The death of snowboarding There’s no question that snowboarding has seen a decline over the past decade. In the mid-nineties, when skiing’s growth was at a standstill, it was snowboarding that saved the industry. New technology and, possibly more importantly, a new youthful attitude had literally millions of new riders flocking to the mountains. In the US snowboarders went from making up just 7.7% of the “ski” market in 1999 to 32.6% of the market in 2000 but between 2003 and 2013 the sport has seen a decline of 28%. What happened?
Snowboarding goes mainstream Even though snowboarding was invented in the 70s, when the sport came of age in the 90s it still maintained a lot of its bad-boy roots. There was a distinct “us vs them” attitude with snowboarders banned from many ski areas. Snowboarding legend Terje Håkonsen boycotted even the first-ever Olympic snowboarding competition (Nagano ‘98) because he didn’t like how the International Ski Federation was getting its hands on his sport.
These days the line between skiing and snowboarding has blurred. Skiers and snowboarders share the same slopes and a lot of people practice both sports. The skis of today aren’t your grandaddy’s skis anymore and skiers really owe a huge amount to the inventive, playful renegades who pioneered snowboarding. Without snowboarding’s influence there would be a lot less skiers in the park or the pow because they wouldn’t have twin tips or fat powder skis. Hell, skis had a side-cut of near-on infinity until snowboarding took off. Unfortunately, during snowboarding’s big (corporate) boom, much of the creativity that propelled snowboarding to incredible heights fell by the wayside. Perhaps Icarus flew too close to the sun.
Now that the original generations of snowboarders have a house, a spouse, a dog and 2.3 children to raise they’re understandably spending less time on the hill. The generation behind them has less of an incentive to pick up a board as opposed to a pair of skis. Skiing is, undeniably, advantageous in many situations on the mountain from moguls, to ice, to flats. Skiing is no longer seen as lame by the younger generation and snowboarding is no longer intrinsically cool.
Taro Tamai, 54, has a small shop in the world’s snowiest ski-resort (Niseko, Japan – 15 m per year) where he sells his line of snowboards, Gentemstick. Taro is the father of a movement in snowboarding that is picking up steam worldwide – snowsurfing. Taro looks at the mountain in the same way a surfer would see a wave, something to work with, not against. “Snowboarding, when people think about it—all the images are in the air. But not everyone wants to do that. Ninety percent of snowboarders want to carve snow. They want to be on the ground. The snow industry has brainwashed people to just one side of snowboarding; I want to liberate that and create a kind of revolution.” His revolution isn’t just confined to jumps however, as he sees a huge difference in the quality of a carve in every photo:
"Breaking and using the whole board will definitely thrown up a massive face-shot, but couldn’t the rider have been having more fun putting in a long, arching turn leaving behind a wispy trail? “In big magazines, for example, you see a photo of a huge spray, but the quality of the carve behind that spray should also be considered.”
According to Alex Yoder, an American rider on the Gentemstick team: “There’s a heightened level of mastery in Japanese culture. When someone gets a job, they stick at it for the rest of their life [in order] to be the best person at that job that’s ever existed. For us in the States, when you first start out snowboarding, step one is learning how to use your edges to turn. As soon as you learn step one, you move on. You can go to the half-pipe or the park. But in Japan, guys will stay at step one for a long time. Even a lifetime. It blew my mind when I realized what was going on over there.”
Gentemstick and Car Danchi rider Kazushi Yamauchi, aka ‘Orange Man’ proclaims his love for his limited edition Rocketfish.
“I used to feel like speed and air were really the goal. I was just ripping down the mountain and I knew where all the hits were, so I’d point it to the next one, and the next one, go from A to B. Now that A-to-B mentality is completely gone, and I just realized, ‘when you don’t fixate on those specific features you’re more aware of the whole mountain and there are a lot of less obvious features that are just as fun as those hits. It’s an opportunity to play with gravity and really interact with the natural world. I’ve found a deeper appreciation of the subtler, simpler things you can do on a snowboard.”
Just as a surfer wouldn’t have just one board for every different wave or break, a new generation of shapers is unleashing this philosophy on the snowboarding world. Swiss rider Nicholas Wolken borrowed a board from some Finnish Gemtemstick riders in 2010 and spent some time with the Car Danchi (Japanese for ‘Car Apartment’, a name taken up by a group of Japanese riders who spend the winters chasing snow in their vans) riders in Hokkaido. He then knew he wanted to change the way people rode, and his 4-year-old brand, Korua Shapes, brings a Gentem-inspired movement to Europe without the ~€1400 price tag.
This week Korua Shapes came to the Espace Killy in and old VW campervan on their Car Danchi inspired demo-tour. Obviously we were first in line at the test site where the super friendly Vitus was ready and waiting to help us try some new shapes. I can safely say I haven’t had as much fun just cruising pistes as I did last Tuesday in… possibly ever. What was old became new again. My buddies and I spent the day on the same four or five pistes; swapping boards to a new shape opened up new possibilities you just hadn’t noticed the 1,472 times you’ve ridden the top of the Diebold.
Veteran rider Antti Autti has just signed on with the small Swiss company and sums up what I’d try to say below far better than I’d be able to: “Korua Shapes boards are exactly what I’ve been dreaming of for a while now. I’ve been yearning to have a quiver of boards to suit the terrain and my mood. As I’ve been a pro for over 15 years and filled my life with snowboarding it has become a bit harder to get that “YIHAA” feeling every day while riding. Obviously on epic powder days and when riding steep lines it’s easy to achieve, but on those everyday runs on your local hill it has been harder and harder to find. Now with a quiver of shapes I can pick up something that gets my heart racing just carving down groomers and the “YIHAA” is there everyday.”
The 161 Puzzle is super stiff and has a really short tail reminiscent of Michael Keaton’s Batman. You can really lay a carve in when you put a bit of pressure on your back foot. The first-time I tried a Eurocarve on it I accidentally wound up turning back up the hill. As different as the boards are, one thing all the Korua models have in common is a larger than average width that really forces them to get up on an angle and drive the edges in for a train-track precise turns.
Joel lays a heelside carve into the OK/Orange on a goofy-foot specifc model of the Apollo.
Of all the boards I tried that day including the asymetric 157 fish-tailed Apollo and the short but surprisingly grippy, fun, and amazingly-named 154 Tranny Finder, it was the 164 Pencil that won me over. A bit softer than the Puzzle and with an early rising nose that made it ride much shorter than you might expect it was super fun on piste, and I can only imagine how much fun it would be in the pow. Much like Excalibur (a ‘64 Fender Stratocaster in classic white, with triple single-core pickups and a whammy bar) called to Wayne, the Pencil called to me. Thankfully, unlike the Gentemsticks I saw in Niseko during my season there in ‘09, it won’t cost me a month’s wages either. Lucky me. Lucky snowboarding.
Skiing may have co-opted a lot of snowboarding’s technology but perhaps the one thing that can’t be copied is snowboarding’s soul. The wave this new generation of snowboard manufacturers is riding might just be starting out, but it could be enough to propel snowboarding to a brighter future; one more reminiscent of it’s past. If, like me, watching someone do a quad-cork inspires you to go riding as much as watching Olympic gymnastics makes you want to lace up your boots then check out Gentemstick’s Snowsurf, Korua’s Yearning for Turning series, Glue by Christian Haller, and anything from the Car Danchi Crew; you’ll be itching for corduroy like a guy shopping for his high school prom in 1977.