LOMBARDE STORY from Yvon Labarthe on Vimeo.
The blurred visions of concrete tearing away multiple layers of your epidermis during wipeouts at nearly 100 mph means a street luger isn’t an afternoon spent grinding rails in the park. It’s an endorphin-pumping reminder that you’re alive. Only the craziest Adrenalists should ride on a speeding three-meter board inches from the ground.
The street luge has been around since the 1970’s when forward-thinking (and rolling) skateboarders in southern California found they could lie down on their boards in a supine style: on their backs, with their feet in front of them. Since those initial rides, it’s achieved a minor spike in popularity during the initial ESPN X-Games in the mid to late 90’s, but has since drifted back to the periphery of sports and you’re not very likely to see it featured on ESPN’s Sportscenter.
In Signal Hill, California, the first professional race in 1975 featured some who were lying down on their boards. This was just a straight-up race without differentiation from downhill skateboard racing and street luge we see today.* Some boards had even been designed with Plexiglas protecting the rider; although, the majority of participants in the race chose to ride standing up. Others preferred the recumbent style that’s the earliest manifestation of the street luge. Bob Pereyra, of Santa Monica, is considered the Godfather of the street luge, and he’d go on to win 6 gold medals in the X-Games Street Luge competitions.
In the 1990’s, ski instructors in Austria were lying flat on skateboards to return down the mountain after giving lessons. These were again large skateboards, but the style with which they rode them, lying down on their backs, spurred contemporary street luge races in Europe.
ESPN started the X-Games in the mid 1990’s and that’s when contemporary street luge reached an apotheosis. With televised races, and RAIL (Racers Association for International Luge) as a governing body, street luge took off as an actual competitive sport. From 1997-2001 Street Luge was a competition at the X-Games and NBC later created the Gravity Games.
After the mainstream legitimacy of the X-Games, the popularity of televised races waned, and the Gravity Games and X-Games’ street luge competitions are now defunct. The IGSA (International Gravity Sports Association) took over as the governing body not long after. They still comprise the standard regulations for competition today, but with important class distinctions between street luge and downhill skateboard racing.*
Contemporary designs for a street luge include steering by way of levers at your side (although mechanical breaks are still prohibited), and width and length dimensions depending on the IGSA. Enclosures that protect the rider’s body (like the earlier Plexiglas) aren’t allowed. Nor are any additions that restrict breaking. The boards are primarily composed of steel, wood, aluminum or carbon fiber, and boards are usually custom made, which means you’ll need to look pretty hard if you’re thinking of picking one up at your local sporting goods store.
Protection against injury has also changed since those early races in Signal Hill when skinned knees and banged heads were routine and more serious injuries more eminent. Competitive racers today are required to wear helmets with a face guard or goggles. Think of all the rocks and bric-a-brac that lines a normal country road. It’s like riding a motorcycle with your face at ankle level; the threat of blinding a rider, that’s not wearing eye protection, is high. Competitive riders also sport Kevlar suits and gloves and hard shoes.
The races themselves are usually held on country roads or specially designed courses between .5 and 3 miles long. They’re downhill obviously, and the steep declines can lead some riders to reach nearly 100 mph if there aren’t any turns. Picture going 100 mph in a car, then opening the door and thrusting your face inches from the concrete rushing under you. Now you have a small idea of the exhilaration experienced on a street luge.
Since riders are traveling at such a high speed, hay, straw bales or rubber-padding lines the more angular turns on a course, but even that’s not enough as riders often lose their balance when turning and can somersault over the enclosures. Wipeouts are common, and often mean serious injury. Again, some of these people reach close to 100 mph on a narrow board just off the ground.
The street luge isn’t likely to achieve the relatively minor success it experienced in the late 1990’s with the X-Games, but it’s still popular among a small minority of enthusiasts. Like many speed hobbies, the street luge is best left to the adrenalin junkies you read about on this site, so please exercise caution whenever you’re attempting to street luge.
*Racing classifications today, via the IGSA, include: Downhill Racing and Inline Board Racing (where supine positions are banned), and Street Luge or Classic Luge (Buttboard) where lying prostate on your back is required.