The short history of longboarding, the sidewalk surfing

The first time a longboard appeared on the big screen was in The secret life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller's 2013 movie. In one of the central sequences, the shy protagonist, played by Ben Stiller, finds himself catapulted into Iceland during an adventurous search. Under the threat of an impending eruption of the local volcano, Walter launches on a longboard to a remote village. The two minutes of the spectacular sequence show Stiller wrap his hands in a rudimentary way, with stones to replace the gloves of ordinance, fundamental to be able to touch the asphalt during the turns, and moving at a crazy speed through the winding streets of the island, on the indie notes of Far Way of Junip.


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In front of this incredible display of skateboarding many have jumped on the chair at home, feeling the heart beating adrenaline, and more than one spectator has typed in search engines the description of the board, able to drift sinuously on asphalt ribbons recreating on the road the magic of surfing.

Chad Lamon

It’s not the bearings that make the rider fast, it’s what’s in the rider’s heart that gives him speed

Surf and longboard: from the ocean to the road

The longboard descends from the noble art of surfing and is the brother of skateboarding. When you talk about a "longboard skate", you are in the territory of a subculture within a subculture, which feeds on myths and legends of its own, has unwritten rules and communities that build their own rituals and shape their own language.

The longboard was born in the 50s between Hawaii and the United States, to give the possibility to riders of the waves a way to face the days out of the water, when the weather conditions do not allow them to surf. But it was only in the 70s that the intuition of Tom Sims, a surfer from Santa Barbara, gave life to the phenomenon of downhill, the reckless descent along the mountain roads, one of the disciplines with which athletes - or rather, riders - interpret the practice of this board with unique characteristics.

For decades, long and short boards develop in parallel, writing similar but different stories. Despite the high rate of fascination inherent in the longboard, technical limitations mean that for a long time the longboard ends up in the shadows, while the street skate is established as the protagonist of the evolutions in the half-pipes of the empty pools in Los Angeles and on the sidewalks of New York. Only with the advent of innovative materials, around the 90s, is the longboard rediscovered: the introduction of precision tools and new solutions on the market gives practitioners precision control of the board and stability in speed which was unimaginable until then. It is no coincidence that the "Nineties" are also the years when the snowboard culture explodes: finally for lovers of board sports there are technical tools of the highest level available on the market, accessible to everyone, and the fever spreads.
At the same time, skateboards and longboards are carving out their own spaces, and around the beginning of the new millennium the New York longboard scene is really structured, also thanks to the birth of The Broadway Bomb, an outlaw competition that becomes the most representative event. The community began to grow with the arrival of two producers such as Earthwing and Bustin Boards (the city's first exclusive longboard store), attracting the attention of skaters around the world and becoming a point of reference for practitioners. Today, the exploits of overseas specialists such as Kaspar Heinrici, Eric Hovey, the tricks of Brazilian Sergio Yuppie or the incredible virtuosity in the dance of Parisian Lotfi Lamaali can be admired on YouTube and Vimeo, and their protagonists have become icons for a host of boys and girls.
Beyond the confines of skate parks, riders conquer cities and meet during critical mass or at regular events such as Green Skate Day, born in Canada in 2007 and designed to spread the culture of the table as a means for alternative and ecological mobility. Since then, the longboard has won fans at all latitudes and today can boast an international federation, the International Downhill Federation, which organizes competitions around the world, which is also attended by a large group of athletes, including the champion Emily Pross.

Longboarding equipment

Taking on longboarding requires a propensity for board sports, a total disregard for the risk of bruising, falling over and an anarchic vocation. Once you have decided your reasons for wanting to put your foot on the board, you need to find out about the equipment. The board is not just an accessory but a part of the rider, something to connect with, and the relationship that is established with it is perhaps similar to what the musician has with their instrument. The beginner might start with a beginner’s board, and only with the experience and maturation of their own style of skating can they get to assemble the perfect board which will be the result of trials, study and a lot of ground road travelled under the wheels.

Build your own table

The longboard is distinguished from the most popular street skateboards by the length of the deck, the body, which varies on average between 38 and 42 inches (96.5cm and 106.7cm): it can be made of wood, fiberglass, carbon or plastic and has specific flexibility features that make it more suitable for use in speed or for evolution. Grip parts and wheels are designed to increase board stability, as well as precision bearings and bushing, or grommets, urethane supports that are critical to determining steering. The shapes vary from pintail to cruiser, from nosewalker to slalomboard, but the real difference is the trucks, the supports where the wheels are mounted. Without going into technicalities, you need to know that there are different configurations for the trolleys that determine the set-up and behaviour of the board.
Each board will therefore be different from the others and a longboarder, to obtain good results, must have a customized means not only on its physical characteristics (weight, height, style of skating), but also thought for the type of performance it will perform. Besides, of course, choosing a stylish board: in longboard culture, aesthetics do not play a negligible role. Clothing, as well as the type of deck and the graphics that characterize it, are considered expressive forms in all respects, and help to create a visual language and outline a frame that defines the universe of skateboarding.

Practitioners also wear the necessary protection to limit damage during riding: knee pads, elbow pads, speed suits, plus a Teflon helmet and gloves similar to those provided in motorcycle suits. The gloves are functional to the protection of hands but they also allow the rider to perform the "touches" to the concrete that accompany tricks and slides, in which the rider makes the board slide perpendicularly to the direction of travel to obtain a braking effect. The most useful aspect is the ability to control the speed during the descents at break neck speed.

A halfpipe is good. A 45 degree hill is better.

Longboard disciplines

The longboard was born essentially to offer the thrill of speed, especially in the size of the downhill / freeride, when you devour the hills dashing in the wind. But within this universe there are also other disciplines in which coordination, balance and technique are the dominant skills: this is the case of carving or cruising, or simply moving using the board as a means of transport, usually in urban areas. In the extreme version, carving becomes slalom, where the skill of the rider is put to the test by a speed course between the pins. Then there is technical sliding, where speed control and tricks are the main purpose, and the boards are stressed in continuous slides and early grabs. And there is pumping, which consists of making wave movements to perform syncopated curves, so that the body alone gives the thrust necessary to move the board. At the end there are dancing and freestyle: the first is to move with your feet above the board, performing real dance steps, while the second provides tricks similar to those of the skateboard and other specifics, such as some spectacular grab tricks made possible by the specific length of the board.
Perhaps, however, the essence of the longboard, its purest expression remains the downhill, conceptually much closer to surfing, with long laps characterized by harmonious movements and glides worthy of birds, where the slides are limited to the approach of the curves (as in the Stand Up Toeside) and the rest is pure dynamic and intoxicating speed. In the downhill, athletes average around 70 km per hour, with record peaks of over 110km p/h in sports competitions, in which there are three styles of descent: longskate downhill, where the athlete competes standing, the classic luge, where he is sitting, and the street luge, where he is supine, a position that makes the discipline very similar to the luge and rather crazy (given the position of the rider, control of the board is limited and braking is done in a rather rough way, or by crawling the soles of the shoes on the asphalt).

Whatever level or style you choose, the board remains a fundamentally free and democratic activity and every moment is good to practice. It doesn't matter if you don't have the Lakefront Trail in Chicago, 29 km of beautiful track, Prospect Park, a Brooklyn myth, or the passes of the volcanic mountains of Oahu, in Hawaii: part of the pleasure of longboarding also lies in discovering new tracks, finding hills from which to launch and christen new roads: "We don’t do half-pipes, we bomb hills".

The longboard culture

When it comes to longboards and skateboards, the stylistic element must be considered before the competitive component. The board whether it is long or short, is first of all a subculture, and in it coexists many different elements that help to make it closer to a philosophy of life than to a sport. Skateboarding styles and attitudes have evolved over the years, changing from city to city, and today each scene is closely linked to the interpretation of space and the character of the places where the discipline is practiced. New York longboarders, for example, coined the expression "Push Culture", which referred to a community and a rather aggressive and fast style of board use, a frontal way of approaching the city. New York is an urban agglomeration full of obstacles and complexity and precisely because of this articulation represents a real playground for anyone who loves skateboarding.
The same boards of the New York longboarder have been radically modified and adapted to the needs of urban performance, opting for larger tires and settings that allow greater agility of skating in chaotic traffic compared to the Californian set-up, where the long stretches of asphalt and hills allow a more "surfing" approach to the discipline. The expression "Push Culture" has evolved and today more generally indicates the culture of skateboarding.

Tricks get applause, style gets respect.

Even Europe and Italy, in recent years, have been affected by the fever of the long board and there is no lack of boarders who choose breath-taking spots like in the Apennines or the Dolomites to skate in, places that in winter become snowboarding territories and have no reason to envy other U.S landscapes. Metropolitan centres such as Milan now have strong, well-established crews and the number of boarders are growing all the time.

Paper boards, celluloid boards

The riders who have embodied the spirit of the American counterculture know that the sport is riding a dream of freedom steeped in individualism, forged by blows of waves and music. An epic that begins with Big Wednesday, a milestone in 1970s cinema signed by John Milius (a passionate and skilled surfer), passes through the Nick Hornby's novel Slam (2007) and arrives at Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan, Pulitzer Award 2016. If surfing has been the sport that, more than any other, has been able to embrace the values of that libertarian America, devoted to the cult of the body, mystically linked to the epic of wilderness, then skateboarding has represented its urban evolution. A history that in some ways is harder, cemented in the urban spaces of the American metropolises of the '70s, '80s and '90s, linked to the need to appropriate and dominate conflicting territories through the relationship with the crew, which is like family.
There are stories that narrate with realism and poetry urban America seen from above a board, such as Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001), a documentary by the great skater Stacy Peralta, Lords of Dogtown (2005) by Catherine Hardwicke and the splendid Paranoid Park, a film shot in 2007 by Gus Van Sant, which tells of a sore adolescence through the eyes of young skaters in Portland. In this sense, longboard skateboarding is a hybrid form, a discipline that joins the relationship between natural and metropolitan spaces, the perfect synthesis between two different attitudes, able to combine the idea of light, sustainable and fun mobility with an aesthetic research in continuous evolution. To date, there is still no work that fully celebrates the charm of this discipline, except for short documentaries and video clips, including Dark Necessities by Red Hot Chili Peppers, the protagonists of a group of longboarder girls. For the moment, the long board still lives on the web and word of mouth, waiting for someone to sing its deeds and beauty.

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