Summit County downhill skateboarders realize need for summer speed despite risk, rules
FRISCO — In a digital day and age when many connections are made by computer, Russell Janoviak befriended the newest, youngest member of his downhill-skateboarding tribe at a Summit Stage bus stop.
It was something akin to how Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Keith Richards once met. More than a half-century ago, Richards struck up a conversation with Jagger when he was impressed with the albums Jagger carried while both waited at a train station. In the same light, the Ohio-native Janoviak initiated conversation with his fellow Breckenridge resident and North Carolina-native Harrison Bell when he noticed the customization of Bell’s skateboard. Namely, what caught Janoviak’s eye was an added wooden-block at the front of the board that prevents downhill skateboarders from flying off their boards when, say, hitting a crack in the pavement when going 40 miles-per-hour.
“With a setup like that you have to know something about the sport,” Janoviak said. “And I was like, ‘man, that kid, he’s got a foot-stop. He knows what he’s doing. Come skate with us.’
“So,” Janoviak added, reflecting on the moment, “another to the crew.”
“The crew,” as Janoviak put it, is a friendly group of about 10 downhill skateboarders who live in the county and take the sport seriously enough to spend hundreds, thousands of dollars on the gear — such as the foot-stop — required to “bomb” recreation paths or open, mountain-pass roads. The speeds approach, and sometimes exceed, 50 miles per hour. Considering the inherent velocity and danger that comes with the hobby, downhill skateboarding — not “longboarding,” as the crew is certain to clarify — is, for all intents and purposes, the final relative-outlaw fringe of skateboarding.
Twenty-five years ago, most any kind of skateboarding was viewed as reckless and a nuisance to communities. There were the iconic “Skateboarding Isn’t a Crime” T-shirts. Then came Tony Hawk on ESPN. The Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater video game series followed. And, now, the sport of park skateboarding is not only accepted in the Olympics — set to debut in Tokyo next summer — it’s a celebrated part of action sports communities such as Summit County.
“I’ve gone by the (Frisco) skatepark to get a drink of water,” said one of the members of the crew, Troy Westbrook of Breckenridge, “and there is literally a fleet full of little children with skateboards in their hands. Like, a squad of 30 little children with skateboards.”
To ride or not to ride?
But Westbrook’s beloved skateboarding discipline of downhill is not in the same mainstream standing as park skateboarding, or even the more tame style of longboarding many Summit County locals use to travel from part of the county to another. Though downhill skateboarding is permitted on portions of recreation paths in the county, any time a member of the downhill crew rides on an open-road such as one of the many nearby mountain passes, he’s technically breaking the law. Westbrook said this is because downhill skateboards are classified as “toy coasters” in the eyes of the law.
With that, it’s illegal on open roads except for the one time each year an officially sanctioned downhill-skateboarding race is permitted in the area: the annual Devil’s Peak Downhill on Guanella Pass, near Georgetown. At the race downhillers like Janoviak, Westbrook and the rest of their crew have a legal opportunity to downhill out on the open roads.
That outlaw element puts the crew in a predicament that they acknowledge is quite the quandary. On one hand, they like the fact that their crew almost feels like a tribe where, in order to ride along, you have to be skilled enough to be noticed and adopted by one of the elders. From there, a veteran like Westbrook or Kyle Peel of Breckenridge can give you the lowdown on gear before riding along at one of the crew’s secret spots.
“Troy was really the first one to introduce me in a way,” Bell said. “He said, ‘Yeah, you’ve ridden a skateboard before. But what this is to be taken a little bit more seriously.’ And you learn when you’re riding extremely close to each other, there’s a level of trust.”
On the other hand, when their chosen extreme sport is deemed untouchable by some in an action sports community like Summit County, it prevents the sport from becoming more socially acceptable and successful from a monetary standpoint. And for a downhiller like Peel, who would love to see downhill skateboarding in the Olympics one day, the longer the sport is contained to underground tribes like their’s, the longer it will take for more officially sanctioned events to be approved. And, with fewer sanctioned events, the more the members of the crew need to satiate their need for speed illegally.
“It strikes an ethical dilemma,” Bell said. “…For someone like me, there aren’t a lot of events that would be too good for me at an intermediate skill-level range. There’s so few of them and it’s such a pain in the a** to get a road closed, get hay bails out and be allowed to do that.”
So, yes, these guys are fully aware they may sometimes be riding where they shouldn’t be. And they are willing to take the physical risk of clasping their hands behind their lower backs, tucking their head to their torso and kneeling down to create speed against the wind. It’s a hobby that has left other downhillers paralyzed in Colorado and dead elsewhere in the world.
All that said, the crew is adamant they are careful enough with their hobby that not one of them has ever received a ticket for downhilling where they shouldn’t and none of them have ever collided with a cyclist or pedestrian in Summit County. Though Bell concedes he killed a marmot that stuck its head out into the recpath last summer.
All in all, to many, this kind of risk would be quite the load to shoulder onto your conscience when careening down pavement at 55 mph. So, why do they do it?
“You’ve been skating so long,” the Florida-native Peel said, “and you’re like, I’m going to try something else.”
“Just over time, man, you get better,” Westbrook added. “You put in the time and energy and that’s kind of how I evolved into where I’m at. I was never really, personally, overly competitive as a skater as an individual. I just really liked skating and surfing the pavement, keeping the shred around all season. That’s how I got involved in it, kind of by default — people skateboarding, being around these individuals are kind of motivating me to just be fast.”
Need for speed, need for safety
The crew takes the safety and public perception of their sport super seriously even if they are stuck in this extreme-sports limbo, that spot between taking pride in being the few who do what they do in the county all while wanting the sport to be more socially accepted. For example, when the crew goes out to ride, specialized helmets are a must. Spine protectors are also mandatory, as are special gloves with 3-inch-deep cutting-board palm-blocks affixed to the inside to help control speed and to turn and stop on pavement. And often when out on the open mountain-roads, members of the crew don full-body leather suits for even more protection — and, of course, speed.
The sport itself, the crew agreed, is much more difficult than snowboarding. Case in point: When on a snowboard, there is an ability to feather your motion while you slip more slowly through the snow. On a downhill skateboard, though, there is no such feathering. Also, all of the crew’s wheels are the equivalent in hardness to a stock skateboard wheel as a softball is to a baseball. But even with more forgiving wheels and customized setups, properly learning how to stop and control speed while downhilling is a different level of difficult. There’s learning how to throw your board sideways all while not high-siding and hurtling to the pavement from your board. There’s learning how to switch your balance to that cutting-board block on your hand. And there’s learning how to check your speed with special shoes that have literal tire-tread adhered to the bottom.
Different kind of downhill
Some members of the crew, push the sport even further. Mike DeGrado is a born-and-raised Frisco local who saw the sport grow over the past dozen years. As a kid, he looked up to and learned from famous longtime local longboarders such as Tim “Slim” Decamp. To this day, he and other members of the crew idolize elite IDF downhiller Daina Banks, who has a home in Dillon.
But, for some reason, standing up wasn’t enough for DeGrado when downhilling. He wanted to lay down. So he opts for luging — feet-first — and skeleton — head-first — variations of downhilling when he’s, say, riding with the crew down to Copper Mountain from the top of Vail Pass.
In a dream world, DeGrado will reach triple digits, 100 mph, when skeletoning on a sanctioned, closed-course such as the annual Maryhill Festival of Speed in Washington state. The crew took a group-trip their last summer to legally improve their skills.
For now, though, back at home DeGrado’s content to ride with his merry tribe of Summit speedsters at their secret spots. And, no matter where their brand of skateboarding progresses from here, DeGrado and the crew want to go fast. They need that speed come summertime even if they don’t exactly recall how and why their skateboarding lives evolved into this outlaw lifestyle.
“I still don’t know,” DeGrado said with a laugh, “how I got myself into doing it, either.”
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