Two years ago Scottish street trials rider Danny MacAskill was just a guy working a nine-to-five job as a mechanic in an Edinburgh bike shop, crafting his vision of what was possible on a bicycle in the hours after work. In March 2009, he took a risk and left his job to pursue riding full time. A month later his roommate, Dave Sowerby, released a video of MacAskill leaping, flipping, and balancing across Edinburgh’s famous buildings, parks, and back alleys on his bike. No one had seen riding like this before.
The video went viral. First friends and then total strangers forwarded it via email and posted it on Facebook. MacAskill’s audacity, skill, and grace spoke to people, even those who had never heard of the obscure sport of street trials, where bicyclists use existing structures to create physical puzzles that are solved by moving from obstacle to obstacle. Some even chalked MacAskill’s mind-bending moves up to a special effects hoax. The video went on to be viewed 27 million times.
MacAskill could have been a one-hit wonder. But when his 2011 short film Industrial Revolutions—which featured him riding through Scotland’s abandoned factories, leaping between train cars, and riding across two-inch beams suspended 15 feet above concrete—generated three million views on YouTube in a month, he proved he wasn’t. What MacAskill can do on a bicycle, his body shifting, pausing, and then exploding upward in a seamless tangle of man and bike, makes us reimagine our daily environments.
Groundbreaking adventure has always made us examine and then redraw the fine line between the possible and the impossible. Like the great performance artist and tightrope walker Philippe Petit, who captured New Yorkers’ attention with his 1974 walk between the towers of the World Trade Center, MacAskill has taken the the landscapes of his everyday and turned mundane into a physical canvas.
Since 2009, MacAskill has used his newfound fame and monetary support to log over 40,000 miles in an RV, traveling across Scotland looking for the perfect trick in the ideal location.
“I never had the goal of being a professional rider,” says MacAskill. “I just wanted to ride my bike.”
Adventure: When you look around, what attracts you to a specific place for your tricks?
Danny MacAskill: I want to find setups that have the backdrops of Scotland, the backdrops that I saw growing up on the Isle of Skye. So whether I’m in a city or in the middle of nowhere riding on a concrete dam, I always have my eye out. It’s quite exciting coming up with these random ideas and then going out and doing them.
A: Trials riding is typically associated with urban environments. The Isle of Skye is a pretty remote and pastoral setting, not necessarily a place you would imagine there would be good trials riding. What was it like growing up there?
DM: I grew up in a small village called Dunvegan, which only has one street, so I just rode up and down it over and over. Riding the wall over and over. I’m living in Glasgow at the moment, but Isle of Skye will always be home for me. All of my friends back home, they still take the piss out of you. I’m still Danny, the kid who rides his bike all the time.
A: When you released that first video, did you think what you were doing would speak to the world on some level?
DM: Absolutely not. I never had a goal of being a professional rider or even making videos. I feel like I was lucky. The right place at the right time. I also feel like I was lucky to have the right people around me. My mentality has changed, especially in the way I look at the environment. Recently, I tried to think how it will look from the filmmaker’s perspective. I’m trying to find the most amazing locations.
A: Do you see this type of bike riding as performance art?
DM: I’m not particularly philosophical about it all. I ride my bike for fun. I enjoy making the films. It’s fun to come up with these ridiculous ideas and then actually take them to places. It is interesting reading some of the comments on the videos and how much entertainment people get out of them. To me though, the most important thing is that I do the best kind of riding I can. I’ve been injured for a while, so right now I’ve got a lot of ideas in my head.
A: Hurt? I would imagine that comes with the territory?
DM: Yes, I was out filming in British Columbia and I had a crash while I was on a log. It was nothing too extreme. I just twisted my knee the wrong way and tore my meniscus. Growing up I was very lucky. There were a lot of situations where if I hadn’t been lucky I would probably be dead. I mean, I got hit by cars, fell out of trees. I think I’ve broken 12 helmets in my life. Never really got hurt.
Last couple of years that luck is all catching up to me. I’ve dislocated my index finger. I’ve broken my wrist. I’ve broken my right collarbone three times in a row, torn my meniscus, and fell six feet flat onto my back on concrete. That took a little bit to recover from. If I was bothered by it all, I wouldn’t do the kind of riding I do. I do worry that my riding has suffered. I’ve been off the bike 14 months in the last two years.
A: Do you find that when you are hurt you spend some time thinking about the next project or the next trick?
DM: Yes, in an ideal world, I’d think of the tricks and go out the next day and learn them. Lately, I’ve been coming up with the tricks while I’m sitting on a sofa or a hospital bed.
A: Do you train for riding?
DM: I’ve never done any training and I’ve never thought of going out and riding my bike as training. It’s just fun. I can push to places I could never push myself to in a gym. I just really want to see the problem I’ve come up with solved. So I keep going after and after and after it.
A: Can you share what’s next?
DM: I have more ideas than I could ever get to. First thing though is to go back to Canada. We are going to film in British Columbia in the middle of winter. The terrain I’ve been looking at is really incredible.