I don’t often feel guilty about riding bikes. Okay, when I stood in the dock at Bristol Magistrates Court in 2004 to explain why I was doing more than 105mph on the M4 I felt thoroughly guilty. And they took my licence away for two months - which I probably deserved. But that was riding too fast (and getting caught). Just riding generally? Nothing to feel guilty about.
Except I do feel guilty, as I lie here in hospital at some ungodly early hour of the morning. Somewhere in the skies over Africa, my girlfriend is getting a terrible night’s sleep as she flies out from the UK to see me. She’s dropped everything, leaving her kids with her mother, to come and be with me - because I fell off a bike.
I’ve been here before, more or less. My last crash in 2006 gave me three weeks in hospital and 26 metal pins. And from the moment the policemen turned up at the door to say “He’s not dead, but he has been hurt”, my recovery put my wife through hell. It drove her to start smoking again for a few months and ultimately, I believe, sowed the seeds for the end of the marriage.
This is just my take on it, of course. But when someone has a nagging fear, however well-suppressed, that their partner isn’t going to be around forever it’s inevitable that a distance starts to grow between them. In my case it took 12 years for that distance to become a yawning, unbridgeable chasm chock-full of other problems, like jagged rocks... but regardless of the other problems, I believe my crash was the beginning of the end.
Or perhaps it was how I dealt with my crash that was the real problem. Because I don’t think I ever acknowledged it was a big deal. “Yeah, I crashed and got a few bits of metal - racers go through worse - it’s only 26 pins,” I would quip. No signs of shame or guilt about the crash, never mind the psychological impact it had on my whole family.
I had to normalise and trivialise my injuries to be able to carry on riding. Even though they were neither normal nor trivial: they were pretty bloody serious. But I made light of them and then three months to the day after the crash, when I still needed a stick to walk, I got back on a bike (a Kawasaki ZZR1400, in fact - at the time, the most powerful production bike in the world). And soon I was riding all the time again.
Worse, I did this without ever asking my wife how she felt about it. I just expected her to accept it, as I carried on riding as if nothing had happened. Even though we both knew that, bikes being bikes, there was the possibility it could happen again.
Well, now it has happened again. In my defence, this time I was out of my comfort zone, on a gravel road. But that hardly matters: I was on a bike; I fell off; I got hurt. And if I handled the last crash badly, I’m determined to do better this time.
At lot has changed in the past 13 months, never mind the 13 years since my last crash - the most significant being that the marriage ended. But I unexpectedly found a wonderful new partner, so now I have to get through another painful recovery process and get back on a bike... without destroying that relationship. This means I have to handle things better.
I’m going to start with the two things that are hardest for any British male: talking openly about my feelings; and really listening when my girlfriend talks about hers. Crashing again might be easier...
Getting back on the bike needs to be all about reassuring her that I’m safe. I need to get her involved with the plan for my Big, Stupid Trip of a Lifetime - because it’s clear that I will have to invest more time in the prep, partly to ensure there are no gravel roads to catch me out but mostly to make sure she’s not scared by me going.
And that’s the core of the crasher’s guilt: our loved ones trust us on two wheels. When we crash we don’t only let ourselves down but also them... and it doesn’t have to be a monster crash like this. Toppling off in a B&Q car park and bruising a shoulder can be enough to make our loved ones worry about our riding bikes.
If this experience has taught me anything, it’s that the most important thing to fix isn’t the bike or the broken bones. It’s the faith our loved ones have in our ability to go out on the bike and come back in one piece. And while I won’t ever feel guilty about riding motorcycles, I will always be wracked with guilt if I betray that trust.