Meet the trials rider who used vlogging to overcome his Asperger’s
© Ali Clarkson
Already renowned for his trials riding skills, Ali Clarkson turned himself into a YouTube sensation to help tackle his social difficulties. This is his story...
Ali Clarkson is a demon on a bike. When not winning trials biking championships – including becoming British Champion in 2004 – he’s doing his thing as part of the Drop and Roll demo team – a supremely skilled bunch of trials riders led by peers Danny MacAskill and Duncan Shaw.
Despite his skill on two wheels though, Ali didn’t find it easy to express himself growing up in West Yorkshire. He struggled with school and found it difficult to interact socially. “It was bad,” he says. “I wouldn’t look people in the eye, or go on public transport on my own. Things were tough.”
Ali was eventually diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism. The National Autistic Society's website explains that 'people with Asperger syndrome may find difficulty in social relationships and in communicating. [They] see, hear and feel the world differently to other people.'
Thankfully, Ali found bike riding at an early age. It was, he says, his “freedom”. Competition wins followed, along with the chance to ride alongside MacAskill and other riders at the top of their games. Although often performing in front of thousands of people, Ali realised something was still missing.
“It was great, but I still didn’t really feel confident,” he explains. Deciding he had to push himself in other ways, he began vlogging about his experiences on the bike, creating fantastic, personable videos that covered everything from how to do massive bunny hops to the best riding spots in the South West.
Today, Ali’s channel has almost 100,000 subscribers and has completely revolutionised his life and his confidence. Here’s how it happened…
When did you first realise you loved riding bikes?
“My older brother got a really cool Trek bike when I was about 11 or 12. I thought it was really impressive and hoped one day I would have a bike as good as that. He got magazines like MBUK so I started reading those and got the bug. I used to go out and ride, and my friends and I would see who could do the longest wheelie. Then we’d see who could get up on their front wheel, their back wheel: can you get up this curb, this low wall? We were riding trials but we didn’t know what trials was.
“There was another magazine that had the coverage from the British Trials Champs, which was held on a hillside near where I lived in West Yorkshire. I was like, ‘Oh my god – you can make a living doing this.’ There was a phone number for a local club. I got my mum to ring up, joined and the next month I had my first competition. I was pretty addicted to it.
In what ways did riding bikes help with your Asperger's?
“Back then I hadn’t really been diagnosed. I was struggling at school but we didn’t know why. Getting on a bike meant no stress or anxiety. It was just fun. I think that’s why I’m still doing it.
"The first competition was pretty scary. I went with one other friend. I can vaguely remember it being a snowy, cold hillside in Yorkshire. The thing with trials competitions is you're going around in little groups so I’m not sure I did a huge amount of socialising, but I do remember some people taking the piss out of my ripped saddle. But it was still great fun.
You were killing it on the competition scene and rode with Scotland-based cycle stunt team The Clan. What led you to make the jump to vlogging?
“Eventually competitions started to get a bit boring – around the time Danny MacAskill had his very famous video of riding in Edinburgh. He was in a demo team called The Clan but he became too busy to perform in shows. He’d seen some of my earlier videos and got in touch and asked if I wanted to take his place in the demo team. I jumped at the chance. For the last 10 years, I’ve been doing demos and shows working with The Clan. Then Danny and Duncan Shaw started the Drop and Roll Tour team and I’ve been doing shows with them since 2014.
“All of this was great but I was never really confident; I didn’t like meeting people. I didn’t want to be in Danny’s shadow. A lot of people try to copy his success by doing the epic videos. Because of my background, I don’t have many close friends, so I don’t necessarily have the people to go and help with projects like other people might. I thought ‘What can I do that is manageable for me and that will benefit me?’ Vlogging came to mind as there weren’t really any other trials riders doing it. I thought I’d force myself to do one a week for a year, thinking it would be beneficial for me personally and mentally. That one year turned to four years and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
Was it difficult to say you were going to put yourself online and film yourself?
“A little bit, yeah. I’m quite spontaneous at times so there wasn’t a lot of planning, but I did watch a few videos on how to vlog. A lot of them were saying you can only do it if you’re mentally strong because if you’re putting stuff out on the internet you’re going to get negativity. I was expecting to get a lot of bad feedback but it’s been the opposite. Everyone’s been amazingly positive.
People who knew me before I started vlogging have said how big a change there’s been, that I’m like a different person
How did you distinguish your videos from others out there?
“One of the things that sparked the idea was that I did a four-minute GoPro video just riding around town. I uploaded it and it did quite well. I thought ‘Oh, people seem to like the raw stuff, so let’s do some of that but I’ll explain what I’m doing while I’m doing it.’ My GoPro had shaky video and crap audio in a world where people were using high end, really great stuff. But it didn’t seem to matter that my videos were super raw.
Did Danny MacAskill give you any advice in terms of making videos?
I don’t know what the architects were doing when they designed Barcelona, but you can’t really get much better for riding
“Riding-wise, we’re always giving each other ideas. As for filming, I’ve learned stuff from him about how he likes to line up shots, but in terms of talking to the camera, Danny hasn’t had much experience with that. For me it was a learning experience; trying different things and seeing what worked.
Do you have favourite spots to film in?
“If I’m on a competition-style bike, I really do like the Moors – the rocky outcrops around Yorkshire. I was really lucky growing up there. On a nice summer’s day with no wind, you can’t get a more peaceful place than up on the Moors. I do miss that now I’m in inner-city Glasgow, but there is good riding. I lived in Blackpool for a bit and there’s actually some good stuff there. I really love Barcelona for riding – I don’t know what the architects were doing when they designed that place, but you can’t really get much better for riding.
Do you have more of a team around you now you have a bigger profile?
“I still mostly do it on my own, but my fiancée did come and help out recently. Before I started vlogging I used to live with my closest friend, Mark Westlake, who has a photography and film background, so I had had a few better quality videos until he moved away.”
A lot of YouTubers focus on growing their numbers. Do you?
I want riding to be fun – I don’t want it to feel like a job
“I’ve actually probably done a lot of things you shouldn’t with a YouTube channel. I’m part of a group chat with a lot of other YouTubers and I’m always surprised at the detail they go into to get one percent better views here or there. If a video gets 10 percent fewer views than the last one, they’ll go into the analytics and try to find out what happened. I don’t do any of that. I think the channel probably would be bigger if I did but my mindset is that I go out, do what I can and I don’t stress about it too much.
“I want riding to be fun – I don’t want it to feel like a job. I’ve always tried to be honest with my audience and not do things just for higher views. I’d rather grow my numbers slowly and organically.
What difference has riding and vlogging made to how you deal with Asperger's?
“There’s been a huge, huge improvement in my confidence and my ability to talk to people. Five years ago I would have struggled with interviews like this. People who knew me before I started vlogging have said how big a change there’s been, that I’m like a different person. I’m more confident in myself and happy to do things like get on a flight and fly halfway across the world on my own which I would never have done before.
“I’m in a much better place. I think talking, and trying to express myself on camera helps, and allows me to be myself instead of trying to be what I think I should be. Having people be so positive about it is a huge help.”