By Tetsuhiko Endo; Photograph courtesy Danny MacAskill
In 2009, Danny MacAskill was a 23-year-old Scottish kid working in a bike repair shop while spending his free time doing rather extraordinary stunts on two wheels in the scenic cities and countryside of Northern Britain. Then he decided to film his exploits for a video promoting Inspired Bicycles and post it on You Tube. Twenty four hours later, the video had received a few hundred thousand views and turned Macaskill from another kid riding a bike in Scotland to an instant underground legend. A lot has happened to Macaskill since then, but with the recent release of his follow-up video, Way Back Home, he has cemented his reputation as one of the freshest and most innovative athletes in action sports today. Adventure tracked him down as he criss-crossed his snowbound home country in an RV (or “camper van” as the Brits say) looking for more places to ride.
Adventure: I hear the entire UK has been under a deep freeze. Are you still riding outside in this weather?
Danny MacAskill: I have been very lucky this winter as I only caught the first week of the bad snow and then i managed to escape to Barcelona for a couple of weeks…. I normally ride in rain, wind, snow, ice. I quite often find the best rides I have are when the conditions are at there worst as I feel like I'm beating them by having the best time riding in them.
How old are you and where are you from?
I am 25 years old and grew up in a small village Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye of the northwest of Scotland—the best place in the world in my opinion!
How long have you been riding a bike? How did you get into street trials biking?
I have been riding a bike since I was four years old. I used to ride my bike a mile to primary school every day from the age of five which I loved. I used to have a wee course which I would skid, wheelie, and jump through. I never really made a conscious decision to ride trials, it just seemed to happen naturally. I would always be trying to ride my bike off bigger drops and wheelie more car park spaces and eventually I needed to get the right bike for the job, which happened to be a trials bike, when I was about 12. At about the age of 17, I moved to a small ski village called Aviemore where I used to ride by myself most of the time. That’s when I started trying to do tricks as well as riding traditional style trials. That’s really when i got into street trials.
Most of our readers won’t be familiar with street trials biking. Can you tell me a little bit about it? How is it defined? How did it originated? In what countries is it popular?
Street trials is basically traditional bicycle trials riding i.e. trying to get over obstacles without putting your feet down, but it doesn't have any rules so you can try to get up a wall as many times as you like. Street trials incorporates tricks and has a lot more flowing movement than traditional trials.
What are the general characteristics of trial bikes, as opposed to road bikes, mountain bikes, BMX bikes, etc.?
Street trials bikes normally have either 24 or 26 inch wheels. They have small, short frames with very low seats which you couldn't use to sit down and pedal. They are fully ridged (i.e no suspension front or rear) and have a powerful disc brake on the front and a hydraulic rim brake on the back. They also run much harder slick tires front and rear than on competition trials bikes. Street trials bikes run low gear ratios to get a lot of power with no run up and have only one cog on the front which is protected by a bash guard.
Obviously you’ve put a lot of work into your riding, but is it strange to suddenly get a lot of mainstream recognition for it?
Yeah, I still find it hard to get my head around how much attention the first Inspired 2009 video got. We just made the film for fun and had no backing. There are quite a few street trials riders who I have looked up to and respected for years--riders like Chris Akrigg, Martyn Ashton, Jeff Lenosky, Ryan Leech. They have have been doing exactly what I do now for years, but all the videos that those riders made went onto VHS and would mainly be seen by the core mountain bike community and trials community.
I am very lucky to be one of the first street trials riders to have the opportunity to put all my effort into an online video—and even more so because Dave Sowerby, a BMX rider and filmer happened to be my flatmate so we could put way more time into it than if we had deadline to stick to. It's a cool feeling to know so many have seen the videos that we have made—and even better that they really enjoyed watching them. For me I got everything I wanted from the video just by finishing it and watching it for the first time. After that I kind of feel disconnected from them.
I read in the Times that you’ve been avoiding the limelight a bit—turning down offers to go on shows, etc. What are your thoughts on media attention?
Growing up on the small Island of Skye, then working as a mechanic in bike shops in Scotland didn't really prepare me to be fame-obsessed kind of person. I try to keep my priorities in the right places like riding my bike for fun and hanging out with friends rather than going on TV shows. I feel it is my duty now to show street trials in a good light and not to sell it out and make quick money off it! I will happily go on TV shows if I get the chance to do proper riding or if they are going to show it in the right light, but I am much happier putting all my time and effort into videos like the Streets of London, which I made with Dig Deep, or the Way Back Home, which I made with Red Bull in 2010.
Do you think growing up in a village in Scotland has influenced the way you ride?
Yes, I do think growing up in a small village has affected the way I ride and look a terrain in a city. When you live somewhere where there is only one or two walls to ride on and a grass bank to use as a jump, you have to learn to make the most out of what you've got and be creative. Coming from a background like that helps me to see lines and obstacles which other riders might not take a second look at.
Are you still based in Scotland? What are the up sides and down sides of being a pro biker in that country?
I am still based in Scotland although I have no solid base as I am living in a camper van at the moment and generally floating about visiting friends and riding where I want to. Scotland is an amazing place to live. The cities are amazing for street riding and the Highlands and Scottish boarders aare amazing for riding my mountain bikes. The long summers are so good and help you forget the long dark winters. I might try and head to southern Europe at the end of January as this winter is particularly harsh. The riding scene in Scotland is great, too. Everyone knows everyone, and it’s just a great friendly vibe.
Way Back Home was very evocative of the Scottish country side and small Scottish towns. Were you and the filmmakers trying to paint a portrait of the country?
In September 2009, I unfortunately had a crash while riding in the States and broke my collarbone. It was to be the first of three consecutive broken left collarbones I had which kept me off my bike for nine months. In September 2009, Red Bull also came up with the idea for the Way Back Home Project, where I travel from Edinburgh to my home island the Isle Of Skye. For me, Scotland is the Highlands, as that’s where I grew up, I am not the biggest city person as I like my own space. I really wanted the Way Back Home film to show Scotland as I see it and as I was injured for nine months it gave me a lot of time to research and scout locations. Hopefully, with that film, we managed to paint a good picture of what the scenery is like here and show that it doesn't rain all the time. And that we don’t have swarms of killer midges like everyone thinks.
What’s the best part of being a professional biker?
The best part about about being a professional biker is having the hardest decision I have to make on a daily basis be what cake I'm going to have for lunch.
What’s the worst part?
Sometimes there is too much traveling and not enough riding.
I assume you are traveling some with your biking and stunt work. What has been your most interesting recent travel experience?
For me the most amazing thing I’ve done recently is making the Way Back Home film. I basically got to travel around all summer in my camper van going to the most amazing locations, doing a bit of riding, and having a barbecue afterwards with friends. I did a bit of stunt work in New York City for a movie called Premium Rush, which was fun, too.
When you travel, what item(s) do you always have in your bag?
My MP3 player, a tool kit to fix my bike, my bike packed in a cardboard bike box, helmet and knee pads, and bag full of Dig Deep clothing.
What country that you haven’t been to would you like to go to, and why?
Japan as it has such a different culture, but is very modern and has amazing cities and architecture to ride.
Your work is pretty dangerous—can you give me a short list of the significant injuries you have sustained while biking (or a long one, if need be)?
I have a pin in my right wrist. I broke my left collarbone three times in a row last winter, and had a big plate put on it on the second break. I have broken both feat a couple of times and rolled both ankles countless times. The rest is general wear and tear that you get from riding bikes and being active.
It seems like a lot of your riding is based on a creative reinterpretation of architecture—objects that “normal people” see as handrails or walls, you see as bridges, spans, and obstacles. Have you always viewed the world like this? Also, can you explain a little of what goes into scouting a site that you are going to ride?
I have always looked at the world as a giant playground. It’s human nature to create and solve problems and I happen to ride bikes over walls and handrails so I am always looking for how different things would link together or sizing gaps up. It makes walking around a lot more interesting. When scouting a location to ride, I'm always on the look out for the subtle things like a broken curb which I could use to bump off of on to the next obstacle. Things just seem to click into place in my head and I know exactly what I’m going to try.