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Flying Blind

Matt Gilman does things on his bike that most sighted riders can only imagine

Christopher Myers

By Michael Byrne | Posted 4/21/2010

Find a ledge, ideally about as tall as you are. Stand facing the drop-off and close your eyes. Don't actually step off, but lean forward a bit, or put a foot out over the gulf below. What does it feel like? The distance, the drop, is bigger isn't it? Or the feeling of it anyhow. Your eyes don't make that spatial calculation, and you're left only to imagine it. Now, take it a step further and play the fall out in your mind: What it would feel like when your feet hit the ground, how--no matter what--surprised you'd be when it happened. Or is it even your feet that hit? Are you so sure you haven't come off axis midair, and aren't poised to land squarely on your face? Not sure enough, probably.

Let's expand this even further. You are standing, motionless, astride a bicycle at the top of the same ledge. Slowly, you align the bike with the very edge of the precipice, one half of the tire actually hanging off the side. Eyes still closed? As you kick the bike and yourself laterally over the edge and down, keep 'em that way until the landing--bike and body soaking up the ground with the grace of a dart into cork. And you ride away. A 

That last little bit was probably tough to imagine. There aren't a whole lot of people in the world kicking bikes off 6-foot ledges, or hopping over 8-foot gaps, or generally using an urban landscape as a proving ground for balance, agility, and the impact strength of a bicycle. This is, in brief, the rather fringe sport of bike trials, described by the Biketrials UK Federation as, "the art and skill of riding your bike over and between obstacles, showing balance and fitness. Ideally not touching the 'section' with anything except the bike's tyres!" "Obstacle" doesn't do it quite justice, however: An obstacle for most of us is an orange cone or runner's hurdle; an obstacle in bike trials is a car, a tall fence post, a concrete wall. Distill only the most technical aspects of BMX riding or even skateboarding, and you're close. It's not that not many people in the world can do it well, it's that not many people can do it at all. And Matt Gilman, a soft-spoken 29-year-old bike mechanic with type-one diabetes, does it blind. A 

Gilman practices his craft on a trio of worn plywood boxes--from shin-high to head-high--and as the cyclist tells his story in the living room of his Reisterstown home, they sit arranged in a side yard. They're a souvenir of sorts from the first ever demo he performed, at a New Jersey State Fair before a cycle cross race. This was almost a year ago and, in the intervening time, Gilman estimates that as the "Blind Bike Trials Rider," he's done 10 more for various crowds--10 to 20 minutes of basically just showing off what he can do. Next month, he's performing at the American Diabetes Association's Tour de Cure. His videos, shot mostly by Gilman's enthusiastic and supportive brother-in-law, have amassed enough web hits to make him internet-famous. "I recently got a PA system and a wireless mic," he says. "I can ride and talk, tell people what I'm doing and how I'm doing it. Kind of give a background story [during demos]."A 

Gilman has been diabetic since childhood, but it wasn't until 2004 that he started noticing trouble with his eyes. "I was working at Toyota as a mechanic," he remembers, "working under cars and under hoods. And it started getting really dark under there. And I just thought I needed glasses. Most of my family wears glasses. I went to the doctor and they were like, 'You need to go see a retina specialist instantly. You're gonna need surgery.' I went to the doctor the next day and they said 'diabetic retinopathy.' Basically, it's blood vessels growing around the retina and pulling on it [and possibly destroying it]. Part of the reason I got into riding was to keep my legs moving. As long as you keep the circulation in your feet, you'll be fine. No one ever told me about the eyes." A 

After his first surgery, a laser procedure to clear away interfering blood vessels, he stopped riding bikes. Gilman had done it all until then--mountain biking, BMX, road cycling, and trials riding, which had become his go-to sport. "I used to out with my friend Mikey to film [bike stunts], just be out and about," he says. "But my doctor didn't want me to get above a certain blood pressure so there's no hemorrhaging in the eyes. I used to go down to the basement all the time where my bikes were, just 'cause I missed riding so much. I'd sit on one and just be like, I want to ride so bad."A 

And, after about three years, being sidelined got the best of him. "I pulled my trials bike out and went out to the front curb," he says. "[I thought I could] just track stand and pedal kick over the curb to the sidewalk. Three feet. Which I could do in a heartbeat before. I got on the bike to track stand and I just fell over. I tried again and again and was like, 'I can't even balance on my bike anymore.'A 

"I put my bike away and thought, Man that sucked. It was 11 o'clock in the morning, and I was disappointed all day. I was going through a bit of depression, because I was just sitting around, not riding, not working. The next day I was like, 'Screw it.' I pulled my bike out, brought it to the living room, and spent all day learning how to track stand, learning what I had to do to keep my balance. It was a process just learning how to ride again. I had to figure out everything differently than I did with vision.

"I was terrified of doing things," he says. "I was scared, because I couldn't see the height. Eventually, I was like, 'I can do this' [by late 2007]. I really started working on figuring out how to get off of things, working higher and higher. Eventually, I was jumping off of things almost head-high."A 

That figuring process is likely rather difficult to imagine for anyone sighted. Most of us have probably "played" blind before with a scarf or necktie around our eyes, but re-imagining a technical sport from the ground up is something entirely different. Even the thought-exercise above doesn't do it justice. And, at this point, Gilman has gotten nearly to the level in the sport where he was before. Asked to recall his largest gap-jump--a lateral move through the air between two objects--he thinks and then asks, "Sighted or non?" He quickly corrects himself, however, adding, "The biggest has probably been unsighted." That gap, by the way, Gilman estimates to be about the length of two bicycles--from stationary position to stationary position.

You already know the moral of this story. Gilman remembers attending a sort of "rehab thing" after he lost sight, "teaching me how to get around, how to get employed and stuff like that. I've always heard other blind people being like, 'Whatever, oh, you can't do this.' At the center they said something like, 'You can do anything you want for a job,' and they showed these videos and one of 'em was a bus driver or a truck driver. And I was like, 'I want to be a truck driver.' And they said, 'You can't do that. You can do anything you want but that.' They kept saying 'but that.'

"And I hated talking to other blind people and [hearing] 'I can't do this.' I want to show people that there is more to it. They say that 70 percent of blind people don't work. They don't think they can. I couldn't wait to get back to work--actually do something. I want to get that message spread. You say you can't, but look, I'm on a bike, balancing and jumping on and off of things."

Gilman's holding out hope that he'll get sight back in his lifetime, depending mainly on advances in drugs and stem-cell research. But you look at him and can't help but think that he's done everything right with his current situation. On our Reisterstown visit, Gilman had been home from the hospital for only a day after the birth of his son, Evan. He works full-time at a bike shop in Mount Washington, something else he had to relearn in its entirety. In other words, Gilman, it seems, is happy and comfortable.

"I'm not giving up [on a cure] by any stretch," he says. "But I'm not going to just sit around and wait. For now, I'll just deal with the hand I was dealt."

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