By John Stouffer

Wave Rave shop owner, pro rider, Mammoth local—Steve Klassen has been involved in the snowboard industry for more than a decade, and began riding way back in 1973. He’s won the Verbier Extremes, and is one of the first ever to do a 900 in a pipe. Quite a resume.

Today, he’s frustrated with the overemphasis of freestyle riding on the market, and believes it’s actually hurting the growth of the sport. So he’s doing something about it.

First, he’s issued a challenge to the industry—to the tune of ten grand. Called the $10,000 Steepwater Challenge, it’s a simple freeriding/freestyle contest with three-man teams, riding from the top to the bottom of a mountain, judged by peers. Winning team takes the $10,000 prize. Simple.

Second, he’s started his own snowboard company called Steepwater Snowboards, focusing on one board this season, with more to follow next year.

Klassen and teamrider Paul Fergusen dropped by the SNOWboarding Business offices about a week ago and told us more about both ventures. Here’s what he had to say:

Snowboarding Business: Tell us about this contest you want to have?

Klassen: There’re contests for people who are doing halfpipes and there’re contests for people in the park, but in the world of high-speed, big-mountain, freestyle riding, there’re a couple, but our industry doesn’t even pay attention to those. So there’s no way for a consumer to differentiate a good board from a bad board. Right now the world of big-mountain riding consists of a large heli budget, good camera angles, and a good marketing job. But as far as progression of boards, no companies are doing it.

Would you say those riders filming those big-mountain segments, are frustrated too?

Klassen: Oh yeah. We’re all a pretty tight group of people. I know (Jeremy) Jones really well, he’s a solid rider. I don’t know Johan (Olafsson) very well, but the guys who are serious know what we’re doing, going high-speed down the mountains and jumping big cliffs. They wouldn’t make the finals in the events we’re doing.

Extending out from that, you’ve issued this challenge to the industry?

Klassen: Yeah, it’s us three guys (Steve Klassen, Paul Fergusen, and R.D. Incordiar) who haven’t had our names in TransWorld SNOWboarding magazine in more than ten years, saying we’ll take out any other three riders on any other company’s boards. We’ll go to a mountain, and we’ll go head to head. If someone takes the challenge, great, at least they sacked up to it. And if they don’t, they’re going to stay in the park, I guess.

And the prize is $10,000 for this?

Klassen: Yeah. It’s a contest. I will defend our ability to rip big mountains with ten grand of my own money, and if another company thinks they have what it takes to beat us, then come on out, and if they don’t, just keep playing with the kiddies in the park.

How is the contest going to be held?

Klassen: The challenge is down any steep mountain in the world. It’s open to as many companies as want to do it. Each team puts in ten grand. The rides down are judged on speed, air, difficulty of your line, fluidity, and control.

It’s judged by peers, and will be filmed from across the valley. Judges will watch the film to determine the winners. It’s up to each team to get their people to the top of the mountain, for their own safety, and to film their own lines.

We have what we have in our industry. But if you take a look at the top runs from the Verbier Extreme, you see something in snowboarding that’s undeniably the ultimate expression of snowboarding. You can go down a halfpipe and feel a certain way. You go down a park and feel a certain way, but you go down the 2,000-vertical-foot mountain and have several 60-foot airs in there with spins and flips and grabs, how can you not say that’s the ultimate?

So tell us more about the board you’ve designed.

Steve Klassen: I came up with this board becausI was getting frustrated with trying to get the boards I wanted to ride.

I had ridden for Rossi for quite a while and I was trying to get changes made to the board and it just wasn’t happening. There really wasn’t the interest there.

So I decided to take it on myself to make a board for riding high-speed variable terrain.

Being a shop owner, you carry a lot of other brands. It wasn’t just Rossignol that wasn’t making a board you wanted? It’s the whole industry, isn’t it?

Klassen: Right, it’s the whole industry. Nobody is making a board for that type of rider. It’s the same type of riding that somebody experiences their first day snowboarding—you go to the top of the mountain and you ride down. Whatever is there, you do what you want to do. You jump off of what you want to jump off. It’s a progression of that type of riding.

Paul Fergusen: It’s a progression of what a majority of snowboarders are doing. Pretty much everyone is out freeriding. Not that many people are really in the park and riding. Some people go in and try. Maybe they take one run through the park and laugh at everyone who’s hanging at the rails, and then just go make ripping turns everywhere else. That’s what the majority of riders do and we just have taken it to the current pinnacle of that. We’ve taken it as far we can at this point. This board is opening up a lot of doors for both of us. We see a lot more potential as far as taking this further and pushing it.

This isn’t a beginner’s board?

Klassen: No.

Fergusen: It’s for somebody who wants more. They want more speed, more stability, more brakes. It’s just a better board all around as far as if you want to ride fast and if you want to ride steeps.

Why then are company’s not focusing on this segment?

Klassen: When Forum saved the industry back when it was going through a rough time, they came out and brought the whole skate culture into snowboarding and really hit it hard. Every company followed that. And those parts of the sport like the halfpipe and rails and the park jumps are great in their own right, but for me the ultimate part of snowboarding is going fast top to bottom, down the mountain, going huge off the cliffs, and sticking it.

You’ve designed the board, you’ve started your own brand, so now what’s next?

Klassen: I’d like to sell some of them, and I’ll sell quite a few out of my shop. I’d like to somehow use some type of marketing to let people know this product exists. I know there’s a lot of people, including a lot of my customers, who have been frustrated for a long time because they want to take their riding to a level of going faster and having more control in variable terrain, but the boards just haven’t been designed for that.

Is there anything wrong with that segment of the industry?

Klassen: It’s all right. But there comes a point when you get tired of waiting in lines and doing rails. I did halfpipe for a couple years competitively and did the jumps and park for a couple of years, but it got old. It’s the same transitions over and over. It turns people into clones.

Fergusen: It’s the same trends skateboarding went through. All the ramps and skateparks disappeared, then everyone went to street skating. And that’s all you saw in the magazines for quite a few years.

But you see it turning around now. It’s broadening back out into all the different aspects of the sport and you’re seeing a lot more different styles of the sport getting recognized, instead of just narrowly focusing on one aspect of the sport, which is what’s been happening in snowboarding as well.

Klassen: What’s happening is we’re losing a lot of business to the ski companies in terms of the person who’s looking to have that experience of being in the outdoors and ripping the natural terrain top to bottom. They can go to the ski mags and see that, but in the snowboard mags, we’ve totally alienated that customer. And that’s why you’ve seen so many layoffs in the industry. The money’s just not there.

Do you think that consumer is switching back to skiing?

Klassen: I don’t think they’re switching back to skiing, but there’s no place for them to identify with what they like to do.

Fergusen: You’re losing all the guys like us who are everywhere. The guys who are working and have money, they want to see what snowboards are going to work well on varied terrain. They don’t care about how well it slides on rails, or how well it lands in the parks. That’s where all the focus is right now.

That’s the way my father feels. He talks to me about it all the time. He can’t watch a snowboard video or look at a snowboard magazine and feel like he can relate to it whatsoever. He spends a lot of money on his snowboard stuff, and has been riding for eleven years.

Klassen: It’s the majority of customers who come through the door and want to go up to the mountain and ride it and have a good time. A small percentage of them want to go into the park—well, I’d say half and half.

If that’s the case, we’re throwing away half.

Klassen: Yeah, half. The whole gross product sales for the industry should be way more than it is and it would be if there was the media to support it. I remember standing up at the Transworld Industry Conference when ESPN said they were going to do the X Games. I stood up and said “Hey, what about safe guarding this side of the sport so you don’t end up looking like a joke?

I got the stock answer that they’d look into the feasibility of that—but they didn’t. And now even the riders who do the X Games think it’s a joke. I live in Mammoth and I’ve seen a lot of people come and go for a long time, and I hear what’s going on on the inside. It’s ridiculous that that’s how our sport is portrayed.

Do you think because it’s so easily packaged?

Klassen: Yeah, it’s cheap to do—and technical freestyle is great for a magazine because it looks great. But the people who are being missed don’t care about how they’re looking, but they care about how they feel inside. There’s nowhere they can go in the snowboard industry for them to relate to that feeling of what it feels like to fly down the mountain and feel the wind through your hair.

What can shops do to help out the situation?

Klassen: Buy my boards. (laughs). It seems like there are several people at every ski area that are longing for this product. That guy who’s out there every day charging hard. My goal for this season is to have this one board, get it in the hands of the people who appreciate it, and spread that word.

Then I’ll go to Vegas and hopefully have four or five different models to show. It took us a whole year to get this one the way we wanted it. We’re riding it every day. We went through four different flex patterns. I felt confident with the shape right off the bat. We then did some other final tweaks as well.

Fergusen: It got results, too!

Klassen: Oh yeah, we entered three contests on it. I got third in Verbier, Paul took seventh at the Crested Butte Extremes, and he won at Kirkwood. The guys who know what’s up with it will know what’s going on with the board. It’s got an 11.3-meter sidecut, six-millimeter taper in the tail, barely any camber, and a 24.8 cm waist width.

I’m calling everyone out: the Forum, Rossi, and Burton teams. Here we are, hosting the purist snowboard event there could be: top to bottom down a big mountain. why you’ve seen so many layoffs in the industry. The money’s just not there.

Do you think that consumer is switching back to skiing?

Klassen: I don’t think they’re switching back to skiing, but there’s no place for them to identify with what they like to do.

Fergusen: You’re losing all the guys like us who are everywhere. The guys who are working and have money, they want to see what snowboards are going to work well on varied terrain. They don’t care about how well it slides on rails, or how well it lands in the parks. That’s where all the focus is right now.

That’s the way my father feels. He talks to me about it all the time. He can’t watch a snowboard video or look at a snowboard magazine and feel like he can relate to it whatsoever. He spends a lot of money on his snowboard stuff, and has been riding for eleven years.

Klassen: It’s the majority of customers who come through the door and want to go up to the mountain and ride it and have a good time. A small percentage of them want to go into the park—well, I’d say half and half.

If that’s the case, we’re throwing away half.

Klassen: Yeah, half. The whole gross product sales for the industry should be way more than it is and it would be if there was the media to support it. I remember standing up at the Transworld Industry Conference when ESPN said they were going to do the X Games. I stood up and said “Hey, what about safe guarding this side of the sport so you don’t end up looking like a joke?

I got the stock answer that they’d look into the feasibility of that—but they didn’t. And now even the riders who do the X Games think it’s a joke. I live in Mammoth and I’ve seen a lot of people come and go for a long time, and I hear what’s going on on the inside. It’s ridiculous that that’s how our sport is portrayed.

Do you think because it’s so easily packaged?

Klassen: Yeah, it’s cheap to do—and technical freestyle is great for a magazine because it looks great. But the people who are being missed don’t care about how they’re looking, but they care about how they feel inside. There’s nowhere they can go in the snowboard industry for them to relate to that feeling of what it feels like to fly down the mountain and feel the wind through your hair.

What can shops do to help out the situation?

Klassen: Buy my boards. (laughs). It seems like there are several people at every ski area that are longing for this product. That guy who’s out there every day charging hard. My goal for this season is to have this one board, get it in the hands of the people who appreciate it, and spread that word.

Then I’ll go to Vegas and hopefully have four or five different models to show. It took us a whole year to get this one the way we wanted it. We’re riding it every day. We went through four different flex patterns. I felt confident with the shape right off the bat. We then did some other final tweaks as well.

Fergusen: It got results, too!

Klassen: Oh yeah, we entered three contests on it. I got third in Verbier, Paul took seventh at the Crested Butte Extremes, and he won at Kirkwood. The guys who know what’s up with it will know what’s going on with the board. It’s got an 11.3-meter sidecut, six-millimeter taper in the tail, barely any camber, and a 24.8 cm waist width.

I’m calling everyone out: the Forum, Rossi, and Burton teams. Here we are, hosting the purist snowboard event there could be: top to bottom down a big mountain.