What did I agree to this time? I’m standing in front of 3rd Lair SkatePark in Golden Valley, Minn. I take a deep breath and remember that I’m here because I’ve always admired skateboarding’s rebellious punk ethos and because I never learned to skate like I wanted to as a kid.
I swing open the heavily stickered door. The smell of sweat infiltrates my nose. Through the thick glass in front of me, I see a grade-school girl and boy navigating a series of ramps. I head into the shop adorned with rows of colorful boards along the walls and a cooler filled with neon-colored sodas. Several youngsters are rummaging through logo T-shirts and arguing over which brand of shoes is better. There’s a handsome young man behind the counter checking in customers. At the age of 41, I am noticeably the oldest person anywhere near this place, much less in it.
The man introduces himself as Travis Wood, 19, from Minneapolis, and explains he’ll be my instructor. Wood started skating at 3rd Lair during a camp eight years ago. He presently attends the University of Minnesota as a journalism student. To me, we seem a great match: He’s studying what I get to do every day while I’m learning to do what he loves to do every day.
I strap on my helmet and pull on the rented elbow-and kneepads. (Equipment and instruction for four lessons costs $120.) “Got anything for these?” I hold up my hands, wiggling my fingers. “Oh, yeah, hang on,” Wood says. He emerges from the equipment room with wrist guards as I explain that a working adult who makes her living typing every day can’t risk a hand injury.
We snake through a series of hallways, and before I know it there are skateboarders, scooter riders, and BMXers whizzing past me at high velocity. Despite the high-speed acrobatics, there are no collisions. Only the occasional missed trick followed by shouts of “Gnarly crash, bro!”
No one seems to notice me. Wood assures me: “There’s room here for everyone.” This is the ethic at 3rd Lair, which offers a girls’ skate night as well as special times for Old Timers Club riders. I laugh when I consider that I’m likely older than most of the 30-and-up OTC gang. But once we start the lesson, I’m having so much fun that I forget that thought — and forget about everyone else.
First comes a tutorial on skateboard anatomy. Next, we work on foot placement. I plop my foot on the grip tape as instructed and wobble across the flattest part of the floor several times, as I had in my earlier, abandoned skateboarding trials. Satisfied, Wood takes me to the mini-ramp where we work on the same technique, but this time I have to overcome gravity’s now-fierce pull.
At the end of my first lesson, Wood rates me “on pace with an average kid,” which makes me feel good — and wish the skull-patterned skateboard I’d purchased for an earlier (failed) attempt to learn to skate hadn’t been stolen. Then I could practice in my alley before my next lesson. After an hour of instruction and 30 minutes of skating on my own, I understand the basics of foot placement and balance, but need practice.
Practicing balance is good because it forces me into my body. Like many adults I know, I spend too much time analyzing and overthinking. You can’t do that on a board. You will definitely fall down if you get into your head too much. Besides, once you start swaying back and forth to keep yourself upright and your board moving, you forget about how old you are or what happened during the day and discover something wonderful: It’s possible to withstand just about any bump or obstacle in your path if you simply lean into it.
The Need for Speed
Lesson two is filled with tips on the outdoor halfpipe from 18-year-old Ben Vaske of St. Bonifacius, Minn. We work on “pumping,” the rhythm of bending your knees to propel yourself up and down ramps. Imagine a good old-fashioned squat, but on a moving skateboard. I get the motion down but realize I am missing another crucial — and for me, more intimidating — component of skateboarding: speed.
Vaske explains how to build velocity: “Use your foot like you would if you were sprinting.” Grateful for a technique to try, I realize the true barrier is in my brain. I don’t want to go down. Speed plus lack of balance on a moving skateboard is the perfect combination for an epic wipeout.
I look around the park. Everyone falls down. It seems in skateboarding, as in life, if you’re not falling down, you’re not really trying. In fact, the grander the wipeout, the more appreciation other skaters and onlookers offer.
Besides, nearly every vital part of my body is covered with pads. What could go wrong? I decide not to think about all the possibilities and I try the “pushing as though I were Florence Griffith Joyner” tactic. Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh! I get up and down the ramp three times.
“I consider four times mastery of pumping,” Vaske teases. Sweet! I am one pump away from graduating from the mini-ramp. It’s no kickflip, but to me, this is progress.
By lesson three, I am stoked to buy my own board and I ask Wood for pointers. I observe that the modern boards at 3rd Lair are really different from the crappy, plastic yellow one with orange wheels I had as a kid. Nonetheless, Wood points out, “that style is actually making a comeback.” As with most things vintage, there is an appreciation for old skateboards. I tell Wood that I’m considered vintage, too. Perhaps that explains my comeback.
Still, instead of rehashing my youth, I lean toward purchasing a longboard. “I’d recommend buying one from a real skate shop,” Wood advises, steering me clear from the temptation of buying a board online. “That way you’ll know the board fits.”
Boards come in different widths and lengths, and nearly every part is customizable. “For example,” he notes, “some people like to ride with loose trucks.” Trucks are metal parts that hold the wheels onto the board; looser trucks help you do fancy turns.
Erik Laing, 34, marketing and PR manager at Erik’s Bike and Board Shop in Bloomington, Minn., agrees that buying from a skate shop has safety and other benefits. “For us, selling a skateboard is a conversation. We always ask how and where people plan to use the board.” Geography may influence the types of boards people buy. “People in communities with hills tend to buy different boards than riders who live near universities, who likely use it for commuting or maneuvering tight traffic.”
Andrew Pettis, 39, product manager for Erik’s and lifelong skateboarder, chimed in: “Right before you came in, we sold a longboard to a female university student who had never skateboarded before, but wanted something to help her get around campus quickly. She ended up choosing a pintail — a teardrop-shaped longboard.”
After lessons on a few different boards, I’ve learned how much these details matter. Searching for a sturdier, more stable ride? Try tighter trucks. They’re also better for certain types of tricks. Since I have no aerial aspirations and plan to use my board for commuting, I find I prefer tighter trucks and a longboard designed for cruising and withstanding sidewalk cracks. Perhaps I’ll follow the college student’s lead.
The Long and Short of It
I doubt anyone knows for sure how many adults are on skateboards these days, but it appears the activity itself (thanks to events like the X Games) is growing more popular with riders of all ages.
Vaske told me he’s had a few adult students, including me. Laing noted: “We see a lot of adult men buying skateboards because their kids are getting into cycling. They may find that riding with their kids on bikes is too slow and so they try skateboarding with them.”
Nate Miller, 39, of West St. Paul, Minn., says he finally tried skating as an adult. “I had lots of friends who were skateboarders growing up, but I never tried to pick it up. I think I was too embarrassed to be bad at something in front of my friends.”
Miller now likes to skate with his friends “because they’re really encouraging and offer great tips. But I like to skate with my kids, because I can give them encouragement, and seeing them getting better forces me to be competitive enough to keep up.”
Trying to keep up and pushing limits is what makes skateboarding fun and interesting. It’s what drove surfers from the waves to the streets in the first place. It’s what continues to drive skaters to try new tricks. And it’s what makes people like me get out of their comfort zones and onto a board.