Skate Nation

Colorado's becoming a mecca for skateboarders. But for the best parks, you'd better head for the hills.

The Hell Ride Crew took one look at the pictures of freshly troweled concrete and put out a call to the tribes. It would be the Sturgis of skateboarding, a weekend of ripping, raging, beer and bands. No big contest money, corporate sponsors or swooping ESPN camera cranes -- just hard-core skaters and some of the industry's top professionals summoned by the scent of pool dust tossed above the vertical lip of one of America's gnarliest skateparks. "Be there or screw you," read the flier.

Like Deadheads with scabbed elbows and a gleeful disregard for authority and personal safety, more than a thousand skaters from across the nation pointed their wheels toward the newest concrete mecca:

Carbondale, Colorado. Population 5,500.

Mance overboard: Executing an invert at  Tim Altic's 
groundbreaking course in Crested Butte.
Eric Magnussen
Mance overboard: Executing an invert at Tim Altic's groundbreaking course in Crested Butte.
Concrete dreams: Grindline founder Mark Hubbard 
skates all his designs.
Adam Conway
Concrete dreams: Grindline founder Mark Hubbard skates all his designs.

Although it's renowned for its snow-packed mountain vistas, this state has also become a prime destination for skateboarders. Colorado has more than eighty public skateparks, built by local municipalities in response to the sport's explosion in popularity over the past decade, and dozens more are in the planning stages.

But as any skater can tell you, all skateparks are not created equal. While some Colorado facilities are masterpieces of flow and function, among the best in the country, others are so ill-conceived and poorly constructed that they're about as fun to skate as a sinkhole in a K-mart parking lot. Not only are these lawsuits-in-waiting a waste of public funds, but they frustrate the hell out of skateboarders, who often spend years lobbying local officials for a spot to call their own. They include Jake Phelps, one of the organizers of the Carbondale event and editor of Thrasher magazine. The California-based skateboard rag recently started publishing "Certified Piece of Suck," a monthly spread highlighting some of the country's worst skateparks. "I'm going to be skating this stuff," Phelps promises, "and if it sucks, then I'll be the first to tell you it sucks."

"I'll tell you the main reason why some skateboard parks are so shitty," says legendary pro skater Tony Alva, who, as a member of '70s skate team Dogtown, more or less invented vertical-surface pool skating before most of today's riders were born. "They let non-skaters build them and design them. And the other reason is that cities, sometimes they've got all this red tape and these fucking blueprints, and that don't mean shit when it comes to building skateparks."

Phelps puts it even more bluntly: "The people who are making skateparks that don't skate are assholes."

Carbondale does not suck. And on this weekend in late August, when the crowds encounter the 13,000-square-foot skatepark for the first time, the last thing they think of is an asphalt sinkhole. Spectators, huddled perilously around the ten-foot drop, are reminded of fjords, of canyonlands, of a winding gorge carved from granite by centuries of wind and water. But as professional skateboarder Omar Hassan's urethane wheels float inches past their howling faces, mostly they think of speed.

Mark "Monk" Hubbard accelerates along the banked walls by weaving through a series of perfectly rounded corners and hips toward the park's most notable feature, an eighteen-foot-tall concrete capsule that resembles half of a massive, hollow Tylenol gelcap. Inside the cavern, Monk thrusts himself into a 60-degree loop in the capsule's rear pocket and emerges to a spray-back of cheering -- like a surfer shooting out from the Pipeline.

He knows these transitions well, and not just because he's a rad skater. As owner of Grindline, a Seattle-based skatepark construction outfit that has earned an exalted reputation for its inventive, challenging designs, Hubbard himself conceived and built this park.

Like most skater-owned firms, however, Grindline gets its public-sector business not from big cities with big budgets and big crowds of skaters, but from small towns. In larger metropolitan areas, skater-owned companies wind up competing with local architects and concrete contractors and are often bumped out of the bidding process by municipal regulations.

In Colorado, this means skaters in search of the best concrete rides have to head for the hills -- to Grindline's park in Carbondale, or the parks in Aspen, Breckenridge, Silverthorne, Salida and Cañon City that were cast by skater-run Team Pain out of Florida, or the Montrose park built under the all-seeing eye of local roller-skating virtuoso Tim Altic.

Coming down from the mountains, skaters encounter a different kind of terrain. Of the 22 public skateparks in the metro-Denver area, only two, in Boulder and Aurora, were designed by a skater-owned firm: SITE Design Inc. out of Phoenix. The rest are the work of various pre-constructed ramp companies and landscape-architecture firms.

The most successful local firm to ride the skatepark boom is the Architerra Group, headed by Dean Pearson and Mike Taylor. But utter the word "Architerra" on the deck of a Denver ramp, and you'll hear plenty of gripes. If pressed, skaters will admit that Architerra's work is light years ahead of the really, really bad skateparks, but that doesn't answer their basic question: Why are non-skaters designing parks, anyway?

Five years ago, when I was nineteen, my friend Ryan and I decided that we were going to become professional skatepark designers. It made perfect sense at the time. We were driving back from the Arvada skatepark, where we'd spent yet another day pushing back and forth between four uninspired blue ramps built in 1995 by a company called Fad-tastic. A former playground manufacturer that later changed its name to Skateparks International, the Colorado company marketed its collection of pre-built obstacles as "skate-play equipment" and was beloved by municipalities almost as much as it was reviled by local skateboarders, since it offered a no-brainer process of skatepark production. City planners would simply throw down a flat slab of concrete and then select neatly designed ramps from the company catalogue, the same way they might create employee holiday baskets from a Hickory Farms brochure.

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