The world’s top riders come together in China for the Oakley Style Masters--we stick around to find out if China is a rising snowboard frontier.
Do you do reality checks? Like, stop what you’re doing, step back, and give a situation the once-over. I do. Try this scenario on. I’m walking through the Forbidden City with a bitter Siberian headwind whipping through the corridors. Each ornate walled-in city block leads to another-the wind is freezing to the bone-the end never comes, another corridor into another city block, walls on all sides. Hours pass. The freezing wind sustains. Crazy right? Not done yet. I look to my right and there’s Terje Haakonsen in a big fur hat with the red communist hammer and sickle on the front, wearing yellow-tinted Oakley glasses, giving me the thumbs up. Huh? In front, Peter Line is skipping to keep warm. Travis Rice looks pissed. Nicolas Muller has one of those hats, too. Right at this moment, I did one of those reality checks, but I couldn’t really get my head around it. Summary: I’m in China with the legends and heroes of pro snowboarding walking through one of the oldest and most historic cities in the world.
Oakley Style Masters
Let’s start from the beginning. This trip began with an invitation from Oakley to hook up in Beijing for the Arctic Challenge Oakley Style Masters--a quarterpipe session and one of the first major snowboard events in China. When Terje invites riders anywhere, they come, whether to the Arctic Circle in Norway or, in this case, to the other side of the world. And so it was. We started slowly, two busloads of snowboarders, industry heads, and event producers cruising around Beijing. Overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity of all things Chinese, we found ourselves in the position of tourists. Looking but not participating in everyday China, riding past people on bicycles; scooters; massive, oily, old diesel trucks; and bundled-up residents on the streets-signs that mean nothing- jumping out and unloading a barrage of camera fire on innocent residents.
A press conference inside a super-modern mall in downtown Beijing signaled the start of the event. In a moment of contradictions that is typical of the new China, we walked out the door of the sparkling urban mall, Orange Julius in hand, to the gates of the Forbidden City (almost 600 years old: circa 1420) across from the entrance to Tiananmen Square, under the watchful eyes of Chairman Mao Zedong.
China, as you’ve probably heard, is in the midst of huge changes. In the past, organized public gatherings even as mellow as a snowboard demo would be discouraged. The wealth to afford recreational equipment, an organized venue to participate with it, and the free time to enjoy it were nonexistent. In the new 2008-Summer-Olympics China, with its thriving middle class, booming construction, choking traffic, and more open government, things like snowboarding and increasing access to information about life outside of China (magazines, Internet) are the shaping reality.
To get to the resort two hours outside of Beijing, we idled in the new China’s new traffic. Personal cars are recent here, and the cars make it possible for the fourteen resorts/slopes around Beijing to draw the crowds they need to operate. En route to these outlying resorts, our bus flew past barren brown windswept plains-living conditions deteriorating from modern to electricity-starved mud dwellings within miles. Hundreds of little walled-in neighborhoods offering the occasional glimpse of markets and bicycles and dusty roads, and sometimes light. It’s very bleak in places. I tried to take it in: 1.3-billion people.
The Style Masters quarterpipe demo was set to go down at a resort called Badaling (or “Bada-bing” as Travis Rice called it) near the Great Wall. This was our first disappointing look at the reality of the “mountains” around Beijing. To put it into terms you can relate to, it gets as good as a modest Midwest resort and as bad as the same mountain’s snow-tubing lane. Badaling has three runs, two tow lifts, and one chairlift operated by the Siberian-looking army men outfitted in long green jackets, fur hats, and cigarettes. Arctic Challenge CEO Henning Anderson quipped, “It’s the Arctic Challenge, so there will be weather problems”, and there were. The now-familiar wind continued to put a damper on things by blowing the wooden/scaffolding quarterpipe skeleton away from its frozen snowpack leaving a gaping crumbling mess, but a day and night shovelfest put things back in place. In the meantime, we went next door to another ski resort called “Sunshine Snow Castle Ski Field.” With a very putt-putt golfish castle theme, it was somehow even smaller than Badaling, but it had a fun little snowboard park with rails, jumps, and cranking music. It was the warm-up session the riders needed after days of travel. Nicolas and Terje tweaked big methods off mini hips. A little bump got a huge front- and backflip session by Travis Rice, Danny Davis, Luke Mitrani, and the Dingo.
No trip to China is complete without a visit to the Great Wall. The entrance to the tiny sections of the Great Wall that are actually open to public visitation sound like this: “Hello, hello, you want? You want? Hello. Okay. Wait. Hello pretty lady”--it’s filled with knickknack, postcard, and camel-ride vendors. We peaked at the section that, a year earlier, skateboarder Danny Way had jumped over. Wow! This little zone in China is seeing more action-sports action than Southern California. It’s a steep wall fluidly wandering over hills, up mountainsides, and across plains as far as you can see-it is indeed “Great.”
Back at the quarterpipe, the crew led by Claus made it happen with a broken backhoe, broken shovels, and broken English. Terje declared it ready for business. Actually he said, “The quarterpipe is as smooth as my ass.” It was game on; before dropping in, Terje joked, ” I don’t have much time--I’ll just show you all how it’s done.” And he made the drop. Success! The riders didn’t sketch in the sketchy, washboard run-in. Travis Rice did every trick in the book--too many to list here; Kevin Pearce and Danny Davis paired up for doubles runs including double backside rodeos, McTwists, and backside alley-oop fives. Nicolas Muller pulled out a foot and dropped in for a one-footed McTwist and followed it up with Japan airs, which Dingo began referring to as “China airs” on behalf of our host country. But this QP was about hitting the high mark, and Pat Moore did just that, beating Terje’s huge airs with his own-an eighteen-foot backside air. The fact that the event even happened in China made it a success. Was it worth it traveling halfway around the world for one quarterpipe session? Considering the talent present--hell yes.
For some, this was the end of the trip, but for our select crew, it was just the beginning. Burton Team Manager Dave Driscoll rounded up Danny Davis, Kevin Pearce, and Keir Dillon to continue with TWS photographer Frode Sandbech and myself. We were heading back to Beijing to meet up with a crew that included Steve Zdarsky, an Austrian snowboarder. Steve is a man of firsts--he claims to have built the first snowboard parks and run the first contest here: The Nanshan Open.
There’re already a few crews of snowboarders working to get the shred engines revving in China. At the castle resort, we ran into an old Colorado boarder by the name of J3 who has a park-building business among other things. J3 was working in China for his previous design and production job at Technine bindings (it’s no secret that a lot, if not most, boards, boots, and bindings are made in the Guangdong factories). He did some product testing at local resorts and ended up staying here to promote snowboarding. He had a hand in helping the government pick and train the Chinese national snowboard team; two of the girls he trained went to the 2006 Olympics after riding for barely eighteen months.
Steve Zdarsky, his girlfriend Ali Waugh, and their friend Alan Wong showed us around the Silk Market in Beijing, a black market outlet hawking Adidas, DVDs, Gucci bags, designer jeans, and custom suits. And that’s basically an edited list of Keir’s shopping marathon. The usually unexcitable Keir, laden down with shopping bags, exclaimed that this was “the most exciting shopping day of my life.” There’re a million theories on the black market and how to end it, deal with it, whatever. It works for some Chinese because they can get brand-name gear right out of the factory--well, the back door anyway. The black market, however, diminishes foreign brands’ motivation for coming to China to promoting snowboarding because local riders have access to, for example, the more affordable, and almost identical looking, Buzrun brand instead of Burton (seriously).
As for the current state of snowboarding, Steve Zdarsky says, “Snowboarding is growing a lot in the bigger city centers, especially Beijing. Here, the people have income and can afford to buy gear and go snowboarding. To the south of Beijing, there’s no snow in the winter, so snowboarding is hard to do … they have indoor ski resorts (Shanghai Ski Dome), but still. Beijing and Haerbin way up north, as well as Shenzhen and Jilin are the main spots. All are cities with at least ten-million inhabitants.” A peak day at Nanshan is around 300 snowboarders.
Without the radical natural terrain, we wondered, is China ever going to have a major snowboarding scene? Steve says the biggest obstacle isn’t the lack of terrain, it’s China’s one-child policy. He broke it down for us, “All the riders are twenty-plus here-no young kids. You finish university first and then you start to snowboard.” Elementary school kids go to school from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Monday to Saturday, and on Sunday they have private teachers. That doesn’t leave much time for snowboarding unless you’re one of the Chinese Ski Association kids (according to Steve, every county with snow has a team of around 30 kids now, around ten counties.)
We cruised with Steve to the Nanshan resort and found more of a resort than we could have hoped for: a halfpipe (early 90s quality hand-dug), a real park, and a mountain peak. There was even pizza in the main lodge. We met up with some Chinese riders, especially cool was a girl named Yindi who rides every day, shredding the park and rails. In the far reaches of China, Yindi has signed on with Roxy and Deeluxe. Interesting …
We had been in China for over ten days now. We’d seen everyth … wait, one more thing to check out-the legendary nightlife of Beijing. Steve’s friend Alan, a restaurateur, and solid ex-Tahoe shredder, wanted to show us the biggest night out ever. Alan hooked up the best meal anyone on our crew had ever had. His restaurant was hidden in the basement of a downtown building; a pass of the hand under a light panel slid the concrete door open. Our chef chopped, diced, sauteed, and sizzled through ten courses of sushi, oysters, Kobe beef, crawfish, and on and on. Our private room was stocked with unlimited Moet Chandon. The night continued through major nightclubs packed with Koreans (who apparently party more than their Chinese counterparts) tearing up the dance floor to Euro techno beats. Wait, where are we again? We avoided the street meat snacks (dog, cat, or rat) on the way home, hopping into the world’s most inexpensive taxis and somehow getting to the airport that morning.
Will China become the new Holy Grail of snowboarding? The Style Masters is planning a return (although not this winter), Burton held a Big Air in downtown Beijing this past September, more and more international riders are showing up for the Nanshan Open, which is now an international TTR (Ticket To Ride) event. I thought about it a lot, I mean, there are 1.3-billion people-it could change the sport. Back at the office, TWS Online Director, and snowboard historian, Lee Crane told me this story: a shoe company sent two fact finders to research the African shoe market, one guy comes back and says, “Oh my god, it’s amazing, an entire nation, and nobody has shoes, we’ll kill it.” The other guy comes back and says, “Oh my god, nobody wears shoes, forget about it.” Anyway, it could go either way, but rest assured, there’re plenty of people on the case.