Danny MacAskill doesn’t see the world in the same way as your or me. Since 2009, the mountain bike trials rider and YouTube hero has made a career from creating jaw-dropping internet virals with what he calls ‘The Rider’s Eye’: his mental viewfinder that transforms everyday objects into obstacles to back-flip from and jump over – hopefully without breaking a bone or ten.
“I’m using it now,” he says, sitting on the sofa of his Glasgow flat. He gestures to the balcony outside. “Like the surfaces over there. I’m constantly scoping out locations, figuring out all the possibilities of what I could or couldn’t do on my bike. Trials is a very creative form of riding, and I can use anything around me as an obstacle to have fun on.
“It doesn’t have to be to scale, either. I might look at a cup on the table, or that salt shaker, and then imagine what it would be like to 360 over if it was rebuilt, giant-sized, in a studio. If I’m walking around town or out with friends, I’m subconsciously working out riding possibilities around me. I’m always doing it, and I’ve learned that the only things that limit you in riding are your brain and imagination.”
This creative mind-set has paid serious dividends. As far as trials is concerned, MacAskill has become a unique presence – a rider that’s ridden a previously niche scene into mainstream circles.
Trials originally started when Spaniard Ot Pi was encouraged to take up the sport of motorcycle trials by his father. The twist? For safety, he had to first learn his skills on a mountain bike. Pi’s down-tempo format was later transformed into a championship event, where riders had to negotiate a series of obstacles in a certain amount of time without touching the floor with their feet, or ‘dabbing’.
While taking his cues from this version of the sport, MacAskill operates in a slightly different field to the competitive circuit, and the majority of his filmed stunts are much more extreme. They take place in dramatic locations, too, and so far there have been backflips from the battlements at Edinburgh Castle, a loop-the-loop over the River Thames, and a stomach- lurching jump from a Gran Canaria cliff top into the churning sea below. It’s no surprise that most of his videos have racked up hits in the tens of millions. Who doesn’t enjoy watching a stuntman who stares down the barrel of potential death?
“But I never did it for fame,” MacAskill insists. “The first video was Inspired Bicycles in 2009, and that was only made for other people in the scene to watch. We put it on YouTube, and the next day tens of thousands of people had seen it. Then it went into the millions. People like Lance Armstrong and Stephen Fry tweeted about it. It all seemed so surreal. I didn’t even have a laptop at the time, which shows you how prepared I was.”
Judging by some of his more spectacular videos, it would be easy to assume there’s a screw loose somewhere. In Cascadia, MacAskill rides along city balconies and ledges, while peering down to a terrifying 70-odd foot drop to the pavement. “I’m not mad,” he laughs when pressed on the matter. In fact, he experiences “a healthy level of fear” before taking on new stunts, especially when flipping what he refers to as the ‘Commitment Switch’ – a voice in his head that tells him to ‘go’ once his confidence levels are high.
“The big stunts rarely come easily,” he explains. “I’ve jumped over large gaps between two buildings, or thrown myself off a ledge with a huge drop below, and there are a lot of aborted run-ups. It can take me ages to get to the point where I feel comfortable in committing to a trick. Once I do, I feel a surge of confidence. I’m locked in the pedals. That’s when I know I’m going at it.
“Some people have said that I’m reckless or irresponsible, but everything I do on a bike is totally within my capabilities. I’ve been doing this since I was a little kid, when I started by bombing about on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. That was 19 years ago. Now I know how to shift my balance to avoid hurting myself if I fall while riding along a ledge. I can weight myself so I don’t ragdoll it down from a great height. Besides, I’m cautious – I always check my equipment and I’m a very calculating person. I don’t have that missing chip in my head that makes me entirely reckless. I’m not going to risk my neck for a stunt that takes me completely out of my comfort zone... I’m not crazy!”
Building a portfolio of hugely successful internet videos while securing a string of sponsorship deals with the likes of Red Bull – the stamp of approval for any extreme sports athlete – and GoPro is no mean feat. MacAskill has learned his craft from scratch, off his own bat, and every project becomes a labour of love; no film is ever the same. For his debut, Inspired Bicycles, MacAskill hurled himself from historical building and commuter landmarks in Edinburgh for a street riding film. The follow-up, Way Back Home, was a road trip, which framed stunts against some of Scotland’s more dramatic settings.
Most memorable, however, were 2014’s The Ridge – a breath-taking climb to the peak of the Black Cuillins mountain range on Skye – and Imaginate (2013), where the toys from his childhood bedroom were recreated, super-sized, in the Glasgow Museum of Transport building. The result was an obstacle course of tanks, giant Dandy annuals and a real F1 racing car worth several million quid.
“That was crazy, but I’m always writing ideas down,” he says of his concepts. “My phone is full of notes, and I’m constantly doodling concepts on bits of paper. I’ll often look for a location first, because I want my films to have a mood, and I like to tell a story.
“Before I made Epecuen in 2014, I Googled ‘Abandoned cities’ and this watery landscape of ruins just outside Buenos Aires in Argentina popped up. I hadn’t seen anything like it. The town of Epecuen looked like a scene from Game Of Thrones; it had been destroyed by flooding and salt water had bleached everything white. Despite the destruction, it looked so striking. I knew I had to make a film there – before somebody else did.”
The trick-planning phase generally arrives shortly afterwards, although MacAskill has always worked solo; there are no stunt coordinators coaching him behind the scenes and like a lot of riders, he works on new stunts alone.
“I often cut about on my own in Glasgow,” he says. “I’ve found that listening to different music helps me to focus, or reimagine surfaces and tricks that have become stale. I used to do it as a kid when I would ride the same benches over and over in our local shopping centre. Switching tunes in my headphones often helped me to change speed or the way I envisioned a trick.”
The only team around him is a network of fellow riders who have long played support during the film-making process, and a supporting crew comprising ramp-building friends and biking flatmates. With the help of this loose-knit team, MacAskill then oversees the editing and soundtrack of his film, scouring Spotify for new or unsigned bands to deliver an epic background to his work.
This is most important when framing ‘The Banger’ – a risky, climactic stunt that carries both high risk and dramatic rewards.
His portfolio of bangers to date includes one flip over a barbed wire fence, a huge loop-the-loop and a jump across an alleyway between two shops – but MacAskill is aware that part of the reason to make the bangers ever bigger is because he won’t be able to go on forever.
“The Banger is the big finish to any of my videos,” he says. “It’s a trick that defies belief, but I like it to have a relatable quality, so people can feel the consequences of what I’m about to do. With the barbed wire fence in The Ridge, most people would have climbed over something similar, so they’ll understand the risks of landing badly. It gets people talking when a stunt is huge, or carries a threat of serious injury.
“I know I can’t ride forever, so I want to finish with a bang,” he adds. “I also understand that at some point in the future, a generation of people might see my stuff as being tame. That’s been the case for a lot of riders in the past, so before I quit, I want to do something that showcases my riding at the max, and sets a seriously high bar for new riders. Only my ambitions and imagination can hold me back.”
With his Rider’s Eye currently working overtime, another viral seems inevitable, and with it, more internet-melting bangers. If Danny MacAskill’s CV so far is anything to go by, it’s going to be epic. Chances are, you won’t be able to miss it.
Photos: Red Bull Photography
Want more like this? Check out our interview with obstacle running champion Amelia Boone.