The first event of the Queenstown Bike Festival next week has attracted a novel entrant – a blind downhill mountain biker.
That’s no misprint. Gutsy American Bobby McMullen will ride the challenging six-hour Super D Enduro, involving plenty of downhill, at Ben Lomond’s Queenstown Bike Park next Saturday.
Incredibly, the former Paralympics skier will compete with the aid of a guide who rides two bike-lengths in front of him and calls out instructions.
While totally blind in his left eye, McMullen says he can see the shape of his ride guide – in this instance top American endurance rider Yuri Hauswald – out of his right eye.
“I focus on his shape and his commands and just having a good balance point on my bike.
“It’s a constant stream of ‘left, left’, ‘right, right’, ‘pull up, pull up’ or ‘bumpy, bumpy’ … 20 years of taking a lot of falls and the best gear on the planet allow me to do what I do but it starts with me and my guide.”
McMullen, subject of an international award-winning film, says he always competes as hard as he can.
Bike festival organiser Geoff Hunt says he’s delighted McMullen is coming: “I’m looking forward to seeing if I can keep up with him. I’ve seen boys and girls ski racing blind but I’ve never seen anyone riding a bike blind.”
“He’s got good balance obviously and he’s athletic but I still think it’ll be a big challenge,” Hunt says.
Remarkably, sudden blind-ness at the age of 29 – triggered by diabetes – hasn’t been McMullen’s only affliction.
During his ski-racing career he received a kidney and pancreas transplant in 1997.
After two years of dialysis, he received a second double organ transplant, 10 years ago.
Since taking up competitive mountain biking in 2004, he’s also broken more bones than he can count – while also being the first visually-impaired person to complete several major races including the Megavalanche in France.
Then last year he battled skin cancer – the result of 16 years’ heavy medication after his first organ transplant.
Between open-heart surgery and radiation therapy, however, he also married and turned 50.
The Queenstown Bike Festival marks McMullen’s competition comeback – though he expects he’ll sit out some of the laps: “What an amazing opportunity to come to Queenstown, ride in this bike festival and have a gondola-assisted Super D as my first event back.”
McMullen says he was convinced to come by Christchurch bike equipment importer Mark Dickson, whom he’s used as a ride guide.
The two became mates after first meeting at California’s Downieville hills – the scene of a famous mountain bike race where the film, The Way Bobby Sees It, was shot.
During his two weeks in NZ, McMullen says a bungy jump’s not out of the question – “if my body will hold together”.
“But Mark’s also determined to let me drive his jetboat – I’m not truly ready for this but we’ll find out real quick.”
McMullen and his guide are flying to NZ courtesy of his helmet/armour sponsor Brad Waldron of Kali Protectives, while Lezyne is sponsoring his trip.