Your Sport: Skateboarding

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The Independent Online

Skateboarding was popularised by surfers looking for a drier alternative to the waves in the 1950s. Enthusiasts would hack off roller-skate wheels, fix them to planks, and career down hills. The first tailor-made boards did not appear until 1963, and the sport remained a cult rather than a mainstream activity until the early Seventies, when wheels began to be manufactured using urethane rather than clay. The smoother ride this offered, allied to other design and technological developments, led to a boom in popularity. Skate-boarding has survived the whims of fashion to remain a popular urban sport.

Skateboarding was popularised by surfers looking for a drier alternative to the waves in the 1950s. Enthusiasts would hack off roller-skate wheels, fix them to planks, and career down hills. The first tailor-made boards did not appear until 1963, and the sport remained a cult rather than a mainstream activity until the early Seventies, when wheels began to be manufactured using urethane rather than clay. The smoother ride this offered, allied to other design and technological developments, led to a boom in popularity. Skate-boarding has survived the whims of fashion to remain a popular urban sport.

An entire subculture has grown up around skateboarding, whose appeal has survived periodic clampdowns by local authorities, who deny access to the pavements, ramps and street furnishings that provide the biggest challenge to the would-be skater. Offsetting this has been the provision of purpose-built skate parks, with the familiar "half-pipe", a U-shaped track designed for jumps and aerial tricks, known as "vert": vertical skateboarding. Although this form of the sport is seen particularly in international competitions, the improvisational spirit that keeps drivingskateboarding's development is fostered on the streets, as these "poets of the planks" push their techniques to the limit to leap over the naturally occurring obstacles of the urban jungle.

Whenever you see a skater jump, he is practising a variation of the "ollie", a move introduced in the late Seventies by skateboarding legend Alan "Ollie" Gelfand. The move appears a physical marvel to the observer, with the board seemingly attached to the skater's feet. As well as jumps, the skater must learn how to "grind" (scraping axles on the ground – good for turns) and "slide" (keeping the board in motion along a thin surface like a railing).

A good website with links to other essential skate sites can be found at www.skateboarddirectory.com. Legends (01926 888 570, fax: 01926 889 213) are the largest stockists of skateboard kit in the UK, with 20 shops around the country. Visit www.legendsboardriders.com. Browse www.skateboarding.com, a major US-based online skating magazine. The best-known skate shop in Britain is Slam City Skates in Covent Garden, London WC2 (020 7379 8200, www.slamcity.com).

The deck is the board part of the skateboard. Generally constructed from seven-ply maple wood, dimensions range from 7.5 to 8 inches in width and between 31 and 32.5 inches in length. Skaters need to find the type of board that suits them and their preferred stunts. Smaller boards are good for flips, larger ones for sweep turns. Thinner, lighter decks and new patterns of cross-ply make for greater give on the board. You can pick up a decent entry-level deck for £50.

The introduction of urethane wheels revolutionised the sport, but the development of precision ball bearings improved speed. The wheels' hardness also affects speeds – the higher the durometer rating, the quicker the wheels will be. Expect to pay about £18 to £35 per set. Trucks link the deck and wheels, and a balanced axle allows the board to be steered. Trucks typically cost £15 to £25.

Top skateboarders design skate shoes to their own specifications, although some standard features apply. A light shoe, with a sturdy sole, will generally be low-cut to give the skater maximum feel in the all-important ankle area. The outside of the shoe, used to flip the board, will be reinforced for durability. A shoe endorsed by a pro such as Tony Hawk will cost £80 or more. Brands include Vans, DC and Etnies.

You can't skateboard on grass, so whether it's the boards of the half-pipe or the concrete of the streets, you are going to need some protection for the inevitable tumbles. The obvious, brittle extremities will require knee and elbow pads (from £35 to £80 each, per pair). Wearing a helmet is standard practice for the more risky stunts. Spend as much as you can afford on a helmet – a solid one costs from £50, but prices go up to £150.

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