Longboarders Take a Sport Back to its Roots

By Beacon Staff

Sports that appeal to certain fringes of society develop in unpredictable ways. Take, for example, surfing. In the sport’s early years, surfboards were fiberglass behemoths before they grew shorter, pointier and more maneuverable. In the 1970s, skateboarding spurred off of surfing, spearheaded by a small group in Santa Monica, Calif., who rode pavement like they were on waves.

Then, like surfboards, the skateboards grew shorter, and more rigid. Snowboarding developed and promptly commenced its own evolution and gradual pilgrimage toward mainstream acceptance, like surfing and skateboarding before it.

But to see Kenny Harwood, 17, and his friends sailing down a paved hill on a narrow, flexible longboard last Tuesday evening, with tall grass billowing on either side of the road, it’s impossible not to think these sports have somehow doubled back on themselves – that after decades of evolution, the newest form of skateboarding simply resembles surfing 40 years ago.

ROADRASH crew members watch Kenny Harwood emulate a motorcycle as he takes Dern Road hill west of Kalispell on his longboard

Harwood rides a homemade board almost as tall as he is. He “boardwalks,” as the pavement blurs beneath him, leaning hard to either side, carving turns and letting the plank at his feet find its way back to his center of gravity. He strolls up and down the board, in a style he describes as “old school, like 60s surf style, when you do a lot of cross-stepping.”

Harwood and his friends, many of whom are from Lakeside, have been longboarding together for about three years, and form a loosely defined group called Roadrash. They’ve shot two longboarding movies and have made and sold four boards.

“You just get freedom from it,” Harwood says. “You don’t have to pay to have fun, especially if you make the board – this one’s like a part of me.”

Pat Brooks, 19, the skate department manager for Wheaton’s in Kalispell, says longboard sales are exploding. On this night, he has brought the group to a hill on South View Drive, off of Highway 2 West. The hill isn’t terribly steep, but it’s a cul-de-sac, so there’s no traffic.

A longboard’s wheels are bigger and softer than a regular skateboard, thus less likely to stop short upon encountering a pebble.

“Our wheels are big enough that we can ride over most cracks,” said Will Eisenloher, 19, “but in the dark, if you don’t see it coming, they get you.”

Longboarding is less about intricate tricks than it is about going fast, swooping from one side of the road to the other, and enjoying the weight transition and speed. Some of the longboarders have hacksawed polyurethane cutting boards into chunks, and glued the pieces to the palms of old work gloves, so they can drag their hands on the ground when leaning into tight turns – much like a surfer might reach out and touch the vertical water in a wave.

But pavement is not as forgiving as water. They’ve learned that text-messaging on a longboard is a bad idea. The group tells stories of broken feet, fractured arms, bloody faces, 30-foot-long slides on gravel and high-speed bailouts. They call themselves Roadrash for a reason. Eisenloher describes the futile sprint riders do when forced to jump off the board at high speed: “You run really funny, and you get lower and lower to the ground until your face hits it.”

The group is easy going and accessible. Their sport is too young for pretension. Matt Howell, 18, says most people they encounter on the road are friendly.

“Everybody was young once,” Howell adds. “A lot of people know we’re just out there having a good time.”

Kenny Harwood carves Sunny View Drive between grass lit by the evening sun.