Street warriors

Urban snowboarding takes cunning, courage

Photo Illustration by David Jayne

It’s 1:30 p.m., recess time at a new middle school in an undisclosed part of Reno. Two pro snowboarders, a world-class cinematographer and a reporter gaze toward a group of children from outside the playground.

The shooter pokes a video camera through the fence, fixing it on a steep, smooth metal handrail that traverses a stairway comprised of 36 stairs. With no posts or obstructions in the take-off or run-out into the schoolyard, the handrail has the perfect design for urban snowboarding.

Suddenly, the palm-sized DV camera switches off, and everyone swiftly crams into the cab of the waiting truck, the bed of which is packed to the top with snow and shovels. Our suspicious documentary activities have attracted a security guard from across the schoolyard. We decide to get lost.

There’s a certain kind of athlete who’s on a constant search for architectural bliss in the form of concrete and steel that can be jibbed on a snowboard. “Jibbing,” by way of explanation, came about in the early 1990s as a wintertime version of skateboarding on handrails. Urban jibbing equates to a seemingly endless tour of school courtyards, business parks and apartment buildings. The top filmmakers in snowboarding and a handful of pros spend a large portion of their winters in this pursuit.

A decade after its birth, urban snowboarding is pretty widely known, as fans and participators aren’t held hostage to snowboard parks at ski resorts. In the urban setting, the fresh snow quality, slope angle and natural snow coverage are pretty irrelevant, as snow really serves only as an on- or off-ramp to the desired slide-able surface, in most cases a perfectly smooth flat-bar-type handrail or 3-foot-high slick concrete ledge.

It’s free (no lift tickets are required). It takes a bit of ingenuity and imagination, and basic first-aid and carpentry skills are good. And if you fall, it’s most likely onto cement stairs, with your knees taking a harsh beating from one of the vertical rungs that affix the rail to the stairs.

A handmade take-off ramp about 7 feet high is required as a staging area that holds enough snow for a board to move and provides enough speed to get on a rail. The snow and the ramp are often loaded into the back of a truck. The run-out requires enough snow to keep you moving with speed as you land and reach your ultimate destination of wet concrete or asphalt—minus obstacles, if you’re lucky.

Professionals such as Jeremy Jones and J. P. Walker have made a name for themselves in this specialty. Contests in places like Las Vegas (with manufactured snow) and Portland, Ore., are more common now, as urban riding has approached free-riding in snowy mountains in popularity over the past five years. For the common Joe Warrior, the easier obstacles are thrilling, quite safe and really fun. For the advanced rider who’s seeking urban bliss in the form of sliding long, curved rails and the rush they provide, the toll the sport takes on his board and body—if he bails—can be harsh.

There are other risks as well. Having to explain your presence at the middle school to authorities can really suck up time, turn secret spots into a bust and burst your bubble on future schoolyard missions. But don’t let that stop you.