'Sliders': Racing Down Berkeley's Steep Hills Alex Chadwick travels to Berkeley, Calif., where he's introduced to "sliding" -- a form of skateboarding unique to the city. Riders speed down steep hills wearing special gloves for turning and braking.
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'Sliders': Racing Down Berkeley's Steep Hills

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'Sliders': Racing Down Berkeley's Steep Hills

'Sliders': Racing Down Berkeley's Steep Hills

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Go to the Web site, npr.org, right now. You're going to want to see the pictures for this one.

Mr. CLIFF COLEMAN (Skateboarder): My name is Cliff Coleman, I'm 55 years old, and I was raised in the hills of Berkeley, California. I'm a skateboarder.

(Soundbite of skateboard)

CHADWICK: And not just any 55-year-old skateboarder. Cliff Coleman is a founding father of the radical downhill form of skateboarding known as `sliding.'

(Soundbite of skateboard)

CHADWICK: What looks insanely dangerous about sliding is that the skaters groove their boards sideways, skidding and sliding, to slow down a little on the fast hills. And they wear heavy work gloves, hunks of hard plastic glued to the palms. At full speed, in mid-descent, they sometimes duck into a crouch, and they use the gloves like friction brakes to dodge a car, maybe, or bank into a curve. And then you can trace their runs by the long S-shaped plastic residue on the surface of the asphalt--skid marks.

(Soundbite of skateboard)

CHADWICK: On a Saturday morning, we meet Cliff in the steep hills high above Berkeley, across the bay from San Francisco, and he's with a friend, another slider and fellow skateboarder and more or less normal chemist named Jim Cluggish.

Mr. JIM CLUGGISH (Slider): Yeah, I work at a scientific instrumentation manufacturing facility in Walnut Creek, California.

CHADWICK: You have a home and a mortgage?

Mr. CLUGGISH: Yeah. Yeah, I sure do. Interest-only loan and a full-time job and two kids at Berkeley High.

CHADWICK: But you're also still skateboarding downhill in this sliding technique that a lot of people would think is just nuts.

Mr. CLUGGISH: Well, skateboarding used to be an all-encompassing and consuming lifestyle, and now it's something I get to do when I have a chance, because I'm so busy being old and responsible. But still, it's the most fun thing I do, so I cherish it, because it's something that I can hang onto like that. Not a lot of people have, at my age, or even at Cliff's age, something that's that extreme that they feel comfortable doing.

(Soundbite of skateboard)

CHADWICK: The gloves are so important here--the slabs of high-density plastic like the stuff that goes into those milky-white cutting boards. And the technique: Turning the board sideways, digging into the hill. Cliff says it's just like how hockey players turn and dig into the ice.

Mr. COLEMAN: We release the edge in a similar way on skateboards, and we slide sideways, and we can control our speed down any hill that's paved and has a smooth and rideable surface.

(Soundbite of horn)

CHADWICK: Well, he is ignoring one factor. They run down open public roads with cars and dogs and delivery trucks, whatever, so it's like hockey if the Zambonis are all doing 35 miles an hour. And here we are at the top of Strawberry Canyon, above the University of California-Berkeley campus. It's ridiculously steep, about a 13 percent grade. That's worse than the mountain stages in the Tour de France. It's a mile and a half to the bottom, Jim Cluggish says.

Mr. CLUGGISH: This particular hill is fun because it's so steep, and you go so fast.

CHADWICK: And how long will it take you to get to the bottom?

Mr. CLUGGISH: A couple of minutes.

CHADWICK: Good luck.


(Soundbite of skateboard)

CHADWICK: We're in the car, following them. They just started down the hill. Cliff's summoning us on. Jim's out in front. Now he's just squatted down. And there they go. They're sliding.

(Soundbite of skateboard)

CHADWICK: They're going around this first curve. It's a very, very steep road, very steep.

Unidentified Man: Yeah, these wheels are a little shattery, prototype.

CHADWICK: We're at the top of the Berkeley hills. It's all wooded up here.

Unidentified Man: Woo! Fast now.

CHADWICK: Here's a little dip in the road, and now they're over again. Jim's out in front. Cliff's behind him. They're swaying back and forth with that easy kind of feel.

(Soundbite of skateboard)

CHADWICK: Cliff's down and sliding, one hand down on the asphalt.

Unidentified Man: A little edgy. A little edgy.

(Soundbite of skateboard)

CHADWICK: So they just stopped at a light on the hill. Now the light's changed, and they're going on down the hill.

Unidentified Man: All right. Here we go.

(Soundbite of skateboard)

CHADWICK: Jim is out in front. He looks like a surfer. It's like watching people surfing. It's not like watching skateboarding on the street because these guys never have to push. They never have to do anything. It's the gravity that's taking them downhill.

(Soundbite of horn)

CHADWICK: Now Cliff's zoomed out in front.

(Soundbite of skateboard)

CHADWICK: He's crouched down, his hands out behind him. He looks like a hood ornament on a skateboard.

Unidentified Man: All right. Almost at the bottom.

(Soundbite of skateboard)

CHADWICK: Oh! Cliff just shot left in front of a car, into a parking lot. Here's Jim sliding to slow down, zipping right in front of a car.

Unidentified Man: Oh, yeah! Right on.

CHADWICK: That's it. We're at the bottom of the hill.

Unidentified Man: Woo!

CHADWICK: OK, so how did you guys do? How was that run?

Mr. CLUGGISH: Exhilarating, as Jim was saying, would be a good word.

Mr. COLEMAN: Yeah.

Mr. CLUGGISH: It's funny. I ran the San Francisco Marathon and then some Ultramarathons as a pacer in 1984. And I would not be that winded. My legs would get a good workout. But just doing one mile of downhill, when you think it would all be gravity, is quite a cardiovascular workout.

Mr. COLEMAN: Yeah, it is strangely exhausting.

Mr. CLUGGISH: Yeah, it keeps me fit at 55. I'm happy with it...

CHADWICK: Well, you're--as I watched you going down, you were standing up, then pretty soon, you crouch down, you're heading into the turns, and you're sliding and scrubbing off your speed that way. So you're using that slide to actually...

Mr. CLUGGISH: That's the safety thing, right. I mean, we can stop whenever we want.


Mr. CLUGGISH: We're not committed.

Mr. COLEMAN: As soon as you get a visual image of what's taking place and you see the rider scrubbing off that speed consistently down a steep and demanding course, then you realize, yes, this is a possible way to ride safely down any road. And so we're glad you noticed that and saw us scrubbing off that speed, because a person like yourself that doesn't skateboard at all now understands what it is we do.

(Soundbite skateboard)

CHADWICK: These guys are middle-age. They should know better than this: fast skateboards down steep hills where you can twist and turn and pull 180s and ride backwards--Yow, they look good!--flip forward again, roll up along a curb, shoot the curl of those shrubbery branches where they hang out into road. They should know better than this.

Mr. CLUGGISH: The hardest trick you learn is what to do when a UPS truck is parked around a blind corner. Do you, you know, kick out your board or shoot the needle right between the UPS truck and the double yellow line or go into the other lane, or, you know? So these are all decisions you make at high speeds, and that's the dangerous and challenging part of it.

CHADWICK: When you say high speeds, how fast are you going?

Mr. CLUGGISH: I'm topping out these days at low 40s.

CHADWICK: And you're on a skateboard on a public street, going downhill, no pads, no helmet.

Mr. COLEMAN: Yes, no pads, no helmet. And I guess what you're getting at is I should wear a helmet and knee pads and elbow pads. You know, we have a rule, though, that you don't wear pads till you're 50, and I'm just under that threshold, still, so...

CHADWICK: What guys like Jim and Cliff started doing in Berkeley back in the '60s has become kind of an international sport. Sliders are in Europe and Asia and South America and across the US. There are slider contests in Brazil and Australia. And Cliff actually travels to lecture, but always returns to Berkeley to steep topography and maybe the casual attitudes of local cops who should also know better, and maybe do, but here, blissfully, are not saying anything for the moment.

Unidentified Man: Berkeley is like the Hawaii of downhill skateboarding. What Hawaii is to surfing, Berkeley is to this downhill slide technique. There are some places where the waves are a little bigger than Hawaii, but when you think surfing, you think Hawaii. When you think downhill sliding, you think Berkeley and Cliff Coleman and Jim Cluggish, and, you know, then the people that find out about it through whatever means all around the world eventually realize it started here, and the guys are still doing it here, and you can go and skate with the original guys.

(Soundbite of skateboard)

CHADWICK: Skate masters Jim Cluggish and Cliff Coleman. Race right back to our Web site, npr.org, for pictures. And thanks to my colleagues Steve Proffitt and Carlos Ascensia(ph).

(Soundbite of skateboard)

CHADWICK: Ho, ho. I'm Alex Chadwick. The ride's not over yet. Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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