By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
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By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Andy MacKenzie, lean, blond and 23, goes back a long way. At 17 he was a fearless Vermonter ripping down the double-black-diamond steeps of Mount Snow with Nirvana blasting through his headphones. At 21 he was a streak of blue and white Gore-Tex bombing the scariest precipices of Vail and Arapahoe, with Sick of It All catapulting him over the moguls, earrings jingling all the way. Now he's 23, and what's cool now--what has always been cool--is complete freedom.
"I don't give a crap about the Olympics," he explains. "And they can take their Nikon cameras and shove 'em up their butt. Assholes. Me and my buddies, we just wanna ride. Like the old days."
Translation: Andy MacKenzie, barely old enough to buy his own shot of Cuervo Gold, pines for the time when snowboarders were regarded as authentic hardcore outlaws. When the lame-ass skiers in their $500 outfits used to shake their poles at the shredders and bitch to the ski patrol. When half the winter resorts in America stuck the "No Admittance" sign right into the faces of riders. When being a snowboarder meant you were a badass and a punk and, just maybe, a hardened serial killer cruising for his next victim in the lunch line at the Keystone cafeteria.
"It's all starting to change," Andy laments. "The real thing's going. I'm, like, you know... pissed off."
Live with it, says Chris McNeil, the 31-year-old editor and publisher of SNoBOARD magazine. "You can buck the system just so much," he says. "It's too late now. Corporate America has sunk its talons into snowboarding, and I say: 'Don't fight what's inevitable.'"
"Fuck that," says Andy MacKenzie.
Snowboarding may have had rough-hewn beginnings in the late Seventies as a semi-felonious spinoff of skateboarding and surfing, and its pioneers may have cultivated their own maverick image--but now it's growing up. For better or worse, bad-ass romanticism is on its way out. If it ever really existed at all.
The TV networks have discovered the thrill of the half-pipe and the ratings power of the X-Games. Professional rider/rebel/manufacturer Jake Burton, considered the hardest of the hardcore idealists in snowboarding circles, now stars in his own American Express commercial. Bud Light runs full-page four-color ads in SNoBOARD and the other magazines, and the U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix is now jointly underwritten by Bud and the, uh, outlaws who give you the Chevy S-10 Pickup. Nikon sponsors something called the "World of Snowboarding Photo Contest," and dozens of pro racers long used to subsisting in sleeping bags and on diets of tepid chili are suddenly walking around with thousand-dollar Tag Heuer watches strapped to their wrists courtesy of another new sponsor.
Do the hardcores resent the fellow rider who recently signed a $3 million, three-year endorsement contract? Unlikely. "The floodgates are open," McNeil says. "The pros want to make a good living--high five-, maybe six-figure first-place purses. And the recreational riders want better equipment made by the most reliable manufacturers. That's all on the way."
Certainly, America's ski resorts have gone with the new wave, recognizing that the sport has become, as McNeil says, "a youth pill." Alta, Taos and Aspen Mountain are among the handful of holdouts that still forbid snowboarders on the mountain, while most other owners now woo them with open arms. Here in Colorado, Loveland Ski Area boasts that riders now account for 25 percent of annual ticket sales, "the highest ratio of any Colorado ski area." Loveland ski patrol director Pip Baehler adds, "It has always been our practice to treat snowboarders like anyone else on the hill." Steamboat recently outfitted its famous Silver Bullet gondola with snowboard racks and heavily advertises designated snowboard areas like "Sunshine Reef Park," the "Beehive" and the "Dude Ranch." Vail promotes its "Tag Heuer Snowboard Park" and, invoking a touch of the old dangerous glamour, encourages patrons to "nightride the pipes at Eagle's Nest." What was once Monarch Ski Area is now "Monarch Ski & Snowboard Area."
What a difference a decade makes. From Vermont to California, the felons of old are now valued guests, and at many snowboard-specific sites, management even cranks up the ska and the punk rock to ear-splitting levels through speaker systems as big as condominiums.
The most serious measure of snowboarding's merge into the mainstream, however, is this: It's now an Olympic-medal event (two events, actually--half-pipe and giant slalom). Come February, the Nagano Winter Games will feature three days of global TV coverage that promise to sweep it forever from the margins of sport and straight into the consciousness of young athletes everywhere.
McNeil foresees an even more fundamental change. By the year 2002, he predicts, snowboarders will outnumber skiers in the United States. "Kids twelve to seventeen aren't interested in skis at all," he says. "People of my generation, 31 and up, are still making a choice between the new shaped skis and snowboards. But I personally can't imagine ever going back to skis."
For now, skiers still rule the mountain, 10 million to 4.5 million.
And the old shredder image continues to moderate. Recently, McNeil says, a photographer friend told him he was looking for a snowboarder to shoot. "He wanted an edgy, hardcore, body-pierced type. Guess what. I know less than one person like that these days. The original 'boarders have matured, they've grown up. And the new people getting on board are different."