Words by Stuart Kenny | Photos courtesy of Animal
Martyn Ashton is an icon in the world of the bicycle; one of the pioneering riders behind the British trials boom of the 1990’s and in the sport of mountain biking beyond that.
A four-time British champion, Ashton has been responsible for not only bringing us some of the greatest trials features ever created, but also for inspiring the riders who would bring us some of the others. Does the name ‘Danny MacAskill’ ring any bells?
On 1 September 2013 though, while performing on his touring action sports stunt show, the nicest man in cycling crashed. And he didn’t get back up again.
Ashton wasn’t doing anything he hadn’t done before that day, but the crash left him with a permanent injury to his spinal cord that meant he was paralysed from the waist down.
“I knew even before the thought could go through my mind what had happened,” he tells us, remarkably comfortably. “It was such a heavy feeling.”
In that moment, a man who had lived and breathed cycling was lucky to be alive. Ashton was the man who had brought trials to the mountain bike in the early 1990s, and whose appearances on the cover of MBUK had launched an exciting trials movement that would spawn a thriving British scene.
I love bikes and I just want to ride whenever I can. I’ve been bitten by one fairly severely but I don’t blame it. I’ve gotten away with a lot and all!
He may insist that “it was all just good timing”, but the sport was growing so fast thanks to his efforts. His ‘Road Bike Party’ series brought trials to over 27 million people on YouTube; his touring stunt show taught a new generation to love their back wheel, and now, he was lying on the ground at one of those shows with his cycling career over.
Except for one thing. It wasn’t over at all.
In the days and months after the crash, Martyn Ashton could have become the cycling legend who suffered a devastating tragedy and faded from the sport. Instead, he became something else. He became an inspiration to millions, many of whom had never even heard of him before; the legend who would defy the odds – the paraplegic cyclist who would get back on his bike.
“In the moment of the crash, I knew that the life I had was over,” the 40-year-old admits, remaining incredibly relaxed and even light-heartedly joking as he talks us through his thoughts after the crash.
“That sounds really negative, but what I mean is that I knew I had to start dealing with it immediately. There was no point in doing anything else.
“Instantly it was like ‘right, the world has just changed, so start dealing with this one and don’t think about the other one’. I literally started dealing with it in that moment.”
Laying the Trails
Martyn’s ability to do exactly that – to deal with his circumstances – has astounded many. It’s fair to say that few others would have dealt so well and so quickly with such an incident. He decided he was going to move on and make the most of the rest of his life, and he did exactly that.
Despite his seemingly permanent high spirits though, Martyn admits that things were a little awkward during his first few months in the chair.
The wheelchair meant reintroducing himself to old friends and coming to terms with certain everyday tasks again, but even those were dealt with by Ashton, well, exactly as you would expect them to be.
He goes on: “There’s a weird thing after an accident where you’ve got to see everyone and everyone has to see you. It’s awkward, because they don’t want you to be in a wheelchair anymore than you do.
“Everyone just wants to be comfortable around each other and for it not to be awkward or to say the wrong thing – but in my sort of situation, you can’t help it. Puns are constant in my life. People say ‘Oh well, best foot forward’ or ‘just take another step’ all the time, then react thinking ‘I shouldn’t have said the word feet!’ I just tell them to relax. It happens all the time!”
Martyn was also halfway through filming ‘Road Bike Party 2’ at the time of the crash, the sequel to his 12-million view road bike trials epic on YouTube.
He called up Danny MacAskill and Chris Akrigg during only his second day in intensive care – “think about it; who else was I going to call? It’s actually not that great an idea!” – and got them on board to finish the feature for him.
The man may have been in a hospital bed, but he was still moving fast; going from idea to idea, project to project and determined to make the most of every opportunity.
The Road to Recovery
Within six months of his accident Martyn had tried a huge range of sports, from a custom-built motorbike – “like a lot of downhill racers, I’m actually a failed motorcycle racer” – to his personal favourite wheelchair racing and the likes of tennis, basketball and even kayaking.
The kayaking in particular turned out to be a rather unforgettable experience. After all, when you capsize and crash under water with no way of escape, almost drown in front of your family and then repeat the process several times, it’s likely to live long in the memory.
It just never entered my mind that I wasn't going to ride a bike again...
In true Martyn Ashton style though, the cyclist describes the day to us as a “treasured experience”, and recalls with a reminiscent laugh:
“The GB squad asked me to go along but I couldn’t do it at all. It was so embarrassing. Oh man. It was so bad. You’re meant to balance with your core, but I’ve got no trunk-muscle control at all anymore. I can’t control my hips.
“The guy set me off from the side and I just rolled over instantly. Then I’m upside down in a boat and I’m strapped in. I pretty much almost drowned. I got up for a breath of air and then went back under again. I had about four more goes and literally didn’t get more than two metres away from the edge.
“I remember getting a glimpse of my son looking at me from the side. He must’ve been thinking ‘why are they trying to kill daddy?’ It was pretty hilarious. I was humiliated on the day, but I haven’t laughed about something so much since… you know, because it’s so ridiculous!”
Now, we know what you might be thinking. What makes almost drowning four times while your kid watches on so funny? Well, while we’re not in the habit of cracking up over stories involving near-death experiences, we let out more than a few giggles when we were talking to Martyn.
The bit-by-bit stories he tells are laden with hypotheticals and tangents that wouldn’t be out of place on a sketch show. There are few things the man can’t or won’t turn into a joke. And this was not one of them.
He continued: “Seriously, imagine somebody was watching from a distance thinking ‘they’re getting that guy in a wheelchair to have a go in that boat – oh no, he’s gone under! Fuck he’s not come back up. It’s alright, they’ve got him back. What were they thinking? They’re putting him back in!
“And we did that four more times, until the point when I was literally shaking so much with cold that I couldn’t talk anymore. Just imagine this person watching me from a distance though, thinking ‘what the hell are they doing to that poor guy?’ It’s hilarious! ‘Keep throwing him in!’ [laughs].”
Bikes on the Brain
Still, even with Martyn’s optimism and anything-goes attitude, there were few who could have imagined that he would ever be back on a bike himself. Interestingly enough though, it never crossed Ashton’s mind that this was out of the question.
The cyclist continued: “I thought about it quite a lot, but very generally. I just didn’t really think I wouldn’t [ride again]. I was never thinking about the specifics of getting back on the bike; it just never entered my mind that I wasn’t going to.
“That all created the energy for me to think in different ways, and soon I saw a sit ski on the Winter Olympics and thought, ‘well, if I just put a bloody great big seat on a mountain bike it’d all be fine’… and it is! It’s really easy. It didn’t need that much thinking at all – just gravity!”
It’s no wonder that Ashton was bikes on the brain while in hospital of course. He’s been riding for long enough, and when your visitors include everyone from the Athertons to Steve Peat, Rob Warner and everyone in between, the subject matter is bound to come up from time to time.
It got to the point where rather than if, but or maybe, it was clear that it was only a matter of time until the legend was back on track.
Back on Track
That most inspirational of returns eventually took place in mid-2015. Martyn’s against-all-odds comeback in the stunning ‘Back on Track’ took not only the cycling community, but the world by storm.
The footage of the paraplegic cyclist who got back on his bike, with the help of MacAskill, Akrigg and Blake Samson – “a talented little trio”, Martyn notes – now has more than one million hits on YouTube. It’s gone absolutely viral, and it’s not hard to see why.
Even more astounding? The footage in the feature was genuinely the first time Ashton had ever tried out the sit-ski turned mountain-bike on a trail. And the riders had the time of their lives in filming.
“We had tested it out in the car park of Mojo’s Suspension in South Wales, but it’s really hard to tell what’s going to happen until you get onto a trail,” says Martyn.
“The first day was pretty much setting up the opening shots, and then we did one run down the hill which was pretty nervy. The second day we had to do loads of runs to get all the shots we wanted though, and we literally just laughed all day. I thought I’d die from laughing at one point.”
It’s clear to hear in his voice the enjoyment he gets from riding around on two wheels, from thinking up ways to progress his riding further and from the action-packed nature of his day-to-day lifestyle.
“It was so ludicrously fun, because it felt like ‘aw God, we shouldn’t be doing this’, and that feeling never went away. It was really weird though, because two metres into the ride I knew it was fine, and it all just felt so normal.
“I love riding the bike. I love bikes and I just want to ride whenever I can. I’ve been bitten by one fairly severely but I don’t blame it. I’ve gotten away with a lot and all,” Ashton laughs. “Any day I’m out on a bike is a good one.”
‘Back on Track’ was the kind of feature that reminds people why they ride a bike in the first place, and the messages posted on Martyn’s Facebook page are a daily showcase of exactly that.
It’s impossible not to grin when you’re speaking to the cyclist, just as it’s impossible not to grin when you’re watching the video which got people beaming around the world.
I don’t want to be the guy who’s in a wheelchair and who’s crap at it. I want to be good at it and I want to be good with the disability.
“It was great that people liked the video,” he continues. “I like it because it’s a great memory for me, so it’s great to get all that support and that so many people have watched it.
“I still get unbelievable messages every day. Anybody would enjoy reading that stuff and seeing what you’re riding has meant to them.
“It’s your job as a professional to inspire others, and I’ve always taken that quite seriously and been grateful for it, so to hear that what I’ve done has worked and people like what I’m doing is amazing. It helps me drive forward.
“It is a difficult situation that I’m in and I want to do well in it. I don’t want to be the guy who’s in a wheelchair and who’s crap at it. I want to be good at it and I want to be good with the disability.”
With a forward-thinking point-of-view on life comes a lot of forward planning. Ashton rolled back onto screens to rave reviews in ‘Back on Track’, but he doesn’t plan to sit around resting on his laurels now. There’s more to come from the trials legend.
“For me Back on Track wasn’t so much about doing a one-time only stunt; it was about starting the process of getting back on the bike. We’ve already tried new things to see if I can get better. I want to be able to do more on the bike than just roll down the hill, as good fun as that is. I just want things to be progressing.”
At the moment, that progression involves keeping an eye on potential locations for a future YouTube release, and testing out an electric motor on a mountain bike that could increase his riding opportunities ten-fold.
For me Back on Track wasn’t so much about doing a one-time only stunt; it was about starting the process of getting back on the bike...
“It gives me a lot, the motor, but I want it to still be a mountain bike,” he says. “That means a lot to me. The motor means I can ride to somewhere where I can stop and it’s easier to start me off on a trail, but I don’t want to piss people off riding a bike park on an 800 Watt motorbike!”
And potential other plans? Well, that would depend on whether any other paraplegic mountain bikers fancied joining him for a ride. As always, Ashton is only looking to amaze and inspire.
“The bike is really comfortable and I’m sure other people in my situation could do it too. I’d love to get other people to try it out,” he concludes.
“It would be wicked if I could get some kind of race going. Imagine ten wheel chairs at the top of a hill. Fastest man down, let’s go! It’d be hilarious!”
A fitting conclusion from a man whose imagination has inspired millions around the world.
It’s been that imagination and Ashton’s love for the bicycle that have long made the man a fans’ favourite and inspiration to so many, and it’s still those things which are doing exactly the same for him now.
To many, Martyn will always be the trials cycling legend. To others, he’ll be the guy hopping around on the front cover of the magazine. To some, he’s the crazy dude behind the epic Road Bike Party. And for many others, he’s the man who got back on the bike.
For all who have seen him in action and know his story though, one thing is for sure. Martyn Ashton is one hell of an inspiration.