27/02/2013 | by tristan | 33 comments
Taken from Whitelines 105, December 2012
Words by Matt Barr
Sponsored riders are two-a-penny these days, but becoming a true snowboarding great is a whole other ball game. Matt Barr investigates.
On the surface, being a professional snowboarder is a dream career. After all, you’re getting paid to ride, right? What could be better than that? Then there’s the travel. The adulation. The endless powder. The free kit. The hot girls/guys. Those massive bendy cheques you get for winning a contest. Yep, no wonder that being a pro shred is a much cherished ambition for so many young riders.
And yet, as with any seemingly desirable career from actors to rock stars, all is not quite how it appears from the outside. The truth is that for every Arctic Monkeys playing at the Olympic Opening Ceremony, there are countless thousands of landfill indie bands toiling away trying to climb the greasy pole to the top. Few of them make it very far past the toilet circuit. Snowboarding is no different.
I’ve had my own insight into this plenty of times over the years I’ve been working
in snowboarding, but one occasion that stands out was a trip to Japan in 2004 with photographer James McPhail and British pros Johno Verity, Ewan Wallace and Adam Gendle. As the writer, you soon get used to being very much the junior partner on any such trip, but my time was about to come. We arrived at the deserted resort of Kiroro to find the place plastered with three feet of fresh, untouched snow. Jumping on a lift with a friend of ours who’d come along for the day, I spent the next six hours lapping the resort and not hitting another track all day. The boys and Jamesy, in contrast, spent those hours repeatedly hiking up and down the same run in order to try and get shots for the article. Johno’s face as I passed for the umpteenth time and sprayed him with powder was a picture. Just who exactly had the dream job here anyway?
Travis Rice has probably had the most rapid rise from nobody to cast iron legend
That experience was way more representative of the reality of being a pro than any number of Shaun White MTV Cribs specials, front covers or glossy Transworld interviews. And there’s another problem for the putative snowboarding legend: longevity. Few riding careers last more than a handful of years; leaf through a few shred magazines from yesteryear to see the truth in that. Remember Ian Spiro? Lance Pitman? Thought not. Both former TWS cover stars and interviewees. Life moves pretty fast, as a great man once said.
There’s one obvious reason for this. Professional snowboarding is very evidently a young person’s game. If you haven’t made it by the time you’re 16, forget it. If you’re still going into your mid-20s, give yourself a pat on the back for your versatility and luck with injuries. And if you still have a career of note in your 30s, your name is probably Terje Haakonsen.
You get the point: if it’s difficult ‘going pro’ in the first place, then becoming a bone fide legend is next to impossible. So what does it take to make it happen at all? Luckily for you, here at WL we think we’ve got it worked out. Allow us to unveil the patented WL Legend equation:
Timing + (Skills x Style) + Attitude + Backing = LEGEND
So who has managed to crack this snowboarding equivalent of Fermat’s Last Thereom, and how did they do it? Let’s take a look…
Skills, sure. But not just any skills. As Gian Simmen put it back in WL103, these days kids are expected to boost a front 10 double cork into powder as a morning warm-up. It takes some truly special talent to get a deal in the first place, let alone make it to the top and achieve legendary status.
Promising Norwegian foot soldier Stale Sandbech is a good example of someone who initially caught the eye thanks to a complete set of standout skills. “He seemed like someone who could ride everything. Upon meeting him this summer, our hunch was confirmed,” says the man who signed him, Rome Team Manager John Cavan. “I watched him slaughter a pipe session and then jump right into riding some rails and he seemed to learn so quickly.”
So far so good. But from there, how do you really make the leap to the big leagues? Travis Rice has probably had the most rapid rise from nobody to cast iron legend (it still took a decade, mind) and his versatility on absolutely every type of snowboarding terrain has much to do with it. Rice initially blew up with a show-stealing rookie show at Snowboarder’s 2001 Superpark session that included a boundary-shifting 100+ foot backside rodeo. Since then, he’s ruled Alaska for season after season, made two of snowboarding’s most hyped films, redefined the shred contest with Supernatural (which he won, natch), and continues to set the standard on backcountry über-booters. Hell, when I was at the US Open in 2007 he was an outside bet to top the podium in the pipe until a fall and busted shoulder ended his event. Small wonder he now has Trousersnake’s number on speed dial and, presumably, Quiksilver and Red Bull’s marketing plans based around him for the next few decades.
“There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…” says Brutus to Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In other words, timing is everything. Nothing illustrates this more in snowboarding than the story of who actually invented the sport in the first place. Today, the generally accepted story is this: on Christmas Day 1965, engineer Sherman Poppen was inspired by his sledging daughter to create the Snurfer, the first proto-snowboard that in turn inspired Tom Sims, Dimitrije Milovich and Jake Burton Carpenter to create their own versions and, in turn, kickstart the snowboarding industry we know today.
Except that Poppen wasn’t the first at all. According to some, Toni Lenhardt actually had the idea in 1914 when he invented something called the mono-glider. Or hang on – wasn’t it MJ Burchett’s homemade snow-shredding jalopy of a few years later? Then there was Vern Wicklund, reportedly riding since 1917, who patented (and filmed himself riding) his own version of what was clearly a snowboard back in 1939. And what about those Turkish guys who’ve been happily ripping it up in their village for the last 150 years or so? Where do they fit into our cosy narrative?
Is it any wonder that the legends of our sport are also the most beloved exponents of the method air?
The answer is this: each of these parties ‘invented’ snowboarding at one time or other. But only one incarnation actually took off and became the sport we know
and love today: Poppen’s. Why? Right idea, right time. His version of the idea had the huge success of surfing and a new teenage audience hungry for alternative thrills as the platform from which to boost it into the cultural stratosphere. Our Turkish friends, on the other hand, only had their presumably stoked fellow villagers to impress.
It’s the same for pro riders, who ultimately need the right platform upon which to showcase their wares if they’re going to exploit their full potential. It’s no coincidence that many of the guys considered ‘legends’ today (Jamie Lynn, Terje, JP Walker etc.) made their name in the 90’s, just as snowboarding was exploding into the mainstream. There had been pioneering riders before them, and today there are countless young shreds with bigger tricks, but that second wave of pros were at the cutting edge of what we now recognise as a golden era.
Mike Michalchuk, on the other hand, is probably the supreme example of a rider born ten years too early. He had it all – the balls-out style, the primitive double corked pipe spins, the Nike sponsorship. Unfortunately for ‘Michal-huck’ (as he was quickly nicknamed)none of that was remotely cool at the time and he was widely ridiculed as a glorified gymnast before injuries curtailed his career.
Contrast his fate with the best modern example of it all going right: Shaun
White. The story goes that White began snowboarding when he was four, snagged sponsorship with Burton when he was six (his mum reputedly phoned up for a board; the company decided to give him free ones), was being mentored by Tony Hawk from the age of 9 and had a part in his first film (TB7) when he was 11.
In a term popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his chin-stroking cultural tome of the same name, White is snowboarding’s premiere example of an ‘outlier’, somebody in whom a perfect set of opportunities and circumstances – talent, supportive parents, location (White was brought up in San Diego, learning to skate at Encinitas and snowboard at June Mountain) and coincidence (that chance meeting with Tony Hawk and early backing from Burton) – combined into one freakish package. Even the Olympics landed at the right time for Shaun. Sure, he wasn’t the first gold medallist, but he was the one reaching his peak just as extreme sports were being packaged for a mainstream audience and snowboarding had become the TV event of Turin and Vancouver.
The result today is that White is snowboarding’s sole first-name-only superstar, a peer of Kelly and Tony, and as comfortable moonwalking his way backwards into Elton John’s famed Oscar night party – high-fiving Derek Zoolander as he goes – as he is dropping into an icy Aspen halfpipe when the chips are down. Sometimes, timing really is everything.
If timing is important, then (as with all boardsports) style is absolutely crucial for the fledgling snowboard legend. If nothing else, it will always be what separates our noble art from cringeworthy modern arrivistes such as (and I can barely type the words) ‘extreme pogoing’, or scootering, and we should at the very least be grateful for that. This has very little to do with the subject in hand but I’ve been meaning to get it off my chest fora while so I’m going to come right out and say it: on a fundamental aesthetic level, good style is impossible in these Johnny-come-lately pursuits. Who could possible say why? It might be snobbery, but it’s the truth. I’m sure they’re having a lot of fun, but they just look shit, no matter how high they’re backflipping or how much they’re pretending not to bend their knees so they can fit onto the things.
Consider, in contrast, the graceful economy of the humble snowboarding method. Here is the trick as metaphor, a manoeuvre that in one fell swoop tells you everything about the sport and – even more mysteriously – also acts as a barometer of style for every single snowboarder in the world. That’s some deep, spiritual shit right there.
And forgive me as I warm to my theme (I knew this was leading somewhere) but is it any wonder that the riders who are universally considered to be the legends of our sport are also the most beloved exponents of this one move? Examples crowd the memory. Palmer’s variation was so great he even got his own offshoot called – of course – the Palm Air. Terje’s cat-like approach was generally unrivalled until Müller came along and tweaked it a decade or so later, like an apprentice Da Vinci adding an angel to Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ. Jamie Lynn’s mastery of the method was so complete that even now, 15 years after anybody actually saw him do one, it is still talked of in hushed, awed tones.
I could go on. But that, my friends, is why boardsports are morally superior to these other laughable pretenders, and why a riding style seemingly bestowed on some riders from the Gods is such an object of wonder in our world. Having a trick bag so deep it could carry your monthly shop is all well and good, but style, above all else, is the one indefinable attribute that separates the merely good riders from the truly great. And long may it continue to be so.
If tricks, style and timing are everything you need to be a success on the hill, then for the guys at the company signing the pay cheques, having a marketable ‘attitude’ is equally essential. This is a tricky thing to define, but we all know it when we see it. It could be the cool guy in the pub who wears it better than the rest of us, or Freddie Mercury getting everybody in Wembley Stadium to clap their hands in unison while wearing the type of outfit that on any other Saturday night would see him run out of most UK towns at the sharp end of a pitchfork. Whatever it is, if you aspire to be a legend, you need it in the locker.
Attitude is a tricky thing to define, but we all know it when we see it
There’s good news though, as this is definitely the easiest part of the equation for the would-be legend to master. After all, most pro snowboarders are (God love ‘em) not the most fascinating of characters once you get them off the snow and point a dictaphone in their direction. In a world where “it’s all about riding powder with your friends” tends to pass as insightful comment, anyone who does possess an actual personality tends to stand out like Usain Bolt out on the piss with the Swedish women’s handball team.
Sadly, since the glory days of Shaun Palmer, pickings have been pretty slim in this area. That may be because Palmer set the bar pretty high when it came to column- inch garnering behaviour. There was the clown haircut. The repeated deportations from Japan. That all-round sporting ability that saw him go from snagging a snowboard contract whilst riding a home made stick to competing in downhill mountain biking, motocross and even skiercross events. Is it any wonder that most other shredders since The Palm’s heyday have seemed a little, well, beige in comparison?
So who do we have in snowboarding these days? With Jamie Lynn, it’s his artwork and an indefinable ‘he’s so mysterious’ air that have combined to make him the complete package. Nicolas Müller’s enigmatic techno-hippie schtick also seems destined to earn him a place at the Annual Legends Brodown. For Shaun White, two Olympic gold medals, a perfect X Games pipe score and (last season at least) a pair of really stupid trousers have helped to keep him in the public eye.
But what if rocking a daft pair of kecks isn’t really your style? The only other way
of standing out we can think of is by being the awe-inspiring, slightly aloof figure that changed the sport in so many ways that other pro shredders still have to duck under your shadow each time they strap in. In surfing, people like Jeff Hakman, Gerry Lopez and Tom Carroll continue to be hugely important figures for precisely this reason. “I think surfing really values its traditions and creates icons,” muses surf journalist Ben Mondy. “That’s the reason brands can still use them as a tool without alienating the grommets.” In snowboarding, we’re pretty bad at venerating these icons – at least while they’re alive, anyway. Indeed, since the tragic death of Craig Kelly there’s only really been one candidate for the role: the great Terje Haakonsen, who has been (as a recent Burton ad put it) ‘snowboarding’s conscience’ for two decades.
By promoting their in-house legends, companies have a direct line to their older consumers
Terje’s peerless riding record, combined with gestures such as boycotting the 1998 Olympics and the near universal respect he commands among snowboarders, would seem to make it a cert sponsors such as Burton continue to recognise his value to the brand and sport as a whole. As we’ll see though, in the ruthless snowboarding industry even a flawless personal pedigree such as this is no guarantee that you’ll be able to ascend to the level of legendary board-riders like Slater, Hawk or Curren. For that, you will need truly understanding sponsors…
Snowboarding’s history is full of murky examples of top pro riders suddenly cut loose at the height of their powers, having previously been marketed as the next big thing. Michi Albin is one of the most notorious examples. For three or four years at the beginning of the century, Albin pretty much ruled pro snowboarding thanks to – yes – a combination of skills, riding style, timing and attitude that seemed ready made for legend status. Then, his main sponsor Burton suddenly dropped him. Today, Albin puts it down to being an “old guy” – despite him being all of 24 years old at the time.
The exceptions, as we alluded to earlier, can pretty much be counted on one hand. But as 99.99% of pros have discovered, Michi’s fate is in the post. It’s just a question of when it lands on the doormat. But hold on a sec – why should brands push their legends in this way? After all, nobody is automatically owed a living, no matter how good they were back in the day. Well, if nothing else, there’s a compelling business case. By promoting their in-house legends, companies have a direct line to their older consumers, of whom there are plenty.
In snowboarding, by far the youngest boardsport, it’s a market that will only continue to grow; they also continue to get a return on investment on people they’ve thrown cash at for years; and they get to safeguard and promote the history and heritage of their sports – a part of the industry that is huge in surfing, growing massively in skating, and yet next to non- existent in snowboarding. That might seem a little fluffy to large businesses interested in the bottom line, but to growing generations of ordinary riders struggling to relate to the latest super-tech freestyle kid who can’t yet shave, it is increasingly important.
Ted Endo, surf editor of The Inertial, thinks adopting this approach is essential if sports like snowboarding are going to have any long-term appeal. “Lifestyle industries are only viable for as long as they can harness the public imagination,” he says. “Pandering to a certain [young] niche may work in the short term but it cannot sustain long term growth. For this you need great stories, heroes, high drama and recognition of a greater narrative. By paying homage to this tradition, those who create the boardsport industry show the world that, far from being a passing fad, or the flavour of the moment, these are deep and abiding cultural movements.”
Why should snowboarding be any different? Our stories and legends are just as valid as those in surfing – or indeed skateboarding, the sport we’re usually told should be our model. Skateboarding certainly gets it. At the time of writing, Vans have just based their flagship European event around a celebration of iconic skater Steve Caballero’s 20-year career and association with the Vans Half Cab shoe. Justin Regan, Vans Skate Marketing Manager, thinks that promoting legends such as Cab in this way is a no- brainer. “If we don’t celebrate our own heritage, who will? If we don’t pass along our cultural heritage as skateboarders to every new generation, we run the risk of losing what makes skateboarding so wonderful and unique and becoming just like any other ordinary industry. We risk becoming them!”
In snowboarding, where the main marketing approach is still aimed squarely at young shredders, short-termism still reigns, as Michi Albin wryly recognised a decade after he was dropped so ignominiously. “That’s the way companies market snowboarding. They bring young kids in. It seems like it’s even worse these days.” What the exceptions like Bryan Iguchi and Jamie Lynn have in common then – other than those other magical ‘legend’ ingredients – are particularly forward-thinking and supportive sponsors who appreciate their value. Jan Prokes from Volcom puts it well: “Our guys – Terje, Guch and Jamie – are still as relevant as ever. They produce solid video parts, help with the design of our outerwear, contribute with artwork and are generally first-rate ambassadors for snowboarding and Volcom.
This also doesn’t go unnoticed with the thirty and fortysomething crowd that snowboarded in their younger years, but are now tied down with kids, back-breaking nine-to-fives and inevitably expanding girths. For them to see Terje, Guch and Jamie still killing is aspirational. After all, they need their shred imaginations firing as much as any young kids out there.”