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?'?"