In 20 years of skateboarding, I’ve never had to ride an elevator to the top of a ramp. I’ve also never seen a weather vane spinning on the deck to help skaters make adjustments depending on the wind. Birds land on the uppermost railing, then fly off. When a blimp floats by, I can make out that the pilot is wearing a Lakers cap. Skaters drop in from the ramp’s precipice and then disappear like they’ve fallen down an elevator shaft. Medics on the ground stand by with gurneys and defibrillators.
Across the street, on the side of a hotel in downtown Los Angeles, looms a mural of Danny Way, the legendary skater who brought this behemoth ramp to the X Games. The standard ramp that’s been used in skating contests for years is the 12-foot, U-shaped halfpipe. Way’s invention, the “MegaRamp,” is nearly nine stories tall and longer than a football field; it looks less like a halfpipe than a sculptor’s rendering of a tsunami. Last month, Way took a similar structure to China and jumped the Great Wall.
The MegaRamp combines a bunch of skateboarding’s previous paradigms: the launch ramps, gaps, and banked landing pads of street skating and the quarterpipe and roll-ins of vert skating. On the MegaRamp used at the X Games, skaters choose between two starting points: an intermediate drop-in that’s 65 feet off the ground and a suicidal-looking, 80-foot drop-in. The first route delivers you over a 60-foot horizontal gap; the second sends you over a 70-foot breach. Once across the gap, you land on a banked ramp and speed toward a 27-foot tall quarterpipe that pitches you as high as 25 feet over the deck.
In the threeyears since Way conjured the MegaRamp, it has already raised skateboarding’s skill and cojones bar to ridiculous heights. (To watch a series of tricks that defy belief, check out these videos from Way’s Web site.) The fear factor is so severe that of the 11 skaters invited to compete in the X Games Big Air Competition, only three started from the higher roll-in. (Tony Hawk, who wasn’t competing, stopped by to try the MegaRamp for the first time and would attempt only the 60-foot gap. Danny Way, who did take off from the highest point, won the competition.) When someone simply climbs to the upper deck and peers down, the crowd here goes wild as if a skater even contemplating the bigger jump is more spectacular than anything they’ve ever seen at the X Games.
And there’s the rub: Compared to the Big Air competition, the usual 360s and rail grinds look, well, a lot less extreme. The video-gamelike hang-time the skaters get when launching off the MegaRamp allows them to perform 720s over huge gaps and McTwists almost 50 feet off the ground. Sean Penn showed up to watch last Saturday’s Big Air practice session. The only celebrity I saw at the skateboard vert finals, unless my eyes were deceiving me, was Pauly Shore.
Many skateboard purists distrust the X Games and the MegaRamp, deeming both bourgeois photo-ops that sanitize and gentrify the sport. But despite the extraordinary marketability of Big Air, there’s very little danger of it rendering the rest of skateboarding obsolete. For one, there aren’t any MegaRamps in municipal skateparks. Aside from the one built for the X Games, Danny Way’s personal MegaRamp is the only one in existence. To practice on the big ramp, skaters travel to California from as far away as Australia, Brazil, and Germany. This logistical constraint, along with the fact that only a handful of pros have the requisite skill and courage to ride the damned thing, could eventually work against skateboarding’s Big Air phase, turn it into an evolutionary cul-de-sac.
But even if the MegaRamp does grow to overshadow the rest of the sport, kids won’t stop doing ollies in their driveways. The various forms of skateboarding have always fed one another: Street skaters borrowed the grinds and slides from pool riders, and vert skaters adopted the technical kick flips and shove-its from street skating. Big Air doesn’t exist in a vacuum either. Perhaps this weekend’s most impressive accomplishment—Bob Burnquist’s “switch” (essentially backward) tricks on the MegaRamp—was the byproduct of a lifetime training on vert ramps and street courses.
It would be great if the crowds here gasped at the obscure technical tricks that most skaters pride themselves on perfecting. I don’t think, though, that skateboarding has to be inscrutable. As someone who has been arrested, beaten, and fined for skateboarding, I take not a little sanctimonious satisfaction in the sport’s current mainstream success. Skateboarding will naturally fall out of commercial and broadcast favor—the sport dies and resurrects itself every 10 years or so—but every time the MegaRamp shows up on television, a new skater gets his wings. Some of the next generation will stick to the painted curbs, some will swear off everything except drained backyard pools, and some will stand atop the largest skateboarding structure ever built and wave to the blimp pilots. And, eventually, a few of them will soar over the blimp.