Downhill longboarding: An underground realm of motorcycle leathers and freeway speeds on Vail Pass
July 31, 2015
Rule No. 1 of downhill longboarding: Don't become a human crayon.
On a calm Saturday morning, a cyclist is slowly grinding up the western side of the 8.5-mile Vail Pass bike path. He reaches a long straightaway, about 4 miles up from East Vail and 300 yards down from a turn lined with lush aspens, when a longboarder zooms around the corner far ahead.
The boarder is dressed in motorcycle leathers and a full-face helmet, tucked low over his board to cut through the air like a knife. As he reaches the straightaway, he tucks even lower and leans forward, whizzing past the cyclist at 60 miles per hour. His wheels sound like a swarm of bees, followed closely by an even larger swarm when a tight group of three other boarders round the corner and enter the straightaway.
Without stopping, the cyclist watches the first group of downhillers barrel down the path. Soon after, another clump of three or four emerge, bombing at only slightly slower speeds than the first group — say, 55 miles per hour instead of 60. One boarder follows closely behind the leader, drafting for a second or two until the pair reaches the straightaway.
Now is his chance. In a split second, he pulls away from the leader and passes him on the left, scrunching as low as possible over the board to make a move. The tightest, windiest part of the ride is a few miles behind him — all that remains are a few banking turns connected by a series of long straightaways. It's time to jockey for position, and with only 4 miles to go before the path finally flattens out above East Vail, there are precious few opportunities to make up for lost ground.
The whirring of wheels fades, and the cyclist is alone again on the trail.
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"They're out of their minds," the cyclist says, shaking his head with a grin. "At least they're all wearing leathers. Better that, than to be a human crayon."
For years, longboarding has been seen as more of a pastime than a sport. It's a mellow way to cruise around town or make short work commutes. But, like snowboarding and skateboarding and wakeboarding, there's a small yet passionate group of longboarders who are drawn to the sport's extreme side.
At the top of Vail Pass, roughly an hour before encountering the uphill cyclist, about 35 of these daredevils gathered for an impromptu ride down the steep western side of the pass. They came from across Colorado and the world: Summit, Vail, Leadville (home to a surprisingly robust longboard scene), the Front Range, even a Brazilian pro who's now based in the Aspen area.
The ragtag group was joined by two Never Summer Industries pros, 55-year-old Dave Morton and his soon-to-be successor, Zach Bailey. Morton is an old-school pro to the core, a Nebraska native who came to Colorado in the '80s to test his skills against snowboard legends like Damien Sanders and Rob Morrow and Shaun Palmer. He didn't even pick up longboarding until his late 40s, after he outgrew a stint as a pro BMXer.
"I'm just going to do this for fun again," says Morton, who races against downhillers 20 years younger in sanctioned event. "That's what got me started, like with snowboarding. When I came from Nebraska, I was just hitchhiking on Loveland Pass and Berthoud Pass, and that was my intro to snowboarding, just having fun."
Decades of extreme sports have taken their toll on Morton. He opted out of the Vail Pass ride due to a broken clavicle — "I'm still riding, against doctor's orders, but I can't do this one," he says — and, instead, came to watch up-and-coming speed freaks test their mettle on the pass.
Like Morton, longtime Summit local Slim Decamp came to watch, not ride. He's a luger — the term for a downhiller who rides on his back, not his feet — and recently built a devious custom board with nothing but quarter-inch steel and components borrowed from his wood deck. Dubbed "Heavy Metal" (it weighs nearly 40 pounds), the board is wicked fast: On a recent cruise down the Ten Mile Rec Path, he almost hit 40 miles per hour, a 10-15 miles per hour faster than his normal deck.
"That thing is fun, it's scary, it's dangerous," Decamp says of the board, eerily shaped like a coffin, which led to another nickname, "Death Metal." "I've always wanted a deck that was made in the shape of a coffin. People always tell me they're out there, but I wanted one made of metal. It's just never been done before — this is brand new."
And, as Decamp knows, it's also scary as hell on a steep, dastardly route like Vail Pass. In the longboarding underground, old-schoolers like Decamp and Morton regularly rub elbows with youngsters like Jake and Russ Jenoviak. The brothers from Ohio came to Colorado for snowboarding and longboarding.
"I used to just cruise around," says Russ Janoviak, 25, who lives in Leadville with a friend from home, Cody Thayer. "That's why I initially got one, but then I started seeing these videos of guys bombing hills and doing crazy s***. I didn't even know this existed, but I wanted to do it."
It's a sentiment shared by everyone at Vail Pass that morning. There were three or four young kids, who came out to watch their brothers and sisters (yes, two ladies went board-to-board at the male-dominated get-together). Most are traditional downhillers, but the 22-year-old Thayer takes after Decamp and prefers luging. He picked it up two years ago after just two years of downhilling. His top speed is 60 miles per hour, and soon, he hope to hit 70 or 80 miles per hour.
Craziest of all: Thayer rides without leathers, much like Decamp. He may risk the fate of a human crayon, but that's all part of the rush.
"It's the kind of feeling you can't even describe," Thayer says. "You sit up and just feel the air pounding into your chest, and that's when you realize just how fast you're going. You gotta scare yourself to have a little fun, right?"
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