The boys from the white stuff

No snow? No mountains? Never mind. If you want to be a snowboarder it's attitude, not altitude, that counts, says Matthew Sweet

Skiing isn't really a sport. It's just an extension of being rich, like having a cottage on the west coast of Ireland. Ask any of the hordes of Annabelles who clog up the apres-ski strudel bars of fashionable Alpine resorts. Snowboarders, on the other hand, will tell you that they have created a classless society of sportspeople, a society at ease with itself under insulated layers of hi-tech, ultra-cool and monstrously expensive couture.

This year, like last, snowboarding fashion has carved its way into lavish fashion spreads in boys' magazines, and the baggy industrial look has been adopted enthusiastically by style junkies who wouldn't recognise a Gnu Candy Cap if it spilled their pint. In the flattest, sunniest parts of Britain there are urban snowboarders-manque who daren't open the fridge door without velcroing themselves into their Outland jackets (wicking mesh liner, snowproof storm flaps, stash drawcords and droptail duraweave PVC lining). It's this credulous bunch of male consumers whom the currently ubiquitous macho-erotic advertising images of snowboarding are designed to arouse.

The images loom large in campaigns by - among others - GQ Active, Labatt's Ice and Pepsi Max. GQ Active's snowboard-inflected winter sports edition spells out the attraction, announcing itself as a magazine "for Action Men, not Toy Boys". What's being bought into here is the sport's perceived aura of chic countercultural toughness - something that's rapidly becoming untenable for an industry that's worth pounds 8m a year and has taken to showcasing its latest gear on This Morning with Richard and Judy.

Expert rider Barclay Dakers of the Snowboard Asylum, an outlet located in mountainous Covent Garden, claims that many of his customers are skiers, defecting to the snowboarding wardrobe because their stuff is "better- designed and built". This might have more to do with the criminal awfulness of most skiwear, which seems strongly focused on cheese-and-onion-coloured Jurgensuits that you have to be Austrian to wear without embarrassment. Snowboarding fashions are, in comparison, models of restraint and poems of formal purity.

A fusion of the skateboard and the ski, the snowboard has been around since the Seventies, and there are now estimated to be somewhere in the region of 300,000 British enthusiasts. The sport first attracted media attention about five years ago, when skiers started to voice their disgust at boarders' invasion of their traditional territories. According to Lee Bradshaw of the Middlesex-based Princes Snowboard Emporium, the intensity of this cold war has been much exaggerated: "But you do get a bit of attitude on the slopes. Sometimes if you go along somewhere you've never been before, you might get a posse of locals who sneer at you." In the last year, however, these enemies have managed to bury the ice pick. Symbolic of this thaw is that even the Prince of Wales has had a go on a board. And at Olympia's 1996 Ski and Snowboarding fair, the factions seemed to have kissed and made up.

For the skiers, Olympia is the prime show of the year. For their rivals, it's only a warm-up for the snowboarding trade event - today's Board-X exhibition at the Royal Horticultural Halls. Even so, the Olympia fair is thick with drifts of clueless boys in Chemical Brothers T-shirts, going gooey over snowboarding's ice-cool image. They're a whole demographic group in themselves: identify them on your lowland High Street by their Sick Boy peroxide and dodgy complexions. They wear the pants of Extreme Sportsmen, but you're much more likely to find them en arcade than off- piste. It's possible that they might have only seen the sport on MTV.

For these visitors, argues Lee Bradshaw, snowboarding is a passing craze that, in two or three years, will go the way of the BMX. And for all the admiration the gear is receiving, Lee glumly notes that "there are a lot of people here today just looking".

Among those who actually use and own a board, the sport inspires a dedication that transcends style and becomes some sort of mountain-top religion. The true enthusiast will weather any financial hardship in pursuit of snowboarding's white-knuckle pleasures. Bradshaw contends that "the people who do it aren't rich, they really scrimp and save for the gear. A friend of mine sold his car to buy a snowboard. I know people who spend their summers working all day every day and then head off for Val d'Isere in the winter." There can't be many skiers who can say that. And over at the Snowboard Asylum, Vivian Jenkins confesses that she was a qualified windsurfing instructor until she jacked it all in to devote herself to snowboarding. Now, she cheerfully admits, she's "held together by bits of metal". Her colleague Barclay Dakers has a similar story to tell: "I used to have a shop but I ended up never being there because I was continually out snowboarding. It went down the tubes, funnily enough."

Dakers and Jenkins are laid back about the incursion of dippy adolescent lightweights, but other attendees are more vocal. "There's a whole fringe of sad hangers-on," snarls Joe Tate, a hardcore aficionado who's travelled from Bradford for the Olympia and Board-X exhibitions. "They're the kind of people who get hooked on the paraphernalia and the attitude of the sport without getting their arses wet on the mountain." (Although with the latest gear, snowboarder's rash is now a thing of the past.) Joe is taking no prisoners: "These are the sort of guys who buy those Isotonic sports drinks and try to get high on glucose tablets. They're probably Rush readers as well".

And he could be right. Rush magazine may be what it looks like inside the head of the urban snowboarder. Based (rather laughably) in Cornwall, the magazine is dedicated to tooling up would-be adrenaline addicts with the juicy details of snowboarding, skysurfing, birds with big tits and other things dreamed of in suburban boys' bedrooms. "One arse-kicking magazine you geezers have produced!" is the tribute of one of this month's vicariously satisfied readers. And the suppliers of snowboarding gear are clearly wise to this constituency: few models in the mail-order catalogues are a day over 20 (and those in the Snowboard Asylum brochure look suspiciously like Parisian rent boys). Tellingly, Board-X's sponsors are brands like Bud Ice, Sony Playstations and Polydor's Hi-Life dance label, names producing commodities much more likely to be made use of in teenage bedrooms than on a Swiss glacier.

And here's one of the secrets of snowboarding's increasingly trendy rise and rise: it shares dance culture's seductively sub-narcotic, pseudo- pathological register. There's endless talk of endorphin buzzes, adrenaline addiction, and all those other sporting bio-myths invented by aerobics instructors to make exercise sound more exciting than drugs and sex. Suppliers' literature has generated a positive avalanche of such cliches. Black Diamond's snowboarding videos, for instance, make transcendental promises to "blow your mind with radical footage of extreme sports". And because boarding and raving possess that common idiom, it means their support industries can encourage trade in the material bits of their respective cultures and harvest the same markets. Or, as Hi-Life's publicity puts it, begin "taking a dance label one step further towards a lifestyle". The message is crisp and clear: buy some three-ply Ultrex Arctic pants - it can get chilly in those fields in Hampshire.

8 Board-X at the Royal Horticultural Halls, Vincent Square, London, SW1, ends today. Info hotline: 0171 240 9115.

DON'T GO OUT WITHOUT YOUR ...

t 55 Degree Jacket with bi-lunar reservoir pocketed front, adjustable snow skirt, pack cloth yoke, and elbow pads - pounds 259 from Chromaphobia

t Mountain Pants with Cordura-reinforced ankle panels, articulated neoprene knees, and two-way side-leg zip-venting - pounds 189 from Chromaphobia

t Spike yellow Pro frame goggles with urethane frames, dual vented lenses, and polar face foam - pounds 79 from Oakley

t Freecarve boots with three-buckle overlap shell and a medial free flex of 0-10 degrees- pounds 225.95 from Burton

t Performance Plate with monocoque stress skin and custom dampening pads- pounds 139.95 from Burton

t Gun Dog Diplomacy T-shirt in khaki or terracotta- pounds 19.95 from Slaam!

t Pine Karma Socks, forward-leaning and thermal - pounds 9.99 from Polisox

t Yamada Pro series mitt with Swipeez thumb applicator, indestructible shock cord pull snow seal, and Viking Ultrex waterproof shell - pounds 74.95 from Fishpaw

t Outer Limits Snowboard Backpack, Kelvar-reinforced with internal safety chambers for shovel shaft, first-aid kit, probe, and bivvy sack - pounds 109 from Ortovox

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