Interview: Trials star Danny MacAskill

YouTube sensation on a life devoted to street riding

“There’s not much skill involved,” says Danny MacAskill casually. I’ve just watched him stun the crowds at a street demo, with 10ft drops, lots of mid-air 180°s and very nearly a new world bunny hop record.

Danny grew up on the Hebridean Isle of Skye, and he certainly has the laid-back attitude of an islander. It’s a useful asset – without it, trials riding will chew you up and spit you out faster than a blowout.

But “not much skill involved” is pushing it, I tell Danny, who’s sat in the front seat of his team van. “Well, once you get to a certain height you hit autopilot. You’ve just got to hang on,” he says, matter of factly.

It helps that bikes are in his blood – Danny’s been pulling wheelies and jumping off walls since he was a kid – but it also takes dedication and persistence. The opening riding-on-railings scene in his YouTube clip took eight hours to nail.

Danny says: “I started biking from a very young age for the same reason I still ride now – having so much fun!” The 23-year-old – who up close is built like a brick – has ridden, since childhood, every day for hours. In the early days it used mean ripping around Skye with his pals and constant trouble with the law.

“It got to the stage where I’d go out on my bike and after 10 minutes the police would be taking me back to the house, literally by the ear,” he says.

Danny, who has a definite cheeky streak, was even wheeled before the children’s panel and had his prized bike confiscated for an entire summer. “I was reckless,” he says with a chuckle.

His years of riding have taken their toll – Danny takes painkillers before performances to numb the aches in his pin-fitted wrist. He’s also ripped ligaments and cracked a pile of bones. But it’s a small price to pay for being credited as one of the world’s leading trials riders.

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Whether you're a mountain biker, commuter or a roadie, chances are you’ve been blown away by his moves, whether at BikeRadar Live or on the internet. Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong wrote on his Facebook page that the Scot was “an absolute must watch”. And the Flying Scotsman, aka Graeme Obree, who watched Danny perform at the street demo in Dumfries, said simply: “He’s a genius.”

Life has spun 180° for the trials rider. These days he performs at police demos to encourage kids to stay away from booze. And, since his internet fame, he’s found the cops are fans too. Danny tells how a squad car pulled up as he tried to ride across the spiky railings that feature in the YouTube clip. When they realised it was MacAskill he got the thumbs up. Danny says: “They tend to be okay, but I know if I say that I’ll get arrested tomorrow!"

The soft-spoken Scot moved to Edinburgh three years ago to work as a bicycle mechanic. But he was destined for bigger things – even before his YouTube fame he had left to work full-time with all-Scottish stunt team The Clan and had done a stint as a stunt double in Kuala Lumpur.

Since the Inspired Bicycles clip was posted on YouTube in mid-April, Danny has had to get used to becoming a household name. Shot by his flatmate, Dave Sowerby, over several months, the video paints Edinburgh in a radical new light. It has now been viewed more than eight million times. “Everyone from homeless people to 85-year-olds has seen it,” says Danny. His newfound fame means that every time he rides his bike in Edinburgh he is spotted.

“We put the video together for fun. We had no expectations at all," he says. "We had a premiere in the flat with champagne. It didn’t seem right to have the champagne though. In a way it seemed like an anti-climax as I’d had all these lines in my head for ages and they’d all been done.”

Fame is unlikely to change Danny. He’s already turned down a lucrative offer to appear on a US chat show. Host Ellen DeGeneres wanted him to ride around Chicago dressed as her. Danny, wisely, thought it would look cheesy. Instead he did some scenes for the latest video from the band Doves – he’s a fan and finds their music hits the spot when riding. “I like to be having fun when I’m riding,” he says.

The same holds true for his demos, which are never too structured. “It might not be as slick that way, but it helps produce better riding,” he says. “I never think about the people watching me. I actually think a lot of the time that people are watching Iain [Withers, team manager] doing the commentating and I’m just a sidepart to that."

Danny's bike is the result of a collaboration with Inspired Bicycles. It’s a 24in Inspired 4 Play fitted with some state-of-the-art Hope kit. Danny says: “I’ve been riding this from prototype for four years. It’s a good fun bike”.

Having a dream machine helps, of course, but it’s not just about the carefully honed geometry. The way you ride is everything in trials. Danny says: “It’s much better to be relaxed and loose when you’re riding. If you’re in any way stressed it doesn’t work.”

He adds: “I’m not very competitive. I prefer freestyle to doing races ‘cos I’m able to do what I want. I’ve got the exact same mentality as I had when I was a kid – I just go out and ride the street. My head’s constantly ticking, just thinking ‘oh I could do that, and I could do this and I could do that’.”

Danny loves to inspire kids at hands-on school demos. “I can imagine being one of them," he says. "If I’d seen what I’m doing now 10 years ago I would have been ecstatic: It’s really cool to see the kids so excited. And it’s great if they see me and are encouraged to get into any genre of cycling.”

His tip for anyone starting out in trials is not to worry too much about what bike you're riding. “You can start on a mountain bike – but it’s worth having a small frame," he says. 

"Just have fun! Don’t get too stressed if things aren’t coming straight away – they will eventually. Work really, really slowly. It’s worth learning all the basics, like manuals, before trying to go straight into doing bike gaps. Learn all the little bits – it makes you a better rider overall.”

Danny doesn’t know where his newfound fame will take him. He hopes to travel the world and make another video: “I always want to make it bigger and better.” The location is still up in the air, but it won’t be Edinburgh – Danny feels he’s exhausted the opportunities in the Scottish capital.

He’s also got some plans up his sleeve when he goes “back to the homeland”, he says in a half-joking super-thick Highland accent. One idea involves getting his bike high onto Skye's jagged CuillinMountains, right on top of the rock pedestal called the Inaccessible Pinnacle. It’s a daring proposal, but then even Skye’s fierce peak is no limit for the island-born biker.

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