Roots - Martin Gallant

The Godfather

Photo: Dominic Gautier

Roots | Martin Gallant

Martin Gallant doesn’t have the greatest powers of recollection. He can tell you what he’s done, no problems there. Pinning him down on the details, though – the wheres, the whens – is tricky. He puts it down to the number of concussions he’s received over the years, most of them from dirt-biking and BMX, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it’s down to having just done too much living.

It all began for Martin “way, way, way, way, way back” (that’s as close as we got – it was at some point in the 80s, anyway) in Montreal, Quebec, where he and his friends would attach bungee straps to their skateboard decks and hit the snowy banks near the motorway overpass. “That was before I knew snowboarding existed,” he remembers. That changed when he found out that his cousin lived next door to he place were Louis “LoFo” Fournier – inventor of the highback – was building boards for Sims, among others. Bold as brass, the two kids went and asked for some of LoFo’s wares. “He sold us a Nortec board for $100” – as it turned out, that would be the last board Martin would ever have to buy.

He rode for the brand over the next few years, winning the Canadian halfpipe championships along the way. After seeing Damian Sanders, Steve Graham and Dave Seoane jumping a Blackcomb windlip in 1990’s Snowboarders In Exile, he immediately bought a car, quit school and headed to Whistler with his buddy Pat. “We drove across the country to jump that windlip,” says Martin, “and we never went back.” They had no contacts and nowhere to stay, but that wasn’t a worry. Thanks to a knack for opening locked doors, they managed to improvise their way through their first season: “We lived on the roof of the Chateau Whistler for a while – we slept there for months. Back then there was a waterslide where the gondola is now, and it was closed in the winter so we stayed there. We were pretty pimping!”

Before long the boards they’d brought with them were busted up, but a chance meeting with the Kemper rep earned him a new sponsor. It was at this time that he also became friends with photographer Eric Bergeri, who himself was just beginning to dip his toe into the world of snowboarding. “He asked me, ‘hey, you wanna go take a snowboard picture?’” Martin recalls. “I was like, ‘sure, why not?’ We didn’t really do that back then, we were just riding. Then when I was back home working at a skatepark, all the kids were saying, ‘Martin! Martin! You’re in a magazine!’ I closed the park and we skated down to the store – I opened Transworld and there I was in the centrefold. After that the phone started ringing, Kemper gave me a really good contract, and the next thing I knew I was living the life.”

We’d rip out the toilet bowl and throw it out the second floor window... Our videos were pure trash – a little bit of snowboarding and a lot of stupid stuff!

Said life was as, in his words, “a little contest boy.” With the media side of things still in its infancy, competitions were just about the only way to make a decent living in the sport. Halfpipe was his speciality, but his first ‘pro’ event was at the famous Mt Baker Banked Slalom, where he entered after a friend had stolen his mum’s credit card to pay Martin’s fee. Ross Rabagliati took 1st place after donning a lycra suit (“we were all laughing at him, but he was like ‘it’s the only way I’ll beat Craig [Kelly]!”), while Martin came a respectable 6th.

He was making his mark on snowboarding – not least when he became arguable the first ever rider to hit a streetrail. It came about when Eric Bergeri was working at Transworld, and got in touch about a trip they were planning to do to Martin’s home town of Montreal. “I was known as a skateboarder as well so they called me,” he says. “At the beginning I thought, ‘this is wack! It’s stupid to ride handrails on a snowboard’. Then they said, ‘Well, you’re going with Bryan Iguchi’, and that changed everything.” The session – and the resulting magazine story – put the spotlight on urban riding for the first time, but was he really the first guy to give it a go? “I’ve got to do some research, “ he admits, but his case is strong. “In Pocahontas you kind of see [John] Cardiel and the boys do some stuff on garbage cans and picnic tables, but as far as doing rails on stairs and landing in the traffic, I think that was the first time.”

The street stuff was a pleasant surprise, then, but for Martin it was still all about riding powder. Fortunately, as snowboard media blossomed, there were now lots more opportunities to get into the deep stuff. “At one point Kemper just said that I didn’t have to do any more contests, and that they’d rather I got pictures in the magazines. I said ‘OK, send me a Tom Burt 170 snowboard, and I’m going to Alaska for the winter.’ They gave me a gold credit card with no limit, and I rode every peak in Alaska. There was no guiding; you paid $35 and got dropped where you wanted, then rode back to the road. It was paradise.”

I’ve got to do some research... but as far as doing rails on stairs and landing in the traffic, I think that was the first time.

It seems crazy by today’s standards, but he estimates that he only had to film “maybe ten days a year” to have enough for a video. “We kept saying ‘ah, let’s leave the camera bags at the bottom, one more run!’” A lot of the movies he made – including five years’ worth of producing with his own outfit, The Gathering – were done this way. After all, this was back when shred films were about a whole lot more than just the riding. “We’d be at big World Cup competitions chugging beers before our runs. We’d destroy the car, the house we’d rented… We’d rip out the toilet bowl and throw it out the second floor window… Our videos were pure trash – a little bit of snowboarding and a lot of stupid stuff!”

Those days were about one thing above all else – freedom. He remembers that everybody rode with their own style, and for the fun of it. However, after ten years of being paid “just to be Martin”, things started to change. It became more of a job, and a lot more serious. He’s typically vague about when exactly this was, but reckons it was “the year that everybody started to wear their pants below their ass. That generation made the ‘rules’ that you had to grab between your feet. If you did tindys, or if you did a method grabbing in front of your binding, you were not cool.”

That generation made the ‘rules’ that you had to grab between your feet. If you did tindys, or if you did a method grabbing in front of your binding, you were not cool.

Still, despite the sea change he continued to have a long and celebrated career, and these days is happily based in Squamish where he’s building a house and still riding regularly – affectionately referred to as ‘The Godfather’ by the locals. In some respects, not much has changed at all: “they used to call me The Invisible Man. I’d go up and ride Whistler and Blackcomb every day with no pass. I tried it last year and it still worked – I even got on the Peak 2 Peak!”

Over such a long period of time, surely he must have at some point thought about packing it in? “No, never! I just kept snowboarding for myself – you can’t let yourself get frustrated by anything.” It helps that he’s a huge fan of what’s going on these days, going as far as to say that the latest batch of triple-corking kids makes him “really proud to be a snowboarder.”

Maybe he’s not so good on the wheres and whens but, like all the greats, he’s got no problems when it comes to the why.

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