DANNY MACASKILL INTERVIEW: HIS ALTERNATIVE PATH TO FAME AND FORTUNE ON THE BIKE

An interview with the international YouTube sensation

Danny’s 2022 “Postcard from San Francisco” video showcased his skills in the “City by the Bay,” garnering 1.7 million YouTube views in less than five months. Photo by Dave Mackison

DANNY MACASKILL INTERVIEW: HIS ALTERNATIVE PATH TO FAME AND FORTUNE ON THE BIKE

By Steve Thomas

Unless you’ve managed to completely side skip the internet in the last dozen or so years, then the name Danny MacAskill will need no introduction. We caught up with the amiable “Flying Scotsman” to talk about his alternative trail to fame and fortune on a bike.

The Cuillin Mountains on Scotland’s Isle of Skye served as an epic backdrop for Danny’s “The Ridge” video.
Photo courtesy of Santa Cruz Bicycles

 

How did you get into cycling to start with?
My friends and I were always into bikes. We used to use them to get around, and ever since I got started, 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.

Further down the line, in the mid 1990s, my friend’s older brothers got into mountain biking, and I also watched a film called “Chainspotting.” That was when I realized that I’d been using my bike to do trials, but didn’t really know what it was called—basically jumping off the highest walls or steps I could or getting up them.

What did you do as a job before your career took off on YouTube?
I was a bicycle mechanic. I left school in my fifth year (high school), and I kind of knew that if I stayed for the sixth year that I would have too much time on my hands, and so I’d probably get into trouble.
I was obsessed with bikes, and 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, and I was a mechanic from 2002 to 2009 in two different bike shops.

It’s hard enough to simply ride down a section of abandoned railroad track, but to do a wheelie on one side and then hop to the other raises the difficulty to almost unimaginable levels.
Photo by Dave Mackison and adidas Five Ten

 

How did that first Inspired Bicycles video come about, and what was the aim in making it?
I had 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 winter 2008–’09. Even to this day he’s a legendary filmer, and I saw it as an opportunity to try hard and put down the best riding I could do.

It wasn’t for anybody in particular; it was just for us—and 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 six months to make it.

Photo by Steve Thomas

 

It was still the early days of YouTube back then. Did you have any idea that it would go viral and change your life?

Oh no, not at all. It was just made as a passion project. I had previously had a small video filmed of some stuff up in Aviemore, which kind of seeded my name on the internet, and in 2005–’06, it had sort of gone viral when YouTube was really new.

I basically made that to be seen by the trials world, as that was my main audience. They were my peers and, of course, the mountain bike world would also see it.

How fast did life change after that film?
It was pretty much the day after it went online. Waking up and the newspapers were writing about it, and it even made the BBC News. This bicycle video that I’d make in Edinburgh started making the news in America, and in New Zealand. They had a big thing about being in a bakery, which was kind of weird.
These days, it’s a big beast (YouTube), but that was kind of the early days of viral online videos.

MacAskill rides a wheelie along a bridge that is somewhat mellow compared to some of the bigger “death drops” he has ridden next to in his videos
Photo by Dave Mackison and adidas Five Ten

 

You made some TV commercials soon after that. How did it all come about?
Everything went a bit mad; I was just riding my bike. I’d already committed to riding trials shows with my friends in the summer, in a show called Team Clan. My friend made me a basic web page and a holding e-mail account, and I just basically ignored it and left for the summer and did my thing.
I was finding it very strange going riding in Edinburgh, or just in the streets around Scotland—people coming up and talking to you about the video—it was very weird.

In the autumn, I sat down and got some management with Tarek Rasouli (Rasoulution media agency), and then started looking at the e-mails to see what opportunities there were to maybe get sponsors.
I’d never had any paying sponsors before, so it was like a new world to me.

How have you handled going from being a regular bike mechanic to trials riding superhero?
I’ve been pretty lucky, to be honest. It’s never been hard. I’m lucky that all my friends are around me, and I basically just hang out with them.

There are kind of two worlds sometimes—the one where I’m kicking around day-to-day, and then occasionally I go off to do some videos in different countries and things. It’s a bit mad, like venturing off into the Truman Show and then coming back to your friends, where it’s a bit more normal.

In some sports, sometimes people can be a bit too “core” and kind of spite themselves. Through the years, I’ve always tried to gauge myself as if I was still one of the mechanics working in a bike shop and watching somebody doing what I’m doing: would I look at them as cool and credible? And still, to this day, that has also been my gauge with the kind of brands I work with and the work I take on.

It’s meant that I’ve shied away from a lot of the bigger world that I’ve been offered over the years, because I’ve not really seen it as the coolest thing to do.

Danny doesn’t have to leave Scotland to find epic locations for his videos. The Isle of Skye offers some of the most spectacular rock formations on the planet.
Photo courtesy of Santa Cruz Bicycles

 

How do you put everything together—the deals, the social media management, etc?
For years and years, until 2021, I’d pretty much done all of the social media myself. Rasoulution manages the day-to-day dealings with sponsors and contracts. I have far more direct dealings with the brands if we’re working on projects, as it means I just have to be the rider and not have to negotiate through a middleman.

I think we can probably all relate to it, but until recently I kind of felt like I was having too much phone time. I find it hard to go online to post. There are all these different platforms these days, and I have to try and not end up just mucking about on there, so I’ve tried to do less of it and just focus on the riding these days, which I probably should have done a while back.

This is why I like to work in the long format—well, the five-minute range—where hopefully something inspiring will come from it. Of course, you do the snacky content—the Instagram posts and stuff—but I think with the longer-form stuff, it’s a bit like music where if it’s classy, then people will keep coming back to it. I want to make classy pieces for the internet.

MacAskill’s incredible bike skills made him an international YouTube sensation after his first mountain bike trials video went viral in 2005–’06.
Photo by Dave Mackison and addidas Five Ten

 

How do the project concepts come to be?
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 had years of practice 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, like adding another 180, doing a 360. I realized 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 realized 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 like street trials but with a 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 has been a really fun one (to MTB), trying to bring something fresh to the table every time.

Danny finds challenges everywhere he goes, even on tennis courts in San Francisco, where he rode along the top of this net for the full width of the court.
Photo by Dave Mackison

 

Can you tell how it came about that you switched to Santa Cruz and mountain bikes?
It was a really organic transition. I’d been making the films for a few years, and it was around 2014. I had a bunch of injuries and also done a bunch of different trials films, like repackaging the same kind of riding—from Imaginate to riding through a flooded city in Argentina—where a lot of them had been trials-focused.

One of my friends, Stu Thomson (Cut Media), who I’d made “Industrial Revolutions” with, had a good relationship with Santa Cruz, and we’d talked about making a mountain bike film. But, I’d always been a bit wary. My friend and hero, Chris Akrigg, had been doing trials-style videos on a mountain bike, and I really respect that and didn’t want to tread on his toes, because that was his brand of riding.

So, we decided to do something a bit different and go up into the mountains of [Scotland’s Isle of] Skye to make a film called “The Ridge.” Santa Cruz didn’t put any budget into it, but they gave me a couple of bikes to use, but there was no real sponsorship at that point. It was really surprising, as surprising as that first 2009 film. “The Ridge” ended up blowing up the internet. It kind of goes against all the rules of the internet these days (the film structure), where you have to have action within the first few seconds, otherwise the algorithms will ding you—and there’s me cut riding for a minute.

That really opened the door (to Santa Cruz), as I’d always considered myself a mountain biker and had always done a lot of mountain biking, and trials was all part of the MTB community, and that was the gateway.

With a film like “The Ridge,” how do things come together?
The Ridge was one of my favorite styles of film to make—a journey with a linear timeline, and we’d laid out how it would go.

We did a six-day block of filming, and I’d been wanting to do the front flip over the fence for ages, and so it all tied together. I can remember thinking that the riding wasn’t technical enough. There were some big boulder gaps that I wanted to do on the corries, and we’d planned to go back and get that. But, when we looked back and edited it, we kind of realized that no matter what kind of technical gaps I was doing, when you’ve got what we call “death drops” to the side, that’s going to be the entertaining part, and it was as good as the film was going to get.

We showed it to some sponsors—and I don’t like to say it, but I can’t say the reaction was very good. We were quite pleased with it, and six days is a short time for me; some tricks have taken way more than six days to land.

MacAskill’s front flip off a trampoline to a wheelie landing is one of his many mind-blowing moves.
Photo by Dave Mackison and adidas Five Ten

 

How did Imaginate come to fruition?
There were a few ideas on the table. One film I wanted to do was to make a kind of Rube Goldberg machine, where you have lots of random obstacles, and they all fall into one another, and I was going to be the momentum through that, almost like a ball rolling through the whole thing. But, I’d done a film like that with Red Bull in 2012, and so that was off.

We managed to get into this big old transport museum, and in the corner of this huge space they had a replica train and rails. You could get up really high into the mezzanine, and when you looked out into the space, we thought it would be really cool to ride out your childhood dreams on your messy floor.

My thing (as a child) was to use my fork as a trials bike at the dinner table, riding into the salt and pepper, through the bowls, and gapping between stuff—what a trials geek! It’s kind of relatable. We all imagine ourselves doing stuff as a kid, and I had my chance to build a giant set in real life.

You had a hard time with altitude sickness in Africa when riding Mount Kenya with Hans Rey, and yet you went back for more on Kilimanjaro.
To go on a trip with Hans in Africa was amazing, and I was really lucky to have Hans as a good friend since we did a trip with Steve Peat in 2010. He’s been like a hero, a kind of mentor, guiding me and seeing how he’s operated over the years.

In all honesty, I’m definitely a type-one kind of fun person. I like to go and try really hard during the day and then have a shower and sleep in a bed at night. Actually, going out on real adventures is still something I’ve yet to really get a taste for, and altitude is really against my policies. If you’re making a film, you want to go and find things that look harder than they are, like “The Ridge,” and just don’t fall off the edge.

I’ve grown up at sea level, and so my body wasn’t all that happy at going to altitude for the first time. We skipped one of the lower camps (for acclimatization), and I basically overdid it—jumping around, taking pictures and filming—and my body just didn’t catch up, and I wound up getting altitude sickness.
I ended up in a hospital for the night and then went back to try Kilimanjaro. I remember looking out of the bus window as we went past Nairobi Airport, and my lungs were feeling a bit “fluid,” and I was not feeling at all well, and I was about to go to Kilimanjaro. It was a “get me out of here and on that flight home” moment.

I was really glad that we persevered, because it was a really memorable experience. Climbing through the snow and looking back, just stunning. It gave me a whole new respect for alpinists and mountaineers. That stuff stinks (altitude). It’s not for me, so I got back to sea level and riding.

How was it going back to film in San Francisco having had a serious accident and injuring (breaking) your knee on the same project before?
I was more excited than anything to go back. I’d been wanting to do a real street film since 2009 and hadn’t really focused on that, and street was one genre that’s very hard to progress.

Five years earlier (when the project started), I’d fancied doing something really cool in the U.S., and so I had the project in mind but got injured there in 2017. Then, after being cooped up for a couple of years (due to COVID), I’d had my fill of riding ebikes in the mountains, and I thought it would be good to go back and test these old bones on the streets of San Francisco again.

I did struggle mentally. I found it hard to really motivate myself for the riding. Street riding is just hard, and riding with permits (filming, entry and time limits) is hard. I tend to pick goals that are around the edge of my personal limit, and within hundreds of attempts, and that’s how I operate. And, it was hard working with the time pressures. Luckily, I had my friends with me, and they know how to handle me, plus Red Bull managed to get a few extended permits.

We got what we got, but three of the best shots we didn’t get permission for, so, they’ll have to go into another film.

Which film that you’ve made means the most to you?
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 really mad. There was a lot of riding that was really 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 values in terms of the riding for me. It looks pretty scary, but pretty much every time I got on the bike, it was really efficient, because you have to be on rooftops, and it all came together nicely. But, I don’t really have a favorite.

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