Marin mountain biking: Blind ambition - Visually impaired racer McMullen makes his mark
McMullen can't. He is blind. But you would never guess it from his chosen passion of downhill mountain-bike racing.
A former extreme skier, McMullen lost his sight to diabetes in 1994 at the age of 32. His two double-organ (kidney and pancreas) transplants may have cured his diabetes but his sight remained impaired.
"If you cover one eye with your hand and you take a toilet paper roll over the other eye, put saran wrap over the top and smear Vaseline over it, that is my vision," McMullen said.
McMullen has no vision in his left eye and 20/1,200 in the right. He has no fear either, which is why the Redding resident is featured in the documentary film, "The Way Bobby Sees It," which will be shown at the Lark Theater in Larkspur on Thursday night.
How does McMullen do it? In open areas, he can make out shadows but, in the trees, he can't see a thing. So McMullen relies on human guides such as Chris Schierholtz of Mill Valley
"The guide tries his best to protect Bobby but it can be a mentally exhausting job," said Schierholtz, who works at Marin-based Wilderness Trail Bikes, which sponsors McMullen's racing.
"In a recent trip up Mt. Tam, I took him all the way down Railroad Grade at Mach speed, even managing to avoid a lady with four dogs on leashes sprawled across the trail, navigating him through Mill Valley traffic.
"Just when I think I got him down safely, he walks right into the garage door at the office. I forgot to tell him it was partly down. When you get down the hill, you are so mentally exhausted that you forget you're in charge of him, even off the bike."
In other words, even with all precautions and solid support in place, there will always be accidents. Some worse than others. Sometimes they are too numerous - and painful - for McMullen to track his injuries and fractures.
"Seven fingers, multiple wrists, collarbone, ribs and foot É I couldn't begin to count," he said.
Yet McMullen is adamant that the tradeoff is well worth it.
"My passion just happens to be on the bike," he said. "The benefits outweigh any consequences - the people and the experiences are great."
It helps McMullen that there always has been an element of danger in his life. His passion for extreme sports did not happen after he lost his sight. McMullen used to ski about 150 days out of the year. When he wasn't on skis, he took up riding mountain bikes as a favor to his girlfriend. After McMullen's sight faded, he didn't quit skiing but rather took it to the next level of Paralympic ski racing. Ten years and over thirty broken bones later, McMullen traded in the skis for a downhill mountain bike which he races 25 events per year.
That helped him hook up with Schierholtz at WTB. Schierholtz has served as a guide for McMullen about seven times.
"I am grateful to have him in my life as a racer and a friend. When he comes in the office, everyone gives him a big hug," Schierholtz said. "As much as he relies on others, he is a very independent person, while humble and thankful. He has a cane he uses once in a while but prefers not to use it so he isn't obviously visually impaired."
It was McMullen's dream one day to ride up - and down - Mt. Tam and Schierholtz helped him attain it.
"He is in your hands and he's yelling at you to go faster and you're already going really fast. It's scary," Schierholtz said. "We hit speeds of 20-25 mph. We're cooking and he wants to go faster. If everything is feeling right, we do go faster. It is inspiring."
It's not easy either. McMullen's immune system isn't the best so, Schierholtz said, "a simple cold can crush him."
So could a big tree if McMullen were to take a wrong turn. He wears extra padding and a full face helmet.
"He falls all the time and gets back up and he's gone," Schierholtz said. "Just imagine falling and not knowing where you are going to hit the ground. Just imagine trying to reach a hand out.
"In the (documentary) film, the camera shows what he sees, a blurry mess."
Fortunately Schierholtz and his other guides can sort out any twists, turns or obstacles in McMullen's path. When he is out and about or racing, McMullen rides a few feet behind his guide, who sends a steady stream of directives back to McMullen such as "bump, bump, bump, up, up."
In turn, McMullen keeps his guide abreast of his status by responding with remarks like "I'm on, yes" or "I'm off."
McMullen also relies on sound - namely the rattling of his guide's bike - to keep him upright. If he hears the chain slapping against the frame, he can expect bumpy terrain. Or if he hears no sound, his guide is probably airborne so he knows to prepare for a jump.
In addition to using words and sound to get the job done, McMullen constantly works on becoming a better bike racer through feel. Since he cannot learn by watching others ride, he periodically enlists some of his professional downhilling friends to describe a proper riding technique such as navigating an incredibly steep rock bed while situating their bodies in correct position for that maneuver so McMullen can run his hands over their bodies to feel what it must look like.
"I live a risky life. If they would have said before the transplant that I couldn't ride my bike, I would have refused the organs. I like to think that the transplant has allowed me to live the life I have chosen," McMullen said. "Transplants don't last and I will inevitably have to face these challenges again. I am living life to its fullest because that's who I am and what I have always done."
So McMullen doesn't need to see Mt. Tam to appreciate it. He senses it. When McMullen completes a ride down Mt. Tam - or any other trail or race course - his reaction is pretty much always the same.
"I give it a WOO-HOO!" McMullen said, smiling. "It's the second-best feeling in life. We can't talk about the first-best feeling in a PG-rated paper."
Christine Vardaros is an accomplished professional cyclist from Mill Valley. She is also writes for VegNews and Cyclocross magazines. Contact her via e-mail at email@example.com or at http://christinevardaros.blogspot.com
ON THE BIG SCREEN
Bobby McMullen will appear at the screening of the 60-minute documentary film "The Way Bobby Sees It" at the Lark Theater in Larkspur on Thursday at 8 p.m.
- Tickets: $12 in advance, $15 at the door.
- Info: call (510) 653-2453 or log onto www.norcalmtb.org