Snowboarding is set to overtake skiing in popularity with the image-conscious younger generation. Neil Wilson finds out why
Since the goateed hordes began invading the ski slopes in the early Eighties, snowboarding has been seen as the rebellious teenager of winter sports - a sport that plays its music too loud, thumbs its nose at the rule book, and flicks a finger at old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy skiers.
But in the past few years it has matured into the mainstream of the winter sports scene, with rapidly rising popularity, increasing media interest and a place in this month's Winter Olympics in Japan.
Not surprisingly, snowboarding's trendy, alternative image has made it very popular with the younger generation: the British Snowboard Association estimates that there are now 40,000 active boarders in the UK (compared with an estimated 500,000 regular skiers), and the vast majority of them are under 25 years old.
Twins Ryan and Scott O'Keefe (12) and their older brother Darren (13) at Alexandria's Vale of Leven Academy have never been on a winter sports trip. They're not interested in skiing, but would jump at the chance to try snowboarding. Why? "It's cool," says Scott, bestowing the ultimate seal of teenage approval. "And I really like the clothes, the colours," says Ryan. Darren likes the aerial half-pipe tricks, and adds: "It's like skateboarding and rollerblading, only different."
Different it may be, but snowboarding's origins are deeply rooted in the surf and skateboard culture of the United States. The music, the clothes and the language that make up the snowboard lifestyle are largely derived from the beaches, streets and skate-parks of the States. Many of the aerial tricks performed by snowboarders in the half-pipe were invented by skateboarders, and riders have inherited the skaters' arcane vocabulary of bonks, ollies, grabs, mutes, slobs, shifties and airs. And like surfers, boarders ride "regular" (left foot first) or "goofy" (right foot first).
As well as half-pipes, many resorts provide snowboarders with "fun parks": areas (often closed to skiers) that have been laid out with a selection of banked turns, gap jumps, log slides, table tops and quarter-pipes, where riders can practise jumps and tricks to their hearts' content. It is this abundance of aerial antics, which you can start to learn after only a few days on a board, that forms a large part of the sport's appeal to school-children. Learning to "stick" the landing on a "360 Air" is a lot more fun (and much more cool) than practising snowploughs or perfecting stem turns. "It's the jumps that are the best fun," confirms Billy Auld-Smith (14) of George Watson's College, Edinburgh, who started boarding a couple of seasons back. His pal Christopher Hewer (14) agrees, and adds: "But it's the whole snowboard scene too, the music and the clothes that go along with it."
It's a long time since ski-wear has had any influence on street fashion, but in the late Nineties snowboard style is definitely in. Last winter saw features on snowboard fashion appearing regularly on children's TV programmes and on BBC2's The Clothes Show, and last month saw the launch of the second series of Channel 4's snowboarding programme Board Stupid (Sundays, 12.40pm). Even high-street giant CA has cashed in with its current run of high-profile TV ads promoting a range of snowboard gear. Traditional ski-wear, on the other hand, is seen as decidedly uncool.
The snowboard's origins can be traced back to the "Snurfer", a surfboard-like contraption invented by American surfer Sherwin Popper back in the Sixties. The Snurfer had no steel edges and no bindings, just a rope handle attached to the nose which you clung to for dear life as you careered downhill towards the ski patrol and its waiting stretcher.
It wasn't until the mid-Seventies that US enthusiasts improved the primitive Snurfer by introducing ski technology in the form of steel edges, P-Tex bases, composite construction and proper bindings. In its early days in the US, snowboarding was seen as the preserve of obnoxious, streetwise kids, and an unwelcome intrusion into the somewhat snobbish world of downhill skiing. In 1985, snowboarding was banned at all except 39 of the 600-plus ski areas in the US. Today, only eight US resorts and a handful of other ski areas worldwide enforce restrictions; on the contrary, most resorts now actively encourage snowboarders by offering special facilities such as fun parks, half-pipes and ride-guides (snowboard-specific piste maps).
Instructors generally agree that snowboarding is easier to learn than skiing, though it does demand patience and determination for the first day or so. There are no skis to cross, no poles to plant, and only one edge to think about at a time. Once you have mastered the basics, progress is remarkably fast - you can be bombing down red runs in as little as four or five days, so a real sense of achievement can be gained in just one week's holiday. Some skiers are easier to convince than others, though. Stephanie Hewer (17) of George Watson's College had been skiing for a couple of seasons when she first tried snowboarding. "Having learned how to ski, I didn't fancy being a beginner again. But my dad really got into it, and had so much fun he sold his skis and bought a board. "
Only 10 years ago, British snowboarding was confined to a handful of dedicated enthusiasts, but the sport's trendsetting style and youthful image has seen its popularity grow spectacularly over the past few years. Snowboarding is now firmly established in European resorts, and all the Scottish ski areas offer snowboard hire and instruction to school groups, as do the major dry slopes throughout the UK. At some European ski areas, including Avoriaz in France and Nevis Range in Scotland, snowboarders now account for 40 to 50 per cent of lift-pass sales, and if current trends continue snowboarding is set to overtake skiing in worldwide popularity by 2010. And 12-year-old Ryan is in no doubt about why. "Snowboarding's more cool. And skiing's for old people."
British Snowboarding Association
head office (membership), tel: 01492 872540; Scottish office (courses, instructors, dry-slope information), tel: 0131 445 4046; English office (schools and colleges liaison), tel: 0121 477 9001