Title: At the Edge - Riding for My Life
Author: Danny MacAskill (with Matt Allen)
What it is: Street-trials rider and internet sensation Danny MacAskill's story
Strengths: MacAskill's videos to-date have tended to have personal stories behind them and this paints the background that helps understand them
Weaknesses: Don't tell me this wouldn't be better in e-format with embedded videos - however, because we appear to have allowed a small number of e-reader makers to dictate formats, that's not really an option yet
It began with this little video:
Inspired Bicycles (2009)
Uploaded to YouTube on the evening of April 19, 2009 by the following morning it had made Danny MacAskill famous.
At the time, MacAskill has been sharing a flat in Edinburgh with Dave Sowerby, a BMX rider and film-maker. MacAskill had been doing street-trials riding since he was a wee kid on the Isle of Skye. By day he was a mild-mannered mechanic in a bike shop (Skye, Aviemore and finally Edinburgh) who figured his long term objective was getting a wrenching job on the World Cup circuit, by night he was a street-trials rider, seeing opportunities in street furniture that the rest of us are blind to.
A few years before Inspired Bicycles turned him into an overnight success Nash Masson had filmed MacAskill doing some of his stunts and another friend arranged for the result to be edited down and uploaded to YouTube. TartyBikes, they called it, after the internet store that was providing MacAskill with discounted parts. There'd been other films before that, too, home movies, friends with camcorders, but TartyBikes was the first to be shared beyond a small circle of friends and acquaintances. It was something fun to do, something new and different, but it wasn't part of a plan. It fell to Sowerby to change MacAskill's notion of what the plan was:
"One evening in 2008, Dave changed the way I thought about riding - for ever,. He had brought home a movie called Grounded, produced by the skate and BMX band Etnies. The film featured Ruben Alcantara, a legendary BMXer; his inverts were always featured in BMX mags. Apparently, Ruben had set out to deliver his greatest ever film during the making of Grounded, and it showed. He did a series of ground-breaking (...probably why he called it Grounded) tricks that were coined 'Ruben Wallrides' because they blew everyone's minds - he was putting two wheels on vertical walls in places where nobody thought it possible. Grounded was a game-changer."
Not long after, Sowerby crashed and thrashed his leg. With time time on his hands he offered to film MacAskill. Weeks turned into months, autumn into winter, and it was spring before the whole thing was done, dusted and couriered off to YouTube by the internet pixies, with the title Inspired Bicycles, for the company providing MacAskill with his bikes. It began to go viral: the BBC picked up on it almost immediately, Stephen Fry was on to it within the month, even Lance Armstrong Tweeted about it. For MacAskill, it was a game-changer. Newspapers wanted to interview him. Drinks companies, bike manufacturers and clothing companies wanted to sponsor him. Ellen De Generes wanted him on the show (dressed as DeGeneres, riding down the street). Doves wanted him for a music video. He did an ad for a recruitment agency and another for Volkswagen. He doubled for Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Premium Rush. In the years since, he's ridden in Taiwan for one sponsor, Cape Town for another, he's ridden on the track with fellow Scot and former BMX bad-ass Chris Hoy to promote the Commonwealth Games, and he's pushed a Colnago C59 to its limits. Inspired Bicycles has taken him a long way.
"We did it because we wanted to do something that riders could appreciate in their homes, just like Grounded and Chainspotting. I certainly hadn't got involved out of any ambition to be a pro cyclist, because I was more into the idea of becoming a mechanic on the World Cup race circuit. As far as I could tell, there wasn't any money to be made from trials, not outside of shows, but to be frank, I never rode my bike to make money. There were, however, the lucky few who had broken into the mainstream: Martyn Ashton, Hans Rey and Chris Akrigg. They were operating in a different stratosphere."
The instafame and the promise of instawealth didn't impact MacAskill that much. But Hans Rey Tweeting about it?
"Now that was something I could get excited about."
MacAskill got himself a manager and his manager got him a deal with Red Bull and Red Bull suggested he do a road trip, Edinburgh to Skye. Thus was the idea for Way Back Home conceived. Between the conception and the creation, though, MacAskill busted his collarbone. And then busted his collarbone again. Eventually, with a camper van provided by Red Bull, MacAskill and Sowerby went on their road trip, over the course of five months working their way toward the Inner Hebrides and the teeming metropolis of Dunvegan (pop 350) where MacAskill had grown up, all the while filming cunning stunts and stunning scenery as they went along.
Way Back Home (2011)
Way Back Home was followed by Industrial Revolutions, a segment for a Channel 4 doc, Concrete Circus, which mixed skateboarding (Kilian Martin), BMX (Keenan Philips), and parkour (Storm Rerun) with MacAskill's street-trials. MacAskill and his director Stu Thompson chose the abandoned Dunaskin Ironworks for their location. Locations, MacAskill says, are a major part of the viral success of his videos:
"A phone box is great, but a phone box positioned in front of rolling hills and a setting sun in the Lake District is even better. That's when the time you invest in good scouting can really pay off."
More injury followed that film and MacAskill had to go under the knife and take another time out from riding. MacAskill's videos do get the occasional criticism about being dangerous and encouraging other people to do stupid things on their bikes and injure themselves. He has his own take on that:
"People are happy to criticize athletes like Alex [Honnold], or me, for doing a dangerous sport in which we're experienced, yet they'll race along a country road in the pouring rain, or go on a skiing holiday, and think nothing of it. And why should they? They're not doing anything that dangerous - in theory. The reality is different, though. There are other people around, and that's what puts them at risk. There are car crashes all the time; skiers can injure other skiers, often when one of them is riding perfectly well on their own. I'm only risking myself. I'm not putting anyone else in harm's way."
Of the time he's had out with injuries, MacAskill figures that the recuperation process has actually helped him in some ways:
"Mentally, at least, my riding seemed to improve, too - I visualized landing the tricks. The filming I was planning became more ambitious. My ideas became bolder and, with every week, I progressed a little bit more - but only in my mind. I've since learned that this form of thinking is a common psychological ploy used by injured sports stars. There's even theorizing that suggests it's possible for someone to build strength and skill when they've been unable to train. They mentally envisage development , and their body reacts accordingly."
Of all the criticisms landed on him over his videos, the one that hit the hardest was when Red Bull put out a two minute video of MacAskill riding in the Playboy mansion, part of the marketing behind one of his films. It caused no end of flack for the Scot:
"I could see their points of view. At the time, the first edition of La Course by the Tour de France was taking place, an elite race for women pro cyclists. Equality was an issue in all aspects of cycling, so I understood why my working in the Playboy Mansion had upset a lot of people, though it was an honest mistake on my part. The brand's image may have crossed my mind when I'd first got to the house. I knew about its rep back in the day, but Playboy had opened a few high-street stores in the States since then, so I'd assumed it wasn't that offensive any more. (Hands up, I was wrong.) Besides, slicing about the grounds for some photos had been a light-hearted move, nothing more. It wasn't my intention to offend."
The film that Playboy stunt was promoting was Epecuén, shot in a town in Argentina that was like something out of a Gabriel García Márquez novel. Flooded in 1985 it had reappeared 25 years later:
"I heard about Epecuén in 2012, during the making of Imaginate. It came about by luck. I'd been researching some potential ideas online, searching for unusual locations. Often, during my sessions on Google Images, I'd type something like 'Most colourful town in the world' or 'unusual architecture', before scrolling through pages of photos. One day, I entered 'abandoned cities' and Epecuén popped up. A town of ruins just over 400 miles south of Buenos Aires in Argentina, it seemed to emerge from a watery landscape like a lost city in the TV show Game of Thrones. The images blew me away. Every picture resembled an apocalyptic scene. The buildings were in bits, and all the vegetation was dead. Even the trees were in bits. Bleached white, they rose from the ground like twisted, skeletal fingers."
At the start of it all, when it was all new, months and months were passing between the idea and the reality of each new film. Inspired Bicycles ran on for six months, Way Back Home had taken five. Imaginate was a two month shoot with a lot of prep before that while MacAskill was recovering from surgery. But in 2014, as well as filming Epecuén, MacAskill also pulled together The Ridge:
The Ridge (2014)
Like Way Back Home, this was MacAskill returning to the scene of his childhood, the Isle of Skye and the Black Cuillins:
"Seventeen dark peaks, eleven Munros, and seven and a bit miles of craggy ridgeline. I only had to leave my front door and stroll down the road and there they were, rising out of the Skye horizon like pieces of jagged slate. In the summer, when the sun reflected off the black igneous rock that covered the landscape, they turned a deep purple. In winter, the peaks were swathed in snow and brooding cloud, like a miniature version of the Alps. At the summit: the Inaccessible Pinnacle, a lethally thin razordblade of rock."
Way Back Home, though, was more than just a return to the scene of MacAskill's youth: putting him on a mountain bike it took his riding back to the source, the street-trials riding he does having grown out of mountain biking (by way of motorcycle trials, legend has it, Ot Pi's father having taught him the skills on a mountain bike).
Of all the videos he's done, perhaps MacAskill's most 'personal' is Imaginate, which had preceded Epecuén:
Mixing The Borrowers with a lot of primary colours Imaginate took a trip into the imagination of wee Danny MacAskill, a toy come to life. The budget wasn't exactly unlimited, but Red Bull proved to be very indulgent, even supplying one of their F1 cars for the shoot. Shot after his back surgery, the shoot itself only took a couple of months, but nearly two years had passed between Imaginate and Industrial Revolutions.
In the handful of years since MacAskill became an overnight sensation, the technology available to tell his story has come on in even bigger leaps and bounds than him gapping across street furniture, with helmet cams and drones making available on a modest budget the sort of shots you used to have to go to Hollywood to get. The Ridge made use of those technologies but Cascadia pushed them to the next level. Mixing the vertigo-inducing drops of The Ridge and the primary colours of Imaginate it's the banger - the money shot - that opens and closes At the Edge:
* * * * *
At the Edge is, in some ways, a conventional athlete autobiography. MacAskill is 31 going on 32, still riding, still in the middle of his story. In the same way that some people love to dismiss without even looking at them every chamoir that lands on my desk as being a waste of time ("They're still riding! How can they have a story to tell? Harrumph!") you could if you were that way inclined say the same about MacAskill's book. You've got the videos, what do you need the book for?
The videos on their own though aren't enough. There's a story in them and even when they come with "making of" bonus material, that story isn't always told. For sure, yes, talking about the films means MacAskill doesn't have to talk much about himself - in some ways he's never present in the story, it's all about a kid who became an internet sensation - and time is compressed so that all that exists is the time taken to make each film but that's the way sports books are, more about the sport than the person.
But talking about the films can still be entertaining. At the Edge fleshes out the character of Danny MacAskill, the always smiling cheeky chappie who, as a kid, had been somewhere between a rascal and a scallywag: not enough of a rogue to be borstal bound, but at times teetering close to getting himself an ASBO (at one point the local police confiscated his bike and wouldn't give it back to him). It gives the story behind individual videos and enables you to see how they all join up: MacAskill talks about a rider's eye, that can spot lines to ride in the street that the rest of us are blind to. Without At the Edge I was kind of blind to the line linking all the films, even up to the most recent, Wee Day Out. Getting the chance to see MacAskill's films as he does, that's got to be worth something, surely?
Wee Day Out (2016)