All Photos Courtesy of Matt Gilman
This Saturday, June 16th at 9pm, the Windup Space will premiere a short film on Matt Gilman. He’d love for you to be there. You’d probably love to be there, too.
Matt Gilman’s skill on wheels is sick. He’s been riding specialty bikes for twenty years, starting with BMX and mountain bikes. Later, he started trials, a niche of trick riding that originated in attempts to augment control in biking by never touching one’s feet to the ground. Trials combines the skill sets of BMX and mountain riding, and is probably the most technically advanced style of biking there is. Videos of Matt riding trials show him taking full advantage of Baltimore’s urban landscape, bouncing his wheels off brick walls and concrete ledges that near his own height and landing elegantly, without a trace of visible effort.
He is also legally blind.
Matt was not born without vision. He lost it in the mid 2000s, when diabetic retinopathy, a diabetes-induced disorder, caused blood vessels to cover and tear his retinas. When first struck by his deteriorating vision, he assumed that it could be corrected by wearing glasses. Instead, upon visiting the eye doctor, he was instructed to plan for further examination immediately. He was soon informed that he would have to undergo various surgeries, and that even their corrective work could not remove his extremely high risk of losing his vision completely.
When the surgeries began in 2004, Matt was worried but extremely hopeful. His optimism allowed his belief that he’d do whatever it took to keep his sight; that he might become more visually impaired, but would never become blind. In early 2005, though, he had his eyes filled with oil that could prevent further deterioration, but made seeing completely impossible. “That kind of put me into a depression,” he said, “and that lasted for about a year.” He spent his days waiting for his vision to return while losing faith in the possibility. “And I was like, if I can’t ride a bike, what the hell am I gonna do?”
Soon, 2006 rolled around, but his vision didn’t. Matt knew he couldn’t do much more to bring about its return. In fact, he said, “all I really was told was what I can’t do—you can’t drive a car, you can’t ride a bike.” Fed up with the discouragement from reuniting with his passion, he decided to give it a shot anyway. Needless to say, the process was a difficult one. “There was no one to teach me how to do it. There was never anyone who said I could, and I didn’t even know if I really could. But I thought—I figured, I’ll do what I can.”
Growing accustomed to skepticism, Matt didn’t tell anyone when he first started riding again. “At first, I would go out when everyone was at work and like, try to do it myself.” He soon realized that despite the encouraging statements we hear growing up, he was going to have to learn to ride a bike for the second time. “It just didn’t work the same way.”
“The main thing,” he said, “was to figure out, spatially, where I was. Not being able to see it, I had to know where I was and trust that I knew that.” Despite popular opinion, Matt redeveloped the sense of spatial orientation he needed. “I called my friend and I was like, you want to go riding? And he was like, can you see again? And I was like, no. So he was like, uh, you just wanna hang out? And so he saw me jump around and stuff and, yeah, he was amazed.”
When he posted a video of his accomplishments to a local online bike forum, Matt was met with similar bewilderment. Before viewing it, many assumed he was merely grasping for any involvement in the world he once knew and loved, but soon found that his talent was beyond that of many visually able bikers. His close friends were also encouraging, grateful to see him in better spirits that fought the “depression and funk” which paralyzed him for so long. Finally, there were voices to counter the mass opinion that he’d never ride again.
Of course, not everyone was so encouraging. Matt spoke of the frustration he felt at a rehabilitation program in which he was enrolled. It was designed to develop skills that allow the blind and severely visually impaired to reintegrate themselves into a world that, despite even the most valiant efforts, is largely segregated from those of full sensory capability. “They’d really coddle and baby me…I just can’t learn with someone coddling me. It was like, just leave me alone, I’ll figure it out. But they didn’t take me seriously.”
Escape from this feeling of dependency was the most exciting aspect of Matt’s rekindled passion for biking. “When you ride a bike, you feel free. And for me…you’re doing your own thing instead of like, using a cane that is for blind people.” He relished the knowledge that onlookers could see no difference between him and those he rode beside. When he showed the rehab center’s well-intentioned counselors his first and then only YouTube video, their reactions were predictable. Matt detailed them with a trace of cocky satisfaction. “I’d say, you know, I ride bikes, I hop around on them and stuff…they were like, oh, sure you can…then I showed them the video and it was like, yeah, you don’t know what I’m capable of. I can do a lot more than you think I can.”
Initially, the mere pleasure of riding and the satisfaction of disproving the cautious masses were enough. Friends and observers, however, encouraged him to spread his story, confident that it could inspire the world’s citizens to conquer their own battles and tackle the seemingly impossible. So, Matt made more videos that engendered endless positive response, and even internet fame. At others’ suggestions, he also began to show the world his incredible talent in person, coupling bicycle performances with speeches on the ways in which he overcame his hardship.
Now, Matt has done talks and shows at schools, churches, and marathons among other venues and events, imbuing all kinds of people with all kinds of inspiration and motivation. Kids who watch him feel the need to start biking more, promoting the physical health that can prevent the condition which, ironically, was the catalyst for his reclamation of his skill and fervor. A man who stopped riding trials when diagnosed with multiple sclerosis began riding again, despite his doctors’ orders, after seeing Matt’s videos. Matt understands the power of his story. So, equipped with unprecedented talent and faith in his ability to make a difference, he is aiming to make a career of these motivational talks.
His next event is this Saturday at the Windup Space on North Avenue. Beginning at 9pm, viewers can see him in action and hear his unique story from his own mouth. Fog Hound and Blackbird, two local bands whom Matt befriended through biking in Baltimore, will perform, and drink specials will be available. Perhaps most excitingly, a half-hour documentary on his journey will premiere. It was conceived of in thought and edited by Shaun Callahan, who has worked on Matt’s past videos, and filmed by Bill Zucas.
Matt truly seems to enjoy these events as much as his audiences, taking inspiration from the ability to inspire. Thankfully, however, his determination and passion have prevented this fairly new, ardent interest from hindering his progress as a biker. Remarkably, his skill in his post-vision endeavor has now surpassed the level he reached before retinopathy, specifically citing improved levels of balance and control. “I can’t do some of the big jump stuff,” like hops onto six and eight foot ledges, “or the jumps in a line, where you jump from one thing to another to another to another. And I miss doing that. But I’m sure that if I really, really work at that, I can figure it out.” Thus far, he’s showed no reason to doubt this. In his own words, “I just want to show people what’s possible.”
Matt’s narrative of experience is hugely individual, but it is also one that anyone can allegorically make their own. I, personally, can’t really ride a bike. I never learned properly as a child, and subsequent desires to teach myself have seldom come into fruition. Matt’s story and ability speak to the many virtues of this simple ability–an ability that is often taken for granted. When I thanked him for his kindness and willingness to share, I let him know of my secret inability. “I hope I’ve inspired you to get out and ride a bike,” he encouragingly responded. I don’t think I could possibly be more convinced.