Boarding is back, older and wiser. Nick Morgan goes to Brighton to grab some radical air
I picked the skateboard up and turned it over lovingly in my hands. I remembered my first board as a kid, a thin plastic affair with narrow trucks and rock-hard wheels. This was different, it was much wider with softer wheels. More stable, more forgiving and somehow more adult.
“Skateboarding started to get popular again last summer, and this year has become really big,” says Jez Lee of the Brighton-based Small Planet Surfshop. “We get a lot of thirtysomethings coming in and we put together set-ups that are right for them. I’m 32 and weigh over 13 stone, so I don’t bounce like I used to and I don’t want to ride a kid’s board.”
The learning curve on a skateboard – providing you’ve got reasonable balance – is fast and relatively pain-free. The first basic move (after scooting in a straight line) is the tick-tack, where you lift the front of the board (putting weight on the kick-tail) then move it to the left, rest it down then repeat to the right. This drives the board forward.
Once you can tick-tack, you can extend the arc out to a 90-degree turn, and then push it further to a 180. After that you can progress to the skateboard park.
I met Voi Smith at The Level in Brighton. He’s a competition boarder who has been teaching for the past two years. As we exchanged hellos I saw a blur of gravity-defying activity around us. Kids pushing back on their kick-tails, then leaping into the air like spring-loaded cats. Smith pointed, “That,” he said “is an ollie.” Another boarder was jumping in the air and flipping his board into a horizontal spin then landing back on it smoothly, “And that,” he said, “is a kick-flip.”
I realised right then that all of these tricks were for people with more time, skill and patience than I had to offer at a weekend. I looked towards the end of the park, at two ramps pushed against each other to form a U-shape. I said, “I want to smoke that half-pipe.”
Smith told me to stand on the board, scoot up one side of the ramp, then use my knees to push down hard and drive myself up the other side. The principle of pushing your weight down at the right moment to gain momentum is the same as being on a swing, but riding backwards was – at first – a new and strange experience.
I practised until sweat dripped into my eyes, and I still didn’t want to leave. When you stand on a board, you enter a different world, one with unexpected rules and full of adrenalin. Once in that world, you don’t want to return to the pedestrian life.
Why skateboard? I could give you 50 explanations: (it’s exhilarating, it keeps you fit, it’s a good way of getting about). But underneath all of these reasons is the underlying fact that skateboarding is very, very cool.
Skateboarding is cool, Brighton is cool, and when in town the coolest place to stay is the Hotel Pelirocco with its 19 themed rooms. A weekend that combines all these three things? – I may never be this hip again. I stayed in the Pussy room with its lush pink walls, sea view and mural of the New York skyline (pre 9/11). Each room has a PlayStation 2 (how cool is that?), and I ordered in all the extreme sports games from the menu and then played until my thumbs hurt.
The next day we started by revising tick-tacks, then 90-degree turns. I struggled to push that to a 180. It took all my effort and I had to swing my whole body around. Smith pointed to my feet. “Your back foot is too far over the kick-tail, you need to have the ball of your foot in the centre.” I shifted it forwards. “And your front foot is too far forward, bring it back so it’s behind the front trucks. Right, now try.” I pulled a perfect 180, my balance was much better and the board seemed to go where I willed it.
Next, we went back to the half-pipe and practised pumping the board forwards and backwards though the U-shape. “Now,” said Smith, “when you get to the top you’re going to put a turn in.” I felt a frost rising up though me. “Now, do it.” he said. But it didn’t happen. I wanted to turn but my legs had frozen. “You are just going to have to go for it,” he said.
I pumped the board, checked the speed; checked my positioning and balance (good). Then I hit the side of the ramp, pushed back on the kick-tail and turned in one smooth motion. It felt like something from The Matrix, like I was moving in bullet time.
I landed expecting spontaneous applause, but everybody was behaving as though nothing groundbreaking had taken place. I smiled to myself. Half an hour later I’d had enough, so I offered to buy Smith a pint at the local boarders’ pub, the Leek & Winkle. It’s full of the sort of clean graphic art you see on the bottom of boards. I drank while gazing at my board – what moves would we be pulling next weekend?
Insider tips for beginners
· The board needs to have spring in the wood; when you tap it on a hard surface it should give a strong, solid high pitched noise. Go for 52-53mm wheels that have a medium hardness and also choose normal bearings – you don’t want to have anything too fast to start with. A decent board will set you back about £100.
· The best places to practise are clean smooth areas. Empty pools are magnets for boarders. Otherwise go somewhere that has a large amount of smooth Tarmac, such as an empty car park.
· Practise basic board control: setting off, stopping and a 180 kick-tail turn. You might also want to try dropping off a curb (pull a small wheelie as you come to the edge and you’ll land flat on four wheels).
· Wear protective equipment. At the skateboard park, Jez Lee from Small Planet always wears a helmet (£15), knee and elbow pads (£15 per set). Wrist-guards are also recommended (£12). For ultimate protection, buy padded shorts with a built-in tailbone protector (£20). All pads and helmet available from Small Planet.
· Relax and have fun. You will never be as good as kids half your weight, age and height, so don’t try.