Blind bike stunt rider overcomes vision loss, obstacle course

Matt Gilman taught himself tricks to jump, bounce over obstacle courses

May 23, 2010|By Susan Reimer, The Baltimore Sun

Watching Matt Gilman use his bike like a two-wheeled pogo stick, bouncing from giant wooden box to slightly smaller wooden box, your heart is in your throat waiting for a nasty spill.

When he rears up on his back wheel on the highest box, like the Lone Ranger on Silver, you instinctively look away.

The ballet that Gilman dances on his bike requires strength and balance, but, apparently, not sight, because Gilman is a blind bike trials rider.

Gilman, 30, who grew up in Mount Washington and now lives in Reisterstown with his wife and son, was performing at Sunday's annual BikeJam in Patterson Park. The event drew 800 riders — from kids to pros — and thousands of spectators to raise money for Patterson Park and World Bicycle Relief, which provides bikes for transportation in Africa.

Gilman lost his sight about six years ago as the result of Type I diabetes, but quickly threw aside his doctor's orders to give up riding.

"I trip over my own two feet, but I feel like I can do anything on my bike," said Gilman, exhausted after three stunt performances during a long, hot and humid day in the park. Behind him, the sighted pro cyclists raced at terrific speeds.

"The first time I got on my bike after I lost my sight, I fell over instantly. I was like a child again," said the former BMX rider. Gilman works at Joe's Bike Shop in Mount Washington, where he has taught himself the tricks and shortcuts he needs to repair bikes without vision.

Gilman performed before a noisy crowd, many of them youngsters who fancy themselves trick riders and who peppered him with questions as he waited to begin.

But his friend of 15 years, Gary Lessner, a pro trials rider from Parkville, went first. Wearing a blindfold. He stumbled with the bike and didn't seem to know where the obstacles were.

"It was very hard," said a winded Lessner. "I have no idea how he does it."

Gilman says he uses his hands and feet to place himself on the oversized wooden boxes. And he uses the tires like two more hands. He will "feel" his way around a course before attacking it, but he can't see the gaps or the drops once he begins.

His years as a BMX bike rider gave him a control of the bike that he employs now. "It was 16 years of banging around."

His brother-in-law, Louis Gingher, who announces for him, will occasionally give him verbal cues to go left or right on the blocks and triangles. Gilman, who is miked, tells the crowd what he will attempt next and asks for their encouragement.

During a demonstration for a diabetes research fundraiser, Gilman was so charged up by the cheers from the kids that he jumped from the top of a 5-foot-tall box, skimmed past another box that was equally as wide and landed on the pavement. It was his first time for such a stunt.

"My mother didn't look," he said, laughing.

Gilman rides rocks and mountain trails, too, following a friend who puts a clicker on his wheel so Gilman can follow the sound. "That's actually the scariest thing I do."

But the big news for this blind bike star is the birth seven weeks ago of his son, Evan, who will be getting his first bike, his father says, by the age of two.

"As soon as he can walk," said Gilman.

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