkening world.

Prospective employers looked askance at his white cane and his inability to drive.

Finally, lying in bed one night, he resolved to take matters into his own hands. 'I couldn't keep waiting for something to happen,' he says. 'I knew I had to fall back on something I could do on my own.'

Long fell back on something he's always loved: fixing bikes.

Business builds job by job

Tucked away in a cozy garage on a leafy residential street, Free Wheel Bikes (5969 S.E. 18th Ave., freewheelbikes.net) exudes a laid-back, neighborhood vibe.

Tools dangle from dozens of pegs sprouting on the wall - if Long absent-mindedly forgets a wrench on his workbench, he might spend the rest of the afternoon hunting for it - and the power chords of Lynryd Skynyrd mix with the smell of grease and vulcanized rubber.

Business is not exactly booming - Long rang up less than $3,000 last year - but each season brings more customers.

On this particular afternoon, a man shows up at the shop with a flat tire, inflicted by a nail at a construction site. Long offers to install a beefier inner tube for $10.

'Can you hand it to me?' Long asks.

The customer holds out the wheel, and Long reaches for it with both hands, hesitantly grabbing it by the spokes, not the rim.

'Are you blind?' the customer asks.

'Legally blind,' Long says, nodding. 'I still have some vision.' He sets the wheel on his lap, walks his hand along the rim to locate the valve stem, and begins to extract the punctured tube, chatting about his ongoing battle with city bureaucrats over his sidewalk sandwich board.

Ironically, Long's vision is so poor that he can no longer ride a bike on his own. But that hasn't stopped him. He pedals a tandem - a blue Univega tricked out with hollow aluminum cranks, 56/11 gearing, halogen lights and a 105-decibel horn - behind a sighted friend who does the steering.

Long finishes installing the new tube and pumps up the tire. Forget your romantic notions about the nimble grace of the blind - for Long, the darkness is an adversary he fights every time he fiddles with a hex key or drops a screw on the floor.

After fixing the tire, Long grins. It may only be $10 in the till, but his business survives on word of mouth.

'I'm here to perform a service,' he said. 'My goal is when you bring your bike in, I want it to roll freely down the road.'

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