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Life and limb – My year in mountainboarding

Spring

The first few months of the year passed uneventfully. I went to a couple of small freeride meets but didn’t ride very much. In fact, in 2015 I went mountainboarding fewer times than in any of the ten years I’ve been mountainboarding. I wanted to ride. I still loved the feeling of riding a board through leafy woodland, but more and more life just got in the way.

Summer

Summer is competition season. This year’s comps followed the same format as the past few years; four boarderx, four freestyle and four downhill, so that’s twelve comps over six weekends, four of them at centres and two at other locations.

We did one of the downhill comps at the Fruit Farm in Gloucestershire. We chose it because it was a good track, it had camping, uplift track, etc., but also because it was near to where lots of mountainboarders live. We thought that would encourage more riders to attend. Turns out we were wrong. The comp had low attendance, and even though most of the riders who did go enjoyed it, it showed us yet again what we’ve known for a while, that there isn’t very much the ATBA-UK can do about people having other things got on in their lives.

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The continual decline in the number of riders competing (because existing competitors drop out and because we don’t get very many new riders) meant we had some difficult decisions to make about the future of the competitions and the ATBA-UK. We had three options; carry on regardless and run twelve comps in 2016 knowing the entry figures would be low, pull the plug and accept that not enough people want mountainboard competitions to do any for 2016, or find some middle way and downsize the ATBA-UK and the competitions so that we can still continue in some limited capacity.

We went with option three: the UK Mountainboard Championship 2016, a single event featuring all three disciplines over a long weekend in August. It may look like an easy and obvious choice but it was actually a very difficult decision to make because it has such a huge impact on everything else the ATBA-UK does. With so few riders there was no way we could pursue our plans for recognition of mountainboarding as a sport (which has a real impact on the future of mountainboarding), there was no longer any reason to continue to offer paid membership as the only reason most people bought it was for discounted comp entry fees. No membership fees, along with drastically reduced income from only one event, means we’re at risk of not making enough money in 2016 to buy insurance in 2017, which means the ATBA-UK would have to close. I don’t want it to happen but I think it’s the most likely outcome.

Autumn

With the competitive season out the way, and decisions about what next year’s season made, I had some time to better analyse the problem of not enough mountainboarders and come up with a solution.

It became clear that the reason there aren’t enough mountainboarders to maintain a community, warrant a governing body, justify competitions or make mountainboarding a sport is that there there isn’t sufficient infrastructure. Mountainboard Clubs, of which there were eight or so when I started, are almost non-existent now, and the number of Mountainboard Centres across the UK has halved in the last five or so years. With no one to ride with and no where to learn, no one gets into mountainboarding and so we see the decline of the past few year’s and get to where we are today.

Knowing the problem is half of the solution. The solution was to build new infrastructure. The solution was grass roots clubs that had a focus on providing instruction and accelerating the learning of new riders. These new kinds of clubs wouldn’t need to be big, they would only need three or four experienced riders and maybe three or four new riders. The new riders would be carefully selected to give the club the best chance of success. They would be in their twenties, have a job and a car, and would probably already be into snowboarding. These new ‘Top Gun’ clubs would offer free lessons and kit to be borrowed, and would be all about getting the new riders to sufficient standard for them to enter next year’s competitions. A few small clubs in as few different areas could surely produce five new competitors, and that is all we need, just five or so new riders each year. They would represent a ten percent increase in competitors and be enough to keep the entry figures steady.

So I created Thames Valley Mountainboard Club, built a website, and started to advertise. I bought boards, helmets and pads. I identified three likely new mountainboarders. And I organised fortnightly freeride meets across the Thames Valley. We had three meets and things were going well when the other pressure’s on my time became too much and I couldn’t go any further with TVMC. I’m still confident that it’s the right approach to getting more people into mountainboarding and onto competitions, and I wish I could have proved the theory and then roll out the model to create other clubs in other areas, but things don’t always work out the way you want them to.

Winter

As winter came around the amount of time I spent mountainboarding decreased even more. So when Mark from Team Dad needed a Secret Birthday Ride somewhere he’d never ridden I suggested Wendover Woods. This “secret” (actually it was only secret from Mark, more of a surprise) ride turned into the most well attended freeride meet of the past few years. Fourteen riders rode Truffler, Ripper’s Gash, Backbone, Painkiller and Tarantula (mountainboarders come up with some interesting names for tracks).

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Tarantula is one of my favourite tracks. It starts with a drop, goes onto tarmac, through a narrow gap, along a leafy track, down some steps, and then into a steep narrow footpath, so has a lot variety. And on this day I rode it best I ever have.

A couple of weeks later and another Team Dad secret birthday ride, this time for Clayton. After lots of texting post codes, messaging directions, and picking up people from the train station, we all met at a new spot I had recce’d the week before. It had plenty of long fast tracks that could keep brake and non-brake riders entertained all day. We rode each of the tracks in turn, and went back to ‘Toy Box’, a steep leafy hillside for a second go. It’s a fun area to play in and we spent about half an hour finding new lines. Having talked about which tracks to ride next we all headed for the bottom. Mark, Clayton, Matt and me, and then Smilie. He came flying off the first drop, didn’t line up for the second drop and hit a tree. With that much speed, and with his feet in snowboard boots and firmly strapped into his board the force of the impact went through the next weakest part, his leg just above the boot. I ran over to Smilie, carefully got his feet out of his board, and stabilised his broken leg while I called an ambulance. A hour or so later, and with plenty of morphine, Smilie was in the back of a 4×4 ambulance on his way to A & E.

Smilie’s injury bothered me. It bothered me for two reasons. One, I very nearly hit that same tree minutes before Smilie did, and two, it made me realise how much responsibility I take on with organising freeride meets, being a first aider, working with the ATBA-UK, and not having the time to give to growing mountainboard clubs when I know that’s the solution to the situation mountainboarding is in at the moment.

Responsibility kills freedom…