Professional street trials rider and YouTube sensation Danny MacAskill is on the top of a windy Calton Hill in Edinburgh. He’s having fun on his bike, tipping it onto its front wheel and rolling backwards down slopes, then springing from rock to rock as if they were made of sponge and finally bouncing sideways down the massive steps of the vast black columned folly that dominates this view of the city, throwing self and cycle off the side to land softly on the grass. Except when he doesn’t because he also falls or jumps off. A lot.
“*%*£%,” he says, and laughs. “I’ll just try that again,” he says each time, climbing back on his bike and repeating the attempt until he lands it, happy to oblige the crew filming him.
Now 34, and looking as fit as a butcher’s dog in his black hoodie and jeans, it’s more than a decade since his Inspired Bicycles video galvanised us all to get on our bikes and with upwards of 37 million views on YouTube, the five and a half minute film inspired a generation of cyclists worldwide. It also saw MacAskill attract sponsorship, become an ambassador for Red Bull, quit his job as a cycle mechanic in Edinburgh and turn his passion into a profession.
“This is the reality,” he says when we head indoors, demo over and his custom made Santa Cruz is safely locked up. “Things start to look a little bit easy if you don’t see the full effort that goes into it. It can take four to six days to land a trick, for just six seconds of film. You’re trying hundreds of times, trying to jump on a hay bale that’s rolling down a hill or slide along the top of a log that’s all greasy. It takes time.”
In his latest video, Gymnasium, released on his website, the Red Bull website and on YouTube this month, MacAskill’s jump from one slackline to another with both tires landing on the line took 199 failed attempts. On the 200th, it was perfect.
“That’s why we put the mistakes in at the end of the videos, to break the illusion a little bit. There are hundreds of attempts. That’s normal for me, not to do something the first time.”
Patience is something MacAskill has plenty of, and he comes across as very zen and chilled, with a strong handle on his capabilities.
“If you get this far you have a pretty good sense what you’re capable of. You can have wild aspirations but I know what my level is and think I’ve got a good grasp of where I can push to.”
Hundreds of attempts can mean injuries and MacAskill has broken more than 20 bones, although ask him about the physical cost of his career and he downplays it.
“Yeah, I’ve had loads of annoying little injuries but bones heal and unless they heal funny or you break them right in the joint, if it’s a nice clean break, you’re back on the bike in six to eight weeks. But back in 2009 I tore a disc in my lower back and that was definitely the most annoying. Because it’s long-term, comes and goes, and makes my left leg weak. It’s a bit weak already because I’ve broken the knee cap, torn my meniscus and broken my foot a number of times, but the atrophy from the trapped nerve doesn’t do it any good. It’s manageable though,” he says and grins.
Not only does MacAskill make mountain biking look fun, he makes his homeland look fantastic too. After signing with Red Bull nine months after the first video, the Dunvegan boy has made many more - Way Back Home, a journey from Edinburgh to Skye, The Ridge, in which he tackles the Cuillin, The Wee Day Out, filmed around Scotland, Imaginate, set in a boy’s bedroom, Epecuen, filmed in a ghost village in Argentina and the Drop and Roll tour of the Alps. Together they have amassed over
300 million views, making him one of the world’s biggest YouTube stars.
The latest, Gymnasium, has The Proclaimers’ I’m on my Way as a soundtrack, and it’s already an internet hit. It shows MacAskill, who by his own admission is a bit of a training regime refusnik, joining a gym. Scared of the spin class and weights he cycles off to make up his own circuit, which is like no work out you’ve ever seen as he puts himself, his custom carbon trials bike and the gym equipment through their paces. He bounces along exercise balls, balances on bars and does things to exercise bikes that would get anyone else barred, as well as banjaxed.
“I should have an exercise regime, but I don’t. Getting called an athlete is a bit of a stretch for me. I’m definitely the kind of person that rides for fun. Occasionally I will step into a gym, usually after injury because you want to get back on your bike as soon as possible but my main thing is just trying to ride as much as possible. That’s when I get strong and my back doesn’t give me so much hassle.
“But I definitely think as I age I’m going to have to start looking after myself a little better,” he adds.
Mulling over other sports he could try he’s at a loss. Not surprising because he’s happier going his own way, bending rules and expectations rather than sticking to routine. And he’s definitely a bit of an adrenaline junkie.
“Hmmm. Maybe wild swimming,” he says. “I don’t fancy doing lengths in a pool, don’t have the mindset. It needs to be something a bit freer. Open water swimming, maybe one day...
“Though I’m terrible at swimming. Swim like a stone. I much prefer jumping into water! I like the feeling of jumping in but don’t really like the swimming part. When we were kids on Skye we used to jump in rivers and off cliffs into the sea and that kind of makes me tick. I like the instinctual fear you get from that. Even now I still get it, you know when you jump off high cliffs?”
“It’s irrational, but it’s quite a good buzz you get,” he says.
MacAskill’s attitude to cycling is that it should be fun. He wouldn’t do it otherwise. Part ginger Macaulay Culkin in his younger days, part meerkat on wheels, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. That’s not to say that each of his stunts and routines isn’t meticulously planned and practised over and over until he knows he can do it.
“It’s still fun for me, when I go out riding my bike in the street, the same as when I was a teenager, that same kind of feeling, for sure. That’s why I try not to call it training ‘cos I don’t have the mindset and that changes it into something different. I enjoy just the playing about and doing skids and wheelies.”
MacAskill got his first bike at five, “a little rusty Raleigh thing”. His dad brought it home as he remembers, “from the dump, well that’s my five-year-old memory of it anyway,” and he spent his childhood outside racing around.
“It was mainly me that was bike riding,” he says. “I’ve got two older half brothers, two older half sisters, and one younger sister, but the older ones had left by the time I was born. We had a decent-sized garden and I would alway be up trees, or playing with fire or axes or saws. It was a pretty wild, feral childhood. We definitely learned our own lessons in the garden, lots of bumps and scrapes, but no broken bones, which is a miracle.”
His mum was always sanguine about young Danny’s adventurous scrapes, having grown up on a farm and ridden horses.
“I would come in with blood running down my face and she’d give me no sympathy whatsoever, maybe a packet of Buttons and tell me to shut up. If she was with us filming now she would just tell me to get on with it. My dad’s a bit more worried about what I get up to and I generally show him afterwards that I’m still in one piece.”
MacAskill senior runs a museum in Dunvegan, The Giant Angus MacAskill Museum, dedicated to their ancestor, Angus MacAskill, who was 7ft 9in and 34 stone.
“He was the tallest man to live, without gigantism, up until about the late 1980s. He grew up on Berneray then moved to Nova Scotia as a child, during the Clearances. He had a colourful life, at sea, working in circuses, meeting Queen Victoria, doing strong man feats.” At 5ft 8in and 9st 12lb, Danny has not inherited Angus’ height, but possibly his showmanship.
Already bike daft when he left school, he was about to do a plumbing apprenticeship when, with his parents’ encouragement, he followed his heart to work in cycle shops in Aviemore then Edinburgh. Then he could ride everyday, but now as an ambassador for Red Bull and with bike manufacturers Santa Cruz among his sponsors, a typical day could involve travelling, meetings, or filming. When he’s home in Glasgow, at the flat he shares on the South Side with bike riding friends, he gets the chance to get out on the streets on his bikes, which may be worth upwards of £7,000 but will be plastered with scruffy tape to hide the logos so they’ll be overlooked by thieves.
“A typical Glasgow day would see me get up, start listening to music – I’m always looking for new music – listening in the shower where I do my thinking for different projects, visualising the film. Then I have eggs and toast with my friends and normally we go out and ride on the streets for a few hours. Often nowadays I’ll wait till 7 or 8 at night when it’s quiet so I don’t have to talk to anybody.”
What’s this, the amiable MacAskill who’s been grinning away posing for numerous selfies with those watching, doesn’t like people after all?
“I do but I spend a lot of time talking to everybody at events and I want to get some riding done, for myself, just with headphones on. I’m happy to talk, and have a nice balance where people are positive. But if I’m filming a video, everyone has a phone and if you landed a new big trick, it would be online before you’d got the chance to put it in a video.
“So it’s easier to go out when it’s quiet. And it means you can ride in Buchanan Street, Sauchiehall Street, and I like the steps in front of the Buchanan Galleries, or down Clydeside near the St Enoch Centre. You couldn’t ride any of those places during the day.”
MacAskill cites influences including German MTB and trials rider Hans Rey, and cyclists Martyn Ashton, Martin Hawyes, Ryan Leech and Steve Peat, but he has a style all of his own.
“Because I grew up on Skye I rode by myself a lot when I was young and ended up developing more unusual skills, rather than copying other people. The first video was that style of riding except I pushed myself to do things I wasn’t sure were possible.
“I made it for myself to be honest and really wanted to do the best I could. I didn’t really care so much what everybody else thought, although I was happy the trials scene might see it and maybe think it was cool. But I never expected it to go mainstream like it did. It happened in a big way for me, and just kind of all came together.”
As for signature moves, MacAskill is reluctant to claim his status of influencer or ownership of any of his tricks.
“A lot of people do similar riding to me… but I suppose I end up doing a lot of front flips in videos, because there’s scope for variations. And there’s a trick called a fakey nose manual, which is basically rolling on your front wheel backwards down a hill. It takes a little bit of learning, but once you’ve got it, it’s quite a simple trick that’s unusual.”
As for the future, MacAskill intends to keep having fun. “I’m not a competitive athlete so I’m not on the hunt for milliseconds or millimetres to beat anyone else. The videos are about riding level, but also storytelling, and you can tell all sorts of different stories. I keep thinking, I’m done in Scotland cos I’ve done so many videos here, but I keep coming back.”
If his first video hadn’t gone viral MacAskill thinks he would still be working as a mechanic in a bike shop or on the World Cup Downhill Mountain Biking circuit – he admits to owning 30 bikes’ worth of parts – or possibly as a plumber on Skye.
“I’d probably be just as happy because whatever else I’m doing, I’d be on my bike. But I’ve been lucky to get into this niche. I never really had aspirations to travel – I was quite happy working in Edinburgh, but it’s been fun. To anyone else I would say have fun and persevere because you won’t learn something in a day. Do it because you love it, because you enjoy it, just do it for yourself. I never really dreamt this was something I’d be doing. I just loved riding my bike for fun.”
So it’s safe to say MacAskill is still having fun.
“Big time,” he says. “That’s why I do it.”
Danny MacAskill’s latest video, Gymnasium is on his website www.dannymacaskill.co.uk