"If there was more spin or less spin that was needed to land wholly on my neck and head […] I'd be dead for sure. I know it. I just know it," says Martyn Ashton, mountain bike legend and YouTube star. Martyn is talking openly and honestly about the recent accident that snapped his spine and very nearly saw him riding the big bike in the sky.
In a press release sent around the time of his accident, Martyn revealed that he and videographer Robin Kitchin had been secretly working on a sequel to their Road Bike Party YouTube film. Ashton had more than 9 million views to his name for his Road Bike Party video – which saw him take the same bike that Sir Bradley Wiggins road to 2012 Tour de France victory, a Pinarello Dogma 2, and ride it well beyond the limits of what was commonly thought possible for a road bike.
"My main focus this year was to make my next video Road Bike Party 2," Martyn said in the press release, "this has not changed. I’ve been training really hard on the new road bike and I’ve felt like I’ve been riding better on this video than I’ve ever ridden in my entire life. I was so confident on that bike. Unfortunately we hadn’t quite completed the filming – we were so close."
The aftermath of his accident has undoubtedly changed his life by leaving him a paraplegic and a wheelchair user, but Ashton is not one to languish in self-pity, instead preferring perspective, pragmatism, and positivity. "I was immediately just so grateful," he explains of his reaction to the accident; "I just felt lucky, you know? 'Fuck, I nearly killed myself'. But I hadn't, so I felt really chuffed to be honest." It also hasn't diminished his passion for seeing his vision for Road Bike Party 2 through. Somehow.
Martyn was born on 12th February 1974, the youngest of three brothers. Through the inevitable osmotic pull of elder siblings on younger, Martyn quickly entered the world of motorcycle trials. "I was dragged along to watch," he explains, "and then I got into riding motorcycles and fell in love with it – it became all I was interested in really." Here he quickly excelled, competing at both national schoolboy and international levels.
Whilst growing up, he spent his time between his two respective homes: at the weekends in Windsor with his dad, and during the week in Newbury with his mum. For the motorcycle-obsessed youngster, this boiled down to "motorbikes of a weekend at dad's house, and then during the week my Raleigh Burner [BMX] became my pretend motorbike until the weekend," he remembers, "So without thinking about pushbikes too much I was practicing on them pretending they were motorbikes – I even made motorbike noises! I really did."
In 1992, and with encouragement from his dad who was keen for his son to be part of a young, dynamic, and growing sport, Martyn and fellow motorcycle trials friend Martin Hawyes (aka Hawzee), went to a local mountain bike event. And everything changed. In between the downhill and cross-country racing, the two entered the trials event and blew away the competition. "We'd already started riding 20in push bike trials at that time so we were riding at a very good level for 20in trials," remembers Martyn, "so when we brought that into mountain bike trials, it was way, way, way beyond the level of mountain bike trials. There was no riding at that level at all. We kinda smoked everyone really and I won that trial."
The podium led immediately to a photo shoot with the foremost mountain bike photographer of the time, Steve Behr, which gave the two Martins their first magazine cover on Britain's first and biggest-selling mountain bike magazine, Mountain Biking UK (MBUK). Together with an expansive feature, the exposure singlehandedly kick-started both the Martins' mountain bike careers, as sponsorship and national team call-ups soon followed, but also drove the development of the UK's mountain bike trials scene itself, inspiring the careers of household names, such as Danny MacAskill.
In 1993, the following year, Martyn won the British Bike Trial Championship – a result that then began a decade of dominance of the British competition scene. "It was only really Chris Akrigg that was a problem for me," says Martyn of that era, "although I'm happy to say that he never beat me. If I entered the British Championships, I won it."
Ten years of intense competition and rivalry with Chris resulted in a relationship that Martyn wryly describes as "weird" – they were friends out of competition and throughout, and today he says that, "Chris is a fantastic friend." However trials is a psychological sport: "It's quite similar to golf in that way: that's how a lap in a trial works – it's like a round of golf. You start applying pressure and you don't buckle," he explains, "and my strength in trials riding was always, I can handle pressure very well and I can apply pressure very well."
In 1995, Martyn was signed to the global and all-conquering Volvo-Cannondale Mountain Bike Race Team won a World Trials Championship, and then spent the next seven years travelling the world competing. Through this time, his focus gradually shifted away from competition riding and more and more towards live shows and media coverage, including magazine features, covers, live demos, and videos, following the template laid down by trials superstars Hans Rey and Libor Karas. "I was probably riding far better and I think I was more of a problem for anyone internationally in '97 [than in '95 when he won a World Championship title] – but I wasn't really trying to ride competitions – I was trying at that point to push my media coverage."
Together with his life-long riding buddie and partner in 'The Two Martins' double act, Hawzee, Martyn featured in numerous mountain bike VHS films, such as the Trainspotting-inspired Chainspotting, and Tricks and Stunts amongst many others. Martyn himself then went on to appear in countless magazines and websites, was inducted into the UK's Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, became a Guinness World Record Holder for the side-hop [sideways high jump], created his own innovative and influential frame designs, and masterminded and starred in more than a decade of a travelling extreme sports show – the Animal WD40 Action Sports Tour – touring the length and breadth of the UK.
Then on Sunday 1st September 2013 at Silverstone's Moto GP, England, Martyn's ride came to an abrupt and premature end.
During one of his shows, he crashed heavily from a 3-meter high bar: "I hovered and fell backwards as I had nowhere to step to," he recalls, "I fell headfirst downwards with a lot of rotation as well, so as my head and neck hit the ground my legs were still spinning round – they effectively snapped me in half," he says frankly.
After paramedics stabilised him at the scene, Martyn was swiftly airlifted to Coventry Hospital where he received emergency treatment and was admitted to Intensive Care. There the prognosis revealed that the impact had caused severe damage to his spine, dislocating the T9 and T10 vertebrae and leaving him paralysed below the point of injury.
"I think in moments like that it isn't bike riding and things you worry about – it's the normal things you worry about: your loved ones and that. And I just wanted to be with Lisa [his wife and childhood sweetheart] and Alfie [his 13 year old son who was watching the show] and I knew I'd be alright, you know?" he says earnestly, "I'll be alright. Things will be different for sure, but the things I planned in my life aren't that different to the things I planned for before…" He considers this for a second and then corrects himself, "The things I hope for; the things I hope for in my life aren't that different to the things I'd hoped for before."
He'd hoped for a relatively modest 100,000 views for his first YouTube film, Road Bike Party, but within hours of going live on his channel in 2012, it had already far exceeded that, with the email view alerts chiming into his smartphone constantly around the clock for three solid days. Within just a day it had cranked up over a million views, and the views kept on climbing, fuelled as much by social media shares and chatter as much as by national and international news headlines, ranging from The Sun to The Guardian, and everything in between. "It sparked something," says Martyn of Road Bike Party's success. "I'd spawned a brand or a story by mistake for myself. [So] I mapped out this three video plan: the second was going to be all about laying it on the line for my riding and put everything down I can do: I was going for my final video – my biggest. Everything I could think of I could do on a bike plus things I haven't done."
"Martyn was riding as well as I've ever seen him riding, and as committed to a project as I've ever seen," agrees videographer Robin. "He was riding so well and loving the bike: what the brakes bought, the frame stiffness, and even just the look of it – it lit up his face every time he looked at it. We were so excited about what he could do on it."
For well over a year, from the autumn of 2012 to December 2013, he planned, planned, and planned for his career swan song, a fitting and dramatic finale to a life lived on the limits of traction and nerve. His vision for Road Bike Party 2 was to leave an indelible mark on the viewer via a visual onslaught of shock and awe by "punching viewers in the face" with jaw-droppingly incredible riding, again, and again, and again. And all on a road bike. To ensure that the cat wasn't let out of the bag, he kept his riding powder dry for many of his new and unique tricks: from the world's first front flip on a road bike to open loops, he'd planned, practiced and perfected these and more key "big banger moves," as he describes them, in secret to be documented exclusively in his new film. All the 'big banger moves' were scheduled to be shot in what became the week after his accident; sadly, some of these will now never be committed to celluloid.
"Immediately I thought, 'Oh fuck, that [the video] was the first goal [gone]'," he remembers of his realisation in the seconds after his fall; a reaction that both he and Robin shared. But despite both the severe physical and emotional shock of his injury, Martyn knew that he would finish the video: "It was like, 'How are we going to do this?' Not, 'We can't do this,'" he explains. The video never had a chance or an opportunity to rest: "It got like, 'I have to finish the video.' I was training so hard and becoming so…" he trails off for a split second, before regrouping: "The evidence was that I was riding the best I ever have."
After the results of his MRI scan were known and when he knew that everyone – his wife, son, and friends and family – were all safe, his first night in hospital brought him some of his first moments alone and the time to regroup. "I thought: 'I'll forge a plan for what I'll do," and the very next day he set about doing it. "'Right, I know how to do it, but it'll be pretty different [to his original plan] but that's how to do it. I knew that I needed more footage – it's pretty obvious really," he explains simply, "I need more footage and I need a level of footage that's absolutely the best it can be so I have to go to my 'competitors' for it." He smiles at the absurdity of using the word 'competitors' to describe the two riders who are and have become strong friends, "So I have to go to Chris [Akrigg] and Danny [MacAskill] – who else could I ask? There is no one else."
He texted them, "Like a coward!" Martyn says self-deprecatingly, "I wanted to make it easy for them not to reply or to say no." He needn't have worried as, within seconds, Danny replied to say that it would be an honour to help – a response that touched Martyn deeply: "He really humbled me actually. I was, as I still am, really choked by it." Within a further 30 minutes, Chris had responded with, "I'd heard you're hurt," to which Martyn replied: "Yes, actually Chris, I've got a big favour to ask," and sent the text, followed immediately by another saying, "I need you to help me with my road bike video." When Chris got the first text, he was, "Like, 'Oh no, right'" and was beginning to write back with: "I'll do anything but I'm not riding that bloody road bike!" "'Cos he saw through me immediately," explains Martyn with a wry chuckle, "he knows me very well! I basically got the text saying 'I need you to help me with my road bike video' text to him before he could send it [his initial reply]. So that was Chris fucked – he was in!"
"It was a no brainer for me," explains Chris, "I would've done anything for Martyn as I've known him for a long, long time. And Danny were involved. It was one of those things that should've happened [riding with Martyn and Danny in one video] but [under the circumstances] it's not the way I wanted it to happen," he pauses briefly, "It's an honour to be riding with them boys in there."
The three then swiftly came together to plot the bike equivalent of Marvel's Avengers Assemble at Martyn's hospital bedside.
"We planned what each of them wanted to do and we decided that they should do what they would naturally do when they go out and ride," says Martyn, "they shouldn't do the scenes and the riding that I had planned [as] I wanted them [Chris and Danny] to do what they do – not try and be 'me'," he explains. So although they dress similarly, they're in different clothing and they're themselves, "They're not 'doubling' for me," he confirms, "I didn't want them to double for me. Chris is very much off-road, very gnarly, and doing things you wouldn't expect a road bike to do," he continues. "Danny is much more street, a bit more tongue in cheek I'd say, and more like Danny is in his videos."
As Martyn was learning how to balance all over again – "You're like on a ball balanced wobbling around," he chuckles, "[as] wherever I lean my head, my body goes because my stomach muscles and my hips don't work so I've got no balance and suddenly I've got to stop myself falling over in different ways. But I'm getting loads better – it's like a normal thing: you learn to adapt to it and it becomes normal." – both Danny and Chris were learning to ride trials from the ground up on a road bike. "They've each said, 'God it's brilliant – but you don't want to do trials on it! You don't want to do street riding on it!'" Martyn reveals. "But they've both got on it and their level of riding is just so high that they've been able to adapt to it quickly. They've just got on with it and really pushed themselves."
For Chris and Danny, time was a luxury that weather and shooting pressures quite simply didn't allow: Danny had all of a minute or so "To give it a shot in a car park", he recalls, before climbing onto a wind-battered bridge in South Wales and riding across the top of its tied arches for the cameras. "You can tell from my stance that I was uneasy and nervous on the bikes," he suggests, "but that was the first time I had ridden the bike – it really was a baptism of fire!" And so began three intense days of shooting.
Chris similarly jumped into the deep end and straight into four days of filming with only a cursory spin outside his house: "But I thought, 'This isn't any good, I have to just go somewhere and ride it properly.' I said to Robin, 'Right, let's do this now.' So we filmed my section by the canal lock – that was the first proper time I'd ridden the bike," explains Chris. "I just thought, 'This has to happen.'"
Martyn reveals that, as we talk, Danny is shooting the finale to the film. "He is trying to do what will probably be the best bit of bike riding I can imagine or what he's probably ever done. It will be incredible. If he can do it, I know he can do it – it's whether…" he pauses to marshal his thoughts, then begins again: "To make himself do it he will really need to go to a very tough place where I've been, so I know what it's like: it's so bad having a cameraman ready, having everything in place, and you've spent ages trying to get the thing ready to go, and then you've got to do it […] It's call-out time." Afterwards, it's confirmed that Danny took himself to that place and succeeded to get the finale in the can, bottoming out 110psi tyres to the rim due to the g-forces involved.
"I was blown away to be asked and helping in anyway is a really big deal," Danny says, explaining that saying 'no' to Martyn could never have happened: "I think the film's really awesome and definitely a bit special. It's definitely…" he stops, and starts over: "I think the whole film has turned out…" and tails off again, wrestling with the context. "It's a real mix of emotions you know? Martyn is my all-time riding hero and I feel really honoured to be part of the project and to ride alongside Martyn and Chris – another of my riding heroes – but I wish the circumstances were different," he says simply. "I think we've made something really special, and Robin's filming and editing are excellent and he tells the story really well. I'm really honoured to be part of it."
Chris is similarly humble. "It's so strange – it's like… the dark side of it is seeing Martyn watching [the video] as it's his last bit of riding," he says poignantly. "This has come together for that reason alone – for his accident. Seeing Danny's stuff, my stuff, Martyn's stuff, it's such a shame: it's a double-edged sword as it's an amazing video but it's so sad that it's happened in this way," he says plainly. "Martyn's style shines through. Danny's stuff is amazing, and I do what I do. There's a hell of a lot in that video."
The emotional project has affected everyone involved, including Robin: "It's been a mixed bag of ups and downs: I wanted it [the riding in the film] to be Martyn as Martyn and myself had been planning some other stuff and I wanted to finish what we'd planned to do," he explains, "But, for me, it was exciting to get to work with Danny and Chris – they're great guys." But Robin also suggests that the film has become more than just a record of riding: "It's helped Martyn's rehabilitation and I think that's a great thing. Martyn just wanted to make the best video – it doesn't matter if it was him or other riders. That's a brave thing to do: to hand that over and I'm honoured he chose me to continue to do this with him."
"It [the new film] certainly isn't fluid," says Martyn. "There isn't the one journey story like in Road Bike Party with one person on a bike: there are three people. The bike goes through a journey but the three riders don't. So it's very different to what I had intended but I don't think there's any point in me pretending that it is [what he intended]: but it is very special and I'm really proud to be in there next to those two. It looks like a brilliant collection of riding. You can even forget that we're on a road bike: the stuff that we do collectively is beyond what would be 'normal' for a trials bike. It's exceptional. That was my vision: it was supposed to be as good as it can be, and that's a good sign off."
The video may be finished and one goal achieved, but that is not the end of Martyn's tale. What follows will certainly be different to his life pre-accident, but he remains steadfastly positive: "I'm not focusing on what could've been," he says, "– I'm focusing on what will be." What will be is whatever he makes of it and, although the cameras have stopped filming for now and he has swapped two wheels for four, his story will undoubtedly continue to roll on.