July 6, 2009; Conshohocken, PA, USA: Matt Gilman has better bike control than most pro racers. As an accomplished trials rider, he can jump onto obstacle as much as four feet high without a ramp and jump gaps without ever dropping his front wheel onto the ground. What he can’t do is see where he’s going to land. Matt Gilman is blind.
Gilman, The World’s Greatest Blind Trials Rider, will be performing exhibitions at the New Jersey State Fair SpectaCross on the opening two days of this year’s New Jersey State Fair, July 31 and August 1. The event has garnered international publicity and has already attracted entries from 10 states, including Minnesota, Illinois and Ohio. But Gilman, who recently picked up sponsorship from Chris King Precision Components and Endura Sportswear, probably has a more mind numbing and inspirational story than any other participant.
“I could see for 24 years of my life,” said Gilman in a recent interview with MtnBikeRiders.com. “I became blind due to diabetes in 2004. I had vision on and off for about a year and a half. I would have a surgery and would be able to see for about a month or so then I would have a hemorrhage with a blood vessel in my eye, then I wouldn’t be able to see anything. I had, I think 22 or so eye surgeries. My left retina is badly torn and I can’t see anything out of that eye. The right I can see a little bit. The doctor put a silicone oil in my eye to stop the bleeding, which worked but now I have to look through oil. Plus the retina was torn in that eye as well just not as badly. I also have replaced lenses in both eyes. The right has a fiber growth growing on the lens and a milkyness on the cornea. All of these things make it near to impossible to see. I can see light and some really contrasty things. The best way I can describe it is, take the foggiest day you can think of and hold a bottle of olive oil up to your eye and try and get around. Each month my vision gets worse and worse. The oil is good in the sense that it is keeping blood from blocking my vision but it also eats away at the eye over time. The doctor wants to do another surgery soon to clean up everything to keep it from getting worse. He said I may get a little vision back but not much if at all.”
In his sighted life, Gilman was a talented trials and BMX rider. But he had to completely re-learn how to ride his bike after he became blind. “I just had to learn how to do things in a different way than every other rider. The hardest thing is having to place your wheel in a tight spot, you know something narrow. I usually can’t do that so well. The one thing that I do more then ever is use my front wheel as kind of a hand. I will touch my wheel to things to see how far I am from the obstacles. I will also use my tire to mush over an edge so I know that I am on the corner. All other senses don’t really help. Sometimes they get in the way. When I ride rocks, everything looks the same to me. I will think I will see something off to my right that isn’t there. I will ask a friend what is that and they will say nothing is there. So my mind plays tricks on me. At this point I will close my eyes and just ride while my tires tell me what is around.”
Gilman won’t be the only trials rider participating at SpectaCross. In addition to the cyclocross races, SpectaCross will also have a “Speed Trials” event directed by U.S. World Championship Team member Vaughn Micciche. “We’re looking at 3 courses,” said Micciche recently, “each one will get progressively harder. The first course will be mostly skinnies and log style crossings. The medium course will start to get more challenging with ups and gaps that are easily spannable with both wheels. Riders may be over 3 feet off the ground on something 6 inches wide. The hardest will probably favor a trials specific bike, or a rider that is really, really good with a street machine. No gaps over a bike length, no ups over 3 feet. There might be a 7 foot drop for the hard course.”
Of course, by trials standards, even those obstacles are fairly run-of-the-mill. But the wild card in the competition will be time. Instead of counting dabs, speed trials is a pure time-trial through a trials course.