Remember the first time you took your hands off the handlebars while riding a bike? You looked down and saw those ghost-like handle grips gliding down the street, and suddenly, you understood the rule of physics at work, on a visceral level. Your trajectory is governed by something you can’t fully grasp—gyroscopic stability—but somehow, magically, it still works.
That is what going downhill on a skateboard feels like. It’s gravity propelled, it’s scary, fun, totally free—and it has been honed in Laguna Beach over the decades into something beyond sport or art.
“I remember skating down Coast Highway with no cars on it,” Darren “Dags” Madrigal says of his early 1970s childhood experience. Local parents like Dags say the skateboard is a teacher of simple lessons: When you fall, get back on. Look at where you want to go. Don’t push when gravity is pulling you along. Share the road.
Skateboarding is a primary color in Laguna Beach’s cultural pastiche. Recently Clarke Brogger, pastor at a local church, could be seen skating down the street with a cervical collar still on his neck. A pack of kids skated by, some preparing for the downhill racing world tour, others just heading over to a friend’s house. Clarke was headed to check the surf at Thalia Street beach, where he had broken his neck surfing weeks earlier.
From Water to Land
Skateboarding came from surfing. In the 1920s, before surfers could even drive into what is now Malibu, it was here in Laguna they rode flat, heavy, finless planks, dove for abalone, and eventually transitioned to shaping balsa wood boards in their backyards. It was here in his father’s garage on Gaviota Street that Hobie Alter launched his surf brand that became a household name. Surf luminaries have continued to make their homes here, from Quiksilver CEO Bob McKnight, Volcom founder Richard Woolcott, Billabong President Paul Naude and Hurley President Roger Wyatt, to Peter Townend, the first world champion of surfing, and modern-day free surfers like Erik “Frog” Nelson, Hans Hagen, Jon Rose and others.
In the late 1950s skateboards were metal wheels harvested from dime store roller skates, tacked onto a piece of 2-by-8-inch scrap. Laguna waterman, skater and author Craig Lockwood, and J.J. Gasparotti crafted varnished decks with clay wheels taken from roller-rink skates they found in the Assistance League Thrift Store—an improvement, but still unreliable.
When the skateboard craze began in the 1960s, at the hands of surfers finding diversion on the ocean’s down days, Laguna was ground zero. Laguna local Spider Wills’ vintage skate film “Downhill Motion,” opens with a simple imperative still relevant for Laguna youth 35 years later: “The day begins … is it going to be a surf day or a skateboard day?”
Skateboarding was originally approached as surfing on land, and early skaters like Joey Cabell, Mickey Munoz and local Dougie Brown literally looked for the concrete equivalent of waves. Enter the steep streets of Laguna. Park Avenue, which was paved in 1963, but ended short of the hilltop—the Top Of the World development was still years away—left a sweeping path of inclined asphalt with no cars. Sidewalk surfing became street surfing as swell, wind and tide were replaced with a more perennial force: gravity.
When founder of Surfer Magazine John Severson started the quarterly Skateboarder in 1964, soon-to-be “Endless Summer” star Mike Hynson, as well as surfers Joey Cabell and Tor Johnson were featured in the first issue, skating down Hidden Valley Road.
The terrestrial progression mimicked the aquatic one; although Phil Edwards and Butch Van Artsdalen were making early stabs at Pipeline, most California surfers still sought angling slides at San Onofre and Doheny. Concurrently, skateboarding was still focused below the S-turn on Park Avenue and other, broader hills outside of Laguna.
Randolph “Spider” Wills, so named for the climbing ability he gained in tactical training as an Air Force intelligence operative, became a cameraman for NBC television and documented the 1975 Laguna skate scene in “Downhill Motion.”
Spider, on hearing that skaters are now taking on Alta Vista—one of the steepest, windiest streets in Laguna—says, “Oh my God. That is nuts. You could be killed.”
And on the equipment of his day, that was a distinct possibility.
Tools of the Trade
Urethane wheels changed everything. Developed in the early 1970s, they provided skaters a smooth, solid ride at high speed. Oak Street Surf Shop, now Laguna Surf and Sport, shipped out cases daily to pockets of skaters around the country, mentions local surfer/skater Glen Murray, who was making fiberglass skate decks at the time, as a student at Laguna Beach High School.
Grip tape and improved trucks also pushed skating to new levels. The 1975 Signal Hill downhill championships, featured on ABC’s “Guinness Book of World Records,” showed that skateboarding was no longer a no shoes, no shirt activity at the edge of the sand, but something done in full face helmets and leather suits worn by motorcycle racers. The area below the S-turn on Park Avenue, once the hot zone for nascent skateboarding, became the place where you slowed down from freeway speeds when your run was over.
Win or Crash Trying
Mark Golter was a kid living on Hidden Valley Road adjacent to Park Avenue in the 1970s and remembers watching skaters like Roger Hickey, the first downhill world champion in 1979, push the boundaries of skating.
“They would come through the S-turn at 60 mph all suited up in leathers and helmets. It was like Star Wars. It was just incredible,” says Mark, who eventually received so many skateboarding tickets from frustrated cops who had no legal basis to cite him (there was no skateboarding ordinance until the city’s partial skate ban in April), he was forbidden to own a skateboard.
“I would be walking with my skateboard and a cop would pull up, put my skateboard in his trunk and drive off,” he remembers. “When I was 18 I got them all back, about a dozen boards.”
In the 1980s, skaters like Jack Morrissey, skimboarding legend Bill Bryan, Jesse Roach and Dags Madrigal raced down Skyline Drive, actually adding costumes to the mix. Dags won with a low-tech approach: wearing a trench coat, he went straight down the hill impossibly fast, as competitors watched what appeared to be a suicide run, then opened his jacket like a drag chute.
He reached the bottom of the hill first, so he won.
“It was one of the best memories of my life, to have that title. We shouldn’t do it like that now, but it would be really cool to have downhill races that were sanctioned in a safe way,” Dags says.
Mark Golter, who took the Skyline title in 1995 and 1996, earning second in 1997 after getting hit by a car and breaking his nose, claims to have sponsors lined up for a major event on Park Avenue next year, although city approval is forthcoming.
Mark took the Gravity Games bronze medal in 2001, gold in 2002, and the International Gravity Sports Association world title in 2002 and 2003. Downhill skateboarding was about nasty amounts of speed, and Mark, with yellow-flames licking the shoulders of his racing leathers, was the nastiest.
Then Mark experienced his fifth concussion in 2003.
“I had reached the peak of everything you can do in the sport,” he says. “Gary Hardwick, a good friend and teammate I traveled the world with, committed suicide that year. I went into a depression and left the sport. I focused on family, got married, and later had my son.”
Downhill skating changed too; the X Games cancelled street luge, a close cousin of downhill skating, and Gravity Games cancelled downhill skateboarding in 2004. Competition downshifted and the sport returned to its side street roots, before coming back in recent years.
Coming Up Fast
Evren Ozan, the 2009 junior world champ at 17, typifies today’s speed maestro. The quiet, long-haired kid had an award-winning Native American flute album to his credit by age 8, and he stands out for his politeness. His crew, Laguna Beach Danger Riders, participates in organized races, but he feels little of the competitiveness of Mark Golter’s time.
“If you win every single race, which is pretty hard to do, you could make money and support yourself,” he says. “I like skateboarding too much. I don’t want to make it that. I was actually thinking about becoming a pilot. I have enough money saved up to go to flight school.”
Evren started riding a Suzuki SV650 sport bike after repeated dislocations of both shoulders. The goal is to stay in touch with twisty roads and practice for downhill races while skateboarding as little as possible, to limit the probability of dislocating his shoulder during racing season. The pressure from putting his hand down in a controlled slide, nevermind a crash, could easily dislocate it again. Once racing season is over he can take the time off for surgery and recovery.
“On a bike you look through the turn and get your body position right before the turn. That helps a lot in skating—and getting comfortable going fast next to other things,” Evren says. “It takes away the edge. It feels slow, after riding a motorcycle, so you can push for more speed on a skateboard.”
Mark’s top speed was 70 mph. Evren estimates his around 69 mph, and attests to the existence of hills in Colorado and Brazil where skaters regularly go 75 mph or 80 mph. Evren clearly has a need for speed, but resides at the forefront of a more nuanced style of skating: high speed sliding.
Kelly Slater showed going fast and carving hard had reached a logical limit on waves in the early 1990s. The best surfers were pushing their boards beyond it, sliding as they went. Fin release, previously a prelude to falling, was now the goal. Skateboarding has followed suit, with controlled slides opening the door to even higher speeds in fast turns.
“It’s not that crazy to bomb a hill at 50 mph now,” Evren says. “Before, that was insane. You couldn’t stop if you didn’t know how to slide. Now everyone knows how to slide. I see a move away from old school bombing style to more of a free-riding, stand-up style, kind of like snowboarding on the street. I could see the next generation being really talented skaters.”
They already are. A younger crew, Laguna Beach Alpha Groms (LBAG), regularly takes the podium at slide jams. Going fast is a given—now it’s about mastering the slide, used to control speed and direction through a turn. In addition to races, a new type of contest, the slide jam, has emerged, pitting skaters against steeper hills with tighter curves, where they win based on the skill and style of their slides, not just crossing the line first.
Mark says, “These are the full-on, perfect downhill athletes now. They can drift, control their slides and go fast. These guys are faster than we ever were: Evren Ozan, Byrne Jones, Riley Crowe. Then there are a slew of guys under them. Hunter Schwirtz is probably the best 15-year-old in the world. He beat 50 pros two months ago at the Talega Slide Jam. Wyatt (Gibbs) is coming up strong too. They are competing on a world-class level.”
Have Straight A’s, Will Travel
This is no “Dogtown”—the kids are meticulous about safety gear and spotters; they’re on the honor roll and they’re sober as a 5 a.m. wake-up call. At a recent Laguna city council meeting on skateboarding regulations, Wyatt said, “We don’t do drugs, we don’t drink alcohol because we’re too busy skateboarding on hills. I believe that if our skateboarding privileges were taken away, we’d be inside the house playing Nazi Zombie Black Ops,” referring to a video game.
The Alpha Groms de facto headquarters is the Gibbs’ garage, and Wyatt’s dad Chad, a Laguna surfer, helped coordinate a seminar on skateboarding safety and etiquette. That’s right—skateboarding is condoned by parents, many who grew up skating.
Chance Gaul, a LBAG member, is the 2010 International Gravity Sports Association junior world champ of downhill racing. (The champion each years is the total points winner after numerous races around the world.) At 14 he hasn’t started high school yet, but contracts with Jet Skateboards and Abec 11 wheels will pay his travel expenses to Europe, South Africa and Canada this year, along with a $400 per month stipend. International Gravity Sports Association President Marcus Rietema says there are only a handful of skaters making an existence out of it, but while the pay scale is modest today, Chance is confident a livelihood in skating awaits him. And if he’s too early on an emerging trend, Mark Golter’s son Skyler already has a custom skate model made by his sponsor Madrid Skateboards. At age 5, he has almost three years of skating under his belt. He’ll probably be doing 90 mph and earning a big paycheck by 2020, when he’ll be 14.