These hills are to us what Oahu is to surfers," says Mike Perreten. A fellow longboarder pops out of a grimy parked GMC Vandura van, gains speed on the asphalt, and slides into a hairpin turn at around 45 miles per hour, letting his knees buckle and body fall backward. With the board now at 90 degrees to the direction of his travel, his polyurethane wheels screech and the thick plastic disks affixed to his tough, sport-specific gloves scrape the ground. He spins his board back nose-first, and gravity pulls him upright and toward the ocean below. A dog walker in British Properties, the luxurious neighborhood that borders this road in West Vancouver, is stupefied but manages to return a disarming wave as he and two other riders rocket by. "We learned pretty early on to give people a smile and a wave," says Perreten, co-owner of Landyachtz Longboards. "People don't tend to call the cops on us much these days."
For the uninitiated, a longboard is a skateboard that thinks it's a snowboard. The longboard's loose trucks, large, soft wheels, and broad, long, flexible deck are too cumbersome for the skate park but perfect for coasting smoothly over sidewalks and blacktop. Longboards started off as a more comfortable – and faster – way to travel with four wheels and a deck. But, increasingly, boarders are using them for maximum velocity, clocking downhill speeds of more than 80 mph.
Many competitive longboarders call Vancouver their home. For these riders, Perreten's Landyachtz van, complete with Molson pilsner stickers and a thick coat of filth, operates as a ski lift, transporting riders to the top of their favorite asphalt runs – usually along the high-rent thoroughfares of West Vancouver. These hills are the unlikely epicenter of this emergent sport and the breeding ground for the current men's, women's, and junior world champions. The way they "give'r" up here has inspired young speed demons to suit up in racing leathers and bomb hills on every continent – more than 1,000 riders are projected to sign up for International Gravity Sports Association (IGSA) longboarding events in 2011.
Still, these daredevil athletes are fighting for acceptance in an extreme sport dominated by high-flying freestyle skateboarders. Even as they hit speeds bested only by luges and bobsleds, longboard's easy-riding origins have carved themselves and their speed-demon offspring a reputation for languidness – and they can't seem to shake the flack.
"Long board, short dick," repeats Bricin Lyons, the prime mover of Vancouver's longboarding scene. "That's the kind of stupid shit skateboarders would shout out when they'd see a guy on a longboard a few years ago. At the very least, people would be all 'What is that thing?'?"
Around a decade ago, Lyons, a 320-pound Vancouver mailman known for his website coastlongboarding.com and his limitless ability to remain profusely "stoked," turned a smattering of enthusiasts into a visible community. The first event he organized was a cruise around Vancouver's seawall path, which attracted fewer than a dozen riders. But now an armada of hundreds push their way around the seawall in celebration of their once maligned fraternity. The way they see it, they're not skateboarding's apostates but rather its purists.
"Longboarding didn't branch off from skateboarding," says Perreten. "I think that the California surfers who laid the foundations of skateboarding culture would recognize what we do as skateboarding and what happens in a skate park – y'know, all the tricks – as something really different."
Perreten says that most of the 20,000 longboards Landyachtz shipped last year are being ridden by people to re-create the feeling of riding waves or carving powder in an urban setting. But a growing number of riders are tightening their trucks, donning racing leathers and helmets, and pointing their outsize boards downhill – effectively turning a cruiser into a cruise missile. (The current world speed record stands at 80.8 mph and is held by Mischo Erban, another fearless rider from British Columbia.)
"We didn't even know that competitive downhill existed and was an officiated thing until we were a couple of years into making the boards," says Tom "Meatball" Edstrand, Perreten's business partner. "When we saw it, we were like 'Fuck!'"
The sport of downhill longboarding made a brief appearance in the 1998 X Games and now includes competitions around the world. Courses are set up on curving, sloped streets, with hay bales protecting riders and spectators from the spills that come hard, fast, and often. Typically, four riders compete per heat, tucking and drafting behind one another.
"Tucking for two miles at like 60 mph is a killer for your legs," says Edstrand. "Sometimes you finish a race and they just collapse from under you." In this respect, Vancouver riders have a leg up on competition from less topographically dynamic areas, practicing on a seven-mile access road at the Mount Seymour ski resort in North Vancouver. Here, breaking the speed ceiling is more dependent on the rider's mettle than anything else. Miscalculations have proved deadly: Last summer competitive boarder Glenna Evans was killed the day before her 28th birthday.
"A few events, culminating in Glenna's death, definitely made us think a little harder about our role in the direction of the sport going forward," says Perreten, who dislocated his shoulder during a crash on the same road.
Landyachtz has dialed down its emphasis on competitive downhill by pushing its cruise-oriented models and being increasingly conscious about distancing the brand from downhilling's more reckless meets and events. "We make and sell boards, so we want longboarding to grow, right?" says Perreten. "If it gets a reputation solely as something risky and dangerous, that expansion will be limited."
For many, the lust for speed (and prize money) hasn't diminished. The 2009 IGSA world cup series champion and current speed-record holder, Erban, arrived at the sport through his love of snowboarding, regularly bombing the steep main road at the Silver Star ski resort near Vernon, British Columbia, as soon as it was clear of snow.
"It's a really long run," he says. "The whole hill is like 16 or 17 kilometers [10 miles]. I'd get to the bottom and hitch up. I'm in my leathers and helmet, right, so people were always asking if I was OK and where my motorcycle was."
Erban stresses that the desire to win races and smash speed records won't be checked by the risk that's so intrinsic to the excitement of the sport. "With downhill, you're basically turning yourself into a human Formula One car," says Erban. "Being a speed freak is ingrained in some people. If downhill didn't exist, I'd find something else to bomb hills on – a shopping cart, maybe."