My successes and (mostly) failures with surfing recently made me realise that I’ve journeyed through ‘the progression curve’ of 4 different action sports now. So, can my previous experiences learning to skateboard, to snowboard and to downhill mountain bike help me through the next tricky stage of my surfing progression?
Only one way to find out…
Part 1: Skateboarding
It was 1995 and I was 14 years old. Channel 4 had a TV show on Sunday mornings that had me transfixed; Board Stupid, I was an avid watcher and became obsessed with the idea of snowboarding. The only problem; snowboarding was massively expensive and I lived in the middle of the English countryside nowhere near any mountains, where it sleeted once a year…if we were lucky.
Enter skateboarding, the next best alternative and a hell of a lot cheaper, I wasn’t going to be defeated so easily.
My first skateboard came from a budget catalogue store complete with cheapo wheels that wore down to weird shapes in about a month. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was determined to learn how to ollie.
The first board was something like this, but way crappier
(tribal motifs were cool in the 90’s remember)
I guess I should point out to any young’uns reading this that there was no YouTube in 1995, no Instagram, no slow-motion high-definition video tutorials on ‘how to ollie a skateboard’. I had a vague idea of what the ollie technique was from obsessively scrutinising every single photo in Sidewalk Surfer magazine, and thanks to a skater in my class at school called Dave Brown (thanks again Dave).
Fast forward 2 months, and literally hundreds and hundreds of stationary ollie attempts later, and I was finally getting the board off the ground with a satisfying ‘pop’; what felt to me like a huge distance in the air was probably only about 5cms. My commitment was that of a young teen who had finally found motivation, progression however was agonisingly slow and usually involved that age old saying; no pain, no gain.
One thing that made me simultaneously laugh and scoff during those early days of skateboarding was other peoples’ perceptions of our commitment to the sport. A lot of the comments essentially boiled down to, “I don’t know why they even bother, they never land any tricks and they always fall over”. People didn’t tend to say that when discussing ‘socially acceptable’ sports like football, rugby or cricket. So, you think that one day you just decide to be a skater and ‘tah-dah’, you suddenly know how to do all the tricks first time? Definitely not. If you want to become even a half-decent skater it’s pure self-motivation and it’ll take you months and years of practice, including a whole heap of stacks, spills and blood covered T-shirts.
Anyway, I suppose my point is that skateboarding introduced me to the concept of continued self-motivation that flies in the face of societal pressures.
Alton Skatepark, 2005(?)
Part 2: Snowboarding
Tamworth snowdome was the first of its kind to open in the UK in 1994 but it was bloody miles away from where I lived, so I ended up having my first snowboard lessons at Aldershot dry slope in 1996. In ‘hard boots’ that clipped into ‘race bindings’; so what I’m trying to say is that my first contact with snowboarding was an incredibly painful experience and I’m lucky that I ever went near it again.
The 90’s: back when snowboarders understood the pain of ski boots
I didn’t go snowboarding again until my year abroad at uni in 2001 where I was teaching English in Austria; finally, I could get out on real snow, on a real mountain. Commitment here meant having to live in another bloody country to get my kicks.
Snowboarding is much easier than skateboarding though, most people can get to grips with the basics in a day or two and then go at their own pace from there. One of my main memories from Austria however is simply how normal it was for people to be skiing and snowboarding; what us Brits consider to be an exotic and extravagant hobby (less so these days but it’s still a luxury sport, let’s be honest) is just like your usual football and rugby to folks who live in snow covered mountain towns. This puts any snowboarding progression into harsh perspective when you see little Austrian kids zipping around popping high-speed 180’s, overtaking you whilst they’re riding backwards.
It’s an important milestone in any snowboarder’s progression to be fair; for your ego to be squarely shoved back in its box by someone measuring under 5-foot-tall who’s fueled primarily by fizzy drinks and Haribo.
I ended up seriously committing to snowboarding during the noughties as I clocked up 8 winters over 6 years working in various ski resorts around the world. I even managed to avoid any major injuries until 2017 (besides the Canadian concussion and the X-ray of my spine in New Zealand) where I broke my collarbone into 3 pieces in Bulgaria. Was I doing anything incredibly hardcore? Nope, just being a bit too cocky on a green run (the easiest, flattest type of slope there is).
So, if skateboarding taught me about continued self-motivation, then snowboarding allowed me to explore the world whilst testing how far I was willing to go in pursuit of progression.
Park City, Utah in 2010
Part 3: Downhill Mountain Biking
Everybody learns to ride a bike when they’re a kid so I guess I had a head start on the basics for this one. Mountain bikes were just getting going in the 90’s though, so apart from a few rubbish wheelies and trying the odd bunny-hop I was concentrating on skating too much to bother with bikes back then. It’s also important to remember that a decent mountain bike with full suspension can cost more than a second-hand car, so that basically ruled it out for me until I had some proper cash.
I didn’t get my first full suspension bike until I was 28, having returned from my seasons on snow to the UK to ‘get a real job’ I was in serious need of a replacement for snowboarding, but hanging around a skatepark full of 12-year-olds on scooters just didn’t appeal to me.
So, a bit of ebay research followed by a 6-hour round trip to Wales in 2011 got me this little beauty to kick things off.
Second-hand Kona Coiler
Making the switch from boards to bikes took a few months, I’d say the biggest hurdle was getting used to taking off facing forwards instead of facing sideways. This means that your balance is now much more concentrated on pitching fore and aft in relation to the front and back tyres instead of in relation to the front and back leg positions on a board. Well that, and also the fact that when you stack it your once-trusted-steed suddenly becomes 13kgs of flying, bouncing death.
Committing some serious cash to a new Kona Process in 2013
(Props to Rocksteady MTB for the advice and post-sale support)
Mountain biking definitely keeps you fitter which is a bonus, but progression very much depends on the terrain you have available to ride. Thankfully this is one sport where the UK can actually deliver the goods, the Surrey Hills have some of the best trails riding in the south of England which saw huge leaps in my progression for a time; up until I got very friendly with a tree and broke 2 ribs in 2015 anyway.
Competing in Froyle, UK in 2014
(not where I broke my ribs)
I’d say that mountain biking made me more committed to my overall fitness and delivered a further education in the possible consequences of pushing my limits.
Part 4: Surfing
I think I’m only up to roughly 35 days in my entire life where I’ve ventured out on a surfboard so far, and about 15 of those here in Mexico over the last month, so it’s still early days for this particular sport. I’m pretty sure though that the trials and tribulations I’ve been through with skating, snowboarding and mountain biking are the perfect base from which to launch a fresh attack on a new sport.
The surf journey has only just begun.
Sunset surf session in Sayulita, México in 2017
Stay tuned to www.actionsportsnomad.com to see how far I get…and where surfing takes me.