When people talk about snowboarding’s ‘sister sports’, they typically refer to surfing and skateboarding. After all much of snowboarding’s culture – the feeling of standing sideways, the board graphics, the tricks and so on – has been lifted directly from its predecessors on the street and in the ocean.
Yet there’s a special buzz to be had from riding mountains that makes our sport unique. Or does it…? The thrill of gravity, the beauty of the hills and the challenge of picking a line are actually pleasures which snowboarders share with a less clichéd cousin. MTB journalist Richard Cunynghame encourages us to think beyond the elements (surf, snow, concrete) and towards the seasons (winter and summer). The parallels are staring us in the face.
May I be so bold as to ask you to dress as a transvestite? As Magnus Hirschfeld, the man who coined the term transvestism, pointed out: it is not an activity exclusive to the gay community, but merely the act of wearing the opposite sexes clothes. It is in that light that I wish you to consider the idea for now - nothing deeper than trying on something you might not have considered before.
The mountains are where the world in its creation got all passionate and aggressive. Bored of the flat plains, it barged its tectonic plates together and kicked up a right storm, and as with every passionate affair there are equal measures of danger, excitement, energy, spirit, anger, love and beauty.
"Beneath the clothing is a heart that beats to the same adrenaline-fuelled rhythm; under the beanie or full face helmet is a brain that ticks the same tock"
This is not the boring part of life, it’s the fascinating part. Over time, man has discovered various ways to harness the excitement of these passionate landscapes: skiing, climbing, bobsleigh, bungee, parapente… the list goes on. Currently, two of the best ways of experiencing the pleasures of the mountains are snowboarding and downhill mountain biking.
At first glance, two more opposite sports could hardly exist, not only in the equipment needed but the very seasons they centre on and the mediums they exploit i.e. snow and dirt. Look a little closer however, and you will see huge similarities: beneath the clothing is a heart that beats to the same adrenaline-fuelled rhythm; under the beanie or full face helmet is a brain that ticks the same tock; and obscured by the snowboard boots or trainers are feet that take the same hits, feel the same weightlessness of a perfect jump and compresses under the same pressures of an exhilarating turn.
The origins of both snowboarding and downhill mountain biking can be found in the same period. Perhaps it was the free thinking of the 60s that paved the way for people to experiment with sports and discover new frontiers, or perhaps it was a progression of technology? Either way, the 1970’s saw the traditional use of mountain slopes being taken in new directions, as people realised better times were there to be had.
This progressive attitude is the first thing that connects the two sports: they were both born out of a passion for having fun, and a disdain for tradition. When people were standing on early Snurfers or fitting fat tyres to bikes, they weren’t worried about what others thought of them or where this path was leading them, it was just hedonistic self-indulgence - and why the fuck not?
"Both sports were born out of a passion for having fun, and a disdain for tradition"
As the two sports have developed, so too have the aspirations of those involved. It is still the desire of any rider to jump as high and descend as fast as they can, but alongside this new challenges have emerged, namely to ride tougher terrain and master more complex moves.
And while the natural home for biking and snowboarding is still in the mountains, these days neither sport is confined to the peaks. Snowboarding has been taken to the streets, to local slopes and to back yards, and the same is true of mountain biking. Fair enough, you will always need snow for your board - while snow is not ideal for your bike - but in that way they are a reflection of each other: the yin to the other’s yang.
My Ears Don’t Hurt
One time, when I was at a motocross race, I had this feeling that something was getting on my tits. I couldn’t work out what it was for a while, but finally I realised it was the noise - the constant drone of engines. Although it’s a sound that carries connotations of petrol-headed excitement, it can bare down on a hangover awful bad. The next time I rode my push bike I basked in the silence, sitting at the top of a peaceful mountain knowing that all that would disturb it was the natural roar of the wind as I set off.
Despite their beauty, mountains can hold great menace, and this familiar silence at the top of a line offers the perfect time to appreciate it. The respect snowboarders and bikers have for their environment adds an extra dimension to their sports which is more akin to art: the need to work with the natural landscape, to interact with nature.
Unlike the monotonous bends of a running track, every lap of the mountain is unique, every descent a fresh challenge. A change in the weather or a minor adjustment to your line can make even a familiar slope feel radically different, and though you might descend it a hundred times it will never be an exact replica. As winter gives way to summer, the same lifts take us up, and the same gravity pulls us down, but each run we do retains this individual character.
"The respect snowboarders and bikers have for their mountain environment adds an extra dimension to their sports"
Of course, there are obvious differences between a snowboard and a bike, chief of which is that boards have no means of self-propulsion. When you’re unstrapping your foot and scooting across a flat section, this can seem like a frustrating limitation, but it also has a lovely advantage. Imagine how kooky it would be to see some goon with ski poles on his snowboard!
Well, as a downhill biker myself, this is exactly how it feels to see a cross-country mountain biker. All that pure excitement castrated by a dick who wants to join in with something he sees as ‘cool’, but who has corrupted it so badly you can barely see the resemblance to what it is you do. Snowboarders, by contrast, have always been united in their love of the descent, although that still hasn’t saved the sport from interferers.
Competition & Politics
Wouldn't it be nice,
To get on with me neighbours,
But they make it very clear,
They've got no room for ravers
They stop me from groovin',
They bang on me wall,
They doing me crust in,
It's no good at all.
As the Small Faces noted so well in their 1968 song ‘Lazy Sunday’, those in our proximity can be right cunts. For years, snowboarding has fought for its right to party on the ski slopes of the world - demonised by those who have strapped a stick to every limb of their body.
So too downhill mountain bikers have found themselves antagonized by road riders and cross-country riders. Having a downhill race course designed for you by someone who is scared of going downhill themselves is like having someone with a phobia of crossing roads design a zebra crossing: it may be very safe, but it’s never gonna be as fun as jay-walking.
"For years, snowboarding fought for its right to party on the ski slopes; so too downhill mountain bikers found themselves antagonized by road riders and cross-country riders"
Now something I never understood was why snowboarders and downhill bikers had to go to the established organizations to gain acceptance? Whatever the politics, both sports have since broken free of these shackles and carved their own channels, in turn influencing the trends and technology of those who previously held us back. Not that I mean to dig up battle grounds of years gone by, but the slow acceptance of snowboarding and downhill mountain biking is very comparable.
Those who ride bikes and those who ride boards are similar - often the same - people. Now, I haven’t got my clipboard out and researched exactly how many of Whitelines' readers cross over to mountain biking, but let’s put it this way: I know plenty of snowboarders that do.
Most famously, Shaun Palmer – already established as a snowboarding icon - crossed over to downhill mountain biking in 1996, immediately winning national races and taking silver at the World Championships in Cairns, Australia.
As a pro in both sports, Palmer was a great exception. For most top level riders, taking part in the other sport provides a fresh challenge and a release from sponsorship and achievement pressures. As well as showing the whole world how close the two sports are, Palmer also personally introduced a few people to the different disciplines.
One such person was Steve Peat. Steve is one of the world’s most successful downhill mountain bike racers, and still owns a snowboard that Palmer gave him back in the day. The way he rides that board is similar to its previous owner – and while he does lack a bit of The Palm’s style, the sheer speed he goes and the fearlessness he displays is mindblowing. When I asked Steve why he goes so quick on his board, he said it was because when he was learning he had to keep up with Palmer and his mates. So that was it: go flat out or get left behind!
For most riders, swapping between the sports is what keeps each of them fresh. The fact you’re not a master at both means you get stoked by easier feats. If you’re an experienced snowboarder but new to mountain biking, just getting down a mellow trail is a massive buzz, while if you can competently backflip a bike then trying it on a snowboard will be that much easier - yet feel all the more gratifying.
"The crossover is surprisingly easy to make, since the same skills are relevant to both"
The crossover is surprisingly easy to make, since the same skills are relevant to both: balance, obviously, but also an understanding of your contact with the ground, since snowboards and bikes both drift around on the surface and the ability to control and understand this is essential.
Judging speed on a bike is definitely easier, not because of the brakes but because of the surroundings; the white background of snow passes by with less character than roots, stumps and dirt does. I once saw this point emphasised horribly by a mate hitting a snow park kicker on his bike. Normally comfortable on this size of jump, he screwed his speed right up, hitting the kicker fast enough to jump double the distance… which is exactly what he did. At the moment he should have been landing, his flight was just reaching its peak.
Sailing past a chair lift full of skiers surprised to see a biker on the slopes (and even more so to see him up at the same height as them) he crashed down passed the landing, obliterating his bike and rag-dolling himself into a concussion. He admitted afterwards that he didn’t really know how quick he was going without the usual rocks and trees passing by as indicators.
The influence of snowboarding on the freeride mountain bike scene has been considerable. The use of helicopters to film long descents on a bike, for instance, always reminds me of snowboard films, and for a time people were sending themselves off similar sized cliff drops to their snow-based cousins. This seems to have died out a bit recently - probably due to the participants dying out too.
This swapping of ideas though, is part of the rich tapestry that is weaved between all freesports, and which blurs the boundary between sport and art. Have you ever heard of the 110m hurdles being influenced by the javelin, or football being influenced by ice hockey? In contrast, snowboarding is constantly applying ideas from skateboarding and surfing to the mountains, and mountain bikes have been heavily influenced by the BMX and motocross scene.
"I have built many a bike jump directly inspired by snowboard mags and films"
This cross germination is what keeps all the sports alive. It can remember when I first saw a wallride on a snowboard, and personally I have built many a bike jump directly inspired by snowboard mags and films. It is incredibly rewarding, and shows that we both approach our canvas with a similar eye.
Above all these things, however, is the one major factor which connects our pastimes and makes them stand head and shoulders above any other: love.
Riding a bike or sliding on a snowboard can lift up your soul; it’s the thing that makes you go through so much for so little, that keep you going through the long hours at work. All that time earning enough cash to buy new parts, or to fund your next holiday, pales into insignificance when you finally get to go away and have the time of your life. The excitement alone is plenty to pull you through.
"Riding a bike or sliding on a snowboard can lift up your soul; it’s the thing that makes you go through so much for so little"
So… as the snow melts, and the mountains return to summer, my thoughts will be turning to long days full of epic runs and endless good times with my mates. And if that sounds like a familiar feeling to you, then maybe you should try swapping your equipment yourself - just until the snow comes round again.
After a winter of blowing through fresh powder and killing myself on rails, I for one will be going back to my original sport with a far fresher attitude and an even stronger desire to progress and enjoy it.
Mountain Biking: Where To Go, How To Learn
If downhill mountain biking has struck you as a delicious desert to winter’s snowboarding feast then there are plenty of places to give it a try. A good place to find out about the scene is DirtMountainBike.com. It’s basically the mountain bike equivalent of this here fair Whitelines, with all the information you'll need about forthcoming races, events and uplift days.
Uplift days are where transport to the top of the hill is provided (since Britain lacks in ski lifts). Bike Park Wales is the best known set-up, with plenty of blues, reds and even black runs (sound familiar?). For more UK uplift options check out this page.
There are also plenty of tracks on various landowner and Forestry Commission sites, which you’re best to find out about from local riders - people are generally pretty cool about telling others about nearby tracks.
If you wanna go the whole hog and get the ski lifts then you can get a trip to a resort just the same as a snowboard one. Two of the best resorts are Morzine in France and Whistler in Canada – both have really grasped the idea of opening themselves up in the summer, though more and more places are realising the potential so do a bit of research on the internet.
This article first appeared in WL Issue 78