Mountain Bike Icons – the Danny MacAskill story
[Words by Steve Thomas]
Back in 2009, YouTube was still very much in its infancy and few of us could have imagined just how much the emerging world of digital and social media would come to impact our futures. At that time “going viral” was something few of us knew much of beyond the medical sense. In early YouTube terms those who were tuned in enough would probably imagine it applying to some breakthrough pop idol or worm-juggling parrot – but, then came Danny MacAskill and his beguiling and viral Inspired Bicycles YouTube video.
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Most of us will never forget just how amazing and surreal seeing the above film for the first time was - these were skills the likes of which we’d never seen before. From BBC news to CNN and beyond, the video was featured everywhere, which acted as a testimony to not only the skills of Danny himself but to the artistry and quality of the production.
That film marked a huge change in how brands and sponsors would see sponsorship and marketing in the future, and it duly acted as a breakout opportunity for Danny, the young bike mechanic from the Isle of Skye, and a hat that he’s certainly made the most of in the years that followed.
The Skye is the limit
To say that Skye is both remote and stunning would be an understatement, so how did Danny, a regular kid from the Northwestern Scottish coast first discover mountain biking and hone his trials skills?
“My friends and I were always into bikes in general. We used to use them to get around, to get to each other’s houses, and to get to school, and ever since I got started with bikes I’ve been into tricks. I’m not sure what inspired me to do tricks, but I just used to build jumps and things in the garden, classic stuff.
Further down the line, in the mid-1990s, my friend’s older brothers got into mountain biking and I watched a film called Chainspotting. And that’s when I realised that I’d been using my bike to do trials, but I didn’t really know what it was called – basically jumping off the highest walls or steps I could, or getting up them.”
From those early ramped Highland dreams Danny became obsessed with bikes, and he decided that was going to be his chosen career when the time came around.
“I was a bicycle mechanic. I left school in my fifth year (senior school), and I kind of knew that if I stayed for the sixth year that I would have too much time on my hands, so I‘d probably get into trouble.
When I left, I was obsessed with bikes. I used to buy a lot of my parts from a shop called Bothy Bikes in Aviemore, and it was just “the” place. You’d go into bike shops that had the top-end stuff back then, and everything had a kind of aura around it, and that was my goal – to be a mechanic at Bothy Bikes. I managed to do that in 2002. I was a mechanic from 2002-2009 in two different bike shops.”
While wrenching in Aviemore, Danny had been honing his street and trials skills and had been filmed practicing his art in a short clip that had gone what could be considered as “pre-viral” on YouTube - a few years before the Inspired Bicycles film was made. Had he expected the worldwide acclaim that followed that 2009 hit?
“No, not at all. I’d moved down to Edinburgh and into a flat full of BMXers. One of the guys in the flat was Dave Sowerby, who was an amazing BMXer and BMX filmer.
One winter he got injured and offered to do a bit of filming with me over the winter of 2008-2009. To this day he’s a legendary filmer, and I saw it as an opportunity to try hard to put down the best riding I could do. It wasn’t for anybody in particular, it was just for us – there was no budget involved. I would buy Dave some tape for his video camera (it was just pre-digital) and we started filming in Edinburgh and got a good baseline going over a few days. We managed to film a few tricks that I was doing day to day in trials, and I could then use that as an aspirational way to do things I always wanted to - like riding along a spiky fence, flaring off a tree and jumping into a big gap at the end of the film.
We worked on my lunch breaks and days off over 6 months to make it”.
Defining his line
At first, Danny didn’t pay too much attention to the acclaim but after a while, it dawned on him that he was on to something, something new, and he duly signed up with Rasoulution, a major industry media company, although from the outset he laid down how he wanted to do – win or lose.
“I don’t know what made me think this way, but I figured that when I first made Inspired Bicycles back in 2009, that film was made over a long time, and I’d had years of practice in riding the streets of Edinburgh, and to think about the riding I was going to do, and there was no pressure at all to make the film.
The circumstances couldn’t have been better, and I thought how on earth do you go about it? I didn’t want to go “the one up” route, of trying to do bigger than you’ve done in the past – adding another 180, doing a 360. I realised how important it was to completely change at least the backdrop of the concept of the films. It might be the same level or riding (if that’s possible), but I realised it would be much more fun for me to change the concepts.
The next film I did was Way Back Home, which was kind of street trials but with a much different backdrop and feel to it. From then on, I’ve just got on with that, trying to come up with interesting locations, and changing bikes had been a really fun one (to MTB), trying to bring something fresh to the table every time.
BMX and skateboarding do a lot of “one up” pure street riding, and so you have to do something completely mental, and it’s hard to do something more on the street – so I’ve gone down the easier route of doing different concepts.”
Over the past 14 years, Danny has produced a whole series of amazing trials and more lately mountain bike films, all of which have been evolutionary and often extremely different, and no doubt we all have our favourite Danny MacAskill film – but what about the man himself, which one is on constant replay?
“Some have been more fun than others to make, but it’s a really hard one to answer. If I was to retire tomorrow and look back on all of the films I’ve done – and I’m fairly self-critical, pretty much every one of them I tried my very best.
The Wee Day Out was like a mad one, there was a lot of riding that was hard for me out here, and it was nice to have the creative freedom to roll that hay bale or cycle through puddles.
The Ridge has a kind of special place because it’s Skye, and Cascadia was one of the best value films in terms of riding for me. It looks pretty scary, but pretty much every time I got on the bike it was efficient – because you have to be on rooftops, and it all came together really nicely. But I don’t have a favourite.”
The bunny hop hiccup
There is however one film that Danny doesn’t like to dwell on, that awkward moment he unwittingly found himself escorted to the Playboy mansion – so what was the real story behind it?
“To get the record straight, I had no idea I was going there. It was something that Red Bull USA had set up. I was over there doing some media work and they hyped it up (to me) that I was going off to do a photo shoot that morning, and then we turned up at the gates of the Playboy Mansion, with some of the bunnies welcoming us.
I just thought oh my God, I hope to goodness there’s some good bike riding in here as it’s going to be a real cringe. I got some pelters for that, on Twitter – well, I don’t know what to say, I didn’t even know it was going to be a video.”
Jumping ahead to the future
Now aged 37 and with more injuries than an entire rugby union team behind him, it would be easy to assume that Danny may be considering his future options.
“The landscape out there has changed a bit; in some ways, there’s more opportunity than ever but there are more riders than ever. It’s a weird landscape. Hans Rey had some good advice for me a while back; he said never to use the word retire. You do see it, you immediately shelf a rider (when mentioning the retirement) but then there are riders like Fabien Barrel and Steve Peat, but luckily – because I’m not a competitive rider, I don’t have to use the word.
It might be that I do a little bit of less productive content, but I don’t know when it will be that I do my biggest bunny hop, as I’m still able to hop as high as when I was in my 20s, so I’ve still got that level. I’d like to still do it for as long as possible, and then maybe have more of an ambassador’s role.”