At the recent ISPO trade show in Munich we saw that for the second year running 'weird' board shapes are making an impact on the design market. It put us in mind of this article by Andrew Duthie, published in Whitelines 108. Sit back, read and enjoy.
For a period at the end of the '90s, I was mildly obsessed with the shape of my snowboard. As an easily-distracted, shred-daft youngling I would draw it on schoolbooks, desks, the back of my own hand, and whatever else was readily available. Sometimes it would be filled with a detailed fantasy pro-model graphic; others would be no more than a single unbroken black line. Think that scene in Superbad, but with decks instead of dicks. God knows what any uninitiated persons coming across my handiwork must have thought I was into. However, to those in the know, it would be obvious; as iconic and instantly recognisable as a Coke bottle, or Marilyn Monroe. That shape is easily the most enduring visual constant in snowboarding, having gone virtually unchanged for years. Compared to bindings – once merely functional, now seemingly reverse-engineered from the Eurofighter – there has been minimal deviation for the best part of the last two decades. On the surface most modern snowboards look no different to the one Ingemar Backman used for his famous backside air at Riksgransen in 1996. So is this it? As is the case with skateboards, has the shape debate been pretty much put to bed, minor tweaking all that's required from here on in? Or, after so many years of the same thing, isn’t it about time for some fresh ideas?
[part title="From Snurfers...."]
Wolle Nyvelt talking about and riding some of his ASMO bindingless boards
There’s a very good reason why every model on every shop rack has roughly the same shape; it’s because it works. In the early days of Snurfers, Wintersticks, Skiboards and the like, there wasn’t a rulebook to follow and each company produced drastically different products. Tails ranged from swallow to straight-cut, and some models were barely as wide as a standard ski. As the sport evolved it became clear what the people wanted ,and once the radial sidecut made its first appearance, that was pretty much that. From slalom gates and piste charging to park and powder, it’s the only thing that can do it all. That’s not to say there aren’t differences to be found, as the growing market has led to more variations than ever – including progressive flex, bi-radial sidecuts and of course the many different types of camber profile. Add the various brands’ unique tech, from Head’s KERS to Ride’s Slimewalls and Lib Tech’s Magne-Traction, and it's clear that even these seemingly narrow brackets have a lot to offer within. All of these, however, are still only variations on a theme, and the mainstream snowboarding world remains very much married to the classic ‘all mountain’ shape. For high-end freestyle especially, it’s the only real option, for while you can tinker with the core, camber, sidewalls and whatever else, imagine negotiating an icy halfpipe wall or 60-foot booter with anything other than a classic sidecut; the guys and girls boasting X-Games or Olympic medals aren’t likely to ever use anything else, and even those at more offbeat comps like Red Bull Supernatural don’t line up with Snurfers at the top of the run. If it’s new ideas in shape that we’re after, we’ll not find them here.
After so many years of the same thing, isn’t it about time for some fresh ideas?
Unquestionably, the most high-profile rider to look to for answers is Austria’s Wolle Nyvelt. A celebrated backcountry freestyler for years, Wolle has been taking a different tack of late, building and riding his Ӓsthetiker Shape Movement (‘Ӓsmo’) range of surf-esque sticks. In Wolle’s world, you don’t need the classic shape. In fact, you don’t even need bindings. In every Absinthe movie from 2006’s More to this year’s Resonance, you can watch in awe as he blasts about on his unique creations. Laybacks, kickflips, one-footers and some of the most impressive riding in any of that year’s films, are all pretty much a given when Wolle drops. While he’s still world-class on his everyday Salomon, that’s not what people tend to talk about when he’s mentioned. “[Wolle] frickin’ kills it on that!" said one Travis Rice recently. “I remember being up in Alaska with him, and I watched him ride a couple of big lines on these little snowskates. I was pretty blown away with that."
He’s not alone, either. While Wolle's been doing his thing in Europe, Jeremy Jensen has been on a similar mission in the States. He may not have the Austrian’s profile but he’s been just as prolific, hand-crafting a formidable range of ‘powsurfers’. “I became a manufacturer because there wasn't a product that existed that allowed a rider to do the things that I wanted to do," he explains. “I had tried numerous snowboards with the bindings removed, vintage shapes, and I chopped up old snowboards to create shapes that would work better, but it was clear to me that this wasn't the answer. I abandoned snowboard construction and decided to do my own thing." What started out as a hobby led to the creation of the Grassroots Powdersurfing brand, and Jeremy continues to make and sell his unique designs that owe a lot to both surfing and skateboarding. Like the Ӓsmos, they are a strictly binding-free zone that has proved a hit with experienced riders (Bryan Iguchi, JJ Thomas and Scotty Arnold are among his boards’ fans). According to Jeremy, what attracts is that “powsurfing requires more of the rider. More skill, focus, knowledge and effort are needed to put yourself in the proper conditions. Good waves exist in a few places scattered around the world and people accept that if they want to surf they have to do what it takes to get to those places, and when they get to those places they are not magically surfing… they have to put in the time and effort to make that happen. Powsurfing is very similar in that respect."
Jeremy Jensen, Craig Stevenson and Chris Dunker surfing and snurfing
[part title="...to Surfers"]
The surfing analogy is revealing. Jeremy and Wolle’s brands are part of a network of small, rootsy companies that have grown up over the past few years and used wave-riding for inspiration – both in how they approach the mountain, and in how the boards are made: namely, hand-crafted in small batches. These garage operations – usually located near the terrain on which the boards are meant to be ridden – are closer to traditional local surf shapers than one-size-fits-all factories. And while proponents of NoBoarding (the BC movement/brand that hit the headlines a couple of years back) would also agree that ditching your bindings is the way forward, many of them believe that you don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater to get that surfy feel. Independent manufacturer Venture, for instance, produce a model called the Euphoria that can be ridden either way, and there are plenty of companies that have kept the bindings even as they mess with shape – such as Vermont-based brand Powderjet, or Japan’s Banya Craft, Field Earth and Gentemstick. Gentem founder Taro Tamai, in particular, is a great example of this new wave of snowboard ‘shapers’; a keen surfer and powder rider, Taro was inspired by the famously deep conditions of his native Niseko to create a range of boards that blurs the line between ocean and mountain. Each Gentemstick is meticulously fashioned along clean, graceful lines and bears a water-themed name like ‘The Manta Ray’ and ‘The Big Fish’ – not to mention Taro’s own signature down the centre (where the stringer of a surfboard normally carries its own nod to the creator).
For all the borrowed surf aesthetics and vocabulary, though, don’t be fooled: this is still snowboarding. As the saying on bottom-up reasoning goes, ‘If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck’; and even with their huge noses and radically tapered tails, these experimental boards can shred with the best of them. If you’re not convinced, consider also Spring Break Snowboards, the brand started by former pro rider Corey Smith in 2011. His range of handmade standalone models is like nothing else out there. Lined up in a row, the cheese-dream designs – from the ‘Witch Hat’ to the ‘Teenage Coffin’ – look like they’d be more suited to a gallery than a slope (indeed, a Spring Break art show was held at Mammoth mountain last November). Make no mistake, however: each and every one is a fully functional snowboard. What’s also interesting is that, for a guy who’s had a hand in Capita’s board graphics for years, Corey has given his own creations very basic (dare we say surf-like) designs, often as basic as black-and-white-stripes. Clearly, the real creativity is in the shape, but even that is deceptively simple. Corey sums up his method as: “you get a piece of wood, cut it out, shape it, glass it, add T-Bolts, and that’s it. You’re snowboarding." Seeing is definitely believing, so be sure to check out the videos of Corey and friends making descents on his impossible creations; if you believe the old cliché that ‘the best rider is the one having the most fun’, then these guys are world champs – simple powder turns and old-school methods have rarely looked so satisfying. Furthermore, the larger boards in Corey’s quiver make light work of a pow field that would be too shallow for most normal sticks. Opening up new opportunities on the hill is part of what’s made Spring Break so worthwhile for its creator. The real triumph for him is that it has “enabled me to look at the mountain, and snowboarding, from a different perspective, and just really enjoy it." There must be something to be said for a project like this if it can bring a jaded ex-pro back from the brink of being “over" the sport he'd dedicated his life to. As Marshall McLuhan put it, "We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us."
Spring Break Snowboards shredding Mt Bachelor
[part title="The Backcountry Core"]
It’s no coincidence that all of these innovators do their business in the backcountry. Attempts to apply radical new thoughts to everyday piste carving have given us such Dragon’s Den rejects as Dual Snowboards and the Bulldog Boardski – of which the less said the better – but the pow-hounds continue to pique our curiosity with genuinely good ideas. With or without bindings, they’re all looking for better ways to enjoy the fluffy stuff. As well they might; just as anything will ‘fly’ if you throw it hard enough, the variety of shapes that will get you down a powder field is almost limitless. If where you live is blessed with dump after glorious dump, you’d be mad not to want to mix it up occasionally.
Just as anything will ‘fly’ if you throw it hard enough, the variety of shapes that will get you down a powder field is almost limitless.
Take Venture, which now operates a dedicated R&D division called the Shape Shack. Based in Silverton, Colorado and described by founder Klemens Branner as a way of embracing “a bit of a mad scientist kind of approach, experimenting with designs that might normally be considered too wacky", the Shack has the perfect testing ground for its creations. “We have the freedom to produce pretty much anything that we can dream up," Branner explains, "and then we can walk out the front door and ride it right here in our backyard." Powsurfing’s Jeremy Jensen agrees that location is a huge factor, and that you’ll only truly appreciate boards like his if you’re both willing and able to ride them where they’re best suited: “You need a [steep] slope and you need soft snow, and not everybody knows how and where to find this. It seems to me that most people want ease and convenience. Powsurfing takes more dedication and effort, but the payoff is great and that is what it's all about. Once people taste the nectar they are hooked, but I don't know if the mainstream audience would put forth the effort required to get a taste of that nectar."
The founders of Venture Snowboards discussing their creations
[part title="To The Future"]
In the Utah winter, Jeremy’s never got far to go or long to wait before the conditions are fit for a powsurf. For a lot of riders, particularly us in the UK, it’s not that simple. While we may get the occasional transport-disrupting flurry on these shores, it’s still a rare thing that’s not guaranteed to happen even once a year. As a result, we’re forced to travel overseas, and that brings its own problems. For Wolle, whose range of Ӓsmos is heavily surf-inspired, the appeal is having “a quiver of boards instead of one. The different feeling in the snow of all the different boards is the most fun." That’s all well and good for a travelling pro, or someone living a snowball’s throw away from perfect pow, but it’s unlikely easyJet would entertain you if you tried to take a stack of decks on your flight to Geneva. Still, it’s foolish to write them off as irrelevant to the one-week-a-year crowd. For starters, you could always buy (or make) one to have ready for the times it does snow here at home. Most likely it’ll be a board for life, worth every penny/splinter when the going’s good. It scores big eco-points too, since you won't need a helicopter, a sled or even a chairlift in most cases. And secondly, the unusual shapes pioneered by these specialist companies have started to influence the broader market, so whether you like it or not you’re going to be seeing more variety in design. Take big mountain Jeremy Jones’ much-hyped new brand, which borrows heavily from the ‘powder surfing’ philosophy of guys like Taro Tamai. Its Hovercraft model bears more than a passing resemblance to the Gentemstick Manta Ray and is, according to the text on the topsheet, ‘shaped’ by Jeremy Jones. Even beyond such niche freeride brands, a trip around the recent ISPO tradeshow proved that many of the biggest US manufacturers – from Burton to K2 to LibTech – are including some eye-catching outlines in their 2013/14 range. And while selling Joe Public on the ‘quiver’ concept might seem like a cynical way to shift more boards, not all the blunt noses and half-moon tails on display were reserved for their powder sticks. Whether the goal is ‘skate-style’ tricks or ‘surf-style’ freeriding: shape, it seems, is the new rocker.
Regardless of what their marketing departments' tech-spiel says, however, it’s not the big brands that are doing the most interesting stuff. Much like the craft brewing boom that’s taken place over the same time period, it’s hobbyists in their garages with basic equipment, healthy imaginations, a sense of history and a burning passion for what they do that are leading the way. And in a world where triple corks now slot comfortably into slopestyle runs and the big stars do likewise with chat show couches, it’s reassuring to know that these guys are out there. While their creations won't send you as fast or as far as a conventional board, and going upside down is probably not much of a picnic, none of that matters. These folks have taken things back to basics, resulting in something that has a lot more in common with the snowboarding’s early days - and those of the other board sports – than with what Corey Smith refers to as the “crass commercialisation" of modern snowboarding. It's a reminder of just how diverse a sport this is, and can continue to be; all you have to do is look past the immediate and into the fringes. Jeremy Jensen reckons that it’s likely to stay that way, and that while a few of the big players are starting to sniff around, the really off-kilter ideas – like ditching the bindings – will remain part of a "niche within a niche." That suits him just fine: "It is very small, but pure and full of the true soul of mountain riding. I could see a little bit of attention given by sponsors and TV, but I don't think it would happen to the extent of what they've done with snowboarding. Maybe it's best that they leave powsurfing alone. I think many of the best things in life are better left untainted by the mainstream machine."
A trip around the a recent tradeshow proved that many of the biggest brands are including some eye-catching outlines.
Perhaps he's wrong and we'll see X Games powsurfing in a few years, but the spectacle of modern slopestyle, halfpipe and big air is keeping the TV types busy enough for now. There, and elsewhere, the standard shape will live on, and long may it be used to deface school property. But as this new wave of snowboard design shows, there's plenty of room on the page for others too.