By: Stephen Krcmar | Special to The Times
Maneuverable and grippy, these outsize boards are newly cool and enticing participants of all ages.
It WAS the lure of the snow that drew Jia Yee to longboard skateboarding almost two years ago. The UCLA biology student loved the feeling of schussing down a mountain on a snowboard -- but she was less enthusiastic about the cost of the winter sport, its seasonal nature and the necessary travel.
Longboarding seemed like a good way to get the same rush. With longer decks than their shortboard brethren (usually about 38 inches instead of 30 inches), they are more stable at higher speeds and their softer wheels provide better grip. Further, their trucks, which connect the board to the wheels, are designed for turning (rather than for tricks like "grinding" across curbs or down handrails). These three qualities suggested to Yee that fun was as close as the nearest patch of pavement. Her hunch was right.
"When you're carving down a garage, it feels the same as a snowboard. It's just scarier because it's concrete -- even packed snow is a lot nicer to fall on," said Yee recently, taking a break from a skate session at a multilevel parking garage and sporting a bleeding hand and ripped jeans from a fall minutes earlier. "But when you're carving down a gentle hill, it reminds me of snowboarding so much. It's really calming for me."
One of the many recent converts fueling longboarding's growing popularity, Yee represents a population that once rarely participated in skateboarding -- females.
Now, however, young women and girls increasingly are becoming more involved with longboarding, said Kathleen Gasperini, senior vice president of Label Networks, which studies youth markets. Gasperini believes that female skaters choose longboarding over shortboarding because it's easier, more inclusive and has greater age diversity (longboarders range from preteens to baby boomers).
Although no definitive numbers are available to quantify longboarding's growth, manufacturers report steady increases in sales. Even new skateboard manufacturers, such as the unfortunately named snowboard builder Never Summer, are entering the market. And manufacturers and retailers love that many users own a variety of boards for different uses.
Beyond the tricks
When most people hear the word skateboarding, they think about the trick-based activity dominated by teens that has achieved mainstream popularity with contests like the X Games and high-profile personalities such as Tony Hawk and Shaun White. But longboarding has always been on the margins of skateboarding -- "a subculture within a subculture," according to Michael Brooke, author of "The Concrete Wave: The History of Skateboarding."
Longboards have been a small part of skateboarding since the early '60s and peacefully coexisted with the popular "Popsicle-shaped" boards until the early '90s when skateboarders left the skate parks and half-pipes en masse for city streets.
"Every time skateboarding becomes incredibly focused on one type of skating, whether it's vert, skate parks or street skating, its myopia is its demise, because this focus drowns out whatever else is happening," Brooke said.
During this time, many shortboarders had little affinity for longboarders and their so-called hippie style. But by the mid-'90s, Sector 9, a company that focuses on longboarding, began to make it look cool, by merging the vibe of skateboarding and surfing.
Smaller companies also were actively refining designs during this time. Board makers continued to explore materials such as fiberglass, carbon fiber and eventually exotic woods such as bamboo to create lighter and more responsive boards. Truck technology also advanced, enhancing turning capability and enabling longboarders to fine-tune their trucks according to their riding preferences. And wheel-makers were all but reinventing the wheel, creating units that were not only fast but grippy and capable of rolling over small cracks and pebbles that stopped others in their tracks and sent skaters flying.
With this new gear, riding a longboard felt markedly different from riding a shortboard. Simply making turns was fun and easier than ever. People who had never skateboarded before were drawn to the sport, as were legions of former shortboarders who had quit, as 85% do before they turn 18, according to Brooke. He estimates there are now more than 750,000 longboarders in the United States, many of whom dabble in many of the subgenres within the subgenre.
Among the types of longboards are dancers (usually about 60 inches long, for skaters who practice fancy footwork while they roll), commuters/beer run boards for getting around town, downhill boards that are designed to be more stable at high speed, sliders that are set up to maximize the ability to handle four-wheel drifts (to slow down) while descending and boards designed for the quick-turning necessity of slalom. Ranging between $150 and $300, more expensive boards are often built with high-tech or earth-friendly materials, or both, and may include custom paint jobs or designs.
Although college kids and twentysomethings make up the largest part of the longboarding population, there are also plenty of teens, Gen Xers and even boomers.
"Then you have the casual dad, who walks in here with Junior to get him his Tony Hawk board," said Jim McDowell, of Santa Monica's Rip City, a skateboard shop that opened in 1978. "And while we're putting Junior's board together, the dad sees all these longboards, asks to look at one, then they're standing on it, and the next thing you know the glaze has come over their eyes and he ends up walking out with a nice 45-inch pintail, and his kid will have his typical little flippie board."
Longboards also appeal to surfers and snowboarders, who cross-train on them. "The body movements are virtually identical [to snowboarding], and the awareness and being able to look around you and make those movements when you have to is important," said Jon Casson, the snowboard director of Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club in Colorado. "It helps overall coordination and helps keep you in shape."
And unlike surfing or snowboarding, there's no waiting for snow, good surf or even dry weather -- many longboarders regularly skate in parking garages.
As with any exercise that's fun and aerobic, weight loss is sometimes an unexpected benefit. Los Angeles skater Daniel Boothe lost 60 pounds in four months when he began skateboarding for fun and transportation, the latter of which is getting more popular as gas prices increase.
"It's so comfortable to go places, if it's within a mile or two or maybe even three," said Sergio Ayala, 43, a recent L.A. transplant, who recently picked up longboarding. "It's so much easier to just get on the board and start rolling down the sidewalk. It's a lot easier than firing up the beast, driving and having to look for parking."