The bike mechanic from Edinburgh has become one of the hottest properties on the internet thanks to videos of his breathtaking cycling skills. Roger Cox catches up with Danny MacAskill
FEW people embody the lack of crossover that still exists between old and new media quite like 25-year-old stunt bike rider Danny MacAskill.
For internet-savvy twenty and thirtysomethings who regularly trade YouTube clips with friends and work colleagues, he's a household name.
A five-and-a-half-minute film of him performing unbelievable stunts around Edinburgh in the spring of 2009, entitled Inspired Bicycles, has now been viewed over 23 million times online. In one heart-in-mouth sequence he rides casually along the top of a row of spiky iron railings, more than 10ft off the ground. In another, he rides at full speed up a tree trunk, flies into the air and performs a back-flip before somehow landing right way up and riding away.
To anyone who has seen the films, the appeal is obvious. For the TV and newspapers generation, however, MacAskill remains largely unknown. Last autumn, The Scotsman carried a story about the release of his second internet film, a seven-and-a-half-minute short entitled Way Back Home, describing him as an "internet phenomenon". One reader felt moved to comment: "an internet phenomenon indeed – never heard of him."
But there's no arguing with those 23 million hits, and the business world has been quick to capitalise on MacAskill's popularity. He is now sponsored by energy drink company Red Bull, bike company Inspired Bicycles, street fashion label Dig Deep, and he has done a one-off advertisement for Volkswagen as well as some stunt work for Premium Rush, a forthcoming feature film starring Inception star Joseph Gordon Levitt.
It all sounds very glamorous, but MacAskill insists his earnings are still modest, and simply mean that he no longer has to work as a bike mechanic and can "maybe afford to run a car".
"I've never really been a money-driven person," he says. "All the projects I work on – it's more to do with 'Is it going to show street trials in the right light?' I've been offered a lot of money for some projects but if it's going to be cheesy or use trials in the wrong way then it's not something I really want to be part of."
His most bizarre offer?
"Early on, after the first film came out, I was asked to be in a Korean circus. I was to go out there and tour around with them for three months. I dunno if I'd have found myself in a cage with the animals or what, but I'm sure it would have been a very interesting experience."
Street trials, the offshoot of cycling MacAskill specialises in, grew out of mountain bike trials, in which riders attempt to complete an obstacle course without setting their feet on the ground. In the street version, the bikes are similar, with powerful brakes, wide handlebars and single-speed low gearing, but there's no set course and no other competitors – just you and your imagination. Think parkour, only with a bike.
As the name suggests, street trials are usually practised in an urban environment, but for his second internet film, Way Back Home (seven million hits and counting), MacAskill took his skills into the Scottish countryside, performing gravity-defying tricks in front of iconic backdrops on a road trip from Edinburgh to his childhood home on Skye.
Highlights included a risky mid-air forward somersault off the battlements of Edinburgh Castle and a tricky 20ft drop off the side of Stirling Bridge. Expertly shot and edited by his friend Dave Sowerby, who made Inspired Bicycles, the film has now been viewed seven million times online, and a better advertisement for the natural beauty of this country is hard to imagine. Why VisitScotland don't have it playing on a loop on their homepage is anyone's guess.
• MacAskill is back in gravity-defying action after breaking his collarbone last year
Like street artist Banksy, MacAskill has remained something of an enigma up until now, in spite of his fame. Both his internet films are short, sharp, action-packed affairs – just MacAskill's breathtaking riding set to music. His latest project, however – the film he was in Edinburgh to promote at the weekend, at a red-carpet premiere screening at bar and restaurant Hawke and Hunter – offers his millions of fans their first proper look at the man beneath the crash helmet.
Produced by Red Bull Media House UK and Gramafilm, MacAskill Conquers is a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of Way Back Home, and what it conveys most strikingly is the huge amount of work that went into producing those polished seven-and-a-bit minutes of footage. In Staffin, on Skye, we see MacAskill and crew hard at work digging squares of peat in order to build a ramp up to the top of a phone box; on Raasay we sense their frustration as they are forced to wait more than a week for a clear day on which to film; and back in his home village of Dunvegan, we feel MacAskill's pain as he suffers wipeout after wipeout in an attempt to nail a tricky stunt that involves bouncing his bike off the side of the local bakery.
"Making Way Back Home really did mean a lot to me," he says. "I don't think I'm going to be able to make another project that means as much."
I ask him if it's going to be strange attending the film's premiere at Hawke and Hunter later that evening, watching other people watching his film rather than simply watching the number of hits climbing ever higher on YouTube.
"Yeah, it's going to be weird," he says. "When you see the view counts on the YouTube videos it somehow doesn't really translate into real people watching it. When you're actually in a room with people watching something you've made, though, it's quite a different experience. It's going to be good for me and Dave (Sowerby) to watch it with other people and see their reactions."
Growing up in a thatched croft in Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye, MacAskill fell in love with cycling from an early age. In the documentary, his dad, Peter (who runs the Colbost Croft Museum on Skye and the Giant MacAskill Museum, dedicated to Angus MacAskill, the tallest Scotsman ever to have lived) remembers that "all he ever wanted for Christmas was parts for his bicycle".
MacAskill's love of cycling got him into trouble from time to time, and he was charged twice for bike-related misdemeanours by the Dunvegan police. His mother, Anne, who works for a building company, alludes to his adventurous spirit when she says: "whenever he left the house we'd ask him if he was going east, west, north or south so we'd know what direction to send the search party."
MacAskill attended Portree High, enjoying sport more than academic subjects. He left without taking Highers, went to work for Bothy Bikes in Aviemore and from there he moved to Edinburgh, where Inspired Bicycles was made.
Doug Sutton, a childhood friend from Dunvegan, says: "Danny was always the crash test dummy for all our crazy stunts. It just seemed like he was unbreakable."
As it turned out, however, MacAskill wasn't quite as indestructible as his school friends supposed.
"Last winter I broke my collar bone three times and I'm still feeling the effects of it now," he says. "My body's only just starting to balance out again and be as strong as it once was."
These injuries evidently had a psychological impact too. At the start of the documentary, we see him psyching himself up for a death-defying leap from the battlements of Edinburgh Castle. "It might just be collar bones I've been breaking," he tells the camera, "but it's affected my whole body. When I'm up on walls there's just this huge battle going on." We also see MacAskill gesturing angrily at some tourists trying to film him – in an age when everyone has a cameraphone the last thing he needs is bits of his new film finding their way onto YouTube before he's finished making it.
Eventually, though, MacAskill pulls off the trick he's been attempting – a 180 degree spin onto the battlements followed by another 180 degree spin onto the steep grassy slope beneath – and the sense of relief is palpable.
As his journey to Skye continues, he seems to relax more, and to grow in confidence. After falling face first into a muddy puddle on Inchgarvie Island in the Firth of Forth he comes up laughing, and when he gets to the west coast he's soon goofing around with his old pals, diving off piers and indulging in a little pyromania with a blowtorch. If things weren't quite right in the world of Danny MacAskill at the start of Way Back Home, you sense that everything is fine again by the end.
Street trials is such a new sport there's no established career progression, so what does MacAskill have planned for the future?
"I'm hoping to make a film with Dig Deep this year. Potentially we're thinking about doing some stuff in New York, which would be really cool. It's going to be quite tough filming there, though. Like London, everything's a bit more restricted. In Edinburgh we have a lot of freedom to go riding but I think in New York there's more police per square mile and they're not going to see things in the same way we do."
After his brushes with the law in Dunvegan, he should have nothing to fear from New York's Finest.
• For details of future screenings of MacAskill Conquers, visit www.redbull.co.uk/macaskillconquers