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Trust the Bike

Trust the Bike

On the Cuillin Ridge with Danny MacAskill
Interview by Alex Roddie // Photography by Dave Mackison
Produced in partnership with Trash Free Trails

‘And then you’ve just got to dig deep. If I’m on location, if I’ve called a trick out, I’ll get it landed eventually. It always works out, but I’ve still got to go through that fight with the instinctual part of my brain, which is never happy about it! Because no matter how much I practise, I’m always dipping out to the edge of my ability or trying something I’ve never tried before.’

Danny MacAskill is a mountain biker and street trials rider from the Isle of Skye. He’s perhaps best known for his videos of improbable adventures with a bike in the Cuillin, especially The Ridge and The Slabs, although he says he doesn’t consider himself a YouTuber! Our editor Alex Roddie sat down for a chat with Danny and talked about mountain connections, confidence, trust, and how he manages fear.

Alex Roddie: Tell us about your relationship with Scotland’s mountains. Did it emerge as a result of growing up on Skye, or did it develop later?
Danny MacAskill: Growing up on Skye, we had a lot of freedom as kids. I would often leave the house on Friday night after school with my friends. We’d go out camping somewhere, swimming or playing with bikes or driving in fields, and our parents gave us the freedom to do that kind of stuff.

I first discovered bikes when I was wee, just like any other kid. I was trying to do tricks before I got my stabilisers off. I don’t know what inspired me to do tricks back then, but I was always the one in my group of friends that would try things first, you know – on bikes, too. Jumping off that tree, off the gable end of my house, off the highest things I could.

A while back I’d got up to a place called Coire Lagan, which is a beautiful corrie in the Cuillin with some cool slabs, but the tops weren’t really the sort of place to take a bicycle, and I’m not the kind of person that goes hillwalking often. I can see the appeal if it’s technical, but I’d rather just carry the bike up and ride back down.

It wasn’t until later life that I started venturing up into the Cuillin. The first time I ventured onto the very tops was when we started to make our film The Ridge. It was way more severe than I expected! I had imagined a ribbon of singletrack running along the tops, but it’s more like proper scrambling.

On my bike, it’s all about the feeling. But I don’t chase adrenaline. You just get a different feeling from the mountain – like you can interact with the hill in a different way. It’s like wingsuiting or something. You’re flying over the terrain, you’ve got a connection to it.

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So how did you develop the confidence to take your bike up into the mountains? There must have been quite a step between what you were doing down in the corries and finally going up onto the ridge.
I’d spent a fair bit of time up on the hills, just not in the Cuillin itself. We decided, myself and friend Stu Thompson from Cut Media, that we wanted to make a new film. The idea that seemed to be there for the taking was a mountain traverse. And the one that stood out to me, because it’s the range I’ve been looking at all my life, was the Cuillin Ridge. So we decided to go and make a film about traversing the ridge by bike.

It’s a formidable sort of place. We scouted the first half of the ridge in terrible weather, with some friends who are mountain guides. And you know what? It was actually pretty easy going. The riding I was doing was all quite straightforward, way below my top level. There were a few sections with a wee bit of exposure, but compared to what I do for street-riding videos… I mean, six days to make a full film is a short amount of time. Some of the tricks that I’ve done for my street films would take me six days to land a single trick.

I’ve got a good head for heights and I found the whole process a joy. No fear, really – just enjoyable.

How would you describe your relationship with fear?
I try to rationalise fear – sometimes maybe too much. I try to assess the consequences. There’s a bit on the Cuillin Ridge called Collie’s Ledge – a thin trail, maybe 1m wide in places, with a 300ft drop off one side. You wouldn’t be having a good time if you fell off there. But before riding it you make sure you know about every loose bit of rock that could affect your path, any stuff that could catch you off guard. And then, when you’re on it, you think: well, riding along a pavement that wide is straightforward. You just make sure you don’t clip any pedals or anything like that.

So I actually had zero fear going up there. It’s very controlled. I mean, are you scared when you drive along an A-road? Or in a thunderstorm? What are the chances of getting involved in a crash or struck by lightning?

Of course, I’m dealing with loose rock, and having to use a skilful move to navigate from A to B. Trusting your gear’s a huge part of it. Your bike’s one of the biggest variables. You’ve got to trust that your cranks aren’t going to snap off.

Trust must be a key factor overall. You must have supreme trust in your skills and abilities.
For sure. I think trial riding is a good way to build trust in your sense of balance and how to navigate tricky obstacles. The other day I rode along a railing that was maybe 4in wide, about 40ft off the ground on one side, for like 100m. And the consequences of that 40ft drop aren’t worth thinking about!

So, up in the mountains, I can go along the route quite rationally, knowing that I’ve done that kind of move thousands of times before. As long as you’re calm and relaxed about it, you can just cruise along – exactly like driving a car on a busy road.

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How do you maintain mental control when you do find yourself facing fear?
When I say I didn’t have fear on the Cuillin, it’s because I was doing stuff well within my limits. But lower to the ground, where the potential consequences are broken bones rather than death, then for sure I’m dealing with fear all the time. I wish I could just switch it off, and I often say I’d be better off without it. I feel that it’s more likely to hurt me than keep me safe.

Often I’m standing at the run in to a trick, and constantly going through what if this, what if that? I visualise success, but I’m also visualising all the ways it could fail. I suppose for me it’s about having the goals I’ve set clear in my mind.

I think to myself, if I were 14 years old, what would I like to see somebody do on a bike? I’m motivated to push myself, do the best moves I can do. And I’m not doing it to get views online. I want to look back on the stuff I’ve done and be like ‘Oh yeah, it was quite cool being there, doing that.’

And then you’ve just got to dig deep. If I’m on location, if I’ve called a trick out, I’ll get it landed eventually. It always works out, but I’ve still got to go through that fight with the instinctual part of my brain, which is never happy about it! Because no matter how much I practise, I’m always dipping out to the edge of my ability or trying something I’ve never tried before.

I try to keep myself safe and have a nice long career. I suppose this process of probing those limits and practising those moves must make me stronger and more resilient in the long run, but I haven’t worked on my mental game as much as some riders. I often find myself in the same boat with every film I make – it’s always a real struggle, but that’s because I’m always pushing, trying to do things that I’ve never tried before. You’d like to think that after almost 15 years I’d be better at dealing with it all, but I don’t know that I am! Physically I feel as good as ever, but mentally it’s still an absolute battle every time.

Do you have any thoughts about how mountain bikers can help foster a positive relationship with the natural world?
Oh man! Basically, you can’t beat getting out and about on your bike, can you? What more really needs to be said?

Produced in partnership with Trash Free Trails //
Interview by Alex Roddie // @alex_roddie
Featuring Danny MacAskill // @danny_macaskill
Photography by Dave Mackison // @dave_mackison



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