For decades, skateboard magazines have dealt mostly in celebrity. Skaters buy mags to see and read about the exploits of famous skaters, not to get practical information that helps them skate. Sure, there are occasionally gear reviews and trick tips, but these are inevitably useless. Skateboarding is not a spectator sport, our culture is driven almost 100% by actual participants, yet our mags are basically selling spectatorship. Compare that with the mags that serve cyclists and runners or particpants in any other physical hobby: in other disciplines, the media is driven by things like training tips and comically exhaustive equipment previews and reviews. Nobody would buy a copy of Runner’s World if it was nothing but pictures of famous runners doing laps, but that’s kind of what skaters re doing when they buy a copy of Thrasher or Transworld.
The last thing I want is for Thrasher to mutate into Golf Digest, but I’ve always felt that there is a place for something more “rider-oriented”, in skating. Figuring out how to do this, however, is not so simple, and plunges a writer deep into the weird, murky depths of skating’s unique nature, revealing just how complex and substantive skateboarding really is.
Take the product review, for example; Product reviews are The bread and butter of everything from bike mags to hot rod publications. As mentioned before, at least for teh last 3 or 4 decades, skateboarding mags have never gone in for them in any deep way. There are some good reasons for this, even if you exclude the ethical grabass inherent in a publishing sector where all the magazines are partially owned by stakeholders in the products being reviewed. nevertheless, I always thought there must be a way to do real product reviews if someone really wanted to try.
I’m not so sure anymore.
Recently I wrote a piece on wheels with Speedlab Wheels owner Alan Keller. After he learned I had not actually ridden his wheels, he offered to comp me a set for review. Easy enough, I thought. Ride some wheels. Write about what I thought of them with no deadline. Simple, right?
Not quite. Deciding how “good” or “bad” those wheels were became an exercise in second-guessing, self-reflection, and heavy analysis.
Whether we choose to think about it or not, Skateboarding is complicated. Why would reviewing a set of four skateboard wheels be any less.
So, I received a set of 57mm 99a Speedlab Bombshells about a week after the interview. With a 26 mm contact patch and a slightly larger reverse conical inside edge, the bombshells were very similar to the discontinued OJ Jason Adams “Slappy Hour” wheels I had been riding previously. My only misgiving with the wheels was the green urethane. Every colored formula I have ridden has worn down quicker, and deformed and flattened around the edges faster than naturals or whites.
The first thing I did was take the wheels down the big asphalt hill in front of my house. Rolling along, I immediately latched on to how the wide contact patches made me really “feel” the road beneath me, and how solid they made the wheels feel in a carve, but when I hit the bottom of the hill and threw myself into a powerslide, I really fell in love with the wheels.
The speelab urethane slid unlike any wheels I have ever had, they had a clean, completely smooth, and completely consistent slide with no break and no catch. When I pushed them they drifted the same all through the slide, with no breakaway and no sudden hangs. They also had a stealthy hiss instead of an aggressive bark. I probably bombed that hill two dozen times just that first day on those wheels, and after a few runs I started sliding on the way down as well as at the bottom, memories of Eric Dressen in Speed Freaks barking in my brain.
After I while, I reluctantly walked back up the hill and went back in my house to check out how the wheels were holding up. When I looked at them, things started to get complicated.
I noticed some significant flattening around the edges. There were no flat spots on the contact surface but, on the edges, flattening was obvious, moreso than i would expect forma brand new set of wheels. In terms of performance, the wear was purely cosmetic, but still pretty surprising on a brand new wheel. I also had a tear in one wheel that did extend to the contact patch. A fairly large one. Of course, I hadn't noticed so much as a bump actually riding them, so did that mean anything?
I couldn’t help but have misgivings about the toll that had been taken on my wheels after just one session.
Here’s the thing though, I had sllid those wheels harder and longer in that one hour on my hill than I probably would have in a dozen trips to the local park. In light of this, what did that wear actually mean in terms of the quality of the wheels?
In just one hour of skating I had already hopelessly complicated the parameters of reviewing the wheel.
I kept riding the wheels and I kept liking them. The tear slid oout pretty quick. After multiple hang ups on rocks and other crap at the local park I was still flatspot-free. The wheels continued to outslide anything I had ridden, but they continued to wear pretty hard as well. The perimeter of the wheels were soon completely lopsided, and they were getting smaller pretty rapidly. No doubt, I was going to burn through the wheels much faster than my previous set.
But how long would it take exactly?
The one big hitch about skateboard product reviews has always been this: To really know how good something is for skateboarders, you have to know how long it will last, what kind of beating it will take, but, with the exception trucks and bearings, the time it takes to find that out in a review outstrips the time any given product is actually available.
So my wheels were wearing down faster than my OJs or the Landsharks I had been riding before that, But what did that raelly mean? I wrote up a glowing review for Speedlab, talking about how great the Bombshells felt and slid. I wondered if maybe I was being too easy on them because Speedlab flowed me wheels and Alan was a cool guy. But I loved riding the wheels, no doubt… but the wear was troubling me.
On the other hand, even if they lasted half as long, I was having twice as much fun riding them.
This is another hitch with reviewing skateboard gear. With skateboarding, even when it comes to something as seemingly straightforward as a product review, you have to get way beyond the what’s and into the whys.
The reason why my wheels were disintegrating so fast had nothing to do with deficiencies in the urethane, or green dye in the formula. They were shrinking because I couldn’t stop powersliding them. The bombshells had me sliding my wheels whenever I could… on curbs, across banks, or just throwing powerslides flatground whenever I got the urge. I was pushing those wheels non-stop, and they got small pretty quick. To me and most skaters I know, that quick degradation, then, is not the indicator of deficiency, it is the indicator of a great product… I wanted to skate those wheels hard, and destroy them fast. I burned them down way faster than my previous wheels, but that is not a bad thing, it is a great thing. There is no higher compliment in skateboarding.
So, for skateboarding, the ultimate test of a product, is not how long it lasts, but how quickly we are inspired to destroy it.
Skateboarding is weird.
So I finally switched out those wheels a couple weeks ago. I had to do it because I had hung up on a rock full speed in the bowl and flat spotted one irreversibly. In the previous weeks I had been frustrated by how stiff my ollies had been and was baffled as to why. When I switched out those wheels I had ridden them down to 53 millimeters in diameter. That's how much I liked those wheels. I liked them so much I had kept riding them past the point where they messed with other aspects of my riding just because I loved how they felt.
I went back into my instagram account to look when I first set up those wheels. In spite of aIl the fun I had had, I still really felt like those wheels had worn too much in just 3 months or so. When I looked at my first post riding the Speedlabs, I was shocked. It turned out I had been not been riding them for the 3 or four months I usually rode a set of wheels. I had been riding them for almost six months.
That’s a good wheel, a great wheel, but by putting on the role of the traditional product reviewer, I might have dismissed the product for several reasons. Quantification and skateboarding are never easy partners. Anyone looking to add something more substantive to skateboarding's media must proceed with caution.
Maybe this is why we can’t have nice things when it comes to real product reviews.