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

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