IF A MOUNTAIN biker, a road biker, a trials biker and a BMX-er raced each other up a steep, cobbled street over a distance of 170 metres, who would win? It might sound like a hypothetical question – or the start of a really geeky cycling joke – but we should get an answer of sorts tomorrow, when the Red Bull Hill Chasers event comes to Edinburgh.
Now in its third year, this quirky multi-discipline race will see hundreds of hopefuls battle it out on the slippery cobbles of Victoria Street in the heart of the Old Town for the chance to face off against a group of bona fide cycling legends.
On Saturday, up to 500 amateur racers are expected to take part in an individual timed hill sprint on Cockburn Street. The fastest 30 finishers will then be joined by a group of ten elite cyclists for a knock-out competition on Victoria Street, in which pairs of riders will race head-to-head up a narrow course with a series of pinch-points introduced to impede overtaking.
Among the pro cyclists slated to appear are hill-climb specialist Jack Pullar from Lancashire and BMX and mountain bike fourcross star Michal Prokop from the Czech Republic. Arguably the most recognisable of the big name competitors, however, will be trials rider Danny MacAskill – the former bike technician from the Isle of Skye who became an internet superstar almost overnight in April 2009, when a YouTube film of him performing stunts in various locations around Edinburgh went viral, eventually clocking up over 30 million hits.
“It’s a good steep course,” MacAskill says of the Victoria Street venue, “I pedalled it many times on my travels when I was living in Edinburgh. In fact, I’ve been going there in disguise lately, doing secret training…”
Trials bikes such as the famous orange one built by Inspired that MacAskill rides are typically single-speed, with wide wheels and wide handlebars – great for landing big jumps and riding out of them backwards but not ideally suited to travelling uphill at speed. Could someone on a trials bike ever win an event like the Red Bull Hill Chasers?
“Yeah… well… maybe with a wee bit of modification,” says MacAskill. “I did actually put a couple of gears on my bike when I competed in the Hill Chasers in Bristol a couple of years ago, just to give it a bit of an advantage. But it’s a tricky one. It depends on the course – whether it’s rough or smooth and it depends on the gradient as well. It’ll be interesting. I’m not really a competitive person… but it’d be nice to smash them all on my wee trials bike.”
MacAskill is currently based in Glasgow’s south side but he spent a chunk of last year living in Los Angeles, recovering from a torn disc in his back. His sponsors, Red Bull, didn’t just pay for him to have surgery, they also paid for a high-end rehabilitation programme that included regular physiotherapy sessions at the state-of-the-art Diagnostic and Interventional Surgical Center (DISC) in Marina del Rey and a brain-training program at a futuristic-sounding place called Neurotopia in Santa Monica, which claims to help athletes improve performance by developing “optimal brain-wave patterns”. Among other exercises, the boffins at Neurotopia had MacAskill flying virtual spaceships around an obstacle course using nothing but his brain-waves, relayed to a computer via sensors attached to his scalp.
This sort of Jedi-style training doesn’t come cheap, and at a time when many large companies involved in extreme sports are cutting back on the number of athletes they sponsor – surf clothing giant Quiksilver, for example, has just slashed the number of pro riders on its books in an attempt to save money – it’s rare indeed to see a commercial organisation investing so heavily in a single athlete. Then again, given the millions of hits MacAskill’s online films are guaranteed to generate, it’s not hard to see why the bean-counters at Red Bull would happily sign off on an eye-wateringly expensive rehab programme if it helps their star get back on his bike that little bit quicker.
“I’m really grateful to Red Bull for all their help with the treatment,” MacAskill says. “It’s definitely been over and above what a sponsor should be doing. They’re really looking after me so I should be back to 100 per cent in no time. I’m getting there. There are good days and bad days, good weeks and bad weeks. But I’m feeling solid. It’s great to be back on a bike and rolling around having fun.”
The obvious next question, then, if MacAskill is on the mend, is when will he be bringing out his next film? Rumour has it that it’s scheduled to be released in “Spring 2013” – is that about right?
“No – noooooo,” he laughs, “it’s still in the planning. The idea that it’s going to be finished by then is pretty daunting. I’ll need to get my skates on. Some of the stuff I’ve got planned involves bigger set-ups so it takes a while to build it up. I just want to make it as relaxed as possible and just take it as it comes.”
So is the summer more likely?
“You never know really,” he says, enigmatically.
The two follow-ups to MacAskill’s 2009 breakthrough, Way Back Home in 2010 and Industrial Revolutions in 2011, both represented huge leaps forward in terms of concept and execution. With millions of people sure to watch whatever he puts out next, does he feel under pressure to raise the standard yet again?
“Yeah,” he says, “I’ve really not been spending enough time on the bike over the last year, and that means I’ve not been learning any new tricks, so it’s going to be… I dunno… I’ll just have to come up with some different concepts and ideas and see how they work. Finding the right locations [to film in] is absolutely massive. A lot of my searching comes from searching on Google Images or Google Maps. It’s all about going and riding new spots and new places.”
MacAskill may be a little vague about the release date for his next film, but he can confirm that the man in the director’s chair this time around will be Stu Thomson, who he worked with on Industrial Revolutions, and not his friend Dave Sowerby, who made the first two films but is now busy filming with BMX team BSD.
There’s also a rumour doing the rounds that MacAskill has purchased a “secret warehouse” somewhere in Glasgow, and is in the process of turning it into a trials bike dreamscape, filling it with all manner of weird and wonderful obstacles. Is this true?
“Oooooh – that’s a little bit of a secret at the moment,” he chuckles. “It’s still all in the planning so, yeah, maybe at some point some details will come out about that but we’re still just planning that out just now.”
Has he bought the space?
“Not quite yet – we’ve not quite finalised it.”
Can he speculate about what kind of features he might put into such a space, were he to acquire one?
“I’ve got some fun set-ups I’ve always wanted to do. A lot of them I’ve got no idea whether they’re going to work or not, but it should be fun trying some of them out and having a wee project with it.”
And might some of the scenes in the upcoming film be set in said warehouse?
“Waaah”– he laughs again – “we’ll see, we’ll see.”
So there you have it: Danny MacAskill may or may not have a new film coming out sometime this spring or summer – a film that may or may not feature stunts performed inside a secret Glasgow warehouse that may or may not exist.
In the meantime, for fans hoping for something a little more concrete, he’ll definitely be competing in the Red Bull Hill Chasers event tomorrow. And who knows? With the skinny tyres of sleeker bicycle types slithering into the cracks between the Victoria Street cobbles, a newly revitalised Danny – armed with his chunky orange trials bike and his optimal brain-wave patterns – might stand a decent chance of winning.