Don’t miss out on the latest CyclingTips updates.
For a rider who was left paralysed in an accident seventeen months ago, Martyn Ashton comes across as having a remarkable spirit. Spend even a few minutes talking to him and it is obvious that he has retained a very positive approach. Humorous, maintaining hope and ambition and speaking with a zest for life that would motivate many, the 40 year old is determined to keep moving forward.
Ashton is frank about the challenges that his injury has caused. It’s clear that his life has been transformed by his crash at Silverstone’s Moto GP on September 1 2013, where he fell off a three metre high bar and fractured his spine.
It’s also clear that he greatly misses being on his bike. That’s of little wonder, given a two-decade immersion in the sport since he switched over from motorbike trials riding in 1992, and also given the experiences he has had along the way.
It’s because of that passion for cycling that he remains involved in the sport, albeit in a very different way to before. The former world and British trials champion now works for Global Cycling Network, the You Tube Channel that published the sequels to his famous Road Bike Party video (see below).
However he’s clear that he wants to be involved in more than just making videos about the sport.
“I still dream about riding,” he told CyclingTips. “Literally. I wake up smiling about it.
“If I just close my eyes and think about being on a bike, I can feel exactly the same about it as I did before. When I see someone else doing it, I can still get a buzz off watching a great bit of riding.
“I am still as excited about it as ever.”
Because of that, he isn’t settling for a future in a wheelchair.
“My ambition is that I will ride. Lots of people think, ‘wouldn’t it be great if you walk again?’ I am like, ‘yeah, it would be great, but I am going to ride again. That is what I am aiming for.’”
“I am a strong believer in now. Not tomorrow, not yesterday, but now”
It’s long been held that paralysis is permanent. Sometimes those who have been in accidents have a temporary loss in function that can return over time, but if spinal nerves are actually severed it is seen as an irreversible situation.
However in October of last year it was reported that Polish man Darek Fidyka had been able to walk again, regaining the use of his legs four years after a knife attack cut nerves in his spine and led to paralysis.
That breakthrough came about when surgeons in Poland and London used olfactory ensheathing cells from Fidyka’s nasal cavity to bridge the gap in his spine.
While the scientists stressed that more research and trials need to be done, it was the biggest news yet in the drive to help paralysed patients recover.
Ashton is aware of the breakthrough but also that there is a long road ahead in developing and perfecting the technique. It also remains to be seen if this particular method could help someone with his type of injury.
However he’s clear that his desire to get back on a bike isn’t linked to this kind of surgical intervention.
“I am very heavily involved in the charity called Wings for Life which raises funds for spinal cord research. I am a real ambassador for that stuff. I think it is amazing,” he said. “But I also think that you have got to get on with your life in the situation that you are in now.
“As much as there is lots of excitement and lots of energy around those developments, you have got to temper your excitement because it could be a long way off.”
Because of that, he isn’t waiting around. “I am not thinking ‘I might be able to walk in ten years’ time,’ because reality is it is going to take years and years and years,” he explained.
“I am a strong believer in now. Not tomorrow, not yesterday, but now. Because of that, I am going to work on stuff I can get on with. I am not waiting for a cure to spinal cord injury to get on with my life. I want to start doing exciting stuff and getting out there and having some fun.”
Ashton doesn’t provide details about how he is going to fulfil his desire to get back on a bike. He’s tried handcycling, but while he sees it as a good training aid, he has limited interest in it.
So that’s not his intention. He also says that he can’t say too much right now, both because he hasn’t worked out details and also because he – and GCN – want to keep it close to their chests. But the ambition seems a very strong one for him.
Ashton had a taster recently when he rode a specially adapted 650 cc motorbike. It was kitted out with what he describes as ‘landing gear,’ special rods which held the bike upright when starting off and also when stopping.
“It felt really amazing,” he said. “Really exhilarating.”
Getting back on a bike is going to need further engineering ingenuity. “It is going to require some clever solutions, but there are some clever people out there,” he said. “I have just got to find them and work with those guys.”
Given that he has no feeling or movement below his waist, implementing that is going to be complicated. It’s also far from clear how it can be done.
He’s extremely determined to pull it off, though.
“I want to be back on a bike soon,” he said. “I don’t know how to put a time on it, really, but I am thinking it will be this year. I am not hanging about. I am getting on with it.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever gone out and said, ‘I am going to try something nuts today’”
Ashton’s path into cycling is an alternative route, but one which also explains how he ended up being so good at what he did.
He started off with motorbike trials riding at 11 years of age, continuing until he was 18. In 1992 he went with a friend to watch a mountain bike race and found himself amazed by the vibrant atmosphere there.
He decided to give the sport a shot and made an immediate impression in a MTB trials event, winning in his debut.
That led to a magazine cover photo shoot and a steadily-increasing fascination with the sport.
Ashton went on to become world expert Biketrial champion and also took four British titles. However he said that he was more interested in the photo and video side of things, both in relation to the creative process involved and also because it can be so motivating for others.
“I think if you see a really strong image that places you in the environment and makes you feel like you want to go out on your bike, that is a very powerful thing to do. My drive has always been to do that, to make great photos or great videos that are going to affect the viewer and make them want to get out on their bikes.”
That motivation led him on to record the original Road Bike Party video, a superb five minute 20 second clip showing him doing a stream of high-skill stunts on a Team Sky Pinarello road bike.
It made an immediate impression and, just over two years after being released, has had over 11 million views on YouTube.
“Those videos literally come from the conversations where you say, ‘ah, you know what would be really funny?’” he explains, speaking about both it and more recent videos he has done with the GCN [Global Cycling Network] channel. “It is never about what we should do as a really good strategy for cycling. It is ‘wouldn’t it be really funny if one of us did this..?’
“When I came up with Road Bike Party, I said that I want to do stunts on a road bike. I want to be in lycra, I want to be tanned, I want to be legs-shaved, a really roadie look, and then do exactly what you shouldn’t.”
Watching the videos, several things are apparent. Firstly, Ashton has a huge level of skill, something which is highlighted all the more by the fact that he is on a road bike. His antics make Peter Sagan’s own tricks pale in comparison.
Secondly, it’s clear that he is having a massive amount of fun. And, thirdly, he appears fearless. One of the most staggering sequences shows him ride over the supporting iron structure of a bridge, with a massive drop to his right.
Given the danger, was there something about his psyche that was drawn to risk-taking?
“I have been asked that question quite a lot, really,” he acknowledges. “I guess it is an obvious thing, particularly if you are looking at my situation now, having had an accident riding. But I don’t think I’ve ever gone out and said, ‘I am going to try something nuts today.’
“I am just really driven. Once I got an idea in my mind what something could look like, once I feel that the result could be a really powerful image or a great bit of video, I just really want it to be real, to happen. I think that is what really drives me.
“I then really go through a process of how can I make it happen. I am quite methodical about that. I was never a rider who went out and said, ‘I am just going to give this a go.’ Every shot in Road Bike Party was planned, considered.
“In the railway bridge shot I am up really high. That took about ten seconds to do, and I did it once. But I recognised that it was really crazy. If I fell off there I would die. There is no way you could survive it.
“But I was like, well, I really think it is a brilliant thing, I can definitely do it, so how can I make this real?”
The answer was to spend two days before shooting the scene checking out the location and noting the wind direction and strength. He and a friend did everything possible to study the scene, minimise the risk.
“There is so much going on behind the scenes on these videos…the finished product is supposed to feel really fluid – ‘oh look, what a great ride, it looks like great fun’ – but it isn’t. It is six months of really trying to piece things together and create things that just wouldn’t be possible normally. Making something special.
“Getting one of those things right and it being perfect is such a buzz. I love that feeling.”
“I can’t go back and change things…no-one can”
Ashton was in the process of filming the sequel to Road Bike Party when he had the accident that would change his life. It took place at Silverstone’s Moto GP on September 1 2013, and saw him fall off a high beam and hit the ground hard.
Thinking back to the day in question, he is first animated (when describing the setting and the crowd) and then a little quieter (when mulling over the fall). That’s completely to be expected, but what is noticeable is how passionately he speaks about the sensations he felt prior to when things went wrong.
He clearly really enjoyed what he was doing.
“I think there is a natural process that everyone would go through, I think,” he said, when asked if he finds himself replaying the day in question. “We have all done things that we wish we hadn’t. I have sort of done that, thought about it over and over, but then rationalised what is the point in doing that. I can’t go back and change things….no-one can.
“But even if do, I know 100 percent that if you put me back there now, I would do the same thing. There was a show to do, there was a great big crowd, I loved riding in front of an audience.
“I remember thinking, ‘this is going to be a great show,’ because there was a lot of people and they had just watched a great motor circuit race, as had I. It was a lovely opportunity to do a great show, so I was well up for it.”
Speaking about the accident itself, he said that he had done the stunt in question ‘a thousand times before,’ and was confident he knew how to do it. However, for some inexplicable reason, things went wrong and he fell awkwardly, plummeting to the ground.
It is a measure of his optimism that he can see the best in a situation that so profoundly affected his life.
“My solace in it is knowing the feeling that I had when I landed, thinking, ‘my God, I nearly killed myself.’ I knew if I had landed even a little bit different I would have been dead. So I can’t go through that and think how unlucky I was. I have got to go through it and realise how lucky I was.
“They are the facts, and I have got to face the facts. As much as sometimes I would like to think this situation is not fair, it is more than fair as I am still here.
“That’s the truth and I can’t change it. So that is where I put it in my mind. And that is where it is going to stay.”
“Take stock of who you are…don’t let this become what you are”
Ashton speaks repeatedly about his gratitude for the support he has received from people. That ranges from the many messages he has got from members of the public wishing him well to the way the industry responded to his accident and his recovery.
He is very appreciative towards GCN for the position it has given him – he modestly says it is best described as a creative role that gives him the chance to come up with ‘a thousand ideas, of which two are good’ – and also for the work it does in helping grow the sport and getting more people involved.
“There is lots going on, lots that we are going to be doing soon that is going to be really exciting. I am really looking forward to that stuff coming up, although I can’t say anything about it for now. But there are some really great plans.”
Work aside, he’s staying as upbeat as he can. While he admits he has tough days, he said that he has been able to step back and to see the bigger picture. He’s still here, others are not, and he’s going to do everything he can to make the most of things.
“I think I am generally quite positive and quite…I guess I am quite compassionate to that sort of situation,” he said, thinking back to how he initially dealt with things. “I think I recognised what I needed to say to myself, because I feel I know what I would say to somebody else.
“Like, ‘hang on a minute, take stock of who you are and don’t let this become what you are. Realise what else is going on and what else you have got.’
“A little bit like the glass is half full, kind of thing. I think that is just the way I am. Whether that is the right way to be, I don’t know [he laughs]. But I am just ploughing on, really.”
If things work out as he hopes, that determination will also see him returning to the bike in one form or other. As mentioned, he’s vague on how that might be achieved – he’s dealing with paralysis, remember – but his commitment to making the most of what he has means he is going to keep pushing boundaries.
“I had a funny moment the other day,” he said. “I was doing a little chat for British Cycling. I was talking to some of the younger riders about social media, and how they can handle it as a professional athlete.
“Somebody introduced me as a an ex professional cyclist…I kind of took my moment and said, ‘well, I beg to differ.’
“That is my mentality at this point.
“People think I have retired; I am not sure why.”