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Danny Macaskill - Dancing with the Bike

  • Thomas Becker
  • December 22, 2020
Credits cover image: adidas Outdoor / Dave Mackison

Danny MacAskill is the artist among the trial bikers - not only because of his acrobatic stunts, but also because of the style of his YouTube videos. On December 23 the bike virtuoso turns 35. These are the secrets of success of the Scotsman on the bike and on the web.

Duncan Carmichael is probably not such a bad person. But to hunt a 13-year-old with police siren and lights just because he's jumping over a large teddy from the bulky waste with his bike without any lights was pretty nasty. To read to him his rights just like in the movies ("...I am temporarily arresting you for dangerous driving. Everything you say from now on ...") and to drag to juvenile court was crazy. But to take away his bike for the rest of the summer holidays was really mean; it was like only allowing Roger Federer to play badminton.

On the other hand, you have to understand Duncan Carmichael: What's a rural policeman in a 350-soul village supposed to do with himself all day long? And this bicycle junkie, dangerously jumping around on sidewalks, stairs and railings made everyone flinch, had been on his mind for a long time. Duncan Carmichael never thought that this nuisance would become a world-famous extreme athlete and YouTube star one day. Why would he? YouTube was invented years later - luckily for Danny MacAskill. Otherwise, he'd probably still be a bicycle mechanic today.

Scot Danny MacAskill has become world famous for his bike tricks.
Scot Danny MacAskill has become world famous for his bike tricks.
Image credit: Adidas Outdoor/Dave Mackison / Adidas Outdoor/Dave Mackison

The 34-year-old still lives from cycling today, but not as a mechanic in a poorly ventilated workshop, but outdoors, cycling through the Scottish Highlands, in Argentina, Taiwan, Malta or Gran Canaria. Wherever creativity takes him. MacAskill is the world's best street trial biker, a niche sport without any medals or records.

No one controls the bike the way he does, jumps from one train track to the other with a 180-degree turn, and lands front and back flips in places that could be life-threatening even without a jump - and no one manages better to make this collection of absurd acrobatic tricks not look like a collection of absurd acrobatic tricks in his videos. It's like a story. One that fascinates even non-bikers. His video "Imaginate" was clicked on YouTube 91 million times.

How did it all start? In the beginning was the fence. On 19 April 2009 the video "Inspired Bicycles" will be released on YouTube. In it: a cyclist rolling comfortably along a sunny avenue. In second 22 the object of his desire: the fence. Barely higher than a meter, closely spaced bars about the width of a thumb. Everyone knows these fences, but nobody would ever think of trying to ride a bike on one of them. Nobody but Daniel MacAskill from Dunvegan on the Scottish island of Skye.

Every morning on the way to work, to Macdonald Cycles on Morrison Street, the bike mechanic passes the fence at Warrender Park Crescent in Edinburgh's southwest. He had already made a few video clips and now has bigger ideas in his head. He lifts a traffic sign that's in the way out of its brace, jumps with his bike onto a power distribution box with the inscription "Danger of life!" and tries to balance over the fence. Sometimes he falls down the right, sometimes the left, umpteen times, for hours. It goes on for weeks and months, in the middle of winter. Gradually, he loses courage. His roommate, who records the videos, persuades him to make one last attempt - which is promptly successful.

On YouTube, all this only takes 77 seconds. Now the video takes off: Danny cycles up tree trunks, backflips, jumps over fences, stairs backwards up, down, with 360-degree-turn. This is Street Trial: acrobatics in public space, a kind of parcours by bike, breathtaking, difficult to follow. In the first 40 hours, the five and a half minute video is played 350,000 times - the beginning of a world career.

Today MacAskill says: "The 'spiky fence' was a trick that taught me a lot about failure, perseverance and perseverance, from which something can emerge." And how something came about: contract with Red Bull, commercials for VW, article in the New York Times, nomination as action sportsman of the year at the Laureus Award, a job as a stuntman for a Hollywood production and so on.

As a child he was a wild one, Danny says about himself: "I liked it when something breaks, a roof collapses, a tree or an old wall falls down." His career aspiration: demolition entrepreneur. He's always dented, scratched, bleeding, torn trousers.

With chisels he leverages boulders from cliffs, likes to play with fire, burns his arms and legs, fell six meters from the tree, remained unconscious; but never breaks anything, never has to go to hospital. "I was apparently made of rubber," he says and laughs. Mama Anne lets him, she is somewhat of an anti-helicopter parent.

The first bike at four: a black and red Raleigh from the scrap yard, with stabilizers. The 30cm high step off the terrace will be his first stunt. With seven he is allowed to cycle to school - the way home turns into a race with the buddies. At age ten the second bike: Raleigh Burner, a BMX, with which he defeats his fear for the first time jumping off a waste glass container. The garden turns into a training course with pallets, car tires and fishing nets as safety devices. With every new attempt, he can calculate distance and approach angles better.

The third bike at eleven: Kona Fire Mountain, a mountain bike. In the video "Chainspotting" Danny sees trial bikers for the first time - and is finally hooked on bikes. From now on it's only over bollards and park benches, down from the roof of the house, the lad develops into a crash test dummy and flower bed killer. In winter he uses the shopping center with its steps and flowerpots as a training ground. He doesn't have a Playstation or computer, television is bland.

At 13, he has too much energy, is the smallest in his class, dyslexic on top - and flicks a chocolate ball at the head of the bus driver, which is how he first makes Duncan Carmichael's acquaintance. The beginning of a wonderful feud. When he takes the bike from him, Danny shoots the slingshot at the policeman's house for days.

He finds his dream job as a bicycle mechanic, takes part in a few trial competitions, but doesn't have much fun with them, prefers to cruise around alone, always looking for new, crazier tricks. A buddy persuades him to record a video of it - the rest is YouTube history.

When the BBC asks him for an interview the day after the "spiky fence" video, he believes it's a telephone prank. Danny still doesn't have a laptop and finds out from his buddies that a certain Lance Armstrong has posted praise.

Zigmillionen Menschen haben sich die abgefahrenen Tricks von Danny MacAskill inzwischen auf YouTube angeschaut
Image credit: adidas Outdoor / Dave Mackison / adidas Outdoor / Dave Mackison

MacAskill is aware of the risks

More videos will follow, all with eight-digit click numbers. The danger level rises, whether on the hell ride from the infamous Inaccessible Pike in the Black Cuillins on Skye or on the 15 meter deep forward somersault over the roofs of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

Injuries and pain are everyday life: torn patella tendon, back surgery, umpteen broken bones: 3 x collarbone, 5 x left foot, 3 x right foot. He no longer counts broken wrists, menisci and dislocated joints. There's a time when he has to pause three out of five years.

In 2013, his role model, Trial World Champion Martyn Ashton, has an accident in a comparatively harmless three-meter fall: paraplegia. His manager Tarek Rasouli is also in a wheelchair after a fall on his bike. Of course he gets into thinking, Danny says, but: "It is important to live the way you want. It could run you over on the next bus. Of course it's hard when friends get hurt. But if I started thinking about risks in that direction, I wouldn't do some things." It also depends on how you grew up: "If parents always say: 'Don't do this, don't do that' it will influence you later. But if you learn to fall and land, you learn boundaries."

"The fear of a crash is always there"

But what are the limits of a man who thunders his bike against a barbed-wire pasture fence to catapult himself over it in a front flip? Who tries 400 times to cycle downhill on a bale of hay? "My destiny has limits," says Danny. And fear? "The fear of a crash is always there. It's more about knowing what you can do. Actually, I always have everything under control."

In 'Home of trails' he rides on a very narrow bridge edge over a very deep gorge: "For me it doesn't matter if it goes down 50 or 1000 meters as long as I ride on stable ground. In both cases, the consequences would be pretty bad. I trust my bike - and my skills. You have to be ready. Fear only prevents me from making something perfect.

At great heights like 'The Ridge' I feel safer on the bike than on my feet. An Asian taxi driver frightens me more: Full throttle between two trucks, plus the tuk-tuks from everywhere: "That's fear!"

Blockade before the big jump

Often he thinks too much about what could go wrong, needing forever to overcome himself. Like in 'Casacadia' ahead of the 15m flip into the sea: The cameras are set up, the evening light fades, the batteries of the drones too - but Danny can't jump. No, not yet. In his head, the right side fights the left side of his brain: "I remembered one advice: 'If you have to swallow a frog, don't sit there and stare at it - eat it! And if there are two, swallow the bigger one first!' Means if something scares you, get it over with fast! Sounds good, but doesn't work for me. I sit there staring at the frog."

After an hour, he jumped. He often disappears under his headphones in stressful situations and dives into the music. This is almost as important to him as his bike, not only for artistic reasons. It's helping him release blockages to dare the ultimate "banger." He says, "If you're not afraid while turning a banger, you're either crazy or too timid."

What drives him in life is "having fun, not just on the bike. I like to push myself, but I'm not an adrenaline guy. Adrenaline isn't really part of my life". He has nevertheless - apparently inherited - a tendency for the circus. At home in Dunvegan his father has been running the museum "The Giant MacAskill" for 30 years. In the 1830s his ancestor Angus was the largest person in the world without hypersomia (giant growth), allegedly at 2.36m. He could haul two barrels of 150 liters of port wine each and lift a horse over a 1.20 m high fence and was a circus attraction, even in the USA.

Danny's not a showman. He earns well, but still lives in Glasgow for 250 pounds rent, in a 7-bed flat with lots of bike nerds. He only needs money for his project ideas, and he has so many of them that he will never be able to realize them all. He cannot walk a meter without scanning the surroundings for trick possibilities, he calls it line-sickness. It would be exciting to walk through the city with his eyes...

Von der Isle of Skye in die ganze Welt: Danny MacAskill ist für seine Trials längst weltweit unterwegs.
Von der Isle of Skye in die ganze Welt: Danny MacAskill ist für seine Trials längst weltweit unterwegs.
Image credit: adidas Outdoor / Dave Mackison / adidas Outdoor / Dave Mackison

MacAskill knows that his sport is very physical, but: "I don't fight for millimeters or seconds. It's a creative thing, and I think I can have a long career. You can reinvent yourself. My Heroes are in their early 50s. Now I want to push my limits, later mountain biking will be more adventure, like the trip to Kilimanjaro. Man, that was hard work!" What he doesn't say so loudly: He fell ill with altitude sickness and had to be sent down another flight by the doc.

What are the goals of someone who has supposedly already done all possible tricks on the bike? He wants to find new playgrounds, locations like the bizarre ruin city in 'Epecuen'. To travel more, to Asia above all, to reach a different audience. And to be James Bond for a day: "Stunt model for him would be the only production I'd do." Also 007's colleague Duncan Carmichael would Danny like to meet again. "No hard feelings," he says, "I'm not mad at him anymore."