A Q&A with legally blind downhill racer and MTB spokesperson, Bobby McMullen
By Matt Niswonger
Spend any amount of time talking to blind athlete Bobby McMullen, and two thoughts will gradually pop into your head. One is that this guy is pretty much unstoppable when it comes to maintaining a positive mental attitude, and the other is that this guy is pretty much unstoppable period. The second fact is a little disconcerting in the sense that you would never want to compete against him in anything, because blind or not, McMullen would surely figure out a way to beat you mentally if not physically. Bobby is a very cheerful person, no doubt, but the more you learn about his story, the more his drive and gritty determination come to the fore.
Truthfully, he may be just about the toughest guy you’ll ever meet, and this comes across in a way that both inspires and humbles. The inspiring part is that because of the medical complications associated with his diabetes, Bobby has been swimming upstream his entire adult life, and despite all this, he still remains unflinchingly positive. As a result, McMullen has become a highly visible member of the mountain bike community–and, increasingly, a mainstream media darling.
The humbling part is that people like you and me probably would have given up outdoor sports long ago, if faced with similar circumstances involving diabetes, sudden blindness, kidney failure, open heart surgery, and just about every broken bone you can think of. So, the question becomes, just what is Bobby McMullen’s secret?
With no hesitation, he will explain that it really all comes down to the bike. Quite simply, what Bobby does on his bike just about every day leaves him exhausted, bloody, and absolutely ecstatic. Watching one of the YouTube videos on Bobby’s website, www.rideblindracing.com, or watching the documentary The Way Bobby Sees It, is the best way to understand this fact. Bobby uses a guide in a similar fashion to visually impaired skiers in the paralympics, but adapts the relationship in a novel way to the world of steep, technical singletrack. Imagine wrapping a bandanna around your head until all you can see is light and dark shapes out of one eye, and then bombing down the trail with nothing but the verbal cues of a “ride guide” to keep you from flying over the handlebars. This roughly describes how Bobby experiences his sport.
To accept this challenge on a daily basis would require a personality with a formidable tolerance for fear and suffering, and of course this describes McMullen to a T. There is also something profound about the level of trust working between Bobby and his guides, and one begins to understand that he is experiencing the sport of mountain biking on a whole different level.
One fact is clear: McMullen is feeding off of mountain biking in a way that few of us could hope to emulate, and this level of stoke is bound to inspire anyone who comes into contact with him. In mid-March, I spoke to Bobby about his recent heart surgery and how it will affect his 2012 race schedule. One month after his double bypass, Bobby is confident that he can take on a full race schedule by June. “I feel like someone put a brand new motor in my chest. I can’t wait to try it out.” Looking at the post-op photos, and the size of the scar on his chest, these comments are impressive, but coming from Bobby, you know he can say this without a hint of bravado. History has shown that the McMullen train cannot be derailed.
In a certain sense, Bobby is challenging the rest of us. Every day he is out there dropping in on trails with his ride guide, totally fired up, and probably muddy and bleeding. Which begs the question, what about the rest of us? Where are our bikes right now? Are they in the garage, gathering dust next to a stack of boxes? Or are they hanging up in the shed, hidden behind a pile of excuses? Either way, Bobby inspires everyone to be like him and forget about the past. All that matters is today, and so far it’s looking like a great day for a ride.
ASJ: Typically, downhill mountain bike racing requires instant terrain analysis and hand-eye coordination. How are you doing this? I saw a youtube video of you getting pretty big air. How is that possible?
McMullen: One reason is that I have been involved in sports my whole life, and I have been riding a bike for over twenty years. This foundation helps make me look somewhat like a regular downhill mountain biker. The truth is, I ride much slower than your average downhill competitor, and I take spills way more often. Believe me, the process has not been easy. My first attempts at trail riding after I lost my sight in 1993 were a total joke. In the beginning, I flopped over on my left side repeatedly. I would ride a few feet and then just fall over, again and again. I also used to preview each section of the trail on my hands and knees in a very painstaking fashion. I still do this, but over time my confidence has grown. I sit up taller on the bike now, with more poise, and my body stays looser and more balanced. In terms of getting air, this just happened accidently at first. Gradually, as we refined the process of working with a ride guide, the level of trust and performance went up. In the beginning, I never even considered getting air. This just sort of happened over time. People who watch me ride realize that my guides are the key to the whole thing. The guides are narrating the entire ride for me. The number one rule with guides is “keep talking the whole time! I don’t care what you say, just never go silent!”
ASJ: How, even with a guide, are you able to negotiate very technical trail sections? Can you elaborate?
McMullen: First of all, I am legally blind, but I am not a “total”, which is a term from the visually impaired community. A total is completely in the dark, totally blind. Thanks to the talent of my eye surgeon, I was able to get a small amount of sight back in one eye, after initially going totally blind from diabetes complications in 1993. No one except someone who has been through it can relate, but suffice it to say that getting a tiny bit of sight back after the world went black was one of the greatest days of my life. This personal victory made biking possible for me as I practice it today.
In terms of ruts and rocks and technical stuff, well honestly it is a struggle. If you check out some of the videos on rideblind.com, you’ll see that I fall down quite frequently. Since all I can see is blurry movement and light and dark shadows, sometimes I just have to stay loose and pray. I am fortunate enough to ride some of the best bikes on the planet, and all that travel eats up many of the rocks and ruts. There are always the showstopper rock gardens, though, and once in a while I just walk the bike or unclip one foot and push my way through. The “Waterfall” section of the Downieville Downhill is a good example of something I have ridden before, but now I just walk my bike so I can live to fight another day.
ASJ: I noticed you are working for WTB. What is your job description?
McMullen: Pretty much a Jack-of-all-trades! On any given day I might serve as an ambassador, do some PR, reach out to bike shops, handle something for the team riders, load up a truck, or just about anything else. I get to work with great people every day, and I feel fortunate.
What happened with your recent heart surgery?
McMullen: On Valentine’s Day a doctor cracked my sternum open and performed a double bypass on my ticker. Turns out I had been riding around with a 50% blockage in my heart for quite some time, and it was getting worse. Early this year I started feeling like I was fighting for breath while riding and it didn’t make sense. I was in excellent shape but my blood pressure was spiking. Since I have had multiple kidney transplants, I went to my Nephrologist first to rule out organ failure issues. After this, we started thinking heart problems. Next thing I knew I was heading in for open-heart surgery! Getting your sternum split reminds me of when I broke my femur in late 2010—it’s a big bone that takes time to heal. The good news is I am already getting on the bike for light workouts, and I feel like someone put a whole new motor in my chest. I will be 100% by June and ready for the bulk of the 2012 race season.
ASJ: Describe the Downieville Downhill as a blind competitor.
McMullen: I always wanted to race it someday, but I knew it was a huge step up. Downieville is pretty much the most serious race out there. The cliff section drops off hundreds of feet to the river. Super nerve-wracking. 2005 was the first year I actually competed, but I previewed the course extensively. In some places the river is so loud that guide communication gets difficult. I ride with some amazing guides, and I really have to give them the credit for Downieville. At the end of the Downieville course, whether actually racing or just riding it, we are totally spent, physically and emotionally, and I am bleeding somewhere on my body. That’s what I love about it. Also, the race aspect is really important to me. Everything changes once you strap on the number. No ride with your buddies will ever bring out the best in you quite like a race. For me, that’s what it is all about.
ASJ: What was behind your decision to switch from the ski race circuit to downhill mountain bike racing in 2001?
McMullen: I competed as a paralympic athlete in the Nagano Olympics. Although I was a contender to win it, I didn’t really do that well. I had been riding a mountain bike in the summers as cross training, but mainly just on fireroads with a guide. After my first kidney transplant didn’t take and I was laid up in bed trying to recover from transplant #2, I kept thinking about the bike. I really didn’t know if mountain biking was possible for me, but I was intrigued. I liked cross-country riding, but for my personality it was always about racing downhill. As I mentioned before, I was really bad at first, but that didn’t matter because I was totally inspired. I realized that if a guide can help me ride fast on a fire-road and even on a double-track trail, maybe I could do something truly terrifying and race down singletrack.
ASJ: Having survived all the health setbacks over the years, does it make you more fearless?
McMullen: What can I say? My health setbacks have been very difficult to deal with. I have a lot experience with injuries and illness, so I probably view it a little differently than some people. I look forward to the race season, so I can’t pretend injuries are fun. Right now I am letting my sternum heal so I can get out there and try out this new motor I have in my chest.
ASJ: If you didn’t have all these challenges, how do you think your life path would be different? Would you still be a competitor?
McMullen: The challenges have determined everything. I left law school after I went blind, and my life unfolded from there. You say that it is fun to talk to someone who is so fired up and positive, but really that is just who I am. My doctor asked me if I have ever been depressed, and I don’t really even know what that means. I agree with you that outdoor sports are a powerful way to maintain a good state of mind. As long as I can stay on my bike, I will be fine.
ASJ: After all the spills and broken bones, do you ever hesitate to get back on the bike? How do you analyze the risk?
McMullen: I am more fired up than ever. I ride my bike to work, even though it is painfully slow and I have to stay on the sidewalk the whole time. Being on a bike makes me feel like a kid, and I get that rush of excitement all over again.
ASJ: How have things changed since the documentary was made about you, “The Way Bobby Sees It.”? Where do you see your career going in the next five years?
McMullen: Honestly I am really excited. What an opportunity—to be an ambassador for something that I love to talk about and be a part of. I feel so lucky that I am about to get married soon and I have the ability to make a living by telling people about what I do. The people in the biking industry are what make the whole thing so great to be a part of.
ASJ: After talking to you, I feel like I have no excuse to ever get bummed out about anything ever again. Your positive attitude is like a shot in the arm.
McMullen: Likewise, I love what you guys are doing. Let’s get together at Sea Otter and go for a pedal!