The Story of UK Slalom

This is part of the story of English slalom. Many people have heard of this “strange” form of the sport, but few know where it came from, so I hope here to clarify a few issues. However this is also my recollection and other truths may be out there, especially dates, which I have tried to avoid were possible. If only I had known that I would be writing this 25 years ago. To find out more, read on and then give it a go.

History, Locations and Characters

Skateboarding started in England in 1976/7, the year of Punk Rock and the heatwave, at South Bank, an unused undercover car park with 35° banks. Soon after Skate City and Meanwhile skateparks, became available, but the free access and undercover attributes of South Bank made it the focus of all forms of skateboarding, even to the present day. The South Bank Boys were the locals, comprising of slalomers, freestylers and ramp skaters, and this groups were classified and LSD (London Skates Dominate), coined by Jeremy Henderson in 1977 while at Benji Boards,. At the end of everyday skaters still meet there to find out what was happening, then go into the Royal festival Hall for general anarchy.

I bought my first skateboard there in ’76, and it was the first place I saw slalom, with locals Jim Slater and Tim Panting, and others from the Slick Willies team. This place was incredible and there were hundreds of spectators. They raced 6 foot straight, about 20 cones, taking 8+ pushes into a crowd, which parted in front of them and closed behind them. They skated a bubble of space, and none of the spectators seemed to think it dangerous to themselves. They could see two cones ahead at max.

In ’77 Tim Levis came third in the World Championship on a rocker. He raced all of the top Pros, Hester, Piercy, Alva on a standard street board. After they let him have a go on a “real” slalom board. This set the scene for the future of English Slalom. Skate anything and push hard. However the competitiveness was typically English, and the rivalry was fierce and aggressive, but friendly.

Skate facilities in the UK were/are scarce and expensive. Slalom appealed to many because, at first glance, it seemed easy and achievable on the street. Downhill has a similar appeal and these two disciplines were very closely aligned in the ’80′s, and they matured together. You can practice slalom with cans, as there were no cones, and it was easy to pick up. Slalom had reasonable coverage in the magazines, racing is always understandable, but the wet years of 79 and 80 nearly killed off skateboarding entirely in the UK and the media lost interest. Slalom sustained itself well, and flourished in the early 80′s due to the highly motivated organising body of skateboarding in England (ESA). The slalom representative, Derek Featherstone, was very active at promoting slalom, especially at Brands Hatch, and was responsible to starting the 100 cone 6′ straight world record. The focus centred on the LSD crowd at a variety of locations around London. Greenwich royal Park allowed skateboarding in the ’70s and was great for downhill and slalom, although it was only in later days that cones were allowed. CustomFlex Skateboards made downhill boards and set up Crystal Palace Sports Centre, Ski Slope Hill, when Greenwich became outlawed. The owners did a lot for all forms of skateboarding, setting up halfpipes and organising competitions, but finally were caught for child abuse in the early ’80s, Hyde Park and South Bank were common locations, and are now only shadows of there former self, due to gritted tracks and angle ground surfaces to stop us. Brand Hatch was only used for competitions, although there was a club there at the beginning. Brighton skaters were the main competitors to London slalomers and raced as Pig City. These raced on the seafront before it was banned.

Royal Festival Hall and Further Locations

I look back now and there were hundreds of competitions, national series and international competitions. This period was dominated by Martin Sweeny, followed by a gang including; Chris Charalambous, Phil Bourgoyne, Paul Price, Dobie, Drayton, Brian Kelner, Simon Levene, Frank Wheeler, Bricky, Floyd, Pavey, Stride, Ed, Leon, Rob, etc. Sorry guys too many to mention. Jim Slater’s and Tim Panting’s last competition was at Crystal Palace where they raced each other. Tim fell, broke his collar bone, and never skated again. We mainly rode Santa Cruz decks, lazer slalom or mid track trucks and OJ’s, later Hyper. Others had Turners and Sims Turners, or cut back upside down G&S decks like Sweeny’s. Our main supplier was Surrey Skateboards and we owe a lot to them for continuing to import equipment. Sweenys deck was unique and was an upside down G&S Teamrider reshaped. Kevin made it for Jim Slater, who later gave it to Sweeny.

This hard core maintained itself through the 80′s. It was the backbone of the skate community in the UK. Most slalomers had others skate interests and attended and contributed to all major competitions. Vert skaters like Bod, Steve Douglas and Lucien Hendriks attended our competitions. Slalom was also big around Europe, whereas official vertical events took many years to become established. To start with there was only slalom, freestyle, and long and high jump. However, England, as an island, made it expensive to travel, and participation was limited. We had little funding, no money and no sponsorship.

It was a total shock when we entered our first European competition at the Trocadero in Paris. We were anarchists, with no ethics, and slated everything. They held an opening ceremony with flags and national anthems, like the Olympics, and we were told to parade to the theme of Monty Python. They were always out to get us. When the English hear this it means you instantly start doing “silly walks”. It went down hill from there. Phil Bourgoyne was disqualified for having ripped shorts, and I was for sitting on my board going down the hill, and later the whole team suffered in some way. We found the rules strange and the distance between cones enormous. They even used gates, like skiing, and we became lost trying to skate around every cone. We did really badly and it set the tone for future events; we just go to have a blast, and that is what we did. We moaned at the courses, and no one, except a few, would try ours, and then we annoyed/victimised anyone/team who seemed to be taking things too seriously. We were arrogant, we were English, we were skaters.

We went on many jaunts around Europe and Scandinavia, and I have to say we all seem to have limited recollections of this period. There are many blank areas. However, despite our attitude, we did find some good friends around Europe and the US who understood, at least a little, where we were coming from and what we were trying to do.

The 90′s were bleak. There was no equipment. The blanks we had from NHS ran out, and wheels were in short supply. Spares for our equipment, especially the Lasers caused problems. I dropped out, others gained careers, migrations to the US, and families. We all grew up. Now we seem to be back. Older, probably only a little wiser, we still think most courses are too easy, but are probably a little less arrogant and friendlier, we always were but the English take a bit of getting used to. If we’re not moaning we’re not happy.

Slalom was isolated in England until the early to mid 80′s, and therefore developed its own culture. The skaters had a lot of go for it, and loved going through cones fast, and had the idea, like vertical skaters, that the discipline should get harder and faster. This led to the continued reduction of the distance between cones, and their amount of offset. The slalom became very technical. We looked up to the Americans: Percy, Hester and Hutson were our main idols, and we assumed that they would be doing the same; making it difficult. I think our greatest influence was the footage of Percy, although we did not know it was sped up at the time, and a quote, I think by Brian Kelner which stated “that on a footpath you should be able to control your speed at any steepness”. English slalom became tighter and faster.

English slalom is not an out and out pumping race, you have to slow in places, run an exact line and think your way through the course. A good course was almost impossible the first time you rode it. We used our body weight and “floated” around cones, pushing the board round with no weight on it to make the cone at maximum stretch, sliding and controlling speed. We were never allowed to criddle. Straight quickly reduced to 5′ centres and then to 4′, The pushing distance increased to five-six push starts, we never used ramps, and at some competitions we had unlimited pushes. 6′ straight was left to the steepest hills, similar to La Costa. Later we even went down to 3′ straight on slight slopes. It started to get a bit ridiculous. We regularly averaged 5 or 6 cones per second, even when offset. Our boards were very loose and we used to slide around cones to brake. It was all about control at high speed and commitment. Most people think tight is for slow hills, but we maintained the cones per second rate on any hill.

Technique and Development

It is difficult to know why we did this. Partly it was due to the urge to go faster and to make the courses difficult. No course was impossible. Phil Bourgoyne used to throw the cones in the air and skated where they landed. We focused on the control of speed, to accelerate and brake (negative pump) to gain the best time. Another reason could be the lack of good locations and the South Bank phenomenon, which was very short, so the closer the cones, the more you can put down. The trouble was we became specialised and found/still find wide courses boring, and our technique was not very good for wide courses at low speed. We think a good course should have a urethane track showing on the surface after an hour and that you always feel on the edge of grip or balance, see pictures of Eastbourne. We still suffer with this, although we tend not to do 3′, and only us old guys do 4′, but 6′ straight still seems like an eternity between cones and it is just impossible to get enough pushes or a steep enough hill.

There is a certain thrill, and rush, from skating incredibly fast through a very tight course, and spectators love it. This type of slalom is also not dependent upon who has the best bearings or wheels, a GS race at Brands Hatch was won by Phil Bourgoyne with OJ’s worn almost down to the bearings. Technique is the most critical factor, which is why we view it as the best form of slalom. A “typical” course will average 5′ centres, which are offset, have a fast pumping bit, then a catch cone or two, a few carving cones, and so on. We also tend to have a really difficult last, mainly due to the fact that we had very little run outs and wanted to scrub speed at the end. We also like offsets at the top and a straight, full on pump, at the end. The course should be designed to be continually breaking the skaters rhythm.

So, why not give it a go, set a straight course of 5′ centres and see how many pushes you can take into it. When you get the hang of it loosen those trucks and then kick each cone out by one diameter and skate the long way round. Or set a “normal” tight course and then place a cone in between each. You’ll soon discover the thrill.

Chris Linford


One Comment

  1. Paul
    Posted September 8, 2010 at 4:30 am | Permalink

    This is a section by Chris Linford:

    How to Slalom

    The basic principal of slalom is simple. Lay some obstacles on the ground and go around them as fast as you can. You do not need any special equipment. Any board can do this and tin cans provide excellent, and available, obstacles. You don’t even need special places, I learnt on paving slabs. Of course specialist equipment will give you greater performance but they will not be any better at teaching you the technique. Therefore there are two aspects to becoming proficient at slalom, technique and equipment.
    Technique

    Feet

    The first thing to change from normal riding is the foot position. In slalom it is better to adopt a more forward facing stance. This gives the benefit of looking forward through the course to plan the best line. Also your centre of gravity is directly over the board which will give more grip, and you will be able to travel through the obstacles faster as your body will need to move less. To enable this it means that your feet should be pointing forward. The ideal angle is between 30 and 45 degrees from the normal “surf” stance, but gaining a comfortable stance is more important. The balls of your front foot should be just behind the front truck and the heel of your rear foot level with the rear truck. (see dia 1)
    This foot position can take a long time to get used to, but it is worth perfecting as it will greatly improve your performance. With your feet over the trucks you will place more weight on the wheels and gain more grip. The balancing of your weight will give you better board control and can be aided by how you set your board up, see equipment. This foot stance also enables you to turn faster. To turn left, if regular footed, you push your weight down on your front foot heel, to turn right you put your weight on the rear foot toe. This way each foot controls the direction of turn. You will notice on nearly all photos of slalomers, especially when turning backside, that their rear foot is on their toes, when they are placing most weight on it. Therefore you will be able to traverse the obstacles at the same speed that you can run on the spot. This technique will easily allow 6 obstacles per second, in ideal conditions. Obviously this is not always the case and there are many courses where the cones are at greater distances and the mph is a lot faster. In these cases more weight will need to be placed on the rear truck to gain more speed through greater traction. You will also find the slalomers with a muck lower stance as they try to lower their centre of gravity. The feet seem a lot flatter in this type of slalom but the stance remains the same.

    Arms

    Arms are very important to get through the course. They have two purposes, the first is to steer and the second is to balance.
    Steering can be helped when you use your strength to throw your weight down as you push on either your heel or your toe. This gives a quicker response to the turn. Generally speaking you push down on the opposite arm than the direction you wish to turn, and you push out, or up, with the arm on the side you wish to turn to throw your body weight over. Photos/Videos often show slalomers at the apex of the cone with their inside arm up, pushing them over, and their outside arm across.
    The second element is balance. The arm leaning into the turn counter act the centrifugal force of the turn and allow you to lean over more, increasing the amount of turn. When the board is sliding the arms drop, to lower the centre of gravity, and to stabilise the skater. However they are still used to help turn, but control has a greater priority. High speed giant courses often require less “brute-force” to get through and require more control of line to grain the best speed. Here balance and line control are more important as the boards tend to slide more and there is not the necessity to turn sharply.

    Pumping

    This is the most critical skill and the most difficult to teach and to learn. There are many types of pumping techniques, which individually may seem difficult but collectively help explain the phenomenon. On ramps you pump a board at the bottom of the ramp to give you more speed to go up the other side. You use you body weight to project you forward and your arms to throw your body weight forward. Another form of pumping is tic-tac or space walks. If you wheeley and turn 45° left then right you will be projected forward. This is a form of pumping.
    The ramp used the critical energy point, the bottom of the ramp transition, where the board is under most G-force and stress, and uses this to push the board forward. The tic-tac or space walk used the critical point, the turning, to project the board forward. Slalom uses both of these principles. The critical point is at the apex of the cone or obstacle. The most weight is being pushed down and the wheels are under most stress. By using body weight and arm movement it is possible to project forward like on a ramp, and due to the turning, in the same way as a tic-tac or spacewalk. When you hear slalomers pumping there is a sound difference as they reach the apex of the cone and applying a pump. The sharper the turn the better the pump, which is the same with the other methods, the tighter the ramp the faster the exit.
    Practice is the only way to get this, but good foot and arm movements almost make it a natural process.
    Lines

    Picking the correct line through a course is critical on some courses and less so on others. The greater the cone spacing the more line becomes important, and the less potential there is to pump. Modern races are so close that 1mm off line could loose you the race. When top racers skate you can sometimes see two lines of urethane on the road where each skater has used the same line. Generally the apex is found when your board is pointing directly down the hill or course.
    This however is not always the case. Gate cones need a different line and offer a greater challenge. You need to plan your line early to get the best exit and angle through it. These can win or loose you the race.

    Sometimes you know there is a difficult cone coming and you want to prepare for it, maybe cutting in early to give you more time. The Cut-in technique will help you. This can be used to slow down also as it makes the turn tighter which will loose you speed.
    Weight

    Sliding is bad. It looses you speed and can hurt. There are three types of slide: rear wheel, the back whips around you; Front wheel, the front drifts away from you; drift, where all four slide at the same time.
    A drift is ideal and gives the greatest chance of success. Next comes a rear wheel slide which can also be used as a brake, and lastly is the fatal front wheel slide which is normally disastrous.
    Slides are controlled by your body weight balance over each truck. The more weight over each truck gives traction. How you distribute you weight when turning and pumping will determine how much grip you will gain. If you have good weight distribution then you will drift. The position of your feet is critical in balance and weight distribution.
    Equipment

    Any skateboard can be used for slalom. You just need to loosen the trucks. The first skill is to develop the technique and specialist slalom boards will only allow you to go faster and tighter. There is no shames starting with cones meters apart. In the 1970s there were limited boards and most people learnt on their “normal”, and probably only, board. Boards were thinner in those days which would help but basically the same principles apply.
    At some point you will need a specialist board. These differ from normal skateboards in many ways. Every aspect of a slalom board is specially made for this event.
    Decks

    The decks are a different shape when compared to street boards. The main difference is that it is cut away to remove the risk of “wheel-rubout”, where the wheel rubs against the deck when turning. This allows you a tighter turning radius. They are also generally cambered, raised in the centre along the length, and flat along the width, and they are flexible. The flex and camber allow for a more effective pump and a slightly lower centre of gravity at the apex. They are made from either fibreglass/Canadian maple laminate or carbon fibre, the later being most expensive but not necessarily better. The two constructs ride differently and the type is down to personal preference.
    Trucks

    The trucks at the front are normally around 101mm and have a tighter angled pivot on the baseplate, which increases the ease and degree of turn of the truck. The aim is to try to get the board to turn slightly quicker at the front. Some skaters use “Rad Pad” or angled riser pads to further increase the angle of the front truck. The lower the back end of the baseplate is to the ground the greater the turning angle.
    The rear truck has less turning potential and some skaters use “traction control” trucks, where the centre of gravity is lower and more central, to increase grip. These are expensive.
    Special soft bushings are also used to help the truck turn.
    Wheels

    The wheels are specially made for slalom with shapes that offer more grip. They are very fast and gripy and come in different durometers, hardness. The softer they are the gripier, but slower, except on rough surfaces. Wheels are chosen for the type of course, speed, temperature and surface. A harder wheel is generally used at the front and a softer on at the rear. Generally 88 at front and 78 at rear. There are now also a range of sizes. Bigger faster courses require bigger wheels, but they accelerate slower.
    Also the bearings are normally expensive and precision made. Titanium and ceramic options are rapidly being adopted
    Setting up your board

    This is the most critical of all aspects of racing. The basic things you change are as follows:
    Trucks

    The trucks should be just tight enough to get you through the course. The greater the pressure you put on the turn the greater the pump. If they are
    too tight you will not make the course, but if they are too loose you will not be able to generate speed.
    Wheels base

    The greater the wheel base the greater potential there is for the board to maintain its speed, like downhill boards. It will also be more stable and turn less.
    Wheels

    All considerations must be made to get the most from the wheels and bearings. Only experimentation will guide you here. If it feel on the edge but manageable then it is probably OK. If you are sliding go softer, if not go harder. If the surface feels rough, go softer etc.
    Also the greater the diameter the better they maintain speed but the slower they accelerate.
    Decks

    Decks are different even the same type. Some are better at big courses, others for pumping and others for grip.
    It’s a nightmare out there. Look at what others are doing.

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