This is the third and final part of our analysis of the state of flat. This is a follow-up interview after talking to pro rider Terry Adams and discussing pro competition with Effraim Catlow.
THE FLAT LIFE WITH MATT WILHELM
The first time I saw Matt Wilhelm was in 1994 at the Chicago B.S. comp. We were both in the beginner class. I could tell at the time, that this dude had special talent and bike control. He got first place at that comp and has since progressed to become a super pro in flatland bmx. He's competed around the world and is an X-games gold medalist. Although he graduated from the University, he has found a way to make a good living from flatland. While others moved on to desk jobs, he continues to push limits and have fun on his bike!
FM: You're a super pro and you also graduated from the University. That's a rare combination. Talk about where you went to school and what you were studying?
MATT: I originally wanted to be a music teacher and got a music scholarship to Millikin University, which has a great music program. I changed majors to Marketing but still minored in Music. I turned pro during my junior year and still graduated with almost straight A's despite traveling to a bunch of comps and events. Even during my senior year, after being in X Games I was still going to job fairs and looking for real jobs.
FM: What was your career plan if you didn't make it as a Pro Flatland rider?
MATT: I really didn't think it would be possible to make flatland a career. I was thinking about trying to work in the marketing department of a bike company, but realistically I was going to settle for pretty much whatever. During the spring semester of my senior year I won an X-trials competition. With my win/match money from one of my sponsors at the time I won $11,000 in one weekend. I decided to live off that money, and if it ever ran out I would have to get a real job.
FM: What was your parents’ perspective on the emphasis you put on flatland in your life at that time?
MATT: At that point I don't think they understood the potential, and I totally understand where they were coming from. I had just invested a huge chunk of time and money into a college education, and it didn't seem like I was using it. Once I started appearing on TV and in magazines more often they got it.
FM: Now what do they think?
MATT: They are obviously my hugest fans now and are very proud. I think they are more proud of the work I'm doing with kids than what I'm doing on the bike. I am too.
FM: What year did you turn pro?
MATT: I entered a smaller 2-hip Burning Bike in fall of 1999, but my first year of going to X Games and stuff was 2000.
FM: Hold on,Effraim at FlatMatters, is on the line, he has a question....When the going gets tough at contests, (semi finals, final battle) whats your natural reaction? Play safe or come out guns blazing?
MATT: It kind of depends. I'm really over the battle format as it currently stands. You get penalized more for going for it and rewarded more for consistency. Sometimes if you are battling someone good who always pulls their stuff you gotta go for it though.
FM: Have you ever worked a job that was non BMX related, If so, what was it?
MATT: Nope. Worked for 2 months at a bike shop when I was 19 and that's it. I always could do shows for local teams at fairs and festivals to make some side money.
FM: How did you end up doing school shows? Is it a full time business?
MATT: I never even considered doing shows at schools. I used to ride for a local team that would do fairs, auto shows, and some occasional school shows. After doing a few I realized it could be so much more if I developed some educational content around the tricks. I broke off and started doing my own thing. People don't book me because I'm a good rider. They book me because I'm a great speaker. I really feel that this is what I was born to do. I know a lot of riders want to do shows at schools, but it's tough to do it right. You have to ride on super slick floors (you can't slide out and scratch or gouge the floor or you're done). You have to be able to speak articulately as 50% of my show is talking without tricks. My show is 40 minutes so that means you have to hold the attention of a child for 20 minutes without having the luxury of your bike. It's hard to develop. I'm also lucky that I started this 7 years ago. With school funds drying up, it's a changing industry and I'm lucky to be established already.
FM: How many days a week do you do shows?
MATT: I do about 350 different events per year, and some have multiple shows. I would say about 450 total shows per year. I try to take the summer off from doing shows and there is always winter and spring breaks. During the school year I average about 10-15 shows per week.
FM: With so much of your days dedicated to doing shows, do you still do some recreational riding for fun, learning new tricks, etc.?
MATT: The first year I was really busy doing shows all the time it was so overwhelming and I barely rode for myself. Now that I have the formula figured out I can always ride at the warehouse at night. I'm constantly on the bike. I kind of treat the shows as a warm up or skills refresher and then ride for real at night. Plus I am now booking stuff in warmer climates during the winter, so that helps too.
FM: Just in case you thought it wasn't possible to stay progressive and do shows all the time, check this...
FM: As a pro rider, where does the largest percentage of your earnings come from, comps, shows, sponsor salaries?
MATT: About 90-95% of my income is from shows. Back in the X Games era it was more like 90% came from sponsors and comps, but it's a changing world. I love the fact that I'm my own boss and don't have to stress about contest placings to pay the bills like back in the day.
FM: Do you put a lot of emphasis on riding comps?
MATT: I ride in contests purely for my own satisfaction. When you've been riding for 20 years a little extra motivation isn't bad. I totally forgot there was money involved at one of them this year. I was just so into the riding.
FM: You were recently on America's Got Talent. What is your thought about the experience and its impact on flatland?
MATT: I absolute loved everything about performing on the show. I feel like it's kind of the pinnacle of my riding career. Plus I got to do something totally original and artistic by riding in the black lights, which has never been done. I'm not really sure what kind of impact appearing on America's Got Talent will have on flatland. I know that it can't be bad though. That show reaches so many people and a lot of kids to. I could totally see someone trying some tricks in their street after seeing it. Whether or not they stick with it is a whole different story.
FM: Where do you see things going in the “flatland eco-system” as a pro flatlander – sponsors, comps, demos, making a living, the internet, etc? Talk about whatever.
I don't even consider myself a pro rider because I can't make a living from being a pro. I consider myself more of an entertainer / motivational speaker because that is how I make my living. If I just had to rely on the traditional Pro BMX model of making a living I would be living on the street right now. Flatland is in such a weird place currently, and I just can't tell if it's growing or shrinking. There are more bike companies and more events than ever before. However the turnout is super low at events and I'm not sure how many bikes are being sold. When freestyle was "Dead" in 1992 it seemed like there were still a ton of riders, but just no events taking place. I just don't see enough new blood coming in. It's sad that there aren't any new pro's coming up. I also think the level of riding is lower than it was back in the day. It seems like people are doing a few harder tricks, but they aren't multidimensional like before. They just do one genre of tricks and even that seems limited. Newer riders are skipping the basics and going straight for the turbines and spinning tricks. I'm all about the spinning, but you always need that foundation of tricks. That's a whole different topic though. Don't get me wrong I love flatland, the community, and the people involved. I just wish more people would come out and support the events.
FM: What's in store for the future of Matt Wilhelm?
MATT: I'm obviously going to continue to ride because that is what I do and who I am. I'm sure I'll do tons of shows, but I see myself competing less. I like how the flatland community is close and you know pretty much everybody at the comps and jams, so I still want to hit up some jams for sure. I think I would just rather push myself in the direction of new video tricks than consistency at contests. My doorbell literally just rang, and three kids who are in 4th grade just asked for my autograph. They saw me on America's Got Talent and followed my car home. They were already asking how to do tricks, so maybe we will see some new blood in flatland after all.
FM: If people want a Matt Wilhelm demo, how can they book a performance?
MATT: http://www.probikeshows.com is where all the info is at. My calendar is completely booked until 2012 but I have lots of openings from January on.
FM: If you want to learn how to ride flatland. Matt produced this video so you can go from Zero to Hero!