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The Best British Snowboarders Of All Time: #5 – Steve Bailey

He may not have topped this list, but Steve Bailey’s influence on UK snowboarding cannot be understated. Matt Barr takes an in-depth look at a rider whose talent is the stuff of myth.

#TwentyWinters

  1. Best British Snowboarders Of All Time: #20 – #16
  2. The Mystery Turd
  3. Best British Snowboarders Of All Time: #15 – #11
  4. How To Be A British Snowboarder
  5. Best British Snowboarders Of All Time: #10 – #6
  6. The Best British Snowboarders Of All Time: #5
  7. The Best British Snowboarders Of All Time: #4 – #2
  8. The Best British Snowboarders Of All Time: #1

One of the interesting things about a poll like this is working out where the legends are going to place. After all, the landscape has changed irrevocably since snowboarding first hit these shores. So do those snowboarders whose heyday was the era of print rather than digital, whose reputation rests on rumours and stories rather than likes and views, have a place in modern snowboarding?

It’s an important question. Which is why it is so heartening that a rider such as Steve Bailey can still place as high as fifth, a solid 20 years after his heyday.

“He went bigger than anybody else. He had more pop than everybody else. He was more progressive than anybody else. He tweaked harder than anybody else’

So what is it about this ginger Mancunian, who hasn’t really been part of the scene in anything other than reputation alone for so many years now, that still exercises such a hold over the collective UK snowboarding imagination?

Personally I’ve always put it down to one thing: from the start Steven John Bailey was a baller, plain and simple.

Hats off, that's a stylish air! The tweak master soars high above Sheffield Ski Village in the mid 90s. Photo: George Blomfield

Even at the age of 16, when he counted other extraordinarily-talented snowboarders such as Chris Moran, Justin Allison, Danny Wheeler and Simon Smith as his peers, he stood out. He went bigger than anybody else. He had more pop than everybody else. He was more progressive than anybody else. He tweaked harder than anybody else. Ultimately, he just made it look easier than everybody else.

But how? Where did this innate ability come from? This is something that I’ve always wondered about. In the last few years a pop cultural theory has been doing the rounds, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, that reckons it takes around 10,000 hours of obsessive practice to unleash natural ability and truly master any chosen discipline. The Beatles, Bill Gates, concert pianists: all examples of this theory.

“I guess my progression might have come from a drive to not be afraid. To keep on trying, to push yourself until you get it, and not be worried about hurting yourself”

So just how did a kid who grew up in the Lancashire mill town of Bury in the 1980s end up as one of the most progressive European snowboarders of his era? Was it a case of pure natural talent? Or just a lot of practise? For Ste, in what will become a theme of his career, it was definitely the latter.

“How did I get so good? Ha ha, well it was just a lot of practise I think. We had a crew around Bury, and from the age of about nine I spent literally every minute skateboarding. That’s all we did. And I guess my progression might have come from a drive to not be afraid. To keep on trying, to push yourself until you get it, and not be worried about hurting yourself. I always had a lot of determination. But most of it was down to practise rather than natural ability.”

That much air out of a Dendix kicker that size really shouldn’t be possible. An absolute classic shot from the Rossendale glory years, taken for the local paper.

These early years saw Ste get a job at Mancunian skate mecca Split Sports in Manchester where he met another young boardsports obsessive: Chris Moran. When Split ordered in a load of snowboards, something clicked with the young pair. They both bought boards and began heading up to the nearest dryslope, Rossendale in Lancashire.

“It was the same with snowboarding. In those early days Chris and I just spent every available second up at Rossendale. I remember thinking it was easy compared to skateboarding. The thing’s attached to your feet, so jumps and stuff were second nature. It felt amazing; going bigger and bigger, faster and faster. It was in the era when people didn’t really do any spins, just straight airs really. It was only a few years in that we started doing rotations. And that was a whole new realm.”

“Just good times really. We had a good laugh, we did whatever we wanted. We travelled a lot. We just had a great time”

Soon, the duo began to compete at dryslope contests across the north of England, where they met other members of the UK’s nascent snowboarding scene. Getting third place in his first comp at Ackers Trust was an eye-opener. “I’d only been snowboarding eighteen months, and I remember thinking that if I could get third I could get first. Suddenly it was on. Chris and I said we’d try and get first and second the next season, which we did.”

To aid their progression, the pair obsessively pored over videos, painstakingly working out how they could do tricks and bring the effortless style of Chris Roach and Terje Haakonsen to the North of England dryslope scene.

By the end of their second dryslope season, Ste and Chris were winning most contests that they entered and had picked up sponsorship from Burton. It’s a time Ste remembers fondly as “just good times really. We had a good laugh, we did whatever we wanted. We travelled a lot. We just had a great time.”

And still Ste continued to get better and better. By this stage he was a freakishly consistent snowboarder who was able, as he puts it, to do “almost every single trick almost every single time. I mean, there were a lot of good snowboarders around, but I think I was just more consistent than everyone else. I could land all of my tricks every time. How? Just through practicing them. All the time.”

As Chris Moran remembers it, it wasn’t just that Steve was more consistent than everybody else. More that he was in a different league altogether.

“Ste was doing these beautiful McTwists on Dendix. In time, other plastic milestones would follow, including the first 900 on dryslope”

“The thing about Ste was that he worked tricks out before anybody else and he did most of them first go. I remember in 1994 we went to Rikgransen and saw Peter Line doing corked spins. Ste tried one and did it first go, because he’d already been doing tucked knee indie 5s on dryslope and had worked out if he dropped a shoulder it would increase the spin. And that’s exactly what Peter Line was doing. Ste was that far ahead.”

Nick Hamilton, who as former Whitelines Photo Editor and current Creative Director of Transworld Snowboarding knows a thing or two about snowboarding talent, agrees. “He was just light years ahead of the pack. He paved the way for everybody.”

That infamous tuck knee aboard the first ever Burton Twin. Sheffield, 1993. Photo: George Blomfield

At the heart of Ste’s ability was his legendary pop, something much commented upon by his peers at the time. “Well, Ste always had the strength to weight ratio of a climber or a cyclist” remembers Chris. “He was really light, really strong and he could just pop better than anyone else.”

Other theories did the rounds: for Pete Turvey, who did a season in a Chamonix caravan with Chris during the winter of 1993/94, Ste’s outlandishly large big toes helped explain why he got so much extra ollie power.

Wider recognition was beckoning. Chris remembers the summers of ’94 and ’95 as the time “when it all really began to come together. We’d made a decision to give snowboarding a proper go, and were getting really good on snow. Then during that summer the management at Rossendale changed, and they let us build kickers and a quarter pipe. Pretty soon Ste was doing these beautiful McTwists on dendix. Amazing really”. In time, other plastic milestones would follow, including the first 900 on dryslope.

“Other cultures came into snowboarding and wanted a piece, and as the two best riders at the time, Chris and I got most of the deals. It was a life-changing time”

Bigger contest wins followed, too – Ste remembers winning the first British Championships on snow in Avoriaz as a particular highlight – and the boys seemed to have no trouble transferring their plastic skills to the mountain at a time when this could be a real problem for Brit riders.

“Yeah, well I had my tricks down on dryslope so once I got used to the fact that the take-off changed every time on snow – which took about a month – I found it pretty easy. And you were less likely to hurt yourself. Well, so I thought at the time”.

Seasons in Chamonix and time spent “ragging around the Alps visiting different resorts” with Chris saw yet more stratospheric progression. Still, the duo put the same amount of energy and obsessiveness into their passion. “Back then we went riding every single day” says Ste. “Which helped. More practise.”

For many (Ste included) these mid-1990s years were the glory era, a time when snowboarding was the new boardsport on the block and was regarded as a genuinely rebellious sub-culture. Money soon began to pour in, and Steve and Chris saw the benefits. As Steve puts it, “…other cultures came into snowboarding and wanted a piece, and as the two best riders at the time, Chris and I got most of the deals. It was a life-changing time, really. We met a hell of a lot of people, and as with most things in life, it’s who you know that really changes things.”

Transferring those dryslope skills to the pow, c.2000 Photo: Nick Hamilton

By the time the ’96/’97 season came around, Ste was at the absolute top of his game as a rider and began to make a real living as a pro. He headed to Les Arcs for the winter with a heavyweight crew of the UK’s best snowboarders – still only in his early 20s, with the entire snowboarding world at his feet. Fate, however, was about to intervene in the most horrible way imaginable, when Ste triggered an avalanche that took him “about a mile, off three cliffs and over a road in about fifty seconds.”

“[The avalanche] made me realise that I’m not bigger and stronger than the mountain. That I needed to appreciate it for what it is”

So almost twenty years later, what does he remember about the experience that almost killed him and changed his life forever?

“It’s not something I want to repeat, but I don’t regret the experience of it. Why do I say that? Well, surviving it is quite possibly the biggest adrenaline rush I’ve ever had in my life. I mean, I thought I was dead. I gave up after the second cliff. I didn’t know where I was. I couldn’t see anything. When I stopped I remember waiting for the snow to clear so I could work out where I was, and then I could see that I was in an inch of snow. It had spat me completely out. So being able to survive it, and being conscious all the way through it – it did humble me. It made me realise that I’m not bigger and stronger than the mountain. That I needed to appreciate it for what it is. It made me calm down a bit. From that point, I stopped trying so hard at snowboarding. I concentrated on getting back to the level that I’d been at before. Which took about three years.”

Not surprising, considering the very real mental and physical scars. Ste puts his relatively rapid mental recovery down to a novel form of therapy that involved going riding with Sascha Hamm and getting scared shitless (“Ha ha, well you know what Sascha’s like. He doesn’t like staying on-piste. Even if you’ve just survived an avalanche”).

Ste has always been a fighter, on and off the board. Portrait: Nick Hamilton

But complete physical recovery (an ankle dislocated in two different directions, ligaments torn completely off the ankle, spiral fracture of the lower left leg, and full bruising over his whole body) took far longer – three years of hard rehab that involved gym work, swimming, cycling and even at one point taking himself off to Austria to do a season on his own so he could take things at his own pace.

Still, Ste’s reaction to this genuinely horrific experience and his measured approach to recovery was just another example of the extraordinary mental strength he’d been displaying since he first picked up a skateboard. When I spoke to him a couple of days after the accident, I remember being amazed at how completely normal he sounded. Within days, he was spending his downtime learning magic tricks and mastering sleight-of-hand – anything to occupy the mind and find another kind of physical outlet. He approached the whole process in the same way; the entire recovery just another trick to master, another physical challenge to work out.

And throughout it all, a tantalising question hung in the air – not just for Ste, but for the entire UK snowboarding industry. He’d made it to the top once. Could he come back and do it again?

Still got it: Ste bones one out for the TSA catalogue, in which he still stars every year. Photo: John Norris

The answer came in 2002 at the British Championships in Mayrhofen, when Ste returned to win the Big Air in what he describes as “probably the sweetest victory of my career.” Although, in true Bailey style, he thinks it was probably undeserved.

“Yeah, I think some of the judges probably took pity on me. I don’t think I did enough to win it. Then again, having watched the videos back, I don’t think anyone else really landed anything. So maybe I did deserve it.” It was the redemptive Hollywood ending that the story deserved and, for the man himself, “the perfect moment to retire on”. So what legacy did Steve Bailey leave snowboarding in the UK?

Speak to his peers and a common theme recurs: Ste’s role as a trailblazer gave UK snowboarding something to aim for, a standard to which modern day riders such as Jamie Nicholls and Billy Morgan could aspire, however unwittingly.

“We had the best time in snowboarding as far as I’m concerned, and we milked it for all it was worth”

“Steve set a benchmark for UK snowboarding” says Jeremy Sladen, owner of The Snowboard Asylum. “I personally believe that having such a high level to aspire to kept British snowboarding really grounded, and created the foundation for up and coming riders that has finally paid dividends with this current generation.”

British Champs organiser Spencer Claridge agrees. “You can draw similarities with Billy Morgan today, as Steve was the cat of the ’90s. He defined what was possible.”

Such reflection also leads to an intriguing parlour game: what would Steve have achieved if he’d come up now? Chris Moran is in no doubt:

“Even if he came up now, he’d fare well. He was a natural athlete. His awareness of his own body geography was phenomenal. He could do anything. If we’d had training facilities, or coaching, he would have been world class. He had the ingredients anyway, just not the platform to develop them.”

Not that Ste himself has any regrets.

“No, not at all. I mean fifth place [in the all time UK rider poll] after all these years is pretty good right? No, me and Moran and everybody had the best time in snowboarding as far as I’m concerned, and we milked it for all it was worth. They were the best times of my life, although I’m not doing so bad now to be honest.”

Check back tomorrow to find out who has been voted the Best British Snowboarder Of All Time.

#TwentyWinters

  1. Best British Snowboarders Of All Time: #20 – #16
  2. The Mystery Turd
  3. Best British Snowboarders Of All Time: #15 – #11
  4. How To Be A British Snowboarder
  5. Best British Snowboarders Of All Time: #10 – #6
  6. The Best British Snowboarders Of All Time: #5
  7. The Best British Snowboarders Of All Time: #4 – #2
  8. The Best British Snowboarders Of All Time: #1
A walking legend. Photo: John Norris/TSA

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