“Freeborders” carve up city streets

By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, February 10, 2004 

What if there was a skateboard-like device that more closely simulated the bombing and carving snowboarders love? A wheeled ride that could go upward of 50 mph screaming down a slope made of, ah, asphalt or concrete?

Stop dreaming. The Freebord is here.

It’s here because a couple of years ago, a Bay Area snowboarder with a passion for the sport – and a master’s degree in product design – created a snowboard that doesn’t require snow.

Designed and improved over the past few years by Steen Strand, a 36-year-old Stanford graduate, the Freebord (misspelling intentional) allows boarders to carve, but it adds something more: Freeborders, unlike skaters, can slide, too.

This is new and makes all the difference, says Bayard Winthrop, Strand’s partner in San Francisco-based Freebord Manufacturing.

“Sliding is a crucial part of snowboarding,” he says. “Imagine skiing if all you could do is carve. It wouldn’t be fun, it’d be tiring, you wouldn’t be able to bomb and then slow down.”

Strand’s Freebord design solves that problem. In addition to four fixed wheels like a skateboard, two additional wheels on the board’s center line swivel 360 degrees, so the boarder can turn the board perpendicular to the hill and hold an uphill edge, sliding sideways as well as carving from side to side.

Just like snowboarding.

“Because you have this edging ability, to carve and to slide, you have a lot of versatility,” Winthrop says. “Guys are able to go as fast as they want, because they know that they’ll be able to edge in and drop the speed.”

Noting that Freeborders can reach speeds of 50 mph or more, he adds, “I’m 34 and Steen’s 36, so we’re not really comfortable pushing the high speeds. But we’ve got some kids pushing the speeds and helping the designs.”

Some of those kids gathered last Friday morning in the hills of Berkeley, on Hiller Drive just above the Caldecott Tunnel, where the road shoots up the hill at a steep pitch.

It’s almost alpine, somewhere between an intermediate and an advanced run. But the surface is hard and cruel: charcoal-gray asphalt.

Standing at the top of Hiller Drive, John Laudin, 21, of Walnut Creek and Tim Seward, 22, of San Carlos headed down the hill, carving and sliding to demonstrate their Freebording prowess. They looked very much like two snowboarders bombing a run, and the scraping of the two uphill fixed wheels sounded strangely like a snowboard sliding over icy snow.

But the air was balmy, there were no pine trees and they left no carved snow in their wake.

As the two cruised out of sight around a corner, their friend Mike Rogers, 20, of Walnut Creek remained behind and answered questions about this new, addictive sport.

He’s snowboarded for 11 years and Freeborded for only two, but he’s hooked. Still, riders need to be cautious at such speeds.

“Because you’re not locked into your bindings, if you get going too fast, you can hop off,” he says. “But it is pavement, not snow, and it hurts when you fall. I wear a helmet when we really bomb these hills.

“I’ve had a couple of friends who skateboard try it out,” he says. “And when they fell, they said, ‘I’m done, that hurts.’ If you fall, you’re going to take off some skin.”

For riders under 18, wearing a helmet is more than just a good idea. Helmets are required for younger skateboarders under California law.

The danger that’s greater than the pavement, in these Freebord riders’ experience, is automobiles and their occasionally hostile drivers.

“I had this guy following me all the way down the hill, honking his horn, cussing me out,” Laudin says. “He grabs my board and drives off with it, takes it to the police station.”

He paused.

“The cops come back 10 minutes later and made him bring it back and apologize to me. We have a right to use these roads, too.”

“We have brakes,” Seward adds. “The cops are usually cool. They are curious about the boards; they want to know about them. We even had one cop clock our speed with his radar gun.”

Did he ticket you?

“No,” Seward says. “He wanted to see how fast we could go.”

Freebords, which were first sold in stores in 2001, are just beginning to make their mark outside the Bay Area.

Austin Smith, 19, works at Copeland’s Sports at the Roseville Galleria, which started carrying Freebords last month.

“There’s nothing else like this,” Smith says. “There’s nothing that moves just like a snowboard. You can do 180 turns that you couldn’t do on a skateboard. You have much more control.”

Smith says there have been several attempts at wheeled snowboard simulators, including the Flowboard, which uses 14 wheels.

But, he says, “There’s very little control with those, especially on a hill. It’s still more like a skateboard. You’d get really bad wobbles.”

He adds that the Freebord’s cost – $180 for the smaller model, $200 for the larger – has kept some kids from making the move. A good skateboard setup costs $120.

Still, success seems likely. Freebord’s Winthrop says sales doubled from 2002 to ’03, and if it’s up to him, Freebording will become the next big thing.

Even as fads come and go, there’s a constant: If you live in Sacramento and want to go snowboarding, even with the Freebord, you’ll still have to get in the car and head for the hills.

But now, you can do it any old time of the year.

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