Mountain Biking

“You’re A Product Of Your Own Environment” | An Interview With Danny MacAskill

Highland life has been synonymous with the Danny MacAskill brand. He spoke to us about what home means to him

The small Highland town of Dunvegan sits on the west coast of the Isle of Skye. There’s a good chance that you won’t have heard of this little plucky Highland community before, and for good reason. Aside from its award-winning fish and chips and a 13th century castle, there isn’t much appeal for anybody (under the age of 60) to pay a visit.

While Dunvegan may be lacking in the adrenaline kicks of Queenstown, or Whistler, it’s more than making up for it with the striking landscape that surrounds it. The crown jewel of this terrain is the Cuillin mountains, which rise straight up from sea level to a sky-piercing 992 metres. Stretching for 11 kilometres and taking in 11 munros, the Cuillin Ridge takes on alpine proportions.

“It is … the birthplace and training ground of one of the most creative mountain bikers in recent years”

This sounds like somewhere you’d expect the likes of Ueli Steck, or even Alex Honnold, to be brought up and fine tune their mountain craft in. But it’s not. It is in fact the birthplace and training ground of one of the most creative mountain bikers (I use that term loosely, of course) in recent years – Danny MacAskill.

Sitting down to chat to me from his Highland yard during the first national lockdown, Danny was quick to point out that Highland life has had a big influence on the rider he is today. “I think there’s a lot of different athletes, or musicians, or whatever, who have learnt what they do through having a lack of [things to do] when they’re younger, where they’ve been forced to work in some sort of constraints or something like that.

Credit: Dave Mackison
Credit: Fred Murray

“I grew up in Dunvegan in the Isle of Skye and I mean I did have hills all around, but for me I was actually just more interested in the skids and the wheelies and the street. And before I knew what it was called, I always found myself trying to jump off the nearest bottle bank, steps and whatnot.”

But yeah, I was kind of fairly limited by my streets … there’s only so many walls, or heights of walls that you could try to jump up, so you kind of had to learn to be a little bit more creative, kind of getting up and down them.”

“There’s so much on your doorstep”

“One of the main reasons I’ve done so many things in Scotland and the UK in general is just because it’s on your doorstep. There’s so much on your doorstep. Something that I’ve tried to encourage is to explore your immediate surroundings, rather than daydreaming about all the other amazing places you can go in the world.”

There was, naturally, a special spot that had long loomed over Danny, from when he was mucking around on the manmade structures of Dunvegan. This was the Cuillins.

In 2014, Danny paired up with his friend and owner of Cut Media to create what remains to this day one of the most engaging films in both the mountain biking and mountain sports communities – The Ridge.

“I remember being sat with the finalised video and thinking that we need to get back up and film some scary lines and get much better, more technical riding and harder stuff, but when we eventually put it out, it was such a surprise to see it get the reaction it did. I definitely didn’t expect it to go viral and it definitely opened up the door to me becoming a professional mountain biker, rather than a professional trials rider.”

Credit: Fred Murray
Credit: Fred Murray

“My house is about 22 miles away from them. From Dunvegan you can see one of the coolest views of the ridge, you can see the full sort of west to east span of it. And it was just something that you’d look at and sort of day dream about for years.”

“Myself and Stu Thompson from Cut Media decided to make a film up there and that’s when we got Santa Cruz involved too. They gave us some bikes and a wee bit of budget to go … the Cullins are pretty severe. Before making the film I had this idea to do with the Aonach Eagach ridge. I just kind of imagined this kind of singletrack that went along the ridge nicely, you know?”

‘The Cullins are pretty severe’ might seem like the understatement of the century for anybody else talking about their cycle along a grade III scramble, but this modesty comes naturally to Danny.

“Danny’s video parts have helped to define the way action sports media is consumed”

Danny’s video parts have helped to define the way action sports media is consumed these days, with athletes around the world imitating the classic Danny Mac style. Often imitated, never bettered. This format has given us hours of trials and mountain bike content to consume, with that signature blend of ‘did-he-really-just-do-that’ technical riding and throwback-inducing soundtrack all following a real life narrative.

The ‘Inspired’ video served as an education on a new format of filming trials videos. One that blended together technical riding, creative videography and a soundtrack that pulled on the heartstrings. Now, I’m not claiming this hadn’t been achieved before, but Inspired managed to strike that perfect balance between pleasing ‘the core’ mountain bike community, and all the armchair warriors at the same time.

When I bring up the Inspired video, you can tell Danny loves to reminisce about these early days of filming, where all you needed was a bunch of mates, a street spot and a 1080p camcorder that generation Z kids would think was taken straight from the Dark Ages. “I lived in a flat with a bunch of BMXers and one guy in particular called Dave Sowerby in Edinburgh when I worked in a bike shop there.”

Credit: Dave Mackison

Danny then went on to tell me how the music choice came to be for Inspired, which uses Band of Horses’ goosebump-inducing ‘The Funeral’ as a way to tee-up Danny’s jaw dropping riding. “He [Dave] kind of started showing me lots of BMX and mountain bike videos and you’d kind of start to learn a lot about the music choice and then editing and emotion by choosing the right tempo and ups and downs.

“It can be like searching for a needle in a haystack”

“It’s become really important to me, you know, looking for the music for the next video, it can be like searching for a needle in a haystack, but sometimes it’s the first one you come across actually. But yeah, I love that process … We were actually planning to use the Sigur Rós track ‘Hoppipolla’ [in the Inspired video]. It was just pre-Planet Earth at that time, so we might’ve beaten David Attenborough to using it!”

Ever since the Inspired video, Danny’s video parts have snowballed, getting a larger and larger following and viewership behind them, proving the tried and tested format. Danny’s combined views on his most popular videos have reached well over a staggering 500 million views.

The biggest (in terms of eyeballs watching) – Cascadia – takes the tried and tested concept of creating a video that’s as heavy on technical riding as it is on its breathtaking landscapes.

“I love playing with things and trying to take day to day things that mountain bikers would have problems with, and turn them into tricks as well as trying to get over a stile, or going through puddles, you know? I enjoy taking things people can relate to and turning them into tricks a wee bit.”

“I love playing with things … that mountain bikers would have problems with”

Not only has Danny shown us time and time again what can be done with ordinary objects, he’s blown the mountain bike community away by showing us what can be done on a run-of-the-mill full-sus enduro bike. This mountain bike line-blurring was something that Danny, along with the likes of Chris Akrigg, was one of the first to explore; showing their versatility on the bike from trials to enduro, before moving onto the marmite of the bike world – e-bikes. 

Credit: Fred Murray
Credit: Fred Murray

“The hard thing with the trials bike is that the level I set myself on the trials bike is so high, from a personal level, that when you make a new film, you really have to push hard – especially when you’re doing anything in the street. That’s why you’ll see quite a heavy concept in many of my videos. It’s quite location focused.

“When I was growing up, trials used to be a much more integrated part of mountain biking, like Martyn Ashton and Martin Hall were riding for mountain bike brands, on what are essentially small mountain bike frames, with maybe a custom geometry or whatever. So I kind of always saw myself as a mountain biker, even when I’ve been riding my trials bike a lot, I’ve always considered myself part of the mountain bike scene.”

“When I was growing up, trials used to be a much more integrated part of mountain biking”

“Then riding for like Chris Akrigg, he was a huge inspiration, he started to diversify off the trials bike and doing more on a full suspension mountain bike and all that, and that was something I always shied away from. As far as I was concerned, that was always Chris’ thing.

“We eventually got round to doing the ridge in 2014 … it was kind of off the back of that where I was able to start doing a little bit more on the mountain bike. The skills transfer across from the trials bike. If you spend a lot of time riding a trial bike, you can jump on a mountain bike and very quickly be able to jump it around and what not.”

Credit: Dave Mackison

It’s been Danny’s adaptability on a bike that’s made him such a versatile and refreshing rider to watch. In one video, he can be sketchily skidding his way down the Dubh Slabs on his mountain bike. In the next, he’ll be pulling a frontflip over a RedBull formula one car on his signature Santa Cruz trials bike.

“It’s been Danny’s adaptability on a bike that’s made him such a versatile and refreshing rider to watch”

It’s interesting to hear where Danny sees himself sit in the mountain bike community, especially given his close (in a Highland perspective) proximity to one of the pillars of U.K. downhill racing, and home to the U.K stage of the World Cup – Fort William. “I actually remember the third or fourth year at high school, our PE teacher took us to Aonach Mor [Fort William] as a ‘P.E. class’ to ride Aonach Mor. I was on my Pashley trials bike, he was on a 24 inch seat tubed MuddyFox, trying to get down Fort William. You know, hilarious stuff.”

But did he think he’d have ended up being a downhill racer if he was raised in Fort William instead of Dunveggan? “Yeah, you never know. You know, you’re a product of your own environment and all that. I mean I don’t know how that goes after being brought up in Skye. There was a lot of riding by myself, so I was kind of self-motivated to go down the trials route.”

“But yeah, I dunno. Maybe yeah. I mean I do love riding mountain bikes. I’ve never really been a racer. I don’t really have a real competitive edge to me. I’ve always been like that, in school I wasn’t really the [most competitive]. I always enjoyed playing sports, but I was never really like ‘I need to beat my friends’. I was always doing my own thing, I’m kind of still like that today.”

“I was never really like ‘I need to beat my friends’”

It’s clear when you speak to Danny that even with huge following and sponsorship behind him, he’s managed to stay true to himself and that Skye upbringing; something that’s rare in an age of nine-figure viewer numbers and instant gratification. “I’m lucky that I grew up in a big group of friends on Skye and I’ve got lots of friends around Scotland. If I went back to Skye after all the videos took off and tried to act like the ‘big man’, I’d soon get knocked down a peg or two.

“I think it’s just on that side of things, it’s luckily completely effortless. You just get on with things. You just downplay things in our kind of culture on Skye, you know? Like ‘Ah, it’s just a flesh wound!’”

And on that note from Danny, I realise that the mountain biking world wouldn’t have Danny MacAskill if it wasn’t for the great town of Dunvegan.


For more from our Scotland Issue

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