He dances with his bike, leaps from rooftops, balances overhead on the edge of precipices. Millions of viewers watch his stunts online – making Scotsman Danny MacAskill the world’s most successful trials rider
The sky is a steely grey, the fortress glowers forbiddingly, the wind whistles through the ravine and around the turrets of Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. Scotland’s oldest continually inhabited castle is surrounded by a wall barely half a meter wide. No person in their right mind would think of walking along it. Danny MacAskill uses it as a cycle path. He approaches on his bike, bunny hops up onto the stones and balances on his rear wheel, dancing. A wheelie on the edge of a 20-meter drop.
Danny MacAskill and his trial bike seem to form a single entity, regardless of the terrain. He cycles up trees on his bike, jumps against walls, rolls along rails that are barely a hand’s breadth wide, does spins and flies from rooftop to rooftop. Even watching his hair-raising stunts, which can be found on YouTube, is enough to spark an adrenaline surge. His bicycle tricks have made him famous; he is recognized nearly everywhere, fans ask him for autographs and selfies. “No problem, where are you from?” he asks, chatting to everyone, taking time to listen. The 30-year-old Scot, 1.76cm tall, reddish beard, woolly hat, is authentic, likeable, very down to earth. He lifts a young boy onto his saddle and carefully pushes him across the courtyard of the ancient castle. A thoroughly nice, ordinary guy. But when it comes to cycling – well, that’s when you get to see a different side of Danny MacAskill.
I don’t have a coach. I just ride as often as I can because I love it
At a dizzying height he balances first on both wheels, then on one, on the narrow castle wall – with no form of safety harness. Suddenly, he stands motionless and lifts his back wheel effortlessly. How can he do this without falling? Without breaking every bone in his body? Danny spent half his childhood on a bike. And today, when he cycles along the castle wall, he simply imagines that he’s riding along the curb outside his parent’s house. “That’s even narrower, and I can do that in my sleep,” he says. “I’m not crazy. I consider risks carefully. For me, driving feels far more dangerous.”
Daniel Hamilton MacAskill grew up in Dunvegan, a small village on the west coast of the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides. He and his friends used to collect old fishing nets on the beach; for days, the children would carry them up to the MacAskill’s garden. They hung the nets between the trees and tried out their first jumps, which became increasingly daring. Somersaults from a height of seven meters, from the treetops, from the roof of the house – and always landing softly in the nets. The neighbors became used to the sight of kids flying high above the hedge and tumbling from trees. Those were the days before he had a saddle underneath him. “It must have been a strange sight,” muses Danny. A neighbor says: “He was always a hyperactive child and kept us on our toes.” His mother, Anne, was never really concerned about her son when he set off on one of his acrobatic cycle jaunts. “Daniel only had to tell me if he was going north, east or south. That was enough. I think today’s children are greatly overprotected.”
Now, Danny is more likely to worry about his mother, who has just set off on the Mongol Rally 2016, around 10 000 miles from England through Mongolia to Ulan Ude in Siberia – in a 23-year-old Renault van. Anne, 68, and her best friend, Kay Simpson, 70, are the rally team The Gallivanting Quines. A lust for adventure definitely seems to run strong in the family. Danny’s sister Margret Ishbel is two years younger and has a bit of a reputation on the island for her wild lifestyle, which has earned her nickname Maggie Mayhem. She travels around the world, working on the yacht of the Emir of Qatar from a while, then doing a stint on a North Sea oilrig. “I never knew that you could do things like that with your wee bikes until I saw the videos,” she teases her big brother later at supper. “I’m a professional athlete!” Danny replies. Maggie raises an eyebrow. “Ok, I hate training,” adds Danny. He does not follow a nutrition plan, doesn’t have a coach. “I just ride as often as I can because I love it.”
That leaves his father, Peter, 72, an unruffled man who runs The Giant Angus MacAskill Museum next to his home. The exhibition is dedicated to a distant ancestor of the clan, the eponymous Giant MacAskill, who according to local lore was 2.36 meters tall and so strong he could drag a thousand-kilo anchor around behind him and toss it at his enemies. “You see, I’m probably the most normal member of this family,” says Danny with a grin.
Relatives gave him his first bicycle when he was four years old. He and his friends started riding off-road, they tried out their first stunts, raced to school in the morning. When he became a teenager he was given his first trials bike, which has smaller wheels and only one low gear which allows it to speed up over short distances and lift off. Danny immediately claimed the entire neighborhood as his practice ground: on his bike he jumped over steps, fountains, bins, phone boxes, railings, trees. The village policeman confiscated his bike for six weeks. “That really messed up the summer holidays,” recalls Danny, “it was a tough time.” After finishing school, he moved to the mainland, first to Aviemore and later to Edinburgh where he worked as a bike mechanic. After work he would take to the streets and ride, balance and hop along practically anything he encountered – every day, every evening, for hours on end, and always with his headphones in his ears. His pal Dave Sowerby followed him over a period of several weeks, and videoed his tours.
On April 19, 2009, the two uploaded a film of Danny’s best stunts to YouTube and went to bed. The next morning, Danny woke up to discover he was an internet star. The 5:37-minute clip had gone viral, was being shared on Facebook, the BBC broadcast it, the New York Times wrote about it, Lance Armstrong twittered it. To date, some 40 million people have clicked on the film. It was a completely unplanned breakthrough, and one which set Danny’s life on a new trajectory: Red Bull signed him up, the camera maker GoPro and several bike companies now sponsor him, including the Californian company Santa Cruz, the Porsche of mountain bike makers. Danny MacAskill shoots commercials for Volkswagen and now makes a comfortable living off his biking artistry and stunts.
He has been called a “YouTube millionaire” in the media, a description he finds exaggerated. “I wish it was like that. But it isn’t, and money doesn’t really drive me.” He shares a flat in Glasgow with six friends; the group also work for him, help him with his productions. Two of his flat mates are themselves world-class riders: Ali C, Duncan Shaw and Danny go on tour together as Drop and Roll, primarily performing in Europe. The crew demonstrate their bike skills and stunts at festivals, they couch-surf in friend’s flats or in their tour bus. Rock stars on wheels they may be, but not millionaires. “I still feel like the guy from the bike shop,” says Danny.
His stunts make him the toast of orthopedic surgeons
Guy like Danny are the embodiment of a new generation of extreme athletes. With perfectly produced and presented videos and increasingly hair-raising stunts they are continually pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. They aren’t interested in competitions and best times, but in garnering the most clicks online. The more, the happier their sponsors are, securing the athletes’ status as advertising icons. However, to achieve this, they have to perform increasingly risky stunts to remain in the spotlight. Some have paid the price with their lives. Criticism was recently leveled at Red Bull when several extreme athletes died attempting to set new records. “I don’t feel under any pressure,” says Danny, “in fact, I’m the one putting pressure on myself.” Without the sponsors’ help, everything would be more difficult. “I am grateful that riding a bike pays my bills.”
There has been a price to pay for this kind of success and recognition: Danny has had surgery four times, has broken his left foot three times, his right one twice, his left meniscus is torn, a screw keeps his right wrist in place. His left clavicle has been fractured three times, his elbow has been patched up. Most recently, a torn disc and an operation on his back in the U.S. put him out of operation for a year. “I have a ton of anxieties and fears,” admits Danny. However, the moment he gets on his bike, he switches everything else off. “Fear just paralyzes you, it blocks you – and that’s when accidents happen.” Although he almost never takes part in competitions, he is considered one of the best trials bike riders in the world. “There are a dozen guys who are much better mountain bikers than me,” says Danny.
He has a different explanation for his success, his appeal to bikers and the mainstream alike. His videos aren’t just about biking. They tell an engaging story that goes beyond the pure athletic skill. “I often research for months until I come up with a good idea and find a special spot,” he says. Like the forgotten town of Epecuén in Argentina which he rode through. Or his very distinctive take on the seaside – over the rooftops of Las Palmas. He reinvented the bunny hop, which is a classic jump maneuver on the bike, at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion. He conceived and created a journey into the imagination of a child in a video called Imaginate, which is set amongst gigantic toys and was shot in an old warehouse in Glasgow. “Some scenes and stunts I do 200 times until I’m satisfied.” In moments like these, biking ceases to be fun and becomes hard work – even for Danny MacAskill.
In the evening, he performs his last hop, down from the wall of the old castle. On the way home he stops in front of a fishing and hunting shop in Dunvegan. “This is where everything started, these are the traces of my first attempts,” says Danny and points to an old flower trough. A few chip marks are still visible in the stone. He spent hours, days bouncing off this trough, trying out jumps, twists and moves, and ended up on the ground in front of it umpteen times.
It is raining, the owner of the fishing supplies shop comes out and waves a greeting. Back then, Danny often got into trouble because of the damaged trough, now the islanders are proud of “our Daniel”. Even the policemen want to take a selfie with him. “For me trials biking is like a game without boundaries,” says Danny, as he hops along the edge of the trough on his back wheel. He can’t help it – he has to ride, play with his bike. His pulse at 150 beats a minute, good music in his ears, hopping, dancing and flying is how Danny rolls through the world. Preferably alone, preferably at night. Through the city, behind buildings. This is the moment everything flows. “This is what I live for,” he says, for the feeling that he experienced as a child when he first left the ground and flew on his bike. Then everything is like it used to be – except that now a couple of million people happen to be watching him.