Off to boarding school

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First published on 20 Nov 2008.

Stand on a piece of wood, let the wheels do the work: surely learning how to skateboard can’t be that hard? Think again, says Alexis Ong

Skateboarders make it look so easy – cruising by, leaning back, flipping things with their feet. But for anyone who’s interested in upping their cool factor by learning how to ride, TOS can tell you first-hand: it’s more than child’s play. I had a week to try to master the sport, from figuring out gear to actually standing on the board without falling. The good news is that skateboarding is a bit like learning how to ride a bicycle – once you get it, you’ll never forget. Of course, this little morsel of encouragement came from my friend Lesley, who no longer skateboards because she tore a ligament in her knee while skating. ‘It’s a great feeling when you finally get it,’ she told me while absentmindedly rubbing her knee. ‘It’s kind of like flying. You feel free.’ That’s… encouraging?

Thus inspired, my first stop was Boards & Stuff (#03-01 Far East Plaza, 14 Scotts Rd, 6238 1982), one of a handful of specialist skate shops in Singapore; it also runs a ‘Skateboard School’ at weekends. There, I met the laidback Shaun, 27, who talked me through the ABCs of buying my first skateboard. There are four main components: the deck (the board you stand on), trucks (which connect the wheels to the deck), wheels and bearings. I was already way out of my element. Two teens getting their boards tuned eavesdropped as I grilled Shaun – who has been skating for 15 years – on the criteria for picking decks and trucks. The question ‘Will I be the oldest person at the skate class?’ was met with wide grins.

Most decks range in width from 7.5 to 8 inches – it seems the better you are, the narrower you go, unless you have clown feet. I ended up with a Forest deck ($90) – US skater Amy Caron’s pro model – with an owl graphic on the base (I’m a sucker for owls). Black or clear grip tape (Flik Clear, $10) is cut to fit on the top of the deck for traction. I was later informed that clear grip tape is more of a ‘kid’s thing’, but at my age I’m past the point of caring. Now comes the trickier part: choosing the trucks – the lighter, the better. I went for the hollow magnesium Destructo trucks ($79; the teens very persuasively argued that if TOS was footing the bill, I should only buy the best). I learned that selecting a set of wheels (Plan B Love/Hate Wheels, $60) and bearings (FKD ABEC 3 bearings, $39) was mostly a matter of personal preference. Last on the list was an assortment of Robocop-style body armour (wrist, elbow and knee pads for $165; Armor Helmet, $75).


Canadian pro skater Mikey Lipka shows off his credentials at Somerset Skate Park

Despite blowing all that cash on safety gear, my first excursion on the board was totally unprotected. After pushing off, I fell on my wrist and came dangerously close to giving myself a hernia. Shaun had advised me to ‘hold on to something and just get used to being on the board’. Lesson learned: wear sneakers (but not running shoes) with thick treads, and you will feel infinitely more confident if you wear kneepads. Even after a half-hour of wobbling around my parking lot, I was (absolutely not) ready for my first informal lesson with pro skater Mikey Lipka the next day.

It was unnerving to make my debut at the 3,000 square-metre Somerset Skate Park, where at any given time there are a handful of BMX bike enthusiasts or a lone inline skater doing his thing (no other girls, though). Besides Lipka, a Canadian expat who has been skating for the past 12 years, I was definitely the oldest person there – most looked like they were in their late teens, ollying (an aerial trick) and grinding (sliding along an edge) around the park with ease. But as time went by, I realised nobody cared if you were new, old or lacked basic coordination. From time to time, spectators and resting skaters applauded when someone attempted a trick – regardless of whether they stuck the landing or ate pavement. After a while I learned to ignore the feeling of being watched, mostly because the kids were busy observing the more technical riders in action.

After several passes without falling, I tried turning. Leaning against the front (toeside) or back (heelside) edges of the board brings you around in a semi-graceful arc, though beginners can also learn to turn via what Lipka calls ‘tic-tacking’ – putting weight on your back foot and using the back of the board as a pivot. Turning is also where the trucks really come into play, as you can adjust their tightness. Looser trucks – ie, increased manoeuvrability – come with more experience and confi dence. If initial efforts feel futile, Lipka has a simple tip: use your board as a form of transport. ‘You hit a point where you sort of teach yourself,’ he says as I grate across the concrete. And for those worried about getting in trouble for skating in public, rest easy. When Shaun was 18, the police confiscated his board for skating around Raffles City, and his mother had to retrieve it from the police station. So while skating is not illegal (unless you see a sign specifically saying so), the men in blue won’t bother you unless you start being disruptive or get in the way.

Back at the park, our photographer snapped shots of a young skater in action – Elmi – prompting his friends to cheer, ‘Wah, now you’re a pro!’ It’s moments like this – the constant encouragement, the friendly banter – that make you wonder why skaters have a reputation as antisocial misfits. Instead, it’s an environment where you can feel comfortable making a fool of yourself on your tricked-out beginner’s board. And while I’m not quite ‘flying’ or ‘feeling free’ (my calves are actually kind of sore), I plan to keep practising. When I finally sync my upper and lower body so as not to look a flailing mess, perhaps I’ll even venture out for a ride around town. And for now, that’s good enough for me.

 


Escape the grind

So you find walking a little, er, pedestrian? Embrace your inner boarder by watching our favourite skater films:


Deck Dogz
Dir: Steve Pasvolsky. 2005. Australia. 90 mins. NC16. Sean Kennedy, Richard Wilson, Ho Thi Lu, Maris J Caune.
Cops and angry parents chase three suburban misfits who are en route to a major skating competition with the hopes of meeting their hero – pro skater Tony Hawk.

Left to right: Dogtown and Z-Boys, Lords of Dogtown and Thrashin'

Dogtown and Z-Boys Dir: Stacy Peralta. 2001. USA. 91 mins. Documentary. Narrated by Sean Penn. Jay Adams, Tony Alva, Skip Engblom.
The true story of the Zephyr surf shop, Z-Boys, polyurethane wheels and the birth of skateboarding.

Lords of Dogtown
Dir: Catherine Hardwicke. 2005. USA. 107 mins. PG. Emile Hirsch, Victor Rasuk, Johnny Knoxville, Michael Angarano, Heath Ledger. The fictional tale of a group of friends who rule the streets of Dogtown in Santa Monica, California, with their skateboards.

Skaterdater Dir: Noel Black. 1965. USA. Michael Mel, Melissa Mallory, Gregg Carroll, Gary Hill.
A UCLA film school graduate’s first project (and Oscar-nominated film) features bare feet, clay wheels, cute girls and skateboarding.

Thrashin’ Dir: David Winters. 1986. USA. 93 mins. M18. Tony Alva, Josh Brolin, Robert Rusler, Pamela Gidley, Brooke McCarter.
Brolin plays extreme skateboarder Corey, who falls in love with the sister of Hook (Rusler), the leader of outlaw skate gang the Daggers.

Sabrina Lee

By Alexis Ong
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