Danny MacAskill, the 26-year-old Scottish street-trials phenomenon, looks up from a plate of chicken enchiladas and out toward the Pacific. We’re tucked into a busy boardwalk café in Venice, California, and nearby a lone trials rider is practicing tricks. He holds a track stand, pops onto a bench, then drops off.
“He’s pretty good, actually,” says MacAskill, who is sometimes referred to as Danny MegaSkill, at other times as Danny MadSkillz.
Pretty good, sure, but no MadSkillz. Street trials is the obscure yet flashy cycling subgenre that entails pogoing your bike onto and over large obstacles (like, say, a train car), performing physics-defying balancing acts, and stringing together wheelies, pivots, bunny hops, and even complete flips into Cirque du Soleil–worthy routines. MacAskill, in case you’re one of the five or six people in the world who hasn’t yet seen his video clips, is the sport’s reigning king—and one of the first action-sports celebrities created almost entirely through YouTube.
As recently as the spring of 2009, MacAskill was an unknown bike mechanic wrenching away at a small shop in Edinburgh. In April of that year, he released a beautifully produced homemade video, filmed by his close friend David Sowerby.
Within hours of posting it, the video went viral. It nabbed a few hundred thousand views overnight, got pinged across continents by influencers like Lance Armstrong, and popped up on the social-media feeds of people who had never even heard of trials riding before. All they knew was that some dude was doing stuff on a bike that most people couldn’t do on two feet. The tricks appear to be as spontaneous as they are graceful and unexpected—you start watching and you simply can’t stop. The video hit a million views in less than a month. Then 10 million. Then 20 million.
In the opening scene, we see MacAskill jackrabbit his bike onto a five-foot-high platform, itself an impressive feat. Without dismounting, and with indie-rock guitar chords swelling, he pedals off the platform and across the top of an iron fence, the pickets aimed at his crotch like a row of punji sticks. The video includes a couple of cuts showing MacAskill wiping out, ratcheting up the watch-this-man-become-a-eunuch tension. But of course he eventually makes it.
A year later, MacAskill had a manager, a starring role in a Volkswagen commercial, and a lucrative contract with Red Bull. Since then, his cachet has transcended the sport, with everyone from male-grooming corporations to the organizing committee of the London Olympics lining up to capitalize on his image. Without ever really trying to, MacAskill was living the dream.
Or was he? When I caught up with him in Southern California in May, he had recently flown in from Scotland for a month of intensive physical therapy following back surgery he underwent in February. The great gift of full sponsorship is that it liberates young prodigies like MacAskill from the tedious burden of making a living outside of their sport. The dough buys the time to ride—whenever, wherever, however. The most prized contracts, like the one MacAskill has with Red Bull, also cover all medical costs and rehabilitation.