Ride On Jake: HBO’s ‘Dear Rider’ captures snowboarding’s rise and Burton’s vision
Snowboarding finally and definitively went mainstream 20 years ago. The 2002 Olympic halfpipe comps in Salt Lake City drew as many as 33 million viewers in the second Olympiad with snowboarding included. The X Games arrived in Aspen. Shaun White would emerge as the sport’s crossover child star the following year.
For the brand and the man synonymous with the sport, it was a crossing the Rubicon moment – Jake Burton’s namesake company now looked a lot more like Nike or Microsoft than the quixotic one-man barn-based board operation he incorporated in Vermont 25 years earlier.
“We were the ‘Big B,’” Burton says in the new HBO Sports documentary “Dear Rider,” which premiered on HBO in November and is now streaming on HBO Max.
Burton’s wife, Donna Carpenter, describes that period of acquiring smaller companies and expanding into other sports and broader apparel as “growth at all cost” stretch for Burton.
“Then you say, ‘Uh-oh, what’s happening to the culture here,” she says in the film.
The film implies that the company right-sized after that and settled into its place in the the establishment as the sport’s rarely challenged standard bearer.
That inflection point in 2002 is among the most interesting and revelatory parts of the doc, which doubles as a very personal portrait of Burton the man, who died of cancer in 2019, and a history of the sport he popularized.
The film, directed by Fernando Villena, who makes thrilling and artful use of archival footage, climaxes there in the early 2000s after tracing Jake Burton’s quixotic vision to bring surfing to the snow and the wild counterculture rise of snowboarding in the 1990s.
The film’s moving third act focuses completely on Burton’s personal life, as if the corporate history ended when the company hit the big-ime and Burton himself convinced Shaun White to sign a sponsorship deal. The film turns its lens instead on Burton’s inspiring final years, when he survived testicular cancer and Miller Fisher Syndrome, embraced life with a few final 100-day seasons and trips to Burning Man and X Games concerts, before another round of cancer killed him. “Dear Rider” begins and ends with moving footage of the tributes to Burton at the 2020 Burton U.S. Open in Vail.
Burton himself didn’t see all this coming when he converted a barn into a woodshop and made boards wearing a respirator with a hose connected to the outside.
“I saw a sport,” Burton says early in the film, “but I didn’t see Shaun White making the cover of Rolling Stone twice or snowboarding being in the Olympics.”
Nobody invented snowboarding. Jake Burton would be the first to tell people that, though he is the most credited with creating it. As “Dear Rider” makes clear, Burton may not have come up with snowboarding – in fact he started making boards based off the “Snurfer” toy he loved as a kid – but the sport would not be where it is today without him. As one interviewee puts it, he did for snowboarding what Bill Gates did for the computer.
The outsider spirit that defined snowboarding for its first decades should also be credited to Burton, who the film shows was a non-conformist from childhood to the day he quit his pencil-pushing Manhattan suit-and-tie gig to go make boards.
Skiing in Vermont as a kid and admiring surfers in his native Long Island, Burton dreamt of combining the two. The Snurfer, a board with a rope handle attached, allowed riders to surf on snow (or at least those who were good enough to, which Burton was as old 8 mm home movie footage shows).
“The moment I started doing it I thought, ‘This is the sport.” he recalls.
Stratton, in Vermont, became the first mountain to allow boarders (a lesson was required to ride on-mountain in the early days). But boarders earned their reputation for being younger and drunker than anybody else on the ski hills, ruder and rowdier, “Dear Rider” makes clear. Burton brought on Paul Alden in the ‘80s as his first resort liaison, going around the country from mountain to mountain convincing resorts to let riders ride.
From trade shows to ski lifts, Burton and his growing snowboard partisans thumbed their nose at the buttoned-up and elitist aspects of skiing and brought youth to the slopes – downhill racing on boards took hold in the northeast while halfpipe and freestyle took off on the West Coast. Burton embraced it all.
“Dear Rider” shows early comps when riders rode wood boards that didn’t turn, wearing tennis shoes while barreling at 60 mph down the mountains. It captures the years when boarders had to ride mountains after hours and hitch rides with snowcat drivers and it shows why the culture evolved as it did, with all of it coming to a head in the ‘90s with punk rock and extreme sports taking hold with an emerging generation and with snowboards as a talisman of youth culture.
The film takes its title from the salutation Burton used to open his letters in the annual Burton catalog, which was the bible of boarding for years before Transworld and other pubs came along. In those letters, read dramatically by actor Woody Harrelson in “Dear Rider,” Burton evangelizes for his beloved sport sport, defends it and celebrates it with often-lyrical evocations of the its pleasures. Here Burton keeps it simple, reminding riders of the slice of snowy heaven that awaits if with a hike up a hill with “you, your friends and plenty of virgin powder.”
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