On the third weekend in August, Guanella Pass was invaded by a gaggle of guys in leathers with sparks coming from their hands. This was not a hair-band reunion concert, but a downhill skateboard race. The event drew an international roster of 147 competitors all determined to drop in at 10,000 feet and then fly down the harsh, weathered pavement at speeds exceeding 50 miles per hour just before slamming on the brakes, while still maintaining control, in order to slide around hairpin turns.
The 1.5-mile course was located near the bottom of the pass in Georgetown, and required coordination with city and county officials in order to ensure public and participant safety. Traffic was periodically stopped by Clear Creek County sheriff's deputies to give racers unfettered access to a stretch of road that is particularly appealing to those in the downhill skateboarding community. Speedy runs down mountain roads are often clandestine, taking place without the legal luxury of official approval or the safety provided by road closures. “To get a road shut down as awesome as this one is kind of iffy, and I’m stoked that it was able to happen. This was my first time skating in Colorado, so it was a good experience,” says Ryan Richbourg, who traveled from Utah to participate.
That experience was made possible by Justin Rolo, the event organizer and a professional skateboarder who has spent the past seven years participating in downhill skateboarding events all over the globe, but had never previously orchestrated one. His experiences clearly paid off, because the general consensus is that the execution was flawless.
Persuading authorities to close one of Georgetown’s most popular tourist attractions was not an easy task, Rolo says. None of the decision-makers had ever heard of downhill skateboarding, an extremely niche sport that's inspired a subculture, with a global community of participants. “Doing this event in Colorado is so important because there used to be two events, Lookout and Pikes Peak. Both events have gone by the wayside, and it was important to bring the community back together. People from all over the world flew in to be a part of it,” says Rolo.
They came from Brazil, France, Switzerland, Canada, China, Sweden and all over the United States. Brennan Bast calls Australia home but had been traveling to other downhill races around America; he made the decision to register on a whim, about a week before the race, and says he was very glad he did.
Compared to the legendary Lookout, racer Kent Fletcher says, the Devil’s Peak course is “much gnarlier, quite a bit more nerve-racking to skate.”
Practice was held all day on Saturday, August 19, and four-man brackets were created that evening, with help from the Wheel of Death, which contained each rider’s name and served to randomize the competition. Races were held on Sunday, August 20, and the top riders from each heat advanced until only four riders remained.
The final results: Calvin Staub (Colorado), Simon Snethen (Washington), Davis Lanham (Colorado), Brennan Bast (Australia).
Safety was a high priority for this event, and organization was a critical element; Rolo says it was important to do it correctly in order to get invited to return. It took a collaborative effort from ten course workers, two sheriff’s deputies and three paramedics to keep the course clear and respond to any injuries. The plan also required a shuttle for spectators, several moving trucks to transport racers up the pass, and a host of event volunteers to keep things moving smoothly. Coordination between these parties took place via radio communication. At one point, a mountain goat was reported on the course; hitting one in a motor vehicle at 50 miles per hour would have caused major damage.
Still, no matter how well the job is done, personnel can only do so much, which is where safety gear comes into play. Full-body leather suits protect skin from the stinging bite of road rash; closed-toe shoes, a full-face helmet and a proper board configuration were also required. Nearly 1,300 bales of straw lined the course to soften crash landings and prevent riders from flying off the side of the mountain, which was not entirely outside the realm of possibility.
Despite such precautions, there were the inevitable injuries: a broken wrist here, dislocated toe there, an ankle broken in three places and numerous head injuries, but Clear Creek EMS reported only one hospital transport from the course. Injuries, especially bone fractures, are commonplace in downhill skateboarding; this is not surprising considering the physics at play. “Party corner is definitely the fastest section. I think there were some guys who were going 52 mph before they slowed down to about 15, so that’s a pretty big slide and you really have to be in control in order to make it around that corner, so there were a lot of crashes," Richbourg says. "I don’t remember all of the injuries, but there were a lot.”
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Why risk injury for a seemingly fleeting adrenaline rush? Dylan Greenbaker, a longtime rider, says he doesn’t think about the risk. "Things go well, you prove it to yourself that you can do it, and the next step is, how do I get down faster?" he explains. "When you skate down the mountain with friends, all twenty of you feel the same thing when you drift at that same turn. When everyone gets to the bottom, it’s a congregation of stoked people.”
That's an apt characterization of the group that gathered at Guanella. “The real reason for the event was for me and 150 of my friends to have fun on a closed road, cool and safe," says Rolo, "which is a win-win for everybody.”
They plan to do it all over again in 2018.