Longboard skateboarding is one of those pastimes that can go from casual to intense, from slacker recreational activity to high-speed, high-risk athletic pursuit, with just a few degrees of slope. You can ride a longboard to the beach in your flip-flops, or don a helmet and full-body leather suit to protect against broken bones and grazes as you tackle steep and winding roads.
All aspects of the sport will be on display this week with the return of the second annual Whistler Longboard Festival. There are two major events on the schedule, starting with today's (Thursday, July 12) Skate X Shoot presented by Rayne Longboards at Whistler Olympic Park in the Callaghan Valley.
The first part of the day is a 20km longboard race, which is open to everyone ages 10 and up. The course is not technical and even beginners should be able to finish the event in a few hours. Registration is available after 8 a.m. and there are starts at 9 a.m. and 10 a.m.
Next up is the main event, the world's first longboard biathlon. Athletes will take on a 10km course, looping around on undulating paved trails in the park and stopping by the range to fire .22 caliber rifles. Every shot counts so skaters are advised to take their time.
The first round of racing gets underway at 10:30 a.m. with rifle safety and orientation, as well as practice, with the first heat leaving at 11:30 a.m.
You can register until 1 p.m. for the second race, with orientation getting underway at 1:30 p.m. and a 2:30 p.m. start. The podium is at 4:30 p.m.
As a first year event, Cation is happy that 80 people have registered for today's competitions.
"I would have like to have blown up out of the gates, but like any first year event awareness is the biggest hurdle," he said. "We're really just navigating our way, and the fact that it's on Thursday is a bit frustrating for some people that work. But at the same time we wanted to keep things at a manageable level so we can execute it properly, so this year is really an investment. Hopefully next year we'll bring it back and put it on the weekend so we can make it even bigger."
The main event of the festival is the Whistler Sliding Centre Downhill presented by Arbor Skateboards, which runs July 13 to July 15. July 13 is a rider-only day for practicing and course inspection, although spectators are invited to watch the second day of training on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Whistler Sliding Centre on Blackcomb.
The racing takes place on Sunday with the first elimination rounds getting underway at 10 a.m., progressing through the day to the finals at 3 p.m.
There are 180 skaters registered for the downhill, including some of the top racers from around the globe.
"We really do have the world coming," said Race director Lee Cation. "We have guys from Switzerland, Germany, Australia. We have a larger women's field and will probably have enough for two heats of women. A lot of people saw what went down here last year and they all decided that this was the event they wanted to come to. Some risked a lot to be here, skipping other events and coming to Canada solely to race in this event."
One of the draws is the $5,000 prize purse for the downhill, one of the biggest in the sport and five times what was offered last year.
The Whistler Sliding Centre course, which follows the access road, has emerged as one of the top rides in the world with a 300 metre vertical drop over 1.6km of road, seven hairpin turns and 12 corners in total. It's not the fastest course in the world, but it easily ranks among the toughest — to make it safe organizers spent Wednesday dropping over 1,000 hay bales in the corners.
Riders leave the start gate in groups of six, crouching to gain speed and trying to stay low and in control as they slide around the corners. Some contact does happen, and last year's final had some controversy as leader Kyle Martin and James Kelly collided coming into the final turn, pushing Martin out of contention.
Cation said the level of riding is as good as it gets this year, and a lot of riders bear watching.
"Definitely Kevin Reimer (of North Vancouver), who was injured last year and couldn't race — he won Britannia this year and is regarded by many as the fastest in the world right now," said Cation. "Patrick Switzer (of Vancouver) is fresh off a couple of big victories and won Britannia last year, and he's going to be in full effect this year. We have James Kelly, last year's winner from California. Kyle Martin from that controversial ending is going to be hungry to prove himself. We have Zach Maytum from Colorado, Louis Pilloni from California — this event is stacked with top riders."
Cation has been working hard to make the event more spectator-friendly, and this year there will be a beer garden on Saturday and Sunday, more food tents and a bigger expo area. As well, there will be live entertainment through the day and between heats with DJs.
There's no charge to get into the event, but Cation is asking spectators to make a donation to Whistler Sport Legacies, which operates the Whistler Sliding Centre, and to the Longboard Coalition. A programme will also be available by donation.
Cation is pleased with how far his event has progressed in only two years.
"Right now we're viewed as one of the top five events in the world, and to gauge the level of awareness you can see how many people view the videos," he said. "People are talking about this, they have marketed their calendars, they're coming to Whistler and as far as they're concerned, of all the events out there, Whistler is the one."
Cation would like to see more mainstream media coverage; although the event is slowly gaining traction there as well as more people learn what longboarding is all about.
"I think that metropolitan areas take a different view of the activity than resorts do," he said. "People see guys pushing their skateboards to work or cruising around on the seawall, while in resorts people really see the athleticism and recognize this as a growing sport of the future."
• Organizers are asking longboarders to keep off the course because poachers could jeopardize future events. There is no smoking at the venue outside of designated areas.
• For safety, people will not be allowed to bring bikes and boards up the downhill course. There will be an unsupervised check area where people can lock their gear.
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