“Rob Warner rang me the other day...”
The man on the bed in the spinal injuries unit started laughing, natural unforced mirth. I hadn’t expected that.
“He said: 'Fucking hell, mate, you've got some dark days ahead!’”
“He's such a comfort!” I said.
“Oh my God! But he is, though, at the same time he is,” says Martyn Ashton. “Because he's a brilliant guy and he's so honest. Sometimes it's just a lovely way to talk. When you're talking to him you feel completely, like, real. It's totally real.”
The same can be said of Martyn, he’s totally real. He has been a star throughout the 25 years that I’ve known him, fêted, worshipped by his fans, but never in all that time has his obvious confidence in what he can do on a bike got out of hand. You don’t do what Martyn has done without a huge ego, extraordinary drive and absolute self-belief, but he has always kept those things firmly in their box. Fun, optimistic, good company, accessible, cheerful, he’s been all those things. And bugger me, he still is.
Lying there with his spinal chord traumatised, with no feeling below his belly button and no expectation, short of a miracle, of getting any of it back, Martyn is able to luxuriate in the fact that he still has the use of his arms. He really can do that.
No-one is more relieved than me. In a way I was dreading visiting, but no need.
“Go and see him, he’ll cheer you up,” I said to Pete Tomkins who was so gutted for his mate he could hardy speak, and it’s true. Ashton is that sort of special personality. But at the same time it’s impossible to say how sad I am that it’s Martyn in that bed. He’s done so much but he had much more to do, and he was riding better at almost 40 than at any time in his career.
It’s his feet that really get to you. Lying there, in white socks, utterly unconnected to his nervous system, like a pair of laboratory rabbits anesthetised upon a table.
When I first met Martyn he was a trials world champion who had just adopted mountain bike trials, doing shows as a duo with his old friend Martin Hawyes. Keen to travel the world pulling tricks in spectacular surroundings (a media trail blazed by their hero, Hans Rey), the two Martins created wonderful inspiring pictures for Steve Behr and my magazine Mountain Biking UK. It was all a pleasure for Ashton and (usually) for Hawyesy too; the two of them were even prepared to play dame in the ridiculous pantomimes I used to create. Not everyone can pull trials moves in a stuffed bra, corsets and huge voluminous skirts (or would want to) but these guys could and the readers loved them.
It wasn’t until 1995 though, when we held our first Bike Show at Olympia that I really saw them ride in the flesh, up close and live. I couldn’t have been more impressed if they had taken off and hovered in the air. That level of control over balance and movement defied belief. Someone started a rumour that they were aliens and I wouldn’t have taken much convincing. A preternatural calm seemed to be at the heart of what they were about.
And yes, I suppose near-total control is a pre-condition for the Zen-like concentration required. Not that we talked about Zen too much in those days – that would have been silly. But now, trapped on his bed, Martyn’s powers of mind are helping him get through. His wife and childhood sweetheart Lisa was beside him as I asked him about coping. She clearly is his greatest support, but he has a mental grip on himself too.
“I’ve had some amazing revelations since this happened although, of course, I’ve had some dark times too.”
Are you a religious man?
“No, I wouldn’t say that. It fascinates me and I've read a lot of stuff, but I don’t have a faith. But what’s come to my mind these last few weeks is stuff from Eckhart Tolle, which is all about ‘now’; about staying in the moment, not thinking about the past, not letting your ego be who are you, not letting the ego transform into a physical thing because it's just thoughts. And I felt the relevance of that, right at the moment I crashed.
“I had this beautiful blue sky above me and I was like: 'Right, well, that's something to focus on. So focus on that. Don't focus on this, because this is shit!’ So I just was looking at the sky, just staying in that moment, not doing anything else, it's simple. Doing that stopped me panicking all the way to the MRI scanner.
“I don't think Eckhart designed his system for emergency action, mind you; it's supposed to be a life philosophy! I've maybe not used it correctly!”
Have you been practising some sort of mental control?
“I'm always trying it, aren't Lisa? I fail a lot. But I think you do, you know. You have to try not to believe all the stuff in your head, you know? The bit of the industry I work in is all about people saying how brilliant you are. And my job is to try to persuade people to say how brilliant I am too, or else why am I worth sponsoring? But that isn't actually me.
“People write things about me, but it doesn't make them real. The ego is comprised of the thoughts you have, but they're just thoughts, they're not actually real. You build up a character in this business and it's very easy to think: ‘Well I've got to say this and that and the other because that's who I am.’ But that isn't who I am – I'm just exactly the same as everyone else.
“The past? Well you think about the past, that's it. It isn't something you can go back to. It’s just thoughts, which are your memories of it. And what you think is the future is the same. It isn't what the future will be. There's only right here and now. That's it. And I think if you can stay in the now, and appreciate it as much as you can, that is as real as you get.”
Do you have any mind exercises to keep yourself in the present?
“I try all the time. When I'm travelling, especially, I really try to live like that but it's so easy to start daydreaming. That’s what I am, a daydreamer. I've had a particularly difficult year because as well as touring my show I've been so focused on my new video [the follow-up to his hugely successful video Road Bike Party] with too much to do and so much frustration, so I've been hard work to be around, I think. Have I, Lisa?” [He looks to Lisa, who nods.]
I’m not surprised you got distracted by the new video; the first one did so well. It was amazing to see you ripping moves like that on a road bike.
“The way that last video went, I thought: ‘I've got a really great opportunity here. I can showcase myself doing the best stuff on my bike I've ever done, that is good.' And I was like: ‘Well, that's how I want to end my career; I want to end it with me being as good as I can be.’ I wanted it to be my best riding and I felt like I was riding better than ever on that bike.
“I’m not saying I was riding my trials bike that well, I obviously wasn’t because I was concentrating on the road bike. Maybe I should have concentrated on the trials bike a bit more! When I was on the trials bike it felt like I was just trying to ride smooth. I wasn't pushing myself – usually I push myself through the year. I try and make things higher and harder. This year I was like: ‘Just do good shows, get every weekend done, be great for the crowd, do your job well, be clean on the bike, and get cracking on that road bike, just keep practising.’
“So I had a great opportunity to do a really brilliant video that people would be interested in and that's not an easy thing to bring about – I was very lucky to have the interest. I’m almost 40 and I find myself being compared to Danny [Danny MacAskill] and Chris [Chris Akrigg]. They're great people to be compared to at 39, and I felt like I'd done well to still be compared to them. So I was really excited about it.”
It would never cross Martyn’s mind, of course, but Chris and Danny are happy to compare themselves to him. They’re good friends. There’s a framed Danny MacAskill t-shirt by his bed for a start, which the young Scot brought him. And some stuff from Chris Akrigg too. There are condolences from everyone who’s anyone in bikes. Hope Technology has sent him some custom brake levers with Road Bike Party 2 laser etched on them; Lisa has tied them to the dream catcher Martyn’s niece made for him “so I can dream about bikes.”
Right now it’s road bikes he’s dreaming about and that unfinished video.
Doing The Damage
“First we had to finish the Animal WD-40 Action Sports Tour, then, in September, we’d finish the video. That was the plan – and I had the accident on the first of September...”
What were you doing when you smashed yourself?
“It was in the show at Silverstone for the MotoGP. We'd just watched the race, me and my son Alfie, and it was bloody brilliant. I went back to do the show and I was really excited because all the onlookers were coming over, it was a massive audience.
“I've got a bit in the show where I jump up the back of the van off of a five foot ramp onto some bars that sort of stick out over the side of the truck. I designed it like that so it's a bit more scary looking, basically.
“They're quite small bars you've got to land on and I took off, weirdly. It was the first time I’d had to ride it that way around and it isn't my strong way – I ride right foot forward, so I'm much better carving up the ramp to the left.
“I'd struggled with it all weekend and crashed it a couple of times, but I'd got it right in the earlier show, so I was pretty confident. I took off and landed on the bar, but for whatever reason, I wasn't quite as far along it as I'd like. There was just a moment of indecision: 'Am I there, am I not?' Then I thought: 'Shit, I'm not up.' I tried to throw the bike away, but I couldn't get off and I just had a very clumsy, awkward fall.
“As I fell, my legs hit one of the ramps and it spun me, so I hit the floor from about three metres and landed with some rotation as well. I landed on my shoulders and neck – my helmet's totally smashed to bits. My body whipped round and I basically just snapped myself in half. It was the momentum that did it. I stopped and my legs kept going. Yeah. It was very awkward…
“The show's always different, you're always dealing with something, but it was a particularly uncomfortable move for me, really. It's just one of those things. I was having a 'mare with it, basically.
“Look, here’s a scan of the damage.”
Bloody hell, that’s one messed up spine!
“Yeah. Good, innit? When I landed, I knew what I'd done. I knew straight away.
“At first I was really winded, you just can't inhale. I was shocked too. It was like a Big Ben had gone off in my body, I've never felt an impact like that in my life – I've just never experienced a force like it. It was just so severe. Then my hand fell down on my leg and I couldn't feel it – it was like touching someone else's leg.
“I thought: 'Jesus, that's my leg.’ And then I thought: 'Well, my arms are moving. My hands are moving. I'm breathing.’ I sort of did this check, and immediately felt quite grateful. And then I instantly knew: ‘Right, hold onto that.’ Because obviously it’s then you start to panic a bit. I thought: 'Right. You're in a good place here; you're breathing in and out, your hands are moving, you’re doing these things.' I just started telling myself to be calm, just try and stay really in focus.
“Obviously my young son Alfie was there and he saw it. It all got pretty serious pretty quick – the ambulance people were there and they were all getting a bit keen – so I got them to bring Alfie over so I could just talk to him. So he could see I was talking. And then the guys on the show looked after Alf brilliant – he really trusts them, he knows them well. He went with those guys. And then the big worry was just trying to get the news to Lisa, because she was at home. And that bit didn't go quite as well, did it? She basically thought I was dead. She had the news that I'd died, pretty much.
“I couldn't phone. They put me in a neck thing instantly, then a backboard with drips in me and all sorts. It was pretty serious. And then I was airlifted. At Silverstone, you're in the best place to have an accident. I was very well looked after. And I went straight from there to A&E and then intensive care at Coventry. And then immediately after the MRI, when they knew what I'd done, I was coming here, because this is like the best place in the country.”
When did you start to panic?
“I didn’t really. I had an amazing moment in the MRI scanner. All the time to that point, probably about a couple of hours, I'd been telling myself: 'You can handle this, you can do this, just keep doing this.' But in the MRI scanner, because it was finally quiet in the tube with just this droning noise, I felt like I had time to just kind of… believe it.
“I was like: 'I’m gonna be fine. Lisa's gonna be here soon, Alfie's safe. The things that really matter are sorted.’ I went into the scanner still quite like: 'Jesus, this is nuts.' And I came out thinking: 'I've got this. It ain't so bad. It's not great, but it ain't so bad' . I was under no illusion it was brilliant, but I had no fear.”
Anyone who’s had an accident or been somehow stopped in their tracks while engaged in a project will know how long it takes to stop trying to complete what you were doing, even though it isn’t going to happen. Martyn’s got that going on about Road Bike Party 2, the planned video that has been taking up so much of his time and effort. Luckily he’s shot a lot of the footage already.
Like some imprisoned Mafia Don he’s planning to finish the project from his bed.
Road Bike Party Two
What’s so special about the new video?
“The first video was huge, but for whatever reason Pinarello didn’t want to do a follow up so we went out and got Colnago! The Ferrari of road bikes! I got an amazing deal and they built me two bikes that I just think are great. They're totally standard Colnago frame and forks with Vision wheels. They’re Colnago C59s but it's a C59 disc – the first production road bike with discs.
“When the frame came in George Gori at Sigma Sport helped me order all the Shimano bits and we set up a DI2 system on the centre of the bars so I could put different brakes on it. Then I took the bike to Hope and they created a totally bespoke brake set for it, road levers and all. It is amazing this bike – it's too good in a way, because I could ride it as well as any other bike but it can't take some of the things I could do because you are on road wheels. So to say I've had a lot of crashes would be an understatement!
“After the last video, I said: 'Right, this is working.’ So I made a three video plan. In this second video I just give it everything I've got – whatever I can possibly do on a bike I'll do, plus some things I've never tried. And then the third video would be about bringing other people in, getting other people to do it rather than me.
“So number two was going to be it, you know, for my road bike phase. I’ve practised so much on that bike and I’ve got tricks going that I couldn't do on the show because I didn't want to give them away. I'd learnt to front flip the road bike. Here I’ve got footage of it...”
You’re not with Martyn for long before you’re watching video clips. His Colnago front flip was exciting enough but we also watched him riding an open loop. Trouble is my eyes kept straying from the screen to his semi-detached feet at the end of the bed. It was not a great juxtaposition, but his enthusiasm was infectious...
“We've got footage of me doing all that, but we haven't got footage of me doing it at the places we'd planned to do them. We’re 40 per cent there, it will take some creativity but we’ll get it finished.”
It’s hard to think of you being 40. Were you really thinking of retirement?
“It was something me and Lisa talked about a lot because you know it has to happen when you’re an athlete and you're always looking for the right moment. But I felt I was riding so well, I was in the middle of a two-year contract with Animal and I love working with those guys, they're good friends. Also I’d developed a front flip, which I wanted to put into the show. So I was planning to ride the show next year at least, because I felt sure the show was going to progress beyond the next video.
“And then I had a really great full suss trials video planned which I spent all last winter planning. So I don't think I was really at the point of saying: ‘Right, that’s it’.”
You're obviously looking forward. Are you doing any looking back?
“No. I had a day... [He chuckles, mirthlessly]. We had a day last week where I did some looking back and it wasn't a great day! I've seen despair, I've visited it, and I'm not really that interested in going back. The hardest bit I think for me, at the moment, is in the morning. I wake up and everything's fine and then I remember. I remember I'm laid here with no bloody feeling from my belly button down. It feels very strange. It's a line right on my belly button in a perfect circle around my body and below that it feels like someone else.
“We've all had that, right? When we forgot horrible things have happened in our lives and there’s that moment waking up when you have to grab it? Well the other day I didn't grab it. I was maybe not in the right frame of mind. And the day kind of went downhill from there. Oh, it got pretty grim, didn't it? [Looks to Lisa]. You start thinking about: one pedal less, one pedal more, the tiniest little things. And it's like: what can you do about it? It's pointless and it takes so much energy.”
But it’s bound to happen, you have lost one hell of a lot, man!
“I've got a pretty big ego, and that's my problem. I want the stuff that I get. I work hard for it and I'm not frightened to admit that I want people to watch my videos; I want people to say it's great. I like the feeling of when people enjoy what I do. When I do a great show and everyone's clapping, I love it. I've done shows for so long because it's what I like doing. I love it.
“And I'm lucky that the show has progressed so much. I feel like it's got better and better. And this year with other athletes on board with me I’ve been really fighting for my position in the show. That feels awesome. It feels amazing. You think: ‘Jesus, that was good’ and you’re immediately trying to think what you're going to do next. You work out a bit of a routine where you feel like you've got your bangers in the show and they've got theirs. And you’re like, oh, my bit's coming up. And the crowd's good. I love it.”
The Show Goes On
I haven’t seen you this year. Who have you got in the show with you?
“Blake Samson does the dirt jumps. James Jones is the BMX rider. We’ve got a freerunner called Luke Madigan. He's brilliant and a great guy as well. He came on the show very young and he's kind of grown up with us, so his sense of humour is a bit distorted – we've ruined him a little bit! Plus we've actually had a scooter kid on there this year called Ryan McNamara who is amazing.”
One for the younger fans.
“The kids love it. It’s one of those things. You think: ‘This is never going to work.’ But if someone is a genius at something, it's just brilliant. Doesn't matter what it is and he is great. The show's a busy place these days, it's a proper performance – it's not like the old demos I used to do, it's moved on. I'm still doing my bits, but in context with other action sports and that makes it feel really legitimate somehow – I love that.”
I remember my careers master at school said I was best suited to work as an estate agent. What did yours dream up for you?
“Nothing good. I had so much trouble reading, it really held me back at school, I struggled, and then bikes gave me an outlet quite early and I really didn’t care about education. I felt like I'd ditched academia and I was a failure pretty much. But later, through working with you guys at the mag, I was able to try and write some things and I managed to kind of reteach myself. I couldn't remember anything from school, but I sorted it out as I struggled through it and I can sort of do that now.”
Did you have a shit time at school then?
“Not at all. I'm the youngest of three so I was very well protected – I wasn't bullied even though I was quite small as a kid. Lisa and I met at school and I came about up to her shoulders when we first started going out! I was really tiny. That must have been when I was 14. I had a great view of her boobs, though! It was brilliant: especially as they were only just growing then.
“I had a really lovely childhood, a really amazing one, and, most important, I got into motorbikes because my brothers did it. I loved motorcycles from 10 years old and I've always loved motorcycles and bikes ever since – it was what I was into, that was it. I wasn't really interested in much else and if you have brothers who do quite well, it helps you get to their level and beyond.
“I was very happy, but I was certainly not a cool kid. I was a kid who did wheelies and bunny hops on a BMX, and that was back when BMX wasn't cool either. I was on a Raleigh Burner long after the days of Raleigh Burners.
“My mum and dad split up when I was two. My dad lives in Windsor, and I grew up in Newbury so I lived in Newbury in the week and I went to Windsor on the weekends. So it was pushbikes in the week and motorbikes on the weekends and that was it, for my whole childhood. I had two Christmases and two birthdays, it was brilliant! I recommend parents divorce early, because the children will have a fantastic time! But I guess that only works if, like mine, your mum and dad are very amicably divorced, and great friends, and the kids are the most important thing.”
The transition from being an uncool kid to being a hero of print was quite quick then...
“Well in my mind it's never happened, Tym! I might read that it has, but when you're reading that stuff, you don't believe it. If someone’s written something nice or I do a photo shoot people say they like or make a video people and loads of people watch it, it makes no difference. When I look at myself in a photo I’m still thinking: ‘Christ, I look like such an idiot.’ And I don’t think that ever goes away. I've never once looked at a photo shoot and gone: 'Oh man, I look brilliant!'”
I’ve seen you look at one or two pictures of yourself on a bike and say: “That's what I'm aiming at.”
“My effort is in video now, because I think that's the modern medium, but I learnt what I know about videos from doing photos with Steve Behr, and later with Robin Kitchin. A photograph with Steve always started with a question: ‘What are you trying to do?’ And I'd say: 'I want to be a bit like that, and a bit over there’, almost trying to create a noise, so when people who ride look at the photo they can almost hear it. In a photo I was trying to create a piece of imagery much more powerful than just the one moment. I tried to create the moment before and what happened next.
Nothing Like It Seems
“Quite often what you do to create the moment is nothing like it seems – I maybe didn't even come from where I looked like I had. I've always loved that about photos. And then in videos it moves on to the point where you've got to do it – you've got to take it all through – but you still leave people thinking about that one moment.”
It’s the same when you're making magazines – you try to create a world that may or may not exist. I get an awful lot of stick for not keeping it real but I’m going for something more real than real.
“And if by the end of the magazine someone thinks: 'I do love my bike, I want to go out on it', that's what it's supposed to do, it's supposed to drive you out. People know about media now, they understand all that. Road Bike Party, for example, is supposed to look like a ride I go on. It's impossible – no-one could ever go on that ride, it isn't real, but you watch it and at the end of it a lot of people have told me they're going: ‘Oh, I'm going out on my bike now.’ So it's like, tick. Job done.”
You thinking of wheelchair racing now?
“Don't know. It's gone through my mind. A lot of those thoughts have gone through my mind. I think it's healthy to think about how am I going to have fun from here. But the reality is getting home, being able to get up in the morning, go downstairs in whatever contraption I need and make me and Lisa a cup of coffee as she gets ready for work. When I can do that I'm in a good place. So getting back to normal, just getting home, is my first thought.
“After that I've got a very simple long term mission – to stand up. But I think that'll happen. It might be 10 years, it might be 15, but the way the technology's moving on I’m confident something will stand me up and walk me along, I don't think I need to worry about that. Stage one is just to get home.”
You used to have Martin Hawyes living down the road...
“Those were great days! He lives near St Albans now, where he works. People often ask me: ‘Where's Hawyesy?’ Well Martin's still my best friend, our relationship's exactly as it was when we were riding bikes. Nothing's changed. He was here last week and we watched trials videos all day and talked absolute bollocks.”
You’ve got Lisa to look after too.
“That’s hard. We're not having the same days, are we Lisa? Some days you're helpful to me and hopefully some days I'm helpful to you. It's hard. But I think we've got to let them sad bits happen, and they are. I don't want it to get too low because I did have a day where I thought: 'Wow, you could stay down here a long time.' And that's not really me.”
You’re probably more prone to that while you're not allowed to move around.
“I’ll be glad when I can start doing some things. Just sitting me up has to be done very carefully. I get really dizzy just moving my head because your blood pressure changes. They have to sit you up really gradually or you just faint.
“So once I am sat up I have to wear a really tight corset, which I should be able to handle, I’ve had some practice in my MBUK pantomime days! So you have a very tight corset on and that helps hold your diaphragm up and keeps your blood pressure at the right place. And apparently it takes about two weeks to get back to being able to just sit up.”
Does your brain think it's still got all these things dialled?
“Yeah. If I close my eyes and I think ‘pedal’ I can feel it. I can pedal my legs as hard as I like, they just don't get tired. Everything feels the same but it just doesn't do anything. It's a very strange feeling, but it's not alarming, it's very calm. Getting mobile is gonna be a very big challenge, but so many people out there have dealt with that and then gone on and done amazing things so why shouldn't that be me?”
That's what everybody is saying. If anyone can cope, Martyn can.
“Well, it's nice that they've got that confidence in me. I like that. I'll use that too. I'm using every little message I get.”
This feature originally appeared in issue 18 of Privateer.
Dowsett received his Aeroad CF SLX the day before the Tour de Suisse. One of the first of the new model to leave Koblenz, it served briefly as the Movistar rider’s training bike (“It was quite novel travelling to races with a bike,” he remembers), but gained its first outing in a competitive fixture: a minor event called the Tour de Suisse. “The first ride on this was at the Tour of Switzerland. I hit 118kph on it in one of the passes. I was very confident in it. I was at home on it straight away.”