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Scare masters

Newton might have warned that gravity is not to be toyed with. X Game competitors would beg to differ.

August 16, 2003|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

"Vert" is the one word in the dense lexicon of extreme sports that turns street-smart skateboarders, BMX-ers and aggressive in-line skaters into dreamy-eyed poets.

Short for "vertical," the term describes the perpendicular portions of the massive U-shaped plywood ramps that enthusiasts use to launch themselves into the air.

Figuratively, though, vert is a state of mind. It's the exhilaration of plummeting downhill on a roller-coaster and shooting up the other side until you're airborne. It's that split second of weightlessness where time stops and the senses come alive. It's the G-force that pulls you back down into the roar of your own wheels, back inside the perfect wave. And it's the adrenaline high that keeps you climbing up for another run.

"There's definitely a little bit of sport and a little bit of art mixed in together," says former pro vert skateboarder Steve Revford. "There's this feeling of, like, flow. You're catching air. You're traveling. You're moving your body in very detailed sorts of positions.... There's this huge element of danger. Sometimes it's like a dance. When you're catching like 7 or 8 feet of air, there are times you're thinking, 'Whoa. This is kind of scary.' "

It's the mastery of that fear that leads to success in vert sports, and to competitions like ESPN's X Games, which enveloped the Staples Center this week. The pros transform that breathlessness into momentum, into power. They take control of gravity, demystify it and make it their own.

Vert biking innovator and champion Mat "The Condor" Hoffman has suffered for his art. He's had 15 surgeries, one of which was anesthetic-free. For a challenge, he has jumped off cliffs. It's all about mind over body, he says. "You really learn how to use fear to stimulate all your senses." He adds: "That's what is so attractive about the sport. It really encourages creativity."

Vert as sport can be traced back to the late-1970s when a group of scruffy surfers from Venice called the Z-Boys, widely credited with inventing modern skateboarding, discovered the thrill of riding inside empty swimming pools and even enormous drainage pipes. Eventually, skateboarders everywhere were testing gravity.

Today's vert ramps, also known as half-pipes, are extravagant exaggerations of those early days.

They're typically 13 feet high for competition, but some pros build them much higher to set records. Hoffman holds the vert biking record for reaching 26 1/2 feet above a 24-foot ramp. Skateboarder Danny Way reached 23 1/2 feet over a 27-foot ramp.

Made of plywood and coated with a compound of plastic, wood fiber and resin, the ramp surface is perfectly smooth, like "a guitar bottom," says Tim Payne, owner of the ramp design and construction company Team Payne.

At the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles this week, Payne and his crew assembled a vert ramp for the X Games that some pros considered to be one of the most challenging yet. It's far wider than the average, a vast undulating plywood wave that struck the pros silent at first sight and then warranted high praise.

"Ramp looks sick, huh?" said one biker to another during a practice run Wednesday. There was agreement all around.

At 13 feet high, more than 70 feet wide and more than 100 feet long, the design allows riders a longer run up to the "tranny" (the area where the ramp transitions from flat to curve), pushing them up "the vert" (the final 2 feet of the ramp's side) and launching them 6 feet or more off "the deck" (the flat area on top where riders prepare to "drop in"), depending on the rider's strength and equipment. Reaching this kind of "amplitude," a term extreme athletes have borrowed from physics, takes years of experience and a lot of work.

"You pump the ramp," says vert bike champion Dave Mirra. "Push down at the right time and it's almost like being in a swing. You have to land exactly perfect and compress all the way. The better you land, the higher you go."

And landing is as important as launching, because a fall from that height, says former vert skateboarder Dan Colburn, co-founder of Socalskateparks .com, is like "jumping off a four-story building."

At Wednesday's practice, vert riders stood in awe of Payne's ramp, eager to give it a try. The designer, whose deep tan and straw blond hair suggests decades on the beach, stood on the platform of the ramp pointing out the tough spots -- the 62-degree hill for bikers called a "roll in"; a protruding corner he called the "elbow"; a rounded corner called the "hip"; and the "clamshell," a curved portion extending a few feet above the ramp that created 6 inches of "over vert."

All afternoon athletes kept shaking his hand to congratulate him.

"The previous years, the ramps have been too basic," said vert skateboarding champion Rune Glifberg, standing alongside Payne as close to the ramp's edge as possible.

Every few seconds, Glifberg leaned back as a vert biker popped up over the ramp with wheels at odd angles and legs shooting off the pedals just a few feet from his face.

For the uninitiated, standing at the edge of the ramp is like balancing on the ledge of a two-story building. Vertigo takes hold. But this crowd had long ago conquered that feeling and now perceived the height with excitement, even giddiness.

"I can't wait," said Glifberg tapping his watch. "Twenty minutes left. I'm jonesing to get on this thing!"

Finally, he and his fellow skateboarders got their turn. In an instant, half a dozen helmeted and padded vert freaks, the world's best, were dropping off ledges, snaking through the ramp, scooping up air -- and riding it.

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