I always loved the sentiments of that old Robert Redford movie The Natural – and though it was about baseball – I like that vibe of a latent gift, of a sporting talent taken to its full potential; but as I put waffle sole to grip tape for the first time I quickly realise I have no such near-magical skating talent.
This is no small thing. I’m the wrong side of over-the-hill and more into bikes than boards yet I’m a firm believer that life should be about doing cool stuff – and riding a longboard is certainly cool. I’d always admired surfing and skating but never ridden a board of any kind, not even as a kid, but coming across longboarding in about 2006 the seed was sown to fulfil this secret ambition with a longer mellower kind or ride. Unable to justify an expensive board, I took baby steps on a regular skateboard, then a cruiser, then life got in the way and the experiment stalled. I just didn’t have the balance or the time – and the boards I’d chosen (largely for their inexpensive qualities) were too unstable for a tentative (read old) beginner.
Then inspiration struck. A session of bodyboarding in Cornwall convinced me I did need some board time in my life: I had to give it a go and if I was going to dream I would have to dream (and invest) big. After two months of hesitating, I found a pleasing deal on a 41” drop-down. Revelation. I could actually put a foot on the thing without it shooting off like a frightened rabbit from under me.
But there’s a hitch. When you’re eight years old it’s okay to mess around on the street in front of your house learning how to skate. When you’re (a-hem) two-score-and-one, you’re going to look a bit daft putting your shoe on a board for the first time in that shoot-out-from-under-you kind of way next to your neighbours BMW. In short, if you’re a grown-up with a board you need to look like a seasoned pro (in my mind at least). So where to practice unseen?
I needed somewhere with smooth ground and minimal pedestrians to entangle me, certainly no traffic to avoid and no gradients to drag me flailing out of control. I plump for a park – not too local – with a roughly one-mile tarmac circuit (and a skate park – aim high).
Having tried the new board on the gnarly nursery slopes of my living room carpet, I’m fairly confident I’ll be able to stay upright and have a good idea how to push from the experiment with my side-lined cruiser. It’s now or never. I aim for a Saturday (early) and roll up in my family car trying not to contemplate what the dog walkers will think as I bring a gloriously coloured ironing board on wheels out of my boot. I feign familiarity with its weight, trying not to knock out my tail lights as I swing it casually under my arm. The asphalt is five meters away, beyond a low metal barrier – it’s now or never. Hoping I don’t look too much like someone trying to avoid an ASBO in my old Etnies hoody, I pull my cap down low and set out to put shoe to maple.
My heart sinks. Though I’ve got there early, I haven’t accounted for Park Run: my hopes of some stealthy practice beyond prying eyes are dashed by hordes of runners finishing their event. I press on undeterred, walk to the shelter of some covered benches and set my board down – and I surprise myself.
This longer, lower board is a revelation. Though I guess I’m cruising like a snail on sedatives, I push along consistently, I even manage to stay on when the pit-bull on a lead lunges at me, and cruise past two admiring kids on BMX bikes without disgracing myself. Though I lose my rhythm and get my weight too far forwards as I pass the dudes on the skate park, I’ve done it. Though I chicken out and pick up by a couple of stray dogs I’ve completed a full lap. I text my good lady and she commends me on no broken bones.
It’s four days later and I aim for closer to home this time. A dead straight access road to the local sailing club. It’s early. I pull up congratulating myself for having committed, then realise that in my haste to get out I’m wearing the shoes I wasn’t going to wear. Oh well. I get the board out, step over to the stile and promptly realise I’ve trodden in an errant chunk of horse manure. Desperate to retain the pristine finish of my new board, I hastily retreat to the car, spend a brisk five minutes with the baby-wipes and, after this inauspicious start, I’m off.
Thanks largely to the beginner-friendly characteristics of the board (and the gentle tuition of a nice young European YouTuber) I cruise gently along the ruler-straight stretch of tarmac which flanks the railway line. It’s a mild uphill gradient and despite a couple of poor weight placements, I’m soon at the other end. Even the sceptical fisherman and the grandad with pushchair don’t look too bemused: there are certainly no you’re far too old to be wobbling around on a skateboard looks.
I take a break on a slight incline before the bridge, unwilling to bail out in front of the squad of soldiers who have just appeared from the river, then set off at an even pace. It’s mildly downhill, a neat turn and I’m onto the main straight – and into a rhythm of (very) gentle carving. I’m doing it: I’m longboarding – it’s tentative – but I’m riding! I can even turn to look behind me to avoid the overtaking jogger and dismount when I want without disgracing myself. Not exactly shreddin’ thane’ but I return to the car triumphant.
‘You alright mate?’ says the van driver with genuine concern as my derriere whacks the tarmac. It’s five rides in and I’ve stopped off for a session in the almost deserted leisure centre carpark.
Thus far I’ve been revelling in a bigger space within which to push and carve and there’s even a bit of gradient. Personally, I think I’m doing pretty well – I’m feeling the surfy flow of the carves and enjoying the new sensation of some gravity assisted speed. I begin to feel pretty cool as I push back up to the top corner and snake my way gently down, hoping my skinny jeans and bobble hat take a few clicks off my age to any casual observers.
I’m now going pretty fast (in my own perception). In fact, it’s the fastest I have ever gone before and realise with a stab of mild panic that I haven’t got the confidence to shift my weight and get my front foot parallel with the board for an emergency stop/run off the front. The bottom kerb of the carpark is getting rapidly closer and I begin to turn right instinctively. Nope, I’m not going to be able to avoid it. I’m in full regular stance and try a half-hearted diagonal dismount which sees me shooting back onto my rear end. I pick myself up – somehow my ass and hands have survived. The van driver grins and opens his door.
‘All part of the course,’ I wave back. Clearly, there’s still a long way for me to go.
Ian Storer is a freelance writer, historian and artist who writes fiction under the name Ian Roberts and illustrates a variety of subjects for Scipio Designs.
His art can be seen at Scipio Designs on Twitter