Chris Moss talks to world-renowned trials cyclist Danny MacAskill about stunts, sponsorship, staying upright and the Isle of Skye as a teaser for our Adventure Issue.
It’s a small boy’s dream. To travel the world riding your bike. To do tricks and stunts that wow other small boys, and some big ones. To do wheelies and skids… as a full-time job. At 29, Danny MacAskill is the most successful trials cyclist of his generation. Born and raised on the Isle of Skye, off the west coast of Scotland, he came to global attention in 2009 when a short film of him jumping, pirouetting and cycling backwards along the streets, staircases and railings of Edinburgh (think Parkour on wheels) went viral. That video, ‘Inspired Bicycles’ has since garnered more than 35 million views on Youtube and enjoys cult status among fans of trials and stunt cycling, as do MacAskill’s later films, Way Back Home (2010) and Imaginate (2013). With major backers like Red Bull, Go Pro and Continental sponsoring his every move, the Scottish legend is a one-man brand and is now touring Europe with his own arena-style show.
It all began with a bit of recycling – no pun intended – when MacAskill was just four. “My dad brought a bike home that he had found in a skip. It was a little black Raleigh and I remember getting on it and immediately trying to do tricks. I don’t know if I’d seen something on TV that had inspired me but I started to do skids and wheelies and crashing a lot on that little bike. A little later, I became that annoying little kid who followed my friend’s older brothers around trying to copy what they did. Around the age of 11, I started reading a mountain biking magazine called MBUK and there I found heroes, including Martyn Ashton, Martin Hawes and Austrian rider Hans Rey. They all believe you can do anything on a bike and see riding as a creative thing – they have been a massive inspiration for me.”
But Skye itself, with its rugged topography and wild, uninhabited corers, was a key influence. The island, says MacAskill, was all about freedom and exploration, and learning to be alone. “There’s a lot of space to do what you want to do. We would build treehouses in the middle of nowhere, and go on big adventures into the wilderness. In the week I cycled. I lived in a tiny village and there weren’t many other kids, and I didn’t have a computer so even if it was blowing a hoolie outside and pouring with rain I’d go out on my bike. That was my entertainment.” Later on he borrowed his mum’s cassette player and began to ride to the sounds of Moby’s Play, Rage against the Machine and Faithless. “That’s how I still ride, in headphones. That’s how I can be by myself, and ride the same spots. The music makes it feel like a different space. I recently went riding around the places on Skye from my childhood and I put on Faithless’s album Sunday 8PM – the music I first started riding to, back in 1998 – and it was very nostalgic.”
But don’t get any ideas of some soft-minded Scot, drifting around the heather on his trusty old bicycle. MacAskill’s stunts include back flips and tail whips – during which the frame performs a complete rotation around a static front wheel. He does circuit training to keep in shape, and to give rehab to the injuries he inevitably picks up while totally exposed to the elements – and sharp, hard surfaces. Balance and bravery are essential. On his 2014 film ‘The Ridge’ we see MacAskill pedaling at speed along the top of the razor-edged Cuillin Ridgeline on Skye. “For me balance is all about confidence – that, and 25 years of practice. There were some exposed lines on the ride and a mistake could have proven fatal. But when I am riding, the drop is one of the last things on my mind. “I sometimes picture the narrowest parts as a section of pavement in front of my house on Skye that I grew up riding on. This keeps me relaxed and balanced on the bike and stops me from making any silly mistakes.”
It’s one thing to have derring-do and dexterity. It’s quite another to become a fully professional trials cyclist. MacAskill concedes that luck plays a part, but there is also a quiet determination about him. The source, though, is not ambition so much as something like an aspirational autism. “I never expected anything like this success. When I left school I knew riding would take me away from studying. Every holiday, from the age of 12, I used to go through to Aviemore and visit a bike workshop called Bothy Bikes and so my main ambition [which he realised in 2003] was to be a bike mechanic there. But after I’d ridden everything around Aviemore many times, I moved to Edinburgh to work at Macdonald Cycles and stayed there about four years. I never begrudged going to work; I loved working on bicycles.”
MacAskill takes ownership of his memories and the places he has lived and loved on his bike films. ‘Inspired Bicycles’ was his homage to Edinburgh. “Way Back Home”, borne out of a collaboration with a friend, Dave Sowerby – a key player on the UK BMX scene – is a cyclist’s ode to home, to Skye. MacAskill now travels widely, and is often far away from his native lands. He names Cape Town, Vancouver and Epecuén in the Argentine pampas (where he made a film in 2014) as his favourite destinations. Right now he has about ten projects in the offing, plans to visit New Zealand and Japan, and is busy with his new personal project – Drop and Roll. “Red Bull is such a strong brand,” he says. “I really wanted to do something that was my own. Drop and Roll is just a van, a trailer and a big rig that we pull out to perform on. Me and my friend Duncan Shaw run it and one idea is to use it to give emerging riders a chance.”
If the Danny MacAskill brand is thriving, it’s partly because of the value of the collaborations and friendships he has fostered, but also because he doesn’t allow the business aspect, or even the success, to interfere with his passion. “I never had an ambition to be a professional rider; sometimes I think my life is like The Truman Show and one day it will all be turned off. It does seem strange to have this ideal life, in that I can look at a globe and choose any rooftop or piece of concrete anywhere in the world and go there and ride it. It’s mad. “But when I think of a project I get very single-minded about it and for me that’s what I’m doing. It makes me a nightmare to deal with in business – because all that becomes irrelevant. My goal is to put everything into that one project. I’m just not very good at multitasking.”