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Young 'Carveboarders' Head for the Hills for Their Thrills

Sport combines skills of snowboarding, skateboarding and surfing. Bus drivers liken themselves to ski lift operators.

October 20, 2002|Martha Irvine | Associated Press Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — It's nearing 11 p.m. as six guys hop on a city bus, each of them toting a wheeled contraption that looks like the monster truck of skateboards.

The men, mostly young professionals in their 20s, have already spent years looking to ride the perfect wave or carve into an untouched mountainside of powder snow.

But those aren't options right now.

Tonight, the moon is out, the fog uncharacteristically absent and traffic scant -- ideal conditions for a sport that combines techniques used in skateboarding, snowboarding and even surfing.

Some call it carveboarding or flowboarding, names derived from the brand of boards they ride.

In rougher terrain, with no asphalt and wheeled boards that have bindings, it's commonly known as mountainboarding.

"Final destination," driver Roy Flugence says over the bus loudspeaker, drawing a chorus of laughter and cheers as the group exits at the top of a steep hill.

The next few hours are a flurry of wild rides and commentary -- "Nice one!" and "Watch the wall!" -- through San Francisco's Sunset District, a residential neighborhood with Pacific Ocean views.

Fueled by a steady intake of doughnuts, candy and the occasional beer, the riders race down the hills, one after the other, making quick, zigzagging turns. Along the way, they scope out driveways that make good ramps for fancy turns and a little added excitement.

Beginners are advised to start with deeply carved, slower turns. And even the most experienced riders adjust their wheel pressure to the incline (softer tires have more grip on steep hills).

"Ohhhhh, man," Josiah Bunting said as he got up after a too-close encounter with a telephone pole.

Even he admits that falling is "unnerving" -- and he won on the TV show "Fear Factor," a gig that included jumping from a moving vehicle.

"All you can do is dig in your wheels, lower your center of gravity and hope for the best," said Bunting, who sells ads for a high-tech magazine by day.

He and the others choose not to wear helmets or other protective gear. But most board makers recommend otherwise.

On their Web site, for example, the makers of Mongoose All-Terrain Boards advise wearing "a helmet, protective eye wear, wrist guards, leather gloves, elbow pads, knee pads, sturdy athletic shoes, long pants and long sleeves."

The boards themselves are often well over 3 feet long and generally cost $200 to $300.

The first time Steve Agnew saw one, he thought: "Dude, that looks like a death missile."

"But no, it was flexible," he said, noting the looser springs that allow the board to pivot from side to side much more easily than traditional skateboards. That feature, along with more or larger wheels, makes it easier to turn.

Agnew, a longtime surfer, said he liked the boards so much he became a sales representative for Carveboard, a company based in Carlsbad, Calif., and founded more than three years ago by surfing star Brad Gerlach and his father, Joe.

Flowlab, another California-based company, makes a board that has a series of wheels underneath, lined up in rows on either end of the board.

Agnew said many stores that carry surfing and snowboarding gear are starting to ask for more of these boards. The companies that make them also distribute as far away as Australia, Japan and Europe.

But the sport, while growing in stature, is still clearly in its infancy. Online message boards dedicated to it often contain pleas from people looking for riding partners.

Many, said Agnew, keep their boards in their cars, searching for any decent patch of ridable incline. The less traffic, the better.

That's why the San Francisco group often chooses later weeknights to make their runs.

They have little to fear from police, who are pretty tolerant of skateboarding, although Jabez Boyd said friends who don't ride give him a hard time.

"They ask, 'How old are you?' " said Boyd, who's 28 and works in commercial real estate. "And it does -- it takes us back to eighth grade. It makes us smile a lot."

He and the others found each other by word of mouth. Some met snowboarding. Others are college or work buddies.

When they're out riding, they take turns driving a "chase car," in case of injury or problems with their boards.

But they rely on the bus for transportation up the hills -- and share doughnuts with the drivers who are nice to them.

It's a well-known fact that Flugence, one of their favorite drivers, likes chocolate doughnuts.

"These guys are outta sight. They're out here all the cotton-pickin' time," Flugence said, grinning. "They make me feel like I'm a ski lift."

If you squint your eyes, rider Chris Clark said, you might just believe it, especially on nights when fog rolls in from the ocean and over the San Francisco hilltops.

Said Clark: "It almost looks like you're in a snowstorm."

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