It is a moment we have all had: consumed in the now, something triggers a memory. It’s such a powerful memory that reality fades to black as we relive the moment. This is an unedited, high definition, 3D IMAX memory: everything as it happened and unedited. It differs from a memory recalled, where parts are left on the cutting room floor. As the moment relived comes to an end, you fade back into the present with eyes focusing from the middle distance back to reality. On your face is a look of pleasure and surprise at being once more back in the present.
The human memory is an incredible process. Through conditioning we link new experiences with senses which were present at that moment – sights, smells, tastes or sounds. When we experience those senses again, where ever we may be, the memory is triggered and relived. Sometimes the simplest things can trigger a memory – a song, a certain flavour of food, the way light glistens off of an object, the smell of a brand of perfume, or for me the small fibrous patches of skin on my body: my scars.
Thanks to the full range of senses involved, the moments when things fell apart for me and my bike have been fast-track conditioned to form strong memories. No bells, food or drool needed as in a Pavlov style experiment; just the sensation of soft skin grinding on the rough asphalt, as my kinetic energy is dissipated, firmly imprinting the moment into my memory. It is not uniquely my mind which has a perfect record of these events; like an engraving my body has been carved by friction to commemorate these occasions. After the injuries have healed the slightest glance in the mirror or question from a concerned person aimed at my scars brings back all of the tiniest details of the moment when they were formed; like lying on a chair in the tattoo parlour I am there again, lying on the road.
Left Shoulder: June 2003. Guidel, Brittany, France. On lap 18 of a 23 lap race the rider in front of me seemed to have forgotten the lane divider in the residential street. At 48 kilometres per hour I had pre-planned to go to the right of it. He clipped the piece of street furniture and fell blocking my already taken right hand route. As I approached him I remember deciding to hit him and not his nice Look bike which was skidding across the road. In the air I wondered how he had not remembered this part of the course, having already passed it 17 times previously.
Result: Broken right wrist, 6 weeks in a cast; trashed frame; dislocated left collar bone (rotator cuff). 6 weeks in a sling and 2 surgeries later I was left with a long red line to mark the moment my 2003 season ended.
Left Elbow: October 2006. Belle Ille, Brittany France. In last 25 kilometres of this the final race of the season I was sat in the lead group of 3 riders. A fellow lead group rider in front of me kindly decided to push a tired and lapped rider on a narrow section of road on the finishing circuits. With his fatigue and surprise at being pushed, the rider crashed, blocking the road. I had no time to react and hit his bike which was moving to the right as he slid left. As my elbow took the full impact, grinding along the rough chip-sealed road surface, I was happy to have not chosen the wall on one side, or house on the other as my exit route.
Result: A trip to the very small local French emergency room where I was told my elbow could not be stitched due to the thin skin. It subsequently got infected.
Right Upper Forearm: June 1998. Corfe Castle, Dorset, England. I was riding to a regional mountain bike Cross Country race as a warm up on a damp summer’s morning. Exiting the only roundabout on that route, my thin road tyres lost grip and I slid off. Skidding to a stop, with the smell of diesel in my nose, I was worried that the blue Ford Escort car behind me would not stop in time. I did not focus on the ripping sensation on my arm, wanting not to miss the start of my race.
Result: A quick dust off and headed to the race. With no time to dress the wound, it got infected and took a long time to heal. On a plus, I ended up on the podium!
Left Shin: June 1999. Newnham, Plymouth, England. 300 metres after the start of this National Mountain Bike Cross Country event there was a river crossing. In the melee of the start the rider in front of me crashed in the river crossing. I caught his chain rings, after riding over him, and crashed off of the shallower crossing into the full depth river. Up to my neck in the water the announcer was shouting “HE’S FALLEN IN THE RIVER”. I grabbed my bike and continued my race from flat last, 70th position. With anger and adrenalin fuelling me I climbed the first climb, with a rider commenting that I was still in the big ring. All the time feeling a cold sensation on my left shin, as unbeknownst to me the blood trickled from the wound.
Result: After finishing a satisfied 15th I noticed a deep cut in my shin. As a result I spent the rest of that Sunday afternoon with my parents driving me around Plymouth to find an open emergency room before heading home.
Left Eyebrow: September 2011. Bergamo, Italy. 500 metres from dropping my hire car back at the airport I cruised to the train station along a bike path under the warm Italian afternoon sun. On my back was my luggage; on my mind was how it had been so incredible to visit the Colnago factory that morning. A cat (not black!) decided to play chicken with me. Swerving to miss it, the momentum from my weighty luggage caused my bars to catch the railing at the side of the bike path. I was catapulted forward, my movement being stopped by my forehead hitting the road. As blood ran down my face I thought how quickly what was a perfect day could turn into one which you would rather not remember.
Result: An unharmed Italian feline, missed train, bent front wheel, bent saddle and torn bar tape. A nice 2 inch cut to my left eyebrow which was dressed with butterfly stiches, purchased from a pharmacy whilst getting concerned looks. With a broken bike I had to call for the assistance of Sara from Piton (my sponsor), who luckily are only the next train station east from Bergamo.
Am I proud of my scars?
Not really. They are marks made by moments when things fell apart. When I look at them I am reminded of these moments, the frustration at what could have been still there. They trigger memories which are more powerful that any of my victories. I do not see them as Renommierschmiss or bragging scars, which were seen as a sign of courage by the European social elite in the early 1900s.
Do I cover them or try to remove them?
No. They are fibrous marks that show that I have had an eventful life, marking the challenges that I have faced when I have been pitched a curve ball. They are a record of my journey.
Someone once told me that “Chicks dig scars”. A cliché I know, and sadly I do not think they do (if there are any ladies out there who do, then drop me a line!) Like Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man each of my marks tells a story. His marks were tattooed onto his skin by a gypsy lady and told the future, whilst mine were made by my own tattoo artist, the road, marking the past. I have sometimes been tempted to get a tattoo, but glancing at my scars soon makes that idea fade. My body has already been painted by 19 years of racing bikes, and I know that those scars, which replay the memories of when they were created, are 100% unique.