A Texas Freestyler In Europe

As I begin writing this I’m about two hours into my eight hour return flight from London to Washington DC, which will connect me to a final flight home to Dallas. I’m deeply tired, but it’s a good tired, the kind of weariness that comes from expenditure of energy on one of the best skate experiences of my life.

I just finished a journey that took me to England to skate with my friend and co-founder of the Freestyle Podcast, Tony Gale, and then through three other countries as he, I, and 6 other skaters attended the legendary Paderborn freestyle contest in Germany.

My trip began when my wife dropped me off at DFW International Airport. I was loaded down – backpack, small duffel full of clothes, and a longboard bag with my freestyle board, my street board, a backup freestyle board, and 4 decks requested by various Brits and Europeans. All together it was heavy.

I arrived at Heathrow and my research regarding my train/tube rides payed off. Finding the Heathrow Express was very easy, and it got me to Paddington Station very quickly. I took the escalator down a level to the Underground, purchased an Oyster card, and boarded the Bannerloo line to Charing Cross Station, went back upstairs purchased a ticket to the Southeastern Line train to Hastings — which quickly got me to Tunbridge Wells, home of Tony Gale and his girlfriend Georgie, who picked me up at the train station. We returned to their flat, and as Tony was at work until late, I crashed there for a few hours of much needed rest. Sometime after 9pm, Tony arrived with freestyler Simon Mrozinkski who had also arrived at the station after a 3-hour train ride from Salisbury.

I can’t exactly describe how fantastic it was to meet Tony and Simon in-person after all these years. Tony and I of course communicate all the time, and do the Freestyle Podcast together, and I already felt like I knew him. I guess I did. Likewise, Simon was very much already considered a friend. We all exchanged various gifts and deliveries for each other, and talked until fairly late. This was all on Thursday, London time.

The next morning we got up and prepared for the journey to Paderborn, Germany. 5 other freestylers were to arrive, including our driver James “Fairbro” Fairbrother.  When most of us were there, we took off fo a quick freestyle session at the little skatepark that Tony frequents in the town. Eventually the rest of the crew got there, we sessioned a bit more, then took off for Germany.

Our party consisted of me, Tony, Simon Mrozinski, James Fairbrother, Denham Hill, Michael Erskine, Nathan Pseuzan, and Alex Foster.

First stop, Chunnel. What an amazing feet of engineering. We purchased a ticket and boarded the Chunnel train, by simply driving on to a train car and parking there for the 30 minute trip under the English Channel. Incredible. We emerged in France, went through border control, and proceded on our way, passing through beautiful French countryside and into Belgium, then the Netherlands. We stopped a few times for food, etc. and pushed on through Germany to the town of Paderborn, arriving at the skatepark and camping location at about 2:30am. Fairbro is a really driving machine, and as the other two don’t drive, I can’t express my appreciation enough for him driving the whole way to and from Paderborn.

The organizers had the group tent set up for us, but the folding beds were not to be found, so we spread our sleeping bags on the ground and attempted to sleep. There were already some skaters in the tent, and a few smaller tents set up. We had no idea who they were.As soon as I went in the tent, the freshly cut grass on the ground activated my hay fever, so I knew it was going to be a rough night and rougher morning.

Sunrise at that latitude is about 4am, and certainly by 5 most of us had given up on additional sleep. We emerged from the tent still clothed from the previous night, grabbed our boards, and walked down to the park to start sampling the surface. That’s right. Skating before 6am. Insane, but true. My eyes were on fire with hay fever, but I managed to keep myself together, and the problem lessened slightly after leaving the tent.  After some time skating and chilling, James, Tony, Simon and I drove to town to an Aldi market for food, hit up a coffee shop for much needed caffeine infusions,  and I managed to find a pharmacy.

The friendly German pharmacist was able to understand my request of non-drowsy allergy medicine, which I purchased and took immediatly, later offering some to my traveling companion Denham Hill, who was also suffering from the malady.

This was on Saturday, which was the day for the street skating event at the park. Lots of great riders showed up and practiced, while the Brits and I immediatly began skating again. We were joined by some of the guys already there – Marco Sassi of Itally, Mario Steinemann of Switzerland, Turi Zoltan of Hungary, and Marius Constantin of Romania. I have long been in communication with these guys, and it was utterly fantastic and dreamlike to be there at the contest practicing with them.

As the street contest got under way, the freestylers left the skating area and joined the very large crowd there to see the event. The park is surrounded by small hills, almost forming a natural ampitheater. Families were there to see the skating. The only contest I’ve seen like this one is the EZ-7 Turkey Jam ditch contest in Houston, which has the same vibe. This is the way skate events should be.

Eventually my friend Yoyo Schulz arrived from Frankfurt. Man, it was good to see Yoyo again. We spent some time catching up during the street event.

A little more about this 2-day skate event. This is also known as the BBQ contest, as there is a food stand selling Bratwurst, other foods, beer, soft drinks, etc. Skaters entered in the event — registration fee of 30 Euros – get a wrist band allowing them to get as much bottled water as they’d like, for free. There are plenty of toilets available and a small skate shop in a tent.  Down the road through this park there is an atheletic facility that has showers. Sadly, we didn’t really get access to the showers until Sunday morning, so by then we were pretty damned smelly and dirty, but that’s camping with skating, right?  Fairbro and I discovered the bottled carbonated water is quite refreshing when poured over your head and used to quickly wash your face and hair.

Street skating wrapped up, so the Brits and I loaded into our two cars and headed to dinner at a very good Italian restaurant (at this point we were still pretty filthy, heh heh). After dinner, of course, we went back to the park and continued skating. As the sun went down sometime after 9pm, most of us sat and talked while Tony Gale and Robert Wagner continued to skate in the near dark by a small light, while photos were taken. I would say we all got to bed about 10pm, except for Steinemann and Sassi, who arrived back at the tent about 4am after a night of partying in town.

On Sunday, we again awakened about 6:30am, to discover that James Fairbrother had been up and skating since about 5:30. James is a builder, and he naturally gets up very early.

Sunday morning was cold and overcast. “Bleak”, as Fairbro put it. The scene of the skatepark, empty but for us, in the strange bleak German morning, was for lack of a better word surreal. I stood there in my shorts and a borrowed hoody, envisioning a contest largely devoid of spectators — the freestylers skating in this strange environment.

As the morning progressed, the sun came out and the day transformed from something out of some dismal myth to a beautiful, sunny, perfect day. Perfect temperature. The contest organizers provided an excellent free breakfast and I slammed down a couple of coffees to keep the brain in check. Finally shower access was granted, so Tony, Simon, James, and I managed to wash the grime of a couple of days off and get refreshed before the contest started.

More and more people started to appear, both skaters and spectators. I can honestly say I don’t think any other freestyle contest gets the kind of interest from non-skaters as this one. This was the 15th year they’ve done this contest, and people know about it. They know the freestyle skateboarders will entertain them as they compete, they know the contest environment is fun, has great food, is friendly, and great for families, and they show up to see it.

I liked the way they ran the contest. Skaters got two 2-minute runs. Amateurs skated, then with no break the Pros and then again with no break, the Legends. Then a very short break, and they ran through the order again.

Let me just express an opinion here, which I know not everyone agrees with, but it’s my blog and you can start a blog if you want to say otherwise. The 2-minute run is the way to go. If you are going to have a real freestyle contest, one that really exhibits the best qualities of the skaters, both artistic and technical, you need to do the 2-minute run. I have now done both, and there’s simply no comparison. The 1-minute run format, the “battle” format, etc., might have their place, I don’t know. But the 2-minute run allows skaters to access different styles, slower paces, and just generally express themselves. That is how any kind of freestyle “championship” needs to be. I’m not taking a shot at anyone personally here. We’re all entitled to our opinions, and to run contests the way we want, but that is my opinion. The first of my runs, which is described a little later in this post, was to a slow song. It was a more slow, contemplative run. THAT is what I was trying to get across, because there was some real, actual, emotional content that I wanted to express. Whether I achieved it is debateable, but it was important to me.

I don’t want to go on too much about the results here, as they are published elsewhere, and several people have provided video on youtube — every single run is available — they were there the next day.

Here are the Videos.

Organizers of other contests – take note. Getting the video up weeks or months later, or never, is not good and not helpful. It does not generate excitement for your events. You need to do it like the Germans. Tape every single run, then go home and get the video processed and uploaded. No editing is required. No clever bullshit. Let the other videographers there do the highlight reels and edited stuff. But organizers – just post the runs, like the Germans did, in their entirety and on the next day. We are freestylers. We want to see and study everyone’s runs. We enjoy that, and we have the patience for it. Frankly, when skaters spend their own money to travel long distances to be at an event, I think they deserve to have good video of everything available in a day or two. I think they are right to be bummed when this doesn’t happen.

Regarding the judging: It was good. Having watched the video and knowing what the Paderborn judges are looking for, I feel that they got it right. Here is my editorial comment: My podasting partner Tony Gale got 2nd in Pro. Tony blew the metaphorical roof off that place like nothing I’ve ever seen. A high energy, high difficulty run that had everyone watching say a collective “holy shit!”. It looks really good on video, but in person it was fantastic verging on superhuman. BUT – Guenter Mokulys, the 11 time world champion, European champ, etc, is a machine. He had a couple of misses, but his precision is just unmatched. His tricks are difficult and usually executed to perfection. So while I think Tony’s runs were an order of magnitude more exciting, and perhaps even more difficult, I have to think that a couple of extra step offs may have made the difference, and at Paderborn that’s important. And it should be. Given similar levels of skating, the guy who screws up least should win. But I think that Tony really served notice that there’s a new preditor in the jungle, and he can’t be ignored. That being said, a massive congratulations to Guenter, a great great skater who continues to get the job done and skate at a remarkably high level. Seeing Guenter skate in-person is an eye-opening experience. 3rd Place was the absolutley amazing Marco Sassi, of Italy. A lot of Marco’s really great stuff is so subtle that a non-freestyler would not even understand it. His footwork is complex, original, difficult as hell, and beyond smooth. A very strong argument could me made for him for 1st place. That’s how good he is.  It is really something for which to aspire. Finally, 4th place was Germany’s Christian Heise. Chrisitan is just a great all-around freestyler. Smooth, slick, and amazing. I really enjoyed seeing his skating in-person.

The Ams were all great fun to watch, and skated well, Marius Constantin of Romania took 1st, and I think he has earned the right to join the pro ranks. He is a guy radiates enthusiasm, his skating is right up there, he is scene-building hero of freestyle, and I admire his humility in not just jumping into the pro ranks. He told me he really wanted to earn it, and he has.

The German MC was fantastic. Super positive and all his comments were smart and appropriate.  The contest was judged by people knowledgeable about modern freestyle — freestylers themselves.

Since this is my blog, I want to talk about my performance. Though I’ve been doing freestyle a long time, looking back this is only the 5th freestyle contest I’ve ever been in. That’s kind of weird to think about. Two of them when I was 15, one when I was 21, Philly in 2013, and now this one when I am 50. I entered the “Legends” category, mostly because I am a lot older than most of the skaters in the Am division, and I’m certainly far from Pro material, not because I actually consider myself a “legend”. Truth is, I’m not even that good. I was once, but now I’m just an old Texas skater who likes to roll around and do a few tricks, who is still trying to improve.

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Yoyo and me.

I had the honor of skating the Legends category with a true Legend, Yoyo Schulz, of Frankfurt, Germany. He and I have been friends for many years now. A better person than Joachim “Yoyo” Schulz would be hard to find. The man is a fantastic skater, runs a small skate business to help provide excellent freestyle equipment to the UK and Europe, and is one of the driving forces behind the European freestyle scene.  He was the only other person in the Legends group, so I knew going in that in the contest I would simply get 2nd place. And I am very very happy with that. Because the real prize I got means so much more to me than a trophy.

As I sat there watching the first section of runs, I honestly had no idea when I was to come up. The German MC, speaking German, began to speak, and was apparently introducing me by explaining to everyone there about my old Bob’s Trick Tips website, and then in English thanking me for “all you have done for freestyle”. I simply didn’t know what to do. It was emotionally overwhelming. Throughout the weekend many skaters approached me and thanked me, saying things like “I wouldn’t be here if not for you.” All of that was just very, very hard to compute. I thanked them all,  explaining that at the time I really had no idea, and that I’m just on old skater with a computer and a  camcorder. But then, to be publicly acknowledged, all I could do was try to thank them and not act like a jackass. Really, this was probably the high point of my skateboarding life.

Then my music started. Only a few people know this, but a few weeks ago our beloved  cat Pancho died very suddenly and at a young age. My wife and I have really felt devastated, as happens when one loses a loving little companion. Our other cat is named Lefty – they are named after the characters in the song Pancho & Lefty, written and best-performed by Townes Van Zant, of Texas. So I decided weeks ago to use this beautiful, sad, and quintessentially Texan song for my first run, as a tribute to my little buddy.

My British friends have told me how relaxed I looked while I was skating, but I was actually kind of emotionally worked up. I guess they couldn’t see it. I knew going in that the song might upset me a little, but for some reason I wanted that to happen. I simply didn’t care. My skating is very simple anyway. I messed up a couple of tricks, and slipped out and went down on some very simple footwork (not bad — not a slam really – caught myself with both hands and popped right back up). That’s fine. It didn’t even upset me. The unexpected adulation of these people and the chance to pay respects to Pancho, and the wonderful companionship and brotherhood of my British friends, were enough. To me that was a 1st prize.

I write this not to say “I don’t really suck that bad”, but rather because I want the people there to know how much it all meant to me.

Thanks to all from the bottom of my heart.

My 2nd run was technically better. I stuck to Texas music, playing ZZ Top’s classic “Just Got Paid”, just to give the crowd a taste of a different kind of Texas music. I really didn’t have a routine planned out for either song. I had a few sequences to work in, but I just went out and skated. Even without any technical tricks and looking not so great, my runs made me happy. Just participating in something like this, traveling far from home, skating, and making new friends is very satisfying.

Here’s the thing about contests. The point of entering a contest doesn’t have to be to win. That is a great goal, but especially in a small community like the freestyle world, the contest is a chance to have time to show your friends and fellow freestylers what you can do, and a time for them to take joy in your skating. If there is a contest you have reasonable access to enter, by all means, enter. Be part of the thing. Let your friends enjoy your skating in that format.

Now, on to the Brits. Tony Gale, James Fairbrother, Simon Mrozinski, Nathan Pseuzan, Michael Erskine, Denham Hill, and Alex Foster. A better group of people to travel with and do a contest with I cannot imagine. We had so much fun. Just such cool guys.

The German crowd was excellent and engaged, but the Brits brought a new, fun, raucus energy to the contest. A bunch of fookin’ ruffians! Team GB. Or as I’ve been calling it, Team GB/TX. We whooped and hollered for each other during every run. We hugged, fist bumped, and high-fived each other after completion of a run. None of this was planned. It just happened, because we were all so happy to be there, and so genuinely supportive of each other. It was just a great experience. All of these guys seemed to be having a great time during their runs, and their attitudes were infectious. This is how grassroots contests are in Texas. It’s the way they should be.

After the trophies were awarded people slowly began to leave. It was obvious that everyone really just wanted to stay and skate.  We said our goodbyes to the other skaters, thanked the organizers, and Fairbrother used his unique charm to sweet talk them into leaving the tent up for us Sunday night, so we could sleep there again and get an early start back to England on Monday morning. Then we went out for more Italian food, came back, and chilled at the park and skated a bit more before going to bed.

We pulled out of the campgrounds/skatepark I think before 6am, and hammered back through Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, to the Chunnel. After a small mechanical scare — turned out to be nothing — we boarded the train, went under the sea again, and were soon again driving on the left side of the road, past the beautiful green hills of Dover. All met back at Tony Gale’s place in Tunbridge Wells, where we said our goodbyes, and they left me and Tony there.

Tuesday was to be my last day in England. Tony and I took the train into London, carrying boards and backpacks, and we hit the classic London skate spots of South Bank and the Kennington bowl. Southbank is gnarly. Videos and photos simply don’t do its gnarliness justice. It is all made from big pave stones. None of the stones are quite even. It can be slick. As Tony says, it is a classic English spot — “rough as shit and smells like piss.” We skated there for a while then ventured south to the Kennington Bowl, which is a capsule-shaped bowl built in the 1970s. The walls are steep banks with good transition. Some years ago, Converse did a retrofit of the bowl, resurfacing it and adding some fairly stupid round wall sections and a strange and not very usable ledge. Now, maybe 4 years later (?), the flatbottom is chunking and cracking at the seams, leaving it almost as gnarly as South Bank. Tony rips at this place. He’s known for freestyle, but he can skate banks really well, and loves the shitty greatness of this bowl. It’s not a place that skatepark kids will thrive in, but for the dediicated it is cool.

We then headed to Brixton, where there is another 1970s era skatepark. There are a few modern retrofits, but the snake run into a big banked bowl was intact. I felt like I was back at Wizard skatepark in Dallas in 1979. It was just extremely fun. It is in a somewhat rough looking neighborhood. Tony told me it was the stabbing capital of London, or something like that, but the skaters at the park were cool. No bad vibes at all. We skated there longer than the other spots.

We skated there until 5pm, and then headed to the underground, going up to Buckingham Palace so I could see a few standard tourist things and take a few pics. We both got pics skating in front of the palace. Then we headed for Waterloo Station, stopping to each pick up a serving up traditional English chips, which we devoured on the train back to Tunbridge Wells.

We got home, cleaned up, and went to dinner at 9pm at yet another delicious Italian place.

This morning I got up at 5:30, made sure I had all my stuff together, said farewell to Georgie, and Tony and I walked back to the train station, where I did the train/tube/train thing back to Heathrow, which brings me to the present.

I’m 4:12 into my eight hour flight to Washington D.C., to then make a connecting flight to Dallas. I’m tired. My legs are sore. I haven’t shaved in a week. I have ignored jet lag and weariness for the last week, half of which I spent sleeping in a cold tent for about 5 hours per night, and for some reason have not closed my eyes on the plane. I guess I’m still just to fired up.

A huge thanks to Tony and Georgie for hosting me. Looking forward to doing it all again.

And biggest thank you of all to my wife, Toni. Without you, Toni, this trip couldn’t have happened. You are the most supportive wife ever. Thank you for understanding me.

 

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