It’s not surprising that Stuart O’Grady chose the title Battle Scars for his autobiography. The Aussie hardman owned some of the most notable crashes in Tour history and memorably finished with a fractured vertebra. He once said “In cycling it’s not a matter of if you crash, it’s when you crash.”
While never personally having endured anything of O’Grady-esque severity (a fractured hip is a good attempt but thoroughly outclassed by his eight ribs, shoulder-blade, collarbone, three vertebrae and a punctured lung in Milan-San Remo 2009) most cyclists of a certain age can trace much of their history through various scars and injuries. Poke a long-healed wound and you’re bound to get a story.
A recent family conversation with my wife and children went something like:
Wife: “Ooh, that scar is still quite red.”
Me: “Yes the others have healed but that one was quite deep.”
Daughter: “Was that the brambles? That was ages ago.”
Me: “No, this was the barbed wire last summer… the brambles is my other arm, see.”
Son: “What about that one on your knee?”
Me: “Oh that was completely different – while I was going into work.”
Looking over my middle-aged body I have a patch of lighter skin on the point of my left shoulder going back to my 20s, which still reminds me of being at university in Sydney when my rear wheel locked coming down the Gladesville Bridge after a rowing training session one day.
There’s the one from Clapham High Street where I’d just started a new job and had a meeting with the CEO first thing that morning. Fortunately I’d brought a black suit to wear that day so the chunk out of my leg bleeding into my trousers wasn’t visible. It got infected later because I hadn’t been able to clean it out properly.
There are the tiny criss-crosses along my right forearm from dodging a tractor around a blind bend at 55km/h in a time trial and instinctively deciding the roadside ditch (full of brambles as it turned out) was marginally preferable to going under farm machinery.
And there’s my own Johnny Hoogerland tattoo on the left arm, from a 60km/h crash into a barbed wire fence at the bottom of a hill on a club ride.
The immediate aftermath on the left, and on the right my current state, still visible nearly a year later.
The thing is, I like them. I didn’t really like the pain and fear at the time but they remind me of things in my life – things I’ve done, places I’ve been, periods of my life that I might not otherwise call to mind, pain and suffering I’ve overcome. People who have tattoos will tell you the same thing (I have those too).
I wonder if people look at my scars and think I must self-harm. Maybe there’s a parallel. Cyclists punish themselves mentally and physically but our reward is being generally fit and healthy and in control of our bodies – whether it’s a neat tattoo or a jagged red line, deliberate or accidental, embracing the scars is a way of showing that we own our skins.