Sunday, November 8, 2015

Talking Gear Doesn't Make You A Poseur, And Not Giving A Crap Doesn't Make You A Jock

If you are familiar with the work I've done with The Ride Channel or even hung around the Parking Block Diaries Facebook page, you probably know I put a fair amount of thought into the gear I ride. In modern skateboarding, thinking critically about what you are riding is usually a point of controversy, not for the opinions you might form, but for the fact that you have an opinion at all.

I see it all the time on my pages or in the comment sections of my articles: Someone will ask some advice about how a deck rides or ask for suggestions on what kind of wheels to get, and, soon afterwards, the snarky and even hostile comments come rolling in. For many, even asking about gear is "over-thinking" and considering the specs of different products"Doesn't matter".  Before long they always end up twisting the good ole' Zorlac "Shut up and skate" slogan into their ultimate justification.

The prevailing wisdom today is that a board is a board. As one company owner put it to me: "It's seven ply hard maple. It's not rocket science." It's true. It's not rocket science, but it's at least shop class. The fashionable apathy towards the specs of our gear is a strange sort glitch in the matrix of skateboarding, one that implies that talking about how your board works is, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, a mark of high kookery.

This notion is one of the highest, most fragrant piles of bullshit in the free-range pasture that is modern skateboarding.

The fallacy has some of its roots in our anarchic pretensions, another portion in the shameful streak of anti-intellectualism lurking in skating,  but, look past the bullying and the nitwits, and it is evident that the real source of this prejudice lies in the way skaters look to their most athletically talented peers as the authorities, not only on what they should do on a board, but on what board they should ride. It is a less a symptom of elitism, and more of a blind spot that reveals something about the divide between the greatest riders in skating and the average  guys on the street.

Because of this, it's no coincidence that it is the most talented riders who are often the most skeptical about dudes talking gear, but this fact can't simply be chalked up to arrogance or elitism.

I did an interview with Jason Adams where I asked him why he preferred the punk point nose on  his boards. I posited a few functional ideas, and he responded by telling me it wasn't anything functional at all. He just liked the way a pointed nose looked. "I could probably slappy a two by four" he commented.

True. I'm sure he could. But I couldn't. And therein lies the glitch I am talking about.

The best skaters really can shred everything. Sure, they have their preferences and quirks, but the fact is, you can put them on a penny board and they will destroy whatever terrain is in front of them. It's not that the best skaters don't notice little differences like a deeper concave or more rounded tail in their gear. It's not that they don't have preferred wheel formulas, deck sizes, etc. It's that when these guys do get something different, they can adapt to the changes in a matter of minutes and never look back.

You see this play out in elite level skating all the time. In the 80's you had the Bones Brigade absolutely shredding on decks that were easily 2-3 years behind what was state of the art in deck design. Pros can jump sponsors effortlessly without even wondering whether their new sponsor's products will be as "good" as their previous sponsor's. You can see it in skateboarding's worst kept secret: the fact that very few pros put in time to actually design the boards that bear their endorsement, and if they do, the boards that actually get sold by their brand may be nothing like the rider's preferred set up. You see it in the fact that pros often ride someone else's board or wheels or shoes when the cameras aren't on (this, of course, happens a lot less nowadays because, now, the cameras are ALWAYS on).

The development of the modern skateboard industry is at the heart of this phenomenon. Pretty early on, it became obvious to manufacturers that the way to sell boards was not through the sort of hyper-technical innovation-based marketing bicycle manufacturers or car companies use to drive their sales ( a model which, admittedly, often breeds more hot air and gimmickry than real innovation) but through endorsement by the best and brightest talents of the sport. The best skaters in the world set the pace not just for performance, but for the gear.

But here's the problem with that: skaters with that much talent, even skaters with local-hero level talent, have a fundamentally different relationship with their boards than everyone else, and I'm not just talking about the fact that they get an endless supply of brand new equipment for free. I'm talking about their ability to adapt to any skating situation.

God of Gearheads, Professor Paul Schmitt

To them, it really doesn't matter. Who has the best concave, what wheels have a smooth slide instead of a hard break...who cares when you can pull any trick out of the bag on anything with wheels? These are the people we respect the most. They deserve our respect for many reasons. But when it comes to what YOU should be riding and how that decision is made, you should treat their words and consider their apathetic attitudes with skepticism.

Skaters that good don't understand all the talk about balancing wheel grip with hardness...with figuring the best wheelbase that balances stability with a nice pop. They may not know what a little bit of tweaking in a set up can mean for the rest of us. These are guys who feeble handrails as a set-up trick. When they are baffled at all of our talk about leverage and turning radiuses and the quirks of shaped decks, it comes from their experiences. And those experiences are limited by the very thing that makes us see them as authorities. A lot of them are just so good they never need to worry. They have no idea what we are talking about. So, for a lot of those guys, it all sounds like hot air and excuses.  And, just because we can't land bolts on a nollie hardflip down seven stairs, we all take pause and wonder: maybe we are overthinking it.

It's easy to forget that, for a lot of us, every trick is a fight. Every tiny little edge matters. Any little variation that can make a trick more difficult means hours of adaptation for skaters who may not have hours to spare. It may mean "losing" something. I've dealt with this all my years of skating. And yeah, I've had to deal with it because I'm a mediocre skater.

That gives me, and guys like me, a knowledge base the best and the most talented may never need to build.

Yes, adaptation is at the heart of skateboarding. If you are not prepared to deal with the less than perfect, you probably shouldn't be skating. Struggling to Adapt to sketchy terrain, new obstacles, new spots... that is rewarding. Struggling to adapt with a new set-up that doesn't work for you, that's not.

Admittedly, there is a line that can be crossed. Compulsively switching set-ups and endlessly going on and on about the minutiae of skate equipment can wind up being a waste of your time and other people's patience. When gearheadedness gets in the way of putting whatever you got down and doing what you can with it, when technical speculation mutates into excuses, that's when its time to invoke "Shut up and skate". 

That doesn't mean there is not real value in applying some thought to what you put beneath your feet...and what you put on those feet, for that matter. It doesn't mean that seeking out the advice of your skateboarding peers when it comes to what to ride should be something you should be ashamed of.

And if you are one of those guys who can't understand why dudes go on and on about why they are riding what they ride or what they should ride next, there's no need to throw shade on their sometimes silly obsessiveness. Just pat yourself on the back and be proud. You can't relate beacuse you've got skills they don't, or maybe you just have such a mellow attitude that it doesn't matter to you.

For most of us, though, the struggle is real. Anything can help. All the gear gabbing is just a by product of our love for skating and our desire to be able to express ourselves as best as possible despite our limitations. There's no shame in that game.

That said, who's down for an in-depth discussion on wheel wells...

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