In late March of ‘95 the British Championships were moved from Tignes over the hill to Val d’Isere. I’m not sure why, I think there was some wrangling with Tignes over their ability to provide a pipe, either way the British Championships ended up in mine and my friend Gumby’s backyard.
I first met Gumby earlier that winter in the basement of a chalet that he was squatting in. It had mud floors covered in ‘carpets’ that were actually old curtains he had salvaged from the rubbish huts around town, there was no bathroom and for coffee they were syphoning hot water out of the tank for upstairs. At the time Gumby was one of the funniest looking people I had ever met, at about six foot he was scrawny with pale European white skin covered in red freckles from too much Australian sun, but his features and hair gave away some distant Polynesian ancestry and while he was (as his bedpost would attest) strangely handsome it was all capped with the biggest ginger afro you have ever seen. Couple this with the fact that his snowboarding outfit consisted of a stolen Thredbo lift attendants jacket, a pair of pants so short he had to tie them to his bindings to stop them riding up over his knees and a pair of old split heeled Caterpillar work boots and you have what in Val d’Isere terms was classed as a vagrant.
But to me, Gumby in the mid-nineties was the best kind of snowboarder. He was a lunatic. I believe snowboarding is pure self-expression, a window into someone’s character and personality. Using this rationale I knew that Gumby was very close to insane and as chaotic and fucked up as his life off snow was at that time, on snow he summed up everything that was great about snowboarding in the early days. You can take your grand masters, kings of style and tech wizards, they have nothing on the spontaneous idiocy that a lunatic is capable of. The lunatic can never be under estimated, because that’s their prerogative, just when everyone is about to write them off they will produce a moment of sheer genius.
The first couple of days of the Brits flew by in a blur partly because of a new drink called Red Bull. Then on the third day the French authorities came and confiscated it all. The fourth day was a slightly mellower pipe day and it was literally a ditch, but some of the better riders still flattered it. Then on the last day came the Black Fly’s Big Air. Gumby always contested that it was called Big Air and not Best Trick so was adamant that lacking the ability to do any kind of trick he would just go bigger than everyone else and therefore technically they would have to award him the prize.
The night before the event I tried to front flip off a bar with a low ceiling and a concrete floor and to this day swear I broke my neck. But not being able to ride instead gave me my first ever opportunity to govern the day’s proceedings with the microphone. Qualifiers saw strong showings from Chris Moran, Stu Brass, Steve Bailey, Justin Allison, Russ Ward, Danny Wheeler, Stenti, Johnny Barr and all the other heavy hitters of the time. At the end of the session I was given a list of names that had made the finals, Gumby’s name was not on it. I started to read the list out and the crowd made up of Val d’Isere locals began to chant their hometown hero’s name. As I read the eighth and final name on the list the crowd were bellowing Gumby’s name and never one to hold out under peer pressure I blurted out ‘Gumby’ before Colin from Black Fly could stop me.
The crowd erupted into a rhythmic primal cry of ‘GUMBY, GUMBY, GUMBY, GUMBY’ throbbing like a tribal drum at a human sacrifice.
The nine finalists made their way to the top of the pipe, which now served as the run in for the kicker. But Gumby kept going, climbing up out of sight into the trees above. Three or four riders later I announced that it was time for Gumby to drop. Nothing happened. About ten seconds later a ginger Afro came flying out of the trees already clocking a solid twenty miles an hour. By the time he ollied out and over the remaining finalists he was probably doing thirty. He landed on the downside of the pipe run in mound and tucked into the flat bottom.
The crowd erupted into a rhythmic primal cry of ‘GUMBY, GUMBY, GUMBY, GUMBY’ throbbing like a tribal drum at a human sacrifice. It was electrifying and I like everyone else was mesmerised. As Gumby hit the transition at the bottom of the kicker I reckon he was doing close to forty miles an hour and the ramp was whippy. Inevitably his legs buckled under the weight of the compression, but he managed to hold on long enough to make it up and out of the kicker. I was stood next to the take off and I have this beautiful memory of Gumby sailing up and up into the sky with his board slowly rising in front of him, all the while this mass of ginger hair battled the inevitable half back flip with massive window winds of the arms. The crowd, enthralled by the same vision, had fallen ominously silent, probably all too aware that they had egged someone on to certain doom.
The kicker had an eight metre table top and, generously, twelve metres of landing but by the time Gumby had reached the apex of his jump he had cleared both and was over ten metres up above a flat piste fighting an involuntary back flip.
And this is my favourite part of this story, he’s on the ropes, defeat is imminent but in a last Rocky style comeback Gumby suddenly threw his head back and surrendered to the backflip and for a split second I saw his eyes. In this situation ninety nine point nine percent of people are betrayed by their eyes and openly show fear. Not Gumby - he was still in full attack mode refusing to give up. But it was just too little too late and as he impacted into the flat piste he was nose-diving. The board snapped in two at the front binding and the sickening thud and then dull vibration of a carcass hitting the snow reverberated through everyone.
Being a local, a pitch invasion of sorts followed and within seconds fifteen mates surrounded a stricken Gumby. Hushed voices tried to make sense of what they’d just seen and I grasped for words that might ease our collective shock. Then after about thirty seconds the attentive mates leant back and a lone fist punched the sky in triumph. Honestly the roar three thousand people made that day for the most idiotic feat I’ve ever witnessed on a snowboard was louder than any cheer I’ve ever heard at Air and Style.
While Gumby was dragged away to ‘do a dog’ as he called it, which involved holing up for three days somewhere quiet and pissing blood till he was better, Justin Allison won the comp with a beautiful backside 7.
The feat was not forgotten however and it passed into the annals of British Championship folklore and is to this day one of my favourite stories to tell. Gumby, incredibly went back to the drawing board and re thought his approach going on to become one of the best freeriders of his generation. But he and anyone else who possesses the lunatic gene should be cherished as one of snowboarding’s most wonderful triumphs.