Think of the steepest San Francisco hill you know. Now add cars and sprinkle gravel all over it. OK, now picture yourself standing on a skateboard the size of your leg. Think you could bomb that hill in one piece?
Downhill longboarding is not for the faint of heart. I learned as much when I spent time hanging out with one of San Francisco's ballsiest longboarding crew, the Sunset Sliders.
My connection to the longboarding scene started with a familiar sight to anyone who has spent time in the Berkeley Hills. One sunny Saturday afternoon as I was driving up through Strawberry Canyon, I saw a hitchhiker on the side of the road. He was thin and scruffy; his board was leaning against his body, reaching almost to his hip. His face broke into a bearded smile as I slowed to pick him up. He told me his name was Patrick Rizzo.
The sinuous curves of Centennial Drive are tight and intimidating to blast down, even protected by the metal shell of a car. But Patrick didn't blink an eye at it. He had been riding those hills for years, and many much larger. He then helped me connect with a local crew obsessed with longboards, the San Francisco–based Sunset Sliders.
The Sliders are a loose group of 80 longboarders. Anywhere from 30 to 40 members of this crew gather every Wednesday at Big Dave’s house, their unofficial clubhouse in the Sunset District, and head out into the city.
To back up a bit, longboards are a bit longer and heavier than skateboards, with wider bases that make them more stable at higher speeds. They’re most commonly used for downhill racing, slalom, or transportation. Their weight makes them less suitable than skateboards for many tricks, but contributes to a surf-like carving motion by giving boarders more momentum. Long story short, a longboard will roll farther with less energy spent.
Big Dave (aka Dave Tannaci) told me the Sunset Sliders started around the beginning of 2010. The members immediately bonded over a passion to skate anything and everything, a strong community focus, and general “sweet times while skateboarding.”
The guys and gals range in age from 16 to 50 years old and come from all walks of life. Their camaraderie runs deep, tight as family, and they watch out for each other on the road. This lookout approach is especially important, I learned, when you're cruising down some of the steepest grades in the Bay Area.
Normally the Sliders drive their hand-painted minibus, The Scholar Ship, to different skate spots. The Scholar Ship has been around since fall 2011 and was acquired with the help of local skate company Caliber Trucks. This year alone the bus will enable over a dozen Sunset Sliders to travel all over the western United States. But when I was hanging with the crew, the van was out of commission, so instead we formed a train of cars.
For my first trip out with the boarders, I met up with longboarder J.M. Duran (not a Slider, but he occasionally hangs out with them) to talk skate plans over tacos at Los Coyotes. J.M is wiry, tanned, and in his mid-20s. He was born and raised in the Bay Area and has been skating the surrounding slopes for years. We decided to start at the Hyde Street trolley line, which drops out of the sky at a 21 percent grade.
I should mention that J.M. showed up with a homemade cast on his broken left forearm. But when we got to Hyde Street, he proceeded to bomb the hill without hesitation. Longboarders do a lot of sliding – turning downhill and then sliding sideways to slow down, sliding to stop, or transitioning into another stance, "power sliding" as it's termed. J.M. drifted and carved around the Hyde Street slope, over the treacherous Muni tracks, and past me within a couple feet – perfect for the optimal photo.
Another skater known as "Canadian George" arrived an hour later, puttering up the hill on a scooter, longboard strapped to his back and standing about a foot over his head. We made our way over Lombard Street, which is laden in red bricks. Couple that with its infamous curves and drop in elevation, and you have substantial degrees of difficulty for skaters. As J.M. and George took turns coming down the hill, the tourists cheered, chanting, “Again, again!" when they finished.
Later that day, we picked up 17-year-old longboarding prodigy Byron Essert. Several other skaters had told me the kid pushes them all, that the moves he’s pulling are further and faster than anyone else. I soon learned exactly what they meant.
Over lunch it was decided it was time to capture the skaters as they descended Glen Park Canyon – more specifically, O’Shaughnessy Blvd. The Boulevard nips and curls up Glen Park Canyon with many corners, drops, and turns that create a dramatic scene for anyone, let alone a longboarder on four small wheels.
At the top of the hill, Byron and George geared up and readied themselves for the plunge. We waited for the perfect break in the cars to allow for a hefty buffer on each side of us. Then, with a wave of a hand they were off, while I shot them from the back of a pickup truck that was about 40 feet in front of the skaters. They sped in and out of the flickering roadside shadows at about 30 mph. Making it look easy, they crouched down and got close to the inside of the corner, slapping the overgrown grass on the side of the road. As we neared the end of the hill (about two minutes later), Byron and George stood up and put their arms out as if they were being crucified, allowing the wind resistance to slow them down. We turned around and picked them up on the side of the road on the way back up.
Local longboarders are having an impact beyond their neighborhood skate crews. Patrick Rizzo, J.M. Duran, and Byron Essert have formed a team with the Powell-Peralta skate company and say they’re looking forward to a new resurgence in the scene. Members of the Sunset Sliders have their own skate companies, among them California Bonzing and Somos Skates. After shooting a half dozen runs with these guys and learning about all of their various projects, I was left with an overwhelming feeling of excitement for a sport that I see as on the verge of blowing up.
Stop by your local longboard skate shop and pick up a board. One highly acclaimed shop, the Purple Skunk, is a good place to start. Open since 1993 in the Outer Richmond, the walls are adorned with all sorts of boards and clothing. When I visited, store manager Rodney Van Beusekom was manning the counter and he nonchalantly answered my novice questions. Purple Skunk has demo boards there for you to try out; you can just leave your ID and take one for a spin.
If you’re interested in joining the Sunset Sliders for one of their weekly forays, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.