The sport of skateboarding has evolved considerably since California surfers started putting roller skate wheels on planks to keep on riding when the surf went out, but a core of longboard enthusiasts have kept true to the original concept - albeit in a more extreme, downhill direction.
These days longboards come in all shapes and sizes, from long wooden decks shaped like surfboards to aluminum boards with wheel wells so riders can get as close to the pavement as possible to increase speed.
On May 23, the town of Britannia Beach will play host to the 2009 Gold Rush Challenge, a professional longboard race. Roughly 100 of the world's top downhill skateboarders have been invited to participate in a race that includes a 325 metre vertical drop over 3.5 km of Copper Drive, with three hairpin turns, five corners, and top speeds of 100 km/h.
"This is a very unique race, it's extremely aggressive in nature compared to anything we've seen before," said Lee Cation, who is organizing the Gold Rush as well as an earlier event on Salt Spring Island.
"The fact is we're not able to grip the corner (with our wheels), we'll have to do quick speed checks where we drift sideways. Skaters will be coming into every corner hot, but have to be completely in control of the board even though we're not strapped in. It really is the next level."
Not only is the race tougher, the Gold Rush also signifies a new direction and possibly a new beginning for the sport with the addition of corporate sponsors, including Red Bull. The sport is becoming more legitimate, Cation says, noting that in two years he's seen the number of events across the province increase from five to nine.
Longboarders from Europe, the U.S. and South America are signed on to compete, but some of the best in the world are from B.C.
"Longboarding seems to flourish in mountain communities... but especially in B.C. where we have a little bit more of a permissive culture towards these event," he said.
"It also helps that we have health care here, although it's really not as dangerous as you might think. We get the odd broken bone or concussion at these competitions but mostly it's just people skidding on the pavement into hay bales."
This isn't an event for flip flops and Bermuda shorts. As a sanctioned event, all athletes are required to wear full helmet and leather speed suits with padding on the knees and elbows. They also wear special gloves that they can use to stabilize themselves while drifting around corners or throwing in speed checks where they slide the board perpendicular to the hill.
It wasn't an easy event to put on. Cation worked with the community at Britannia Beach and the Ministry of Transportation to get all the necessary approvals, which will include road closures through the day. With development slated for the future Cation doesn't know if the Gold Rush will be an annual event, but as a concession to the community for agreeing to host this year's race the longboarders have agreed not to race or ride the hill on any other day. Anybody who violates the ban will in turn be banned from the downhill circuit.
"It's part of the trade-off we make with communities that agree to host these events, and we have to respect the people who live along these roads," said Cation. "This is really a test for us, a chance to show the community what we're about. If everything works out maybe we can come back next year with a two-day event.
"There's an event in Vernon, the International Gravity Sport Association's North American championships taking place over two days, where we pass maybe 300 driveways. That's 300 residents that have to agree to a two-day skateboard event on their road, which is pretty incredible."
Next year, following the 2010 Games, Cation is hoping to bring an event to an undisclosed location in Whistler.
Cation says the sport of longboarding - and downhill "speedboarding" - is growing at roughly 30 per cent a year in terms of sales, and there are more people and events every season. Once upon a time the sport was in the X Games, and fans voted to keep it in, but it was reluctantly dropped because of the facility requirements - BMX riders and skateboarders can use the same ramps and street courses, while longboarders require a long, paved road that can be closed to the public. Now, with growing numbers and corporate sponsorship on board, some of the athletes that compete at an international level believe the sport could be in the Olympics one day.
The races take place from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, May 23. Spectators are welcome, and it's free to attend. Registration is available for $100 at email@example.com, via PayPal.
For more information visit www.unkle.com and look for the 2009 gold Rush Challenge poster.