Blind mountain bike racer helps involve disabled riders in next fall’s Challenge Fondo
Bobby McMullen can hardly see 3 feet in front of him, but he rides perilous trails many mountain bikers would feel no shame in declaring too gnarly.
If you need visual proof, check out The Way Bobby Sees It, a documentary screened before a packed Sierra Nevada Big Room last October and available in full on YouTube.
It chronicles McMullen’s completion of the 2007 Downieville Classic Mountain Bike Race, a 17-mile downhill course nationally recognized for its technical difficulty. During the opening sequence, the camera is blurred out of focus to give a sense of McMullen’s perspective—just shadow and light—as he tails his guide rider, who shouts directions and warns of obstacles: “Sweeping right! Straight up! Bumpy, bumpy, bumpy! Hard left!”
Being legally blind isn’t the greatest challenge McMullen has overcome to pursue his passion of racing mountain bikes. In 1993, during his first year of law school, he lost most of his vision due to complications with diabetes. He learned to ski by following a guide and spent seven years competing with the U.S. Disabled Ski Team, including in 1996, when his kidneys failed and he received kidney and pancreas transplants.
Still, the Redding native competed in the 1998 Paralympics in Nagano, Japan, and continued skiing competitively until his body rejected his transplanted organs and he underwent a second double transplant in 2003. After that surgery, McMullen focused on mountain biking—he had cycled to cross-train for skiing throughout his career—and has raced in dozens of downhill events every year since.
But McMullen faced another wave of complications in 2012, when he underwent open-heart surgery to clear his arteries, was equipped with a pacemaker and got diagnosed with an aggressive form of skin cancer that spread to his lymph nodes, requiring multiple invasive surgeries and heavy radiation treatment. Now he undergoes proactive cancer treatments “once every month or two,” he told the CN&R by phone from the Sea Otter Classic sports festival in Monterey.
But McMullen says his life has been defined by beautiful moments and relationships, not his up-and-down health.
“I haven’t worked hard at being identified as a guy with a lot of issues,” he said. “No, I’m Bobby McMullen, I’m 52, I have a hot wife, a beautiful daughter and I work in the bike industry. I’m going to race my bike this week and ride with sponsors and buddies. Is there a message? No. People have suffered through worse.
“I’m just a dude who rides a bike who happens to have faced some obstacles.”
Willingly or not, McMullen is the North State’s poster boy for people with disabilities who achieve a high level of athletic performance. That’s why Janine Rood, executive director of Chico Velo, approached McMullen after the Big Room screening last fall regarding a potential partnership. Seeking to combine Chico Velo’s annual timed ride, the Challenge Fondo, with the Northern California-Nevada Adaptive Cycling Series—an introductory cycling event for people with disabilities—Rood believed McMullen’s local celebrity status and story as a disabled athlete would make him the perfect spokesman. McMullen jumped at the opportunity to share his love of bicycles with people who may not have had the opportunity to ride.
“I want to do everything I can for individuals who want this challenge, who need this challenge, but also for their families to celebrate their success,” he said. “And success is not doing 100 miles or being the fastest. The win is sticking your chin up, looking ahead and saying, ‘I’m going to try.’”
Timed, long-distance road rides called gran fondos have been popular in Italy, France and Spain for decades, but only recently have caught on in the U.S. As Rood explained, fondos are usually associated with a specific cause and hosted by a recognizable figure.
Chico Velo held its first Challenge Fondo in 2012. The ride is based on one of Rood’s favorite routes, beginning and ending in Durham after making a long loop southeast of Oroville. But unlike the Chico Wildflower Century, which has become a nationally renowned ride that carries its own momentum year-to-year, participation in the Challenge Fondo has been sparse. Last year, only 100 riders entered the event.
“I wanted to grow it faster and for it to be more inclusive,” Rood said. “Chico Velo hasn’t done much to encourage beginning cyclists of any ability.”
Enter Ability First Sports, a volunteer-driven organization in Chico that introduces youths with disabilities to the personal enrichment of athletics. During its annual, week-long summer camp for 7- to 18-year-olds, Ability First runs participants through activities such as tennis, basketball, rugby, water skiing, rock-climbing and cycling.
“We want to get them to an intermediate level, no matter what sport it is, so they can cycle with their family or play tennis against an able-bodied person,” said Chuck Nadeau, development director for Ability First.
Along with like-minded organizations in Sacramento and Reno, Ability First brings the Adaptive Cycling Series to multiple cities in California and Nevada each year, introducing people with disabilities to adaptive cycles—mostly recumbent bikes and hand-cycles, though there are many variations. Since those specialized rides are expensive, starting around $2,000, the experience of cruising through countryside can be out of reach for many, Nadeau said.
“With adaptive cycling, there are so many different types of bikes because of all the different disabilities,” he said. “In town, there’s really only one place that sells adaptive cycles, and they have, like, one option. Depending on your disability, there could be 15 bikes you need to look at.”
So, the organizations pool their resources, each bringing an assortment of bikes to accommodate every level of ability and body type. On race day (Sept. 13), after the first wave of riders sets off, those with disabilities will be fitted with a cycle and encouraged to ride as far as they want—whether that’s to the end of the parking lot or the full century.
“Despite a physical challenge, a mental challenge, an emotional challenge, you can still get on a bicycle and get out and get that release,” McMullen said. “There really are no limits; the equipment is adaptable. We’re going to help you enjoy this, and there are no expectations. The win is if you show up.”
And for fully able cyclists, the fondo will be a chance to learn about adaptive cycles and the athletes who use them, McMullen said.
“You’ll go home and say, ‘Holy shit, this guy with one leg blew by me going 25 mph,’” he laughed. “That’s happened to me a number of times.”