Cory Gilliam

When Cory Gilliam was a little boy, his father told him that if he learned how to ride his bicycle without training wheels, he’d buy him a dirt bike. Gilliam had his new bike about two weeks later. This weekend, Gilliam, 22, starts another season as a motocross professional.

Training wheels.

Yes, even motocross racers like 22-year-old Thurmont resident Cory Gilliam — people who don’t flinch at tearing through rough terrain, dirt courses with sharp curves and jumps — once needed those all-too-noticeable aids to prevent them from falling down on a bike.

In fact, Gilliam’s ability to free himself from their dependence sort of paved the way for his entry into motocross.

As a kid, Gilliam rode a friend’s dirt bike. Like his bicycle at the time, it had training wheels. Gilliam loved riding the dirt bike, and his father, Keith, made him an offer.

“My dad told me, if I learn how to ride my own [bike] without training wheels, he would buy me a dirt bike,” Gilliam said. “So, two weekends later, I had my own dirt bike.”

Gilliam now had the essential piece of equipment needed to venture into motocross, a sport he immersed himself in. Spending countless weekends honing his skills at tracks in Hanover, Pennsylvania, and Hedgesville, West Virginia, over the years, Gilliam found his niche.

By 2016, he had earned his professional motocross license. And come Saturday, he’ll start another season as a pro, competing on his KTM bike in the 450 class in the High Point National at Mount Morris, Pennsylvania.

“I’ve been working my butt off all winter and all spring just to try to get faster and work on my bike and work on my body,” said Gilliam, who squeezes in such preparation while working in commercial construction for his father’s company. “I do my best to do what I can.”

A small price to pay for a sport he’s enjoyed since taking it up when he was 6 or 7 years old.

Gilliam likely won’t get rich competing in motocross. While top racers make good money, thanks to team salaries, endorsements, bonuses and prize money, Gilliam is among the lower level racers who are still learning the pro ropes. And at this stage of his career, he’s not a threat to contend for wins.

“It’s pretty much a hobby,” Gilliam said.

But motocross has provided him with the thrills of dealing with tough courses as well as direction in other parts of his life.

“I love jumping, doing new things,” he said. “Mostly, the sport’s made me grow as a person. It kept my motivated.”

For instance, when he was a student at Catoctin High School, Gilliam’s parents told him he could keep racing as long he got good grades.

“I stayed in honor roll all through school and was able to keep racing,” he said.

Any motorsport requires participants to accept a certain level of risk. And photos of Gilliam airborne on his bike or kicking up dirt as he hits a curve clearly depict challenges motocross racers face every time they venture onto the course.

But by now, Gilliam is accustomed to such challenges.

“Growing up doing it, you get used to it after a while. It doesn’t effect you as much as it normally would [for some people],” he said. “I just block it out and go.”

And don’t think Gilliam lacks first-hand experience of the sport’s dangers. As a 15-year-old, he suffered a broken femur in his right leg while competing.

Rather than being intimidated by the mishap, Gilliam couldn’t wait to get back on his bike. That’s because there was a big race being held about nine weeks after he got hurt.

Gilliam’s doctor told him he could resume riding as long as he refrained from jumping, assuming he had strength in his leg.

“So I worked my butt off for those few weeks,” Gilliam said. “I pretty much had to learn how to walk again and was able to go. And I qualified that weekend, which was pretty good.”

His comeback attempt was aided by Catoctin football coach Doug Williams.

“He helped me a lot,” Gilliam said. “He knew how tough my sport was. He worked with me every day to get back into shape.”

Throughout his career, Gilliam also could always count on support from his parents, Keith and Missy.

Gilliam earned his pro license by piling up points at various races. He’s competed in numerous states, including Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Indiana and Florida.

His first pro race in 2016 was at Budds Creek in Mechanicsville, Maryland. One of his best moments as pro came last year at Unadilla in New Berlin, New York, where he made the race as an alternate and placed 25th out of 40 riders.

Gilliam focuses on finishing in the top 40 in qualifiers, which allows him to advance to main events. Typically, he’s competing in a field of 80 to 100 racers, who are broken into two qualifying heats. No matter how he fares, he enjoys trying to go as fast he as possible while dealing with a tricky track.

“There are some tracks that I know, that I’ve ridden before,” he said. “But every track is pretty much different. There’s no track that’s the same. That’s the real challenge.”

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