Mind Over Matter: The Danny Macaskill Story

Mind Over Matter: The Danny Macaskill Story

Crankbrothers: Danny, let’s go back to the start. How did you get into riding bikes, and more specifically, trials?

Danny Macaskill: I’ve always been into my bikes. Our parents were quite hands off so we just got left to our own devices and bikes were a way of getting around.

In 1997 my friend’s older brother started getting into mountain biking. They started reading Mountain Biking UK and they also bought Chain Spotting, which was an MBUK video. That was the first time I saw Martyn Ashton, Martin Hawyes, and Hans Rey together in a video. From then I was just like wow, it totally opened up my imagination. I stated looking at the most expensive mountain bikes and really got into that sort of stuff.

I got my first mountain bike in 1998, a Kona Fire Mountain, which I put a DMR bashing on. That was the single moment where I turned my mountain bike into a trials bike. I remember thinking when I learned to do front hops, I felt like I’d learned trials. I was done!

"It's not like I’m anything special, I just make trials videos. I just happen to be in this niche."

CB: You grew up in Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye but moved to Edinburgh, how did that move come about?

DM: When I was a kid we’d go to Aviemore on holidays. There was a bike shop there called Bothy Bikes and I used to go in there all the time and buy my parts or drool over other parts, most of which were completely unobtainable as a 13-year-old kid! When I left school I went and worked in that shop for a few years.

After that, I fancied getting closer to the trials scene which I thought was in Edinburgh. Turns out it wasn’t. So I moved down there to work in a bike shop again. I did meet some other riders though and it completely opened up a whole new world. All my environments before were fairly limited in size but then Edinburgh was huge!

My riding really progressed there and I eventually moved into a flat with some friends who all rode bikes, one of whom was Dave Sowerby, who was an amazing BMXer and filmer. Dave offered to do a little bit of filming with me in Autumn of 2008 while he was injured and off his BMX.

Some of the stuff I was doing in Edinburgh at the time, I saw as a huge opportunity to really push myself and my riding further than I had before.

CB: Who were your biggest influences when you were growing up and developing as a trials rider?

DM: Definitely Martyn Ashton and Martin Hawyes, they were the staple of the British trials scene, they were in MBUK every month, on the front covers, they were the boys. They still are in my mind. Also Chris Akrigg, he’s been a huge inspiration to me and still is. He’s a big inspiration on the filming side too.

CB: Your first video, Inspired Bicycles, really put your name and riding on the map. We’ve got to talk about that spiked fence...

DM: That was something I picked and wasn’t sure if I could do or whether it was possible by anybody, not even my heroes. First day I went to try it, got my ass kicked on my lunch break. Second day, got my ass kicked again. For the first time I really started feeling defeat. I’d never experienced these feelings before, having a goal like that and not being able to do it.

"Instead, it just exploded. When that went off, talk shows in the States were calling, things from all over the world. Inspired Bicycles set up an email account and it was getting nearly 200 emails."

CB: There was a clip of you falling off?

DM: Yeah that was the first day, so I had a glimpse that it was possible but it was so hard. It was terrifying; you were waiting for disaster the entire time because you can’t feel the bike in contact with the fence. Eventually getting it was probably one of the biggest moments of my entire riding career. I’ve taken that formula, that work ethic, and I’ve transferred that into the rest of my riding. It’s almost been eight years now, going on nine.

CB: When that video was released there was a whirlwind of excitement and hype about your riding, and not just from the world of cycling. Did you ever see it going that way?

DM: Oh no, not in a million years! I thought I’d give it to Inspired [Bicycles] as they’d been helping me out with frames for the last three years and I hadn’t really given them anything in return. Little did I know it would just explode.

At the time the scene of trials was moving onto the internet and was leaving the magazines a little bit, and there was a thing called Trials-Forum, which still exists today. It was where the community was. I’d put some other stuff on there that had a good reception before and I thought it’ll be cool to see what they all think of it, especially because we worked really hard on this video, probably harder than anything before and I was really lucky to have Dave filming it.

Instead, it just exploded. When that went off, talk shows in the States were calling, things from all over the world. Inspired Bicycles set up an email account and it was getting nearly 200 emails.

CB: So no aspirations to go Pro?

DM: No! Never even dreamt of it, because they were always on this level that; well they were my heroes.

CB: So after all the madness and excitement of Inspired Bicycles, you filmed Way Back Home. How did that project go and was it a big transition having more resources?

DM: Yeah there was no budget for Inspired. In September 2009 I let everything simmer down, I got management because I had no idea what I was doing. After that I signed with Red Bull, came over to San Diego and then soon after we’d discussed the Way Back Home idea, I broke my collarbone. I broke it three times in a row and I went from the peak of my riding to having all sorts of collarbone issues and back issues.

The basic idea was to ride from Edinburgh back to Skye and try to find all the stuff that I considered to be Scotland. I’d been injured for 9 months so I thought I’d get back on my bike and make an edit focused on the beauty of Scotland. It gave me the opportunity to do street riding with more epic backdrops. Kind of what I was more used to coming from Skye. We went about it the same way as we did Inspired. I picked things that were at the top level of my ability.

It's not like I’m anything special, I just make trials videos. I just happen to be in this niche.

CB: After Way Back Home came an opportunity to work on British television. How did that compare to previous work?

DM: I actually got the opportunity to film a big part before that. All this time I’d been internet based. Then I got the opportunity to be in an AntHill film in Canada. That was a way for me to really integrate into the scene, working with guys like Gee Atherton or Stevie Smith or Semenuk. It was a huge opportunity. I was going to film in Vancouver for 8 weeks, it was going to be amazing.

First day of filming, I tore my MCL in my left knee.

After that came the opportunity to film for Channel 4. I’d always been reluctant to get involved with TV because often it doesn’t show your riding on as high a level as it could be. You don’t get 4 days to land one trick if you shoot for TV. The cool thing about this project was that we did get the time. We got a small budget to go with the filmer and location of your choice and create a video. If I had to go film another street video, the level would have been too much higher, but going somewhere interesting like a train yard, I could find things that were really interesting. I was pretty pleased with that video; I managed to do pretty much everything I wanted.

"Martyn also asked me to shave my legs so I’d look like an authentic roadie rather than a yeti. I obliged but I didn’t go as far as to fake tan them like he asked."

CB: One video part of yours that really stood out to me was your contribution to Road Bike Party 2. How was that?

DM: I would say Road Bike Party was a real bittersweet experience. Hearing the news that Martyn had broken his back was some of the hardest news I’d ever had to take.

Really soon after [his accident], he contacted myself and Chris [Akrigg]. He asked us to help finish Road Bike Party 2, which was the project he’d been working on for the last few months or whatever. If Martyn asked for anything, regardless of injury, I’d do everything I could to help.

So Chris filmed his stuff first and I knew what Martyn had been doing and the level they’d been riding to, and I was thinking what the hell am I going to be able to do on this road bike that’s going to be on the sort of level that they’re looking for. We had some stuff that Martyn had planned. There was a bridge down in the south of Wales which was our first point of call, Martyn also asked me to shave my legs so I’d look like an authentic roadie rather than a yeti. I obliged but I didn’t go as far as to fake tan them like he asked.To this day I’m not sure if he just wanted to see my legs fake tanned or not. The first day was down there and I remember getting on the bike and, my first experience riding the bike was riding around a little car park in the cold with very cold legs and then five minutes later I was on top of a bridge above this river.

Luckily the first day went fine and I started shifting my sights and ambitions onto different things.

I always knew of this loop in Manchester. After Imaginate, doing the loop over and over, I knew I could probably loop a road bike around this concrete thing. It’s probably the single maddest thing I’ve ever done on on any bike. Everything about it was crazy. Normally I kind of dilly dally about feeling stressed, and what if, but because this was for Martyn and not for my own project it was a totally different feeling, it was really weird.

First time I went into it I was like, okay. I had electric gears which had run out of battery so I had to just put it in a gear by hand and just pedal in and almost closed my eyes, and I made it around to the bottom first time and I couldn’t believe it but I was so surprised that I put my feet down.

So I went back, turned around, blasted in again and went a little faster. Basically when you go into the loop there’s so much force on the tires that you basically feel like you’re riding on the rims. Even at 120psi the tires are basically bottomed out. So I carved in and I carved a little bit hard and basically managed to squirm a tire off the bead. It jammed into the forks and sent me over the bars and I landed on my head.

We had a spare front wheel so we stuck that in and the next time I landed it. The coolest feeling was to get that trick done not for myself, it was more of a, it was cool to phone Martyn in hospital to tell him that we’d finished the riding for the video. It’s pretty cool to look back on that one actually. It was a hard one.

CB: Out of all the projects you’ve worked on, is there one that stands out as the most challenging?

DM: The most challenging film was Imaginate. Myself, Stu [Thompson], and Red Bull were looking for a new video as I hadn’t filmed anything for them in a while. We decided to go into a warehouse and come up with a project to fit into there. I was quite excited to work under artificial lights instead of having the sun go down but it turned out to be something more like working in Groundhog Day. It ended up being a lot harder than I was anticipating. I’d been off my bike for a year running up to the project and I had to call out all this stuff and then try to ride it even though I was feeling not really up to the job. But it was a pretty cool one, it was the first time I’d worked with a lot of people, it was by far the biggest production crew I’d ever worked with, bar any kind of movie stuff. It was a fun one to work on because anything went and we didn’t really have a broad plan or a story board. It was all kind of make it up as you go along.

CB: How did you come up with all the ideas?

DM: I drew a lot. That’s kind of something from then that I’ve used a lot. I used to write down trick ideas but since Imaginate I use notepads to draw things out while I’m traveling. Spending 5 minutes in front of a notepad and thinking of a location, jot down all the things you’d want to do for a video, and then you think of things that you can do, then you get to stuff that you can dream about. So, that’s kind of the way I do it, I quickly come up with an idea, just drawing little stick men drawings of all the tricks that could work.

CB: How did you come to front flip over a Swiss ball?

DM: I think the Swiss ball trick is one of those ones that makes the theme of the story come to life. There are some things people can relate to because a lot of people have used exercise balls at some point in their lives or been around them, so that was just, trying to think of what is on a kids bedroom floor. A ball was an obvious one. So that was quite a fun trick to come up with and to be honest I actually learnt that one in a day. And it’s been really good as I use that one in the shows. I get to use that slightly silly trick in the shows that I do now and it’s really easy, it’s actually probably easier than it looks. As long as you land on the ball..

CB: To land new tricks and things that have never been done before, do you have a mental routine or a process that helps you do these things?

DM: It’s amazing what you can learn if you really put everything you have into it, so the probability is that you’ll eventually fluke it. But every now and again with something really technical, you kind of get a glimpse; it might not be in the first go, it might not be in the 50th go, but maybe number sixty something, something might happen where you go, oh that might actually work, it gives you a glimpse that it might be possible. And then you basically just keep going through the ringer.

One of the techniques I use to deal with fear while standing on my pedals at the beginning of a run up to what will be the banger trick of the video, is to pick a tune that I really like. Sometimes in the past, I’ve used Kiss, New York Groove, and when the chorus kicks in I use that as a kind of starting gun, it’s almost somebody telling me to go. So rather than being shit scared and being at the beginning of a run up and being like oh man, going through all the doubts and the fears, I just try to focus on the music and try to let that kind of autopilot side of your brain get it done, which you know is going to be fine, it’s just the irrational instinct side of your brain that’s freaking out over something that is very unlikely to happen if you just go through with it properly.

CB: Mind over Matter?

DM: Same with anything, I suppose it’s what makes us. So much of riding is definitely mental over physical, you know, you can make your body do amazing things if you’ve got the mental capacity for it.

CB: Thanks for your time Danny, hopefully we’ll see you at Sea Otter!

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