Endless winter: A brief history of mountainboarding
August 11, 2005
In 1992, Jason Lee was working as a graphic designer with a firm in San Francisco and doing other odd jobs to pay the rent.Patrick McConnell, Lee’s founding partner in MountainBoard Sports, was a snowboarding buddy.On a chairlift in Heavenly Valley, Calif., toward the close of the ski season, the pair sat and pondered what at the time seemed to be a preposterous question: how to ride mountains once the snow had disappeared?Six months later, after fastening a plywood deck to a metal frame and adjoining steel trucks with pneumatic (inflated) wheels picked up from an Army surplus store, McConnell and Lee rolled their first mountainboard out of their garage workshop. “It was a junkyard on wheels,” said Lee Thursday while standing at the top of Fanny Hill at Snowmass. “It was pretty squirrely. You could go off-road, but it certainly wasn’t a performance board.”Lee and McConnell developed two more boards in San Francisco that year, each one a little better than its predecessor.The boards were rudimentary, yes, but immediately the two recognized their potential. One day, Lee reasoned, riding off-road boards could become as popular as snowboarding or skateboarding. Manufacturing and selling the boards could also make him and McConnell a fortune.There was just one problem. To make the mountainboard that both had envisioned in their heads, Lee and McConnell needed mountains. And dirt. San Francisco had hills – notoriously steep ones, actually -but it wasn’t the place to grow their fledgling company.
Enter Colorado Springs. Big enough to set up a substantial manufacturing operation, yet also close enough to a myriad of mountain roads and off-road terrain to test out their evolving product line, it was the ideal place to relocate. After moving in 1993, they set to work on making something that would actually carve down a dirt mountainside like a snowboard in the winter. In 1994, MountainBoard Sports produced 35 boards and developed its first bindings – crude wire straps that kept riders attached to their decks and made it easier to make hard turns.In 1995, Lee said he and McConnell started “writing ourselves checks,” finally making money off their venture. Lee also said the first renegade mountainboarding contests sprang up around that time.”As soon as we could have boards to ride and enough people to do it, we started competing,” Lee said. “It was like slalom-type stuff. We did a lot of slalom on paved roads, then you’d go on a dirt road, then back on a paved road. It was a lot different than the competitions today.”In 1996, the company released its first full line of production boards. The equipment had evolved from single-channel trucks to double-channel trucks that were more conducive to rocky off-road riding. The decks had also rapidly progressed, moving from plywood and steel to a laminated concave design made out of wood and fiberglass composite – very similar to snowboard decks .”They’re like a snowboard without edges,” said Lee, who estimates MBS sold 1,000 boards in 1996.The last major improvement was a hand-held braking system which was added in 1998. By that time, MBS was the industry leader in a sport that had already found a niche in the United States, as well as footholds in the U.K., Western Europe and Japan.
This year the company, which also sells clothing and accessories, sold more than 15,000 boards. When asked about that vision he and McConnell had on that chairlift ride, Lee, now 37, smiled broadly.”We were like, let’s make some boards that snowboarders can snowboard on in the summertime and make some money off it,” he said. “The worst-case scenario was that we’d end up with a lot of cool boards to ride around on.”Children of the dirtWhile Lee and McConnell combined may be considered the Jake Burton of their sport, mountainboarding – like snowboarding outside Burton – exists outside MBS. A number of other companies now manufacture boards and gear – and sponsor pro riders. Mountainboarding tribes that exist outside the continental U.S. don’t take their cues from Colorado Springs, either.Talking with amateur mountainboarders from Colorado Springs competing at this year’s U.S. Open Mountainboarding Championship, which is at Snowmass Village for the third year in a row, many referred to Lee as the Tony Hawk of their sport. They pointed to his eight consecutive Open wins in the boardercross, his prowess in the slopestyle events and his history as an innovator as proof that he is not only the godfather of mountainboarding, but also its biggest star.”He invented (the sport) and he invented the tricks,” said Paul Jones, 18. “Then it just started taking off from there.”Steve Hagadorn, 26, one of Jones’ friends, said Lee, like Hawk with skateboarding, was the inspiration for kids to pick up mountainboards in Colorado Springs and around the country. It’s the reason, he said, he initially got his first deck.
Dan Compton, 18, of South Hampton, England, and Tom Haycock, 18, of Chichester, England, who made their first trip to the United States for this year’s Open, have a different take. The Open is the largest mountainboarding competition in the U.S., but Compton said the field of riders was much smaller than that of UK competitions. There were around 50 riders taking runs Thursday on Fanny Hill preparing for today’s boardercross prelims. In the UK, Compton said, fields for local competitions can balloon to as many as 200. And, while there’s no denying Lee’s stamp on the sport, he and Haycock both said Lee’s influence is not the reason mountainboarding has had such widespread success in the U.K. and Western Europe. Accessibility and grassroots interest deserves most of the credit. Lee’s company has just reaped the rewards.”We’ve got a lot of rental centers and things that hire out mountainboards to anyone,” Compton said. “They usually build courses and they hold the event there. There’s a lot of skateparks in the UK, but they’re not very good. Skating is a lot bigger in the U.K. Mountainboarding is still fairly underground, but there’s a lot of amateurs who do it, really. It’s getting bigger all the time.” Haycock said most of the rental centers in the U.K. were started by entrepreneurial farmers looking for another way to make money off their land. He also said because the U.K. is so small, it’s easier to hold national contests that will draw bigger crowds.”2001 was the first national series and that’s probably when it started getting big,” he said. “It’s just grown for the last five years. We get more and more people each year. It’s open to anyone and anyone can just show up and ride.”Scrapes and smiles
While Lee and MBS’s stake in the sport’s overall growth is a discussion that has many subjective opinions, there’s no denying that mountainboarding’s core appeal has stayed close to the vision that Lee and McConnell first had on that chairlift ride in 1992.To tear down a mountain on a board when there is no snow is the perfect way for snowboarders to remedy their jones for winter in the summer months. As one of the T-shirts that MBS produces states, “Some of us can’t wait for snow.”Local Lisa Ruggieri, 42, a competitive snowboarder in the winter, couldn’t agree more.After seeing an MBS commercial on TV three summers ago, Ruggieri came to Snowmass to give the sport a try and ended up getting hooked. “I was like, ‘No way. They’re going down the mountain on rocks and dirt?'” Ruggieri said. “A couple places were renting boards. I picked one up, went out on the mountain and rolled around by myself. It was like, ‘This is great.'”Nate Peterson can be contacted at email@example.comToday’s Schedule: Boardercross prelims run between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., followed by slopestyle prelims between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.
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