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Mired in the dirt

Anything that's part skateboarding and part snowboarding ought to go over big with crossover riders. But in the picky, picky world of action sports, mountainboarding just can't get a break, Sean Mortimer reports.

March 02, 2004|Sean Mortimer

It's midmorning on a Saturday and seven mountainboarders are trying to prove why their sport deserves respect with such passion that the few who dream of its breakout potential, if they were here, would rub together their hands in glee.

They're padding up, their stuff strewn around a man-made molehill on a couple of undeveloped acres in suburban Carlsbad. Elbow pads ringed with sweat salts. A tire-pressure gauge. A pair of padded ice-hockey shorts. Three rusty shovels and a rake.

Rob Eakle surveys the series of dirt jumps rising from a trail that swerves in and out of trees. Head, elbows, knees are covered.

He hooks his feet into bindings, wiggles them to make sure they're secure and bombs down the hill, blasting four feet off the dirt hump. He clears the landing of the second jump going so fast that he kicks his board into a power slide. A contrail of red dust shrouds the knobby tires as he skids sideways into a peeling eucalyptus. Thump.

Eakle grabs the trunk in time to avoid body-checking the tree. He laughs, and hoots and cheers erupt from his fellow So-Cal Dirt Riders, an odd assortment age-wise, 14 to 47, who on this day range from the advanced Eakle to Jennie Stenhouse, a relative beginner. A bit cautious since a recent wrist-snapping slam off a jump, she points her board down a jump-less trail, cruising in a crouch, pink helmet bobbing, arms waving for balance. Whoa.

Like Jennie, mountainboarding is making unsteady progress on the thrill-packed action sports track that was paved by skateboarding and has widened in the last decade for snowboarding, wakeboarding and even kiteboarding. Hobbled by a shaky identity and weak infrastructure, the sport hasn't had the juice to parlay a demo slot into a recurring berth at a mainstream launchpad like ESPN's X Games. In 10-plus years, it has mustered about only 65,000 participants worldwide, according to Brian Bishop, editor of the dormant Mountainboarding magazine.

What hurts the most, mountainboarders say, is the sport's sensationalized kill-yourself reputation: Always wanted Frisbee-size scabs? Grab a mountainboard! True, a Tylenol TV ad zooms in on a tumbling mountainboarder sweeping a steep slope with his body. And another for the Honda CR-V spotlights a lone mountainboarder bungling a cliff jump, the slam assuring him a bed in the ICU. "What was he thinking?" the tag line asks. "The biggest misconception" about the sport, Eakle says, "is that it's dangerous."

As a hybrid of skateboarding and snowboarding, both with thriving subcultures and potential crossover boarders, mountainboarding looked, despite its gnarliness, like a sure thing. But skateboarders live in a gated community. "Anything that's a takeoff on skateboarding tends not to be embraced by the skateboard culture," says Michael Jaquet, marketing director of TransWorld Media, the Oceanside publisher of the most popular skateboarding and snowboarding magazines. "And for whatever reason, right or wrong, the skateboard culture sets a lot of the rules for action sports."

Skateboarding is a lifestyle, says Steve Astephen, chief executive of the Familie, a Carlsbad action sports management and public relations firm.

"It's something you act like, something you wear, something you are -- same with snowboarding and surfing. With mountainboarding, there is no identifying."

And for kids who don't drive yet, there's no getting around town on a mountainboard the way they can on skateboards or BMX bikes. They're bulky, designed like a 4x4 truck for off-road stability, with grippy tires and bindings.

The few, the proud

Todd Sanders, nickname Sparrow, has long blond hair and an incomplete tattoo on his skinny calf. He launched the website SoCalDirtriders.com last year to help boarders hook up for sessions like the one in Carlsbad.

At least once a month the gang gets together to ride a mix of terrain, from undulating rock formations to gently sloping gravel roads. "Bombing down a fire road fills your blood with adrenaline," Sanders says. "Just knowing there is nothing between you and the ground, going close to 25 miles per hour."

With few public terrain parks or tracks, they search out hills, build their own jumps and hope the city or a developer doesn't bulldoze them before the next session. Mountainboarders do bomb down bike trails, and some ski areas rent mountainboards in the off-season, but it's mostly the older participants in a sport that skews ancient. More than half of boarders are over 21, according to Mountainboarding magazine, a huge liability for potential magazine advertisers and competition sponsors.

"Action sports are teenage driven," says Jaquet. "The teenage male demographic has buying power and so much free time."

Still, a good PR guy would probably love to help the sport grow, right? "The answer is 'no,' " Astephen says. "I wouldn't know how to market it. I wouldn't have a direction unless it was as a tourist company on a mountain in the summer and mountain biking [seemed] old."

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