Backmarker: Blind Ambition

December 8, 2011
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

Matt Wadsworth will hardly know hes blindfolded. Hes been blind since birth. Thanks are due to Leatt  and Troy Lee Designs  for the safety gear visible in this shot.
Blind since birth, Matt Wadsworth will attempt a world-record-breaking motorcycle jump of more than 80 feet.

Matt Wadsworth is already well-known in one circle, though if you’re anything like a typical Backmarker reader, you’ve probably never heard of him. His earlier fame came as a lutenist (that’s what you call players of the lute, a 14-stringed musical instrument that was popular, oh, about 700 years ago.)

Around the time you read this, however, he’ll become eligible for a Guinness Book of World Records entry in the ‘motorcycle’ category; he’ll set the record for the longest motorcycle jump done blindfolded.

His effort will be documented in a film, Making The Jump, being put together by Kai Nagata, who’s a well-known Canadian television journalist. Matt hired a friend of mine, Micky Dymond, to coordinate the stunt and train him. Micky’s an ex-AMA Motocross and Supermoto national champion, an ex-MXGP rider (and ex-Backmarker subject himself – read more in Backmarker: Nuclear Cowboyz Inception).

The jump distance – anything over 82 feet will do the trick – is not really a big deal. The blindfold is not a big deal either, because Matt has been blind since birth.

How on earth did a blind guy ever decide that this, of all things, was his life’s goal? Matt Wadsworth lives primarily in a world of sound, so I’ll let him tell you in his own words. Herewith, is a conversation I had with Matt, via Skype, from his home in London, England.

Backmarker: The last I heard from Micky, you guys were planning on setting the record for the longest jump by a guy wearing a blindfold. Have you made that jump yet?

Matt Wadsworth: We’re going (back to California) to train from December 5 to 14, and then I’ll do my longest jump so far. It won’t be the end of the project, but it will be a milestone.

The blindfolded record is the only one the Guinness recognizes; there’s no category for people who are actually blind. But the point of this project is not to set the world record, that’s just a byproduct of the project. There’s a much deeper purpose.

BM: You’ve been blind since birth. Will you even be able to detect the presence of the blindfold?

MW: I can see light and dark, so if it was bright out, I’d know. If it was dark out, I couldn’t tell.

BM: When were you first exposed to motorcycles?

MW: That was a long time ago. I’m 37. When I was about three, I was given a little plastic motorcycle that you could sit on. It was a battery-powered tricycle, and I used to ride around the street on it.

I always loved the sound of motorbikes, I was fascinated with them from my earliest memories. When I was six, I found out about mini bikes, and I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I wanted to have one. My parents told me they were too expensive, and too dangerous, and they said, ‘You can’t have one ‘til you’re ten.’

If you can identify this instrument by sight  you may be one of the few Backmarker readers whos already heard of Matt Wadsworth.
If you can identify this instrument by sight, you may be one of the few Backmarker readers who’s already heard of Matt Wadsworth.

I sort of forgot about it, until it came to Christmas. I unwrapped a box and there was a crash helmet in it. I asked them what I was getting that for, and they said, come into the kitchen. I put my hand out, and there was a motorbike in the middle of the kitchen floor. It was a dream come true. My dad still talks about the look on my face.

We had a field at the bottom of our street, and I used to go and ride around that field. I did that every day for four years. I used to hit about 30 miles an hour; I did tricks, standing on the seat. And I gave the other kids in the neighborhood rides on the back.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was an important tool that integrated me with the other kids, because I didn’t go to their school, and couldn’t play soccer, but I was kind of the cool kid because I had a motorcycle. It gave me a lot of confidence; I could do something that they couldn’t do.

BM: Riding around the field, I guess you knew that you could go a few seconds in one direction, then you’d have to turn…

MW: It was quite easy. At one end of the field there was a concrete area, so I could feel a different texture; on one side there was a downward slope, and on the other side there was an upward slope; the only part that was tricky was that on the fourth side, there was only a fence. The funny thing was, sometimes there would be kids playing in the field, and I couldn’t see them and they didn’t know I was blind. I never ran anyone over, but I used to just hope there was nobody there.

I rode that motorbike from the time I was about six until I was about ten. I got a guitar about the same time, and the motorbike and music were my two childhood passions. I switched from the guitar to the lute a couple of years later.

Although I stopped riding motorbikes as I got deeper into music, the passion for motorcycles never left me. It was a long time before I got back on a motorcycle, but when I get on it now, it takes me back to those childhood years. I feel the same now as I did then.

BM: Did you just come back to motorcycles recently, with this project in mind?

MW: I did a test run about a year ago. I went down to a farm and rode a trials bike around, to make sure that I could still do it. I didn’t know how it would feel; I didn’t know if I’d remember how to do it, but it all came back.

I spent a lot of time with Micky, learning how to be a better rider, and how to ride a motocross bike. Our biggest challenge has been figuring out how to go in a straight line. It sounds really trivial, but we spent hours trying different things to overcome it. We’ve worked with balance, with me feeling that my body is square and my shoulders are square. We tried rumble strips at the side of the lane, but they didn’t work because when I got onto them, I could feel the bumps but I didn’t know if I needed to go left or right.

Sometimes it’s been frustrating and humiliating, but now if I do ten passes at the jump, I go straight nine times. We’ve laid a concrete pad about 40’ long, so the starts are more consistent; the bike doesn’t dig up the dirt.

BM: Was the resolution of the going-straight problem just figuring out how it should feel to you, physically?

MW: It’s partly that. We’ve had to do things with the dirt; sometimes you hit a lump and it makes you go a bit left, or whatever. We’ve got a headset, too. So Micky, or sometimes Ronnie, will give me instructions every second: ‘Straight, straight, left, straight, jump!’

BM: Talk to me about your lute-playing. Where are you, in the pantheon of lute players, and don’t be modest, because I will find out if you understate your status.

MW: I’m up there [laughs]. I’m among the world’s best; I wouldn’t normally say that, but there it is.

The settings not exactly picturesque  but that wont bother him...
The setting isn’t exactly picturesque, but that won’t bother him…

BM: If you weren’t spending so much time and effort on this motorcycle project, would you be performing and making recordings?

MW: I kind of cleared my diary to do this. I had to reschedule a recording; I had work lined up in England and in Montreal. While we were organizing this project, I spent the summer in Colorado, working on an opera. I had to memorize the entire opera – three hours of music.

BM: Do you have an agent who’s screaming, ‘What are you doing? You could break your fingers!’

MW: I did have to cancel a gig because I’d hurt my shoulder, but I didn’t tell them that I’d fallen off a motorcycle; I made up another excuse. Most people are intrigued by it; there have been a few skeptics, but 95% of the people who hear about my project are behind it.

There’s some danger, but you have to take some risks in life; that’s how you grow. It’s made me get over my fear of pain. My shoulder still hurts, but now that I’ve done it, I’m not as afraid any more.

BM: I imagine that your success in music is down to some combination of hard work and natural talent; are you using your musical skills to ride the bike? I’m thinking of using your sense of rhythm to time the jump, a sense of pitch – listening to the motor – to judge your speed…

MW: Yes, we use all those things; timing and the pitch of the engine. I had these special earpieces made so that I could hear Micky, and they prevented me from hearing the engine, so that didn’t work.

With music, it’s a mixture of having a talent, and then nurturing the talent. I don’t know if I have a talent for riding motorcycles. I’ve got good balance and I developed good control of the bike when I was young.

Something that I hope is coming across in the documentary is that you have an idea of what you want to achieve, and then you just work at it. There’s all these different components; how to start in a straight line, how to go from a sitting to standing position, how to jump and land, and brake without falling off. All these things have to be rehearsed separately and then put together; that’s the same thing you do with a piece of music. You have to perfect each bit and then put it all together. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t; you do it over and over again, and sometimes you stop and reflect on it, and play it through in your mind, and then come back to it. It’s so similar to music…

BM: Most kids growing up, they see a Supercross race or the X-Games, they see someone taking a big jump and might think, ‘I’d like to have a go at that.’ That never happened to you, so how did the idea of Making The Jump come to you?

MW: The idea was just born naturally. I was talking to someone about riding motorcycles at an entrepreneur’s conference – I was speaking there – and they asked me, ‘Have you ever thought of doing something else with a motorbike?’

I started talking to people about maybe doing something with speed. Setting some kind of record; but we didn’t know anyone in that field. But one of the people in my circle knew Ronnie Faisst, who’s part of Metal Mulisha. He reached out to Ronnie, and he didn’t really come back to us, but he contacted Micky Dymond.

Micky wasn’t really into it at first, either. People couldn’t really imagine how it could be done or why. But eventually he came around. And though, as you say, I’d never seen anyone do a jump, the more I thought about it, I thought, ‘How does it happen? How does it all work?’ It was something I wanted to see if I could accomplish, because there were so many unknowns, and it seemed so complicated.

That’s unfortunately the kind of challenge I like; I have to figure out different ways to do things in life. That’s my existence.

I met with Micky and we had a practice day in July. There was no jump, it was just in a small space, and we wondered if it was even possible. It turned into a massive project, building and rebuilding the jump; there’s a fitness component, with yoga and balance; all these factors that have to be brought together to make it work.

Micky Dymond is the most naturally talented motorcycle rider that Ive ever personally ridden with.  Some day  you should remind me to tell you the story of the first time he ever rode in a road race.  Its strange to say that a multi-time AMA MX and SM champ failed to live up to his potential  but hes the first to admit that he pissed it all away. I get the feeling that by helping Matt Wadsworth achieve his goals  Mickys hoping for some kind of redemption of his own.
Micky Dymond (right) is the most naturally talented motorcycle rider that I’ve ever personally ridden with. (Some day, you should remind me to tell you the story of the first time he ever rode in a road race.) It’s strange to say that a multi-time AMA MX and SM champ failed to live up to his potential, but he’s the first to admit that he ‘pissed it all away.’ I get the feeling that by helping Matt Wadsworth achieve his goals, Micky’s hoping for some kind of redemption of his own.

BM: How did [filmmaker] Kai Nagata get involved?

MW: We met on an airplane. I was traveling with a theorbo, which is a two meter-long lute. He said, ‘What’s that?’ He was a journalist, and as we sat together, I told him about this motorcycle jump. We hadn’t found Micky at that time, but we were seeing how it could happen. I needed someone to train me, and a place to do it. A month later, Kai had quit his job and he told me he wanted to come down and make a film about it.

BM: For a lot of people, motorcycles are about freedom and individuality. You mentioned that when you were a kid, your motorbike served to integrate you into the community, not as an escape mechanism from it [which is what they always meant to me as a kid].

MW: I’m rarely in a position to have control over my own speed. When I walk around, I have to be very careful. I feel that sense of freedom and autonomy when I ride. It might sound weird, since I need someone to say, ‘left, right’ or whatever. But being autonomous often means having someone around who can supplement our weaknesses. I can’t see where I’m going – I have someone talking in my ear – but I feel as free with that as someone would who was using their eyes.

BM: Micky’s a character…

MW: He certainly is. I’ll never forget the first time I met him; it was the night before our first tryout. He hadn’t committed yet; he wanted to see if it would be worth his time. I just connected with him. He’s a very thoughtful, warm person, and very human. I’m finding that a lot of bikers are like that; they’re artists. Micky is an artist; he talks about the motorcycle the way a musician talks about his instrument. He’s making it do what he wants it to do, and that’s one of the reasons that I get along with him so well.

And this has opened his eyes to a different way of doing things. We’ve developed a really close bond because there’s so much trust involved — not just from me to him, but he has to trust that I’m not going to screw things up. We’re reliant on each other to make this happen.

BM: Are you paying for this out of your own pocket?

MW: Yeah, I’ve sunk every penny of my money into it, and I have none left. I’ve put, like, $40,000 into it and I’m desperately trying to raise another twenty grand so that we can finish it. We’re crowd-sourcing. If you go to there’s a way to make a donation there. I want people to really feel they’re a part of it… Yes, it’s about me because I’m riding the motorcycle, but this is really about people, everyone, looking at their capabilities and realizing that they can achieve things that they might not have thought were possible.

BM: Is there a sort of parallel blind culture that sighted people aren’t aware of? Do you know a lot of other blind people?

MW: No, I don’t know many blind people. I wasn’t raised like a blind kid; I didn’t want to be, either. I went to a special school until I was 12; there was really no choice, I had to go there. But then, I went to a normal school for sighted kids, and just found my way. My friends would read things off the board. I was the first blind kid to go to a mainstream school, the first to go to a specialist music school, the first to go to the Royal Academy. I’ve never been afraid to lead the way.

BM: Most parents of a blind child would not have bought their kid a motorcycle. What does your dad think of this? Does he say, ‘If I’d known you were going to try this stunt, I’d never have bought that first bike?’

MW: He was nervous at first. He did say, ‘Be careful. I know you can ride, but this is bigger.’ When you’re younger, you’re closer to the ground, and you bounce a little better. But I went to school in Manchester, and the local council provided me with a taxi. After a few weeks, I didn’t want to take a taxi, I wanted to walk and take the bus, like everyone else.

BM: You wanted to be like the other kids at that school. But the vast majority of 37-year-old guys who had not ridden for 25+ years would not want to travel 80 feet in the air on one. It seems there’s a part of you that wants to do things that other people would say is almost impossible.

MW: Lute music is written in a format called tablature. And there was no Braille version of it, so I invented one. I don’t wait around, or think that if no one’s invented a solution for something, it’s not possible. You have to use your imagination in life. There are many different ways to do the same thing. You have to be bold enough, and brave enough, and determined enough to find the way that works for you.

I’m not doing this to prove a point. I don’t think of it as showing the world anything. This challenge has just come up, and I’ve embraced it. Sometimes I sit there on the start pad and feel a bit nervous. I think, I’m paying to do this, am I crazy? But then afterwards you reflect on what you’ve done, and the struggle you went through — I’m finding that I can apply this to other areas of my life. It’s even making me a better musician. I see music in a different way, and take more risks. I’m growing in every area through this project.

I’m hoping that other people who become a part of this project or come to know of it can do the same, and take something from this and apply it in their own lives.

When Micky first sent me a link to some of the raw footage from Making The Jump, I wrote it off as a meaningless made-for-TV stunt, and didn’t think that it was possible that a guy who’d been blind from birth could offer any real insight into my sport. It was only after seeing the clip embedded at the bottom of this column that I thought, OK, maybe I was wrong; maybe I should talk to this guy.

I’m glad I did. Partly, because every now and then I need to renew my faith in motorcycles as vehicles through which we don’t merely express who we are, but through which we sometimes even discover who we are.

As I was talking to Matt, I imagined how incredibly difficult it would be, if I was blind, to even meet the challenges of the most mundane and circumscribed day-to-day life. Then I tried to imagine purposely piling additional challenges on top of that. And I learned that despite the absence of sight, Matt Wadsworth has lots of motorcycle insight.

P.S. Matt’s not the first blind guy I’ve encountered in my life in motorcycling. The first blind guy was, in his own way, just as unlikely but nowhere near as likable. The first motorcycle mechanic I ever knew was blind. I wrote about him in my book Riding Man, and have excerpted that part of my book on my personal blog. So if your own vision’s not already blurring after reading 3,000+ words on your monitor, you can check out another ‘blind’ story here

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Mark Gardiner