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Riding With Blind Ambition

Cycling the 1200 kilometres from Sydney to Melbourne is no easy task. Yes, it’s been done before, but only by the most fit and determined amongst us. Matt Formston, from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, is just that. He’s 31, he’s fit and he’s determined. Oh and by the way… he’s blind.

At age five, Matt Formston was diagnosed with macular degeneration, making him one of the first people in the world under the age of 40 to be diagnosed with the disease.

“The life that I can remember I have lived with less than five per cent vision. I have no central vision and only a small amount of peripheral vision, but I don’t think of myself as being blind… it’s hard to explain,” says Matt.

But then he does find a way to explain his situation in this most philosophical way:

The life that I can remember I have lived with less than five per cent vision. I have no central vision and only a small amount of peripheral vision, but I don’t think of myself as being blind

“A seagull can read a newspaper headline from a kilometre away, but you can’t, so to a seagull, you are blind. For me, it’s plenty of vision to get around with, but I can’t read and I can’t drive a car”.

It is this attitude that explains how Matt has broken the barriers that might well have kept him back. It explains how he managed to get on a pushbike, accompanied by his good mate Scott Williamson and make the gruelling trip along the coastal road from Sydney to Melbourne, surviving a spill that landed him in hospital.

Beating The Odds

“When I was at high school, I played rugby at a fairly high level. Ironically, I played blind side breakaway,” he jokes.

“I played ice hockey as well and I surfed a couple of times a week.”

But how, you wonder, does a person who is legally blind play a sport that requires hand/eye co-ordination?

“I do things differently. I’ve worked out doing things by patterns, so in ice hockey for instance, I work out approximately where the puck is and I play centre, so I’m normally on top of it and when the puck is hit, I can get an idea of where it is because other guys start to chase it.

“With boxing, which I have done, I can get an idea of when a punch is coming by the way I perceive the opponent’s shoulders.

“In rugby, I wasn’t a big guy, but I was always the guy coming up with the ball. In defence, the guy that everyone’s chasing is the guy with the ball so I’d follow the flow. When the ball came to me, that was always pretty much a struggle and my team mates would have to put it on my chest. But luckily I was a forward and not a back.”

But what Matt did have over his opponents was his superior fitness, both mentally and physically.

At high school, Matt couldn’t read and never learned Braille, so he learnt everything by memory and was not backwards in asking copious questions, while his classmates would often tune-out.

“By the end of the class, I would understand everything that needed to be understood,” he says.

And that was proven when, against all odds, Matt passed his Higher School Certificate and became a business analyst… and a pretty good one at that.

Sydney to Melbourne

Matt’s bike ride to Melbourne came up out of the blue. He says he was never a bike rider in the real sense. The only time he ever rode a bike was to carry his surfboard down to the local beach at Dee Why… and that short trip was sometimes fraught with danger.

Although he memorised the trip along the footpath and rode slowly, there were always unexpected perils such as dogs and pedestrians. Matt finally gave up riding his bike when he crashed into two road barriers on his way to the beach one day.

He also recalls riding a motorbike along a dirt track he’d memorised at a farm owned by his father at Nabiac on the NSW Mid North Coast… and he’d become so adept that no one could beat him along that particular course.

The ride to Melbourne came about while Matt was on a bus with his mate Scott who told Matt that he was planning to ride to Melbourne in three months’ time.

“Scott said he was doing it with another bloke and I said: ‘I’m coming with you. Let’s do it for charity and make it a bit of a feat.’

“The other bloke ended up pulling out so it was just me and Scott.”

Matt proposed that the gruelling 1,200 km ride would be the perfect opportunity to raise funds and awareness for his favourite charity, the Macular Degeneration Foundation.

The duo spent the next three months preparing. Matt hadn’t been on a bike for some time, so they trained by riding from Newcastle to his parents’ home in Nabiac and back… 147 kilometres each way… over and over.

And they went at a pretty good clip with Scott calling the shots as to where Matt should veer or stay away from or when he should slow down due to various conditions. Pretty soon, they had their signals down pat.

“We had a great time training and Scott’s instructions kept me safe”.

On 12 November, Matt and Scott set off from the Sydney Opera House under the glare of television cameras and press photographers.

“It was appropriate that we started from that landmark because the Opera House’s architect, Joern Utson, actually suffered from Macular Degeneration,” says Matt.

“We’d planned to take 13 days to ride to Melbourne with one rest day, but we were quicker than we thought, so we had two rest days and made it to Victoria in the same amount of days.”

They rode up hill and down dale through 40 degree heat. All was going well…

Maybe too well, because fate intervened and the pair never quite made it to Melbourne.

“We were just outside the Victorian town of Sale when there was a breakdown in communication.

“I didn’t hear Scott say ‘slow down’, and I ran into the back of him and lost my front tyre. In fact, I’m not sure that he did yell out,” Matt laughs.

But it was no laughing matter at the time because Matt hit the ground hard, ripping the top of his knee open. He ended up in the local hospital with seven stitches.

“I wasn’t allowed to bend my knee, but we drove to Melbourne and rode a couple of hundred metres to our final destination and were greeted by the media again. It was disappointing that we couldn’t do the last little bit.”

But that setback is certainly no hindrance to a fellow such as Matt because he’s now got the adventure bug. As soon as his knee heals, Matt will be doing a kayak trip… again for the MD Foundation.

“I am looking at doing the trip across Bass Strait or maybe up along the Great Barrier Reef. It’s been done before.

“I might do it with a mate, but if not, I’ll do it with a support boat. I’ve still got to figure that out”.

Or maybe Matt will take up the offer from the Paralympic official who wants him to join the Australian cycling team.

Footnote: Matt and Scott raised AUD$16,000 for the MD Foundation as a result of the bike ride.

To make a donation or for further information go to: www.seeingbeyondbarriers.com.au