Blind bike racer refuses to shrink from life's obstacles
Published: Friday, July 14, 2006 at 7:55 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 14, 2006 at 7:55 a.m.
SONOMA - Bobby McMullen, legally blind, makes his way around the Jeep on Thursday by tapping it with his hand every foot or so. He is moving purposefully. Then, when his next act becomes apparent, I mutter, "Stop, you fool! That ain't no Jeep up ahead!"
It is about 200 feet of hillside above Turn 7 at Infineon Raceway. The average angle of descent is Steep As Hell. After a few halting steps, he comes up against his bike. In minutes, he will go downhill on the northern shank of Cougar Mountain. He is practicing for his race Saturday at the USA Cycling Mountain Bike Championships.
"It's white knuckles every time I do this," McMullen said. "It's not relaxing. The hair stands up on the back of my neck."
He did it. I saw it. Still don't believe it: A blind man went downhill on his mountain bike. It's like saying: "I just saw an octopus deal blackjack."
"Everyone faces obstacles in life," McMullen said. "Some with their marriage. Some with their jobs. Some with their kids. Mine happens to be I am sightless and have a real crappy body."
He's on his third kidney and third pancreas. He was on dialysis for two years. He's broken his femur in six places -- so shattered his hip "they couldn't count all the pieces."
He's broken his left leg 30 times, his right foot twice and suffered two concussions. He's broken each arm, a collarbone and all the ribs on his left side. He's broken his left wrist twice, three fingers on his left hand, two fingers on his right. Three times priests have been called to his hospital room, ready to administer last rites.
Oh, that sightless thing. At 29, McMullen went blind in one month. Type1 diabetes did it.
"I cried a lot back then," said McMullen, 43.
And then a funny thing happened to McMullen on his way to being a recluse. He decided he wouldn't.
"The biggest obstacle to life sometimes is to continue life," McMullen said. "It's not what happens to you that's important. It's what you do about it."
McMullen went after life like it was the girl he liked. I'm going to win her over. I'm going to make her mine. I don't care if this sounds like so much babble on a Hallmark card.
McMullen, a Redding native, made the U.S. disabled ski team. He completed a bicycle race across America, a Maui triathlon, was in the 1998 Paralympics in Nagano. He's a competitive cyclist, sponsored by Wilderness Trail Bikes and Santa Cruz Bicycles.
"He is unlike any other human being I've met," said Novato's Mark Weir, a pro cyclist and frequent guide to McMullen. "I get chills. Every time he gets on that bike, he is risking his life."
McMullen is totally blind in his left eye. His right eye is 20/1200. McMullen sees blended colors and shapes. Life is an Impressionist painting seen from 100 yards away. Sounds scary.
"It is," said McMullen.
McMullen races by following a guide. Saturday it will be J.J. Allen of Mt. Shasta. Allen will shout out turns, angles, straightaways. McMullen will stay within a bike length of Allen, listening to the sound of Allen's bike and Allen's voice.
Sixty riders will be grouped together for the free-for-all start. If McMullen loses Allen ...
"I fall each race," said McMullen said. "This year alone I have broken three helmets. I go down a lot. I'm not some freaking superhero. I can't overcompensate with stronger hearing."
Hero? No. Role model? Yes. Inspiration? Off the charts. People with disabilities, not just those with vision problems, seek him out, especially to talk about depression.
"I have to study depression to know about it," McMullen said. "Never had it. If someone hears my story and joins a gym, goes for a walk, I feel incredibly privileged. After my second kidney and pancreas transplant, someone asked why would I risk that gift by mountain biking. What good is that gift to me if I don't do what I love?"
Winning? He doesn't against sighted competition. Many times McMullen finishes last. As if that bothers him. Pity? Save it for the self-absorbed guy who slouches on his couch with the remote.
"I am a visually-impaired guy who has had the crap kicked out of him but is surrounded by amazing people," McMullen said. "I don't have a dollar to my name but I feel incredibly rich."
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