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Snowboarding as a sport has reached middle age

Is the step-on binding an advancement in technology or the sport showing its age? Maybe both. Photo: Burton


The Inertia

When the editors at The Inertia and I started discussing ideas for articles I could write about snowboarding, I was hoping to ease myself in. Maybe take a look at the pros and cons of step-in bindings, analyze why snowboarders have started dressing like skiers or rate the quality of nachos at resorts Vail has recently acquired.

No such luck. Straight off the bat, the gauntlet was thrown down. “Can you take a look at the state of snowboarding?”

Err…yeah…I could…but I’m currently writing a PhD thesis on Geopolitical and Economic Strategies for Achieving World Peace Across the Universe, which is probably easier.

Anyway, never one to duck a journalistic challenge, I figured I would pick up said gauntlet and try to tackle one of the great unanswered questions of our age: “What the **** is going on with snowboarding?”

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Now, the last time someone tried to tackle such a weighty issue, David Benedek ended up creating a 450-page hardbound opus that folded up in a really complicated way–Current State: Snowboarding. I have one sitting in my bedroom, and still haven’t finished reading it after eight years. So here’s hoping I can fit this all into the attention span of an internet reader. If you tend to get distracted easily, you may want to quit now and go watch videos of drunk people fighting outside liquor stores.

To make this more digestible, I’ll tackle it in a series of macro themes, and there really is only one place to start:

Middle Age

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No, I’m not referring to the period between AD 500 and the Renaissance in Europe, or a terribly-themed bar somewhere in America where you can drink mead and watch people jousting. I’m talking about the time in one’s life when you become reflective, nostalgic, unable to touch your toes and start imagining what it would be like to jack everything in and become a fortified-wine-drinking street bum randomly cussing at people walking past, just for the hell of it (or maybe that’s just me?). No, I’m talking about snowboarding, which has now reached middle age.

Before we tackle what it means now that snowboarding is middle-aged, it’s worth reflecting on the aging process so far, which I think broadly plays out as follows:

1970s – Snowboarding was born (assuming you ignore those dudes in Turkey riding planks and some unsuccessful kids’ toys in the ’60s).

Early 1980s – The toddler years, snowboarding is coming to grips with standing up and working out how to not poop in its pants (stuff like highbacks, edges and sidecuts start getting worked out, competitions are more than just some handful of people dicking about).

Late 1980s – The kid years, smokes the first cigarette (badly) and had its first kiss (also badly), starts to realize the parents don’t know everything and develops an identity (snowboarding invents its own language – e.g. “jibbing”, starts wearing terrible neon outfits, builds its own “heroes” to go on posters).

1990s – The crazy teenage growth spurt, experimentation with recreational drugs, getting laid, telling policemen to **** off, full-fledged rejection of society and listening to terrible experimental music (mega comps, oversized checks, rock star status for riders, explosion of brands, snowboard industry printing money and snorting coke through 100 dollar bills etc., has hot steamy sex with the Olympics and then regrets it).

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Noughties – Adulthood, mortgages, proper jobs (snowboarding gets a bit serious, people talk very earnestly about the importance of “style” and respect for the mountains, the snowboard industry consolidates and hires accountants, consequences of previous actions come home to roost and brands go out of business).

All of which brings us more or less to the present day…wallowing in nostalgia, crying uncontrollably when watching Toy Story 3, worrying about the planet we’re leaving our kids, discovering healthy eating, and considering whether we’ll do all the things we’d hoped with our lives.

So how does this mid-life crisis manifest in snowboarding?

First up – Nostalgia

Wallowing in nostalgia is like sliding into a bathtub full of golden syrup laced with methamphetamine. Once you’re in, you ain’t getting out. Nostalgia is a peculiar human condition which creeps up in middle age, founded on the belief that the past was way better than the present. This appears to be hard-coded into the human condition, as evidenced by a recent study by The Resolution Foundation which found that happiness peaks at age 17, falls to its nadir in middle age, and then peaks again at age 70 – just before you get hemorrhoids.

I think the addiction to nostalgia is particularly acute in the snowboarding industry because lots of people understandably yearn for the halcyon days of unfettered growth, selling 20 brand new boards to Japanese karaoke bar owners who just want to put them on the wall, inner-city comps where tens of thousands of fans turn up with huge/easy prize money from clueless corporate sponsors.

But the “it was better back in the day” stuff doesn’t quite sit so easily with me as just a humble snowboarder, disconnected from “the industry”. My boots actually work now. My bindings don’t break. My latest brand new snowboard was actually pretty cheap (my first ever board, which I purchased second hand, would be the equivalent of $1,200 in today’s money). I can buy a single season pass that allows me to ride dozens of resorts all winter across three continents. Terrain parks are precision shaped, not hacked out with a shovel. My kids learned to shred with gear that was the right size. I can watch infinite snowboard content at the click of a button. It’s all good.

So to everyone who’s feeling a bit melancholy, wistfully imagining what it would be like if it was 1994 again – give yourself a shake, we are living in a golden era for snowboarding. Let’s not act like French politicians trying to preserve a mythically-perfect and glorious past (and God knows, I’m as miserable as the next guy about the decline of my beloved print mags just as much as French civil servants hate the rise of Anglophonic words like “le weekend”). Let’s look to the future and imagine what we could achieve with graphene, lasers and equality for all.

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Step-Ons

I think the return of “Step-Ons” (sorry, step-ons, not strap-ons?) was emblematic of snowboarding being firmly in middle age. Firstly, Burton had obviously realized that there are a bunch of older folk out there on the hill, for whom bending over to strap up bindings is a challenge. Or (as is the case for my wife) the onset of arthritis makes cranking binding straps agony. As such, I would assert that the step-on was the first explicitly middle-aged snowboard product. It recognized that not everyone who snowboards is made of rubberized jelly beans.
But more importantly, the reaction to this alternative form of connecting your feet to a snowboard was incredibly middle-aged and conservative. Now, anyone who has ever tried to get a 45-year-old man to do anything differently will know that it would be easier to push a wardrobe up five flights of stairs, whilst wearing roller skates. That’s because in middle age people have formed their opinions, and they ain’t gonna change for nobody.
The belief that things couldn’t (or shouldn’t) change, and the consequent middle-aged conservatism in product design gripped surfing for years. There were really only two modes: Longboard or shortboard. You could have any color as long as it was white (for a board) or black (for a wetsuit).

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Thankfully surfing was shaken out of this funk when the joy of experimentation was re-discovered (perhaps catalyzed by Kelly riding a tiny board at Pipe or the multitudes of disenfranchised “freesurfers”), and so today you can pretty much ride anything from a 15-foot inflatable SUPsquatch to a wooden door and it would be considered a legitimate surf craft and exploration of surfing’s performance boundaries.

So when step-ons arrived, and people got so angry about it (“what the **** is wrong with straps, this is bull****”), snowboarding was laying bare its worst middle-aged, fear-of-change, conservative traits. Who knows whether step-ons are actually going to turn out to be a good idea, but you’ve got to respect Burton for trying to improve things. Change is good. Evolution is what has kept the human race alive after all.

Worrying About the Planet

Speaking of humanity’s survival, middle age is making us think harder about our actions and their impact on the planet. I don’t believe, that during the sport’s teenage explosion in the 1990s, many people were really thinking too hard about eco-friendly sustainability. Snowboarding was chugging beers and throwing the empty can into the river, metaphorically speaking. I’m not sure I can think of a less ecologically-friendly thing than a snowboard (maybe a surfboard I guess) and they were being spat out by factories at breakneck speed. Pros were spaffing helicopter fuel all over Alaska with gay abandon and everything was new, new, new each year. It was like disposable consumerism and toxic chemicals went out and got high together and then spent all night having sports sex.

I think snowboarding is a long way from being truly sustainable, but our entry into middle age has started to make us think a lot harder about the planet we will be leaving behind for our kids and grandchildren, and this is being reflected in the actions taken both by individuals and organizations.

You could argue that the youth are more actively addressing ecological challenges, whilst the middle-aged, vested interests try and hold back change for as long as possible. However, every time someone repairs a jacket, someone goes split-boarding rather than get a Heli, a company tries to make a top-sheet out of beans or a ski resort makes a commitment to being powered using sustainable energy, then we can begin to feel some hope that our kids will be able to ride and enjoy the mountains as we did.

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You could argue that this drive to sustainability is actually just a selfish act of self-preservation by snowboarders, or even worse – an affected attempt at virtue-signaling borne out of a massive guilt trip after all the years of bad behavior. Maybe. But I would also like to think that our middle age has brought greater collective consideration of our actions. So here’s hoping that we’ll grow as our sport enters its third age.

Just Turning

The renaissance of turning is, I believe, another development which reflects snowboarding’s glide path into middle age. I think there are two factors at play. Firstly, hitting 70-foot kickers isn’t really fun unless you are in the top 0.001 percent of snowboarders on the planet, and it definitely isn’t fun if you are middle-aged and have a degenerative hip condition caused by doing too much break dancing between 1985 and 1989. As such, you need to find ways to have fun on the mountain without being 20 feet in the air. In other words, turning. I’ve always been a closet Eurocarver and learned to ride in hard boots, but I honestly don’t think you can beat the feeling of tanking it into a toe-side turn, getting really low to the ground, having your board rip into the snow and then spit you back up into a heelside turn. That feeling has maintained my fanaticism for snowboarding for over 25 years.

Secondly, one of the great joys of getting older is not giving a f*** about being cool anymore. At a certain point in the process of maturing, you just decide to be who you are and follow the path that makes you happy. Listening to Nicholas Walken talking about setting up Korua Shapes on the Looking Sideways podcast recently, he thankfully just decided to start making boards for the way he liked to ride, rather than trying to chase the standard industry template of what was cool. Ironically (or perhaps inevitably), he has come to define what is cool as a result.

Turning is rad again.

Since most of the people in charge of snowboard companies are now well beyond 40 years of age, it was only a matter of time before their own riding preferences started to filter through into the product line. If Korua is one of the brands leading the charge, then everyone else has now (finally) recognized “just turning” as a legitimate form of snowboarding.

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Which brings me to the final sub-theme of snowboarding’s middle age:

Bucket-Listing

There is a neat graph that you could draw where one line (simplistically moving upwards at 45 degrees) represents your disposable income, and another line (moving downwards at 45 degrees) represents your physical faculties. At a certain point, you may have enough money to afford your dream trip (Heli in Alaska / Japow / Icelandic surf-snow strike mission), but you need that point to arrive before the two lines intersect, and you are unable to physically handle it.

In middle age, you become acutely aware that there are only so many good days left, so the days and money you spend riding really need to count. This is why I think the concept of a “quiver” has risen. Old shreds can afford the “perfect” board for the conditions on any given day, and they really care about having the perfect board because they want to maximize the fun they have on the days they’re out riding. And of course, brands are very happy to fulfill that demand. I have two powder boards (one for trees and one for big lines)…yes, I am that desperate.
Powder boards (and by extension backcountry lodges) aren’t really about snowboarding (in the same way that Jaws isn’t really a movie about sharks) – they are about dreams. A powder board is selling you the dream that your next ride could be one of “Your Ultimate Snow-Based Experiences™”. It is a vehicle for ticking another item off your bucket list without any compromise.

Extrapolating more broadly, given polar ice melt and the stance of The Most Powerful Orange Faced Man in The World™, none of us knows exactly how long snow will be around for. So snowboarding is in a desperate dash to soak up as much of the good stuff as possible before it disappears like a vanilla ice cream on a sunny day.

So, snowboarding has gone all nostalgic and dewy-eyed, worrying about its impact on the planet and the world it will leave for its grandchildren, accepted it’s OK to not be cool and has become obsessed with ticking items off its bucket list before the snow disappears. As we’ve all grown up, so has the industry that serves us.

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It could all make for quite a depressing outlook as we settle in for the downwards glide path towards extinction, but there is hope, there is a new generation looming. Our kids, the next wave of snowboarders, will re-shape the industry in their own form. They won’t be fettered by nostalgia, they’ll just look forward and build a brave new world for themselves whilst they casually drop quad corks off side hits. Thankfully, as we were partying, we all managed to procreate…and when the baton gets passed to our offspring, things are going to get interesting.

Which is a half decent segue into the next macro theme to explore next time…competition.

Editor’s Note: This the first in a three-part series that examines snowboarding in essay form. David Blackwell is a longtime columnist for Whitelines. Read Part II, here.

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