Now mountainboarding may mythically trace it’s roots back to surfing Polynesia maybe 4000 years ago, but for all we know, Stoneage man’s first use of his new invention ‘the wheel’ was to ride the hills using gravity as his power, so who was the first?
The largely contested origins of mountainboarding stems from the fact that anyone who put off-road wheels onto a board could be the inventor. What we do know for fact though, is that in April 1990 this advert ( source held ) appeared in a freshly-formed Transworld Skateboarding Magazine, and is the earliest known appearance of a full commercial manufactured mountainboard for sale. It featured 8″ pneumatic tyres, unique “U-pivot” patented trucks and a bespoke, binding-free deck.
It was endorsed by pro-skater Jeff Philips who, in an unrelated twist, tragically committed suicide 3 years later. It was made by Supercruiser inc, a sports company formed by Morton Heilig ( 1926 – 1997 ) who was an amazingly prolific inventor. He is more famously known as the ‘father of Virtual-Reality’, as his sensorama 3D motion picture camera, projector and Telesphere mask ( patent 1960 ) were true technological innovations, way ahead of their time.
Mort formed his company, Supercruiser Inc. in the late 70′s, in which he built, mass produced, marketed and sold his line of physical fitness products. These were some of his 100 or so registered inventions. Mort always placed great emphasis on physical fitness. He loved skateboarding, but wanted a safer board- he invented one with handles and hand-brakes: foldable and compact, this was the Supercruiser, the Streetcruiser and the Minicruiser. Then came the Motocruiser (motorized version), the Windcruiser (Sail on land), the Icecruiser, the Snowcruiser and then this, the ‘All Terrain Dirtboard’. The board was patented in 1989 as an “ALL TERRAIN SKATEBOARD – A skateboard with four 8-inch pneumatic tires and an up-and-down foot deck”. It remains an enigma, but perhaps had planted seeds of inspiration in the collective mind. Also around this time, Skater Rick Wilson of San Diego, California produced the first off-road skateboard wheels, as an accessory. Known as “XT Wheels” (xtreme wheelz), they were composed of a plastic core with rubber tractor tyre style tread. Skaters could then customize their rides, using uncut longboard decks and setting them up with the biggest trucks and bearings available, often using risers for extra ground clearance. Sky Hooks were often used for bindings, giving more control and the ability to quickly change stance. These wheels meant that anyone from Hastings to Hawaii could build their own dirtboard, grassboard or all terrain board.
Surf, snow and skate boardriders by now had years of experience on their respective boards and some craved serious alternatives off-season. Dedicated riders, separated by continents, turned their attention to the alternative, fusing existing products to create a new type of board. Mountainboards. They needed big wheels made of tough rubber, with an inner tube, to make them faster, with more ‘give’, and give the rider more clearance over rocks. They also put the rider between the wheels rather than over them, giving a better centre of gravity for carving and turning. Fuelled by passion and determination, it began seriously in Europe, the USA and Australia in the key year of 1992. Unknown to each other, these riders took it upon themselves to build and develop and ultimately manufacture their own complete, alternative off-road boards. In England brothers Dave and Pete Tatham in collaboration with friends Joe Inglis and Jim Aveline, conceived NoSno. They dreamt up a board to ride in their landlocked hilly hometown when not off on surf or snowboard missions around Europe. Inglis worked feverishly on the concept – with an engineer and sculptors eyes too, they produced initial prototypes (including drainpipe-castors!) before making serious headway. The name, as they say, was the easy part. Heavy research and development over the next few years led the boys to produce their unique truck system which meant they could really start to freeride how they’d imagined. NoSno’s utilised snowboard bindings and boots, with large wheels and tyres, and the option for a hand-brake; these boards could be ridden down the snow-free mountains with ease.
Meanwhile in the USA in ’92, pioneers Jason Lee and Patrick McConnell were lamenting the end of the snow season when they had their epiphany. They were skate and snowboard fanatics, and got to work on their first designs; Deck attached on to a pivoted frame running the length of the board to the trucks. Four off road wheels. A thin steel bar as bindings, so you could wear trainers to ride. With a successful prototype, the Americans branded themselves MountainBoard Sports and began selling them in groups of 10 to 35, mostly to friends. This first commercial board appeared in ’93 – The Terrapin, and was replaced by the red and green series over the next two years consecutively. Word of mouth had started.
Over to Australia where John Milne was frustrated at the lack of surf. The sheer boredom of no swell led him to spending the day in his garage, amateur engineering the land-based alternative. The basic structure was achieved quickly, but prophetically ( and allegedly ) only achieved completion after a dream showed him how to create the unique steering system. It used only 3 wheels and a skate-style deck with no bindings. It was designed to simulate the flow of linking turns on water but was rugged enough to be used on dirt. He got his mates involved and production of The Outback was underway.
These first seriously-commercial mountainboard designs fuelled interest, and other companies followed the lead. Garage brands grew into micro-corporations. Californians Lance Null and Chris Pincetech, created NPD ‘Null & Pincetech Designs’ landboards. They designed and created lots of different options to use on the San Juaquin Valley, hills that surrounded them, and with more family and friends involved they set off to ride “skate park Earth”. The early version was an off-road skateboard with multiple wheels- six, and even eight, with Quad trucks, hard tyres and footclips. Models were called names like The Stomper, The XT and The AT. The guys really helped the growth of the sport, staying and riding in the scene and developing it through comps. The turfboard (another similar brand) imitated, placing a small snowboard on monster trucks, but hard plastic wheels were simple and limited, giving a very rough ride, not to mention stability, or style…
Still in the early 90′s, in Germany, windsurfer Karl Kroher was working on a board to ride on flat land, with a sail, and created the Rollsurfer. It was a 2-wheeled board, and he experimented more and more, taking his invention down hills when there was no wind. After meeting Andi Muller (sandboard world champ), it was developed further into the Grassboard, in 1993. Standing over the fixed rear wheel and steered with the pivoted front wheel, they were more difficult for beginners but excited lots of riders. They introduced them to the masses at ISPO in 1995 and had top riders like Alex Broumbas pushing the capabilities and inspiring newbies. Later, they developed 4 wheel boards too.
Simulating the feel of carving a wave or powderfield was paramount in the early development of mountainboarding, as was the need for racing. Unofficially, the first comps were slaloms round cones in car parks, before heading up into the mountains. Officially, the first US competition occurred in 1994. Then came downhill passes against the clock and international grass-roots comps. These early boards travelled with their owners, introducing people all over the world, and in only a few years, it had spread. A minor boom was happening ahead of it’s time in Japan for instance. Boards were now being globally exported, and Japan jumps on trends. Races were taking place on lift-served groomed runs down Mt. Fuji, attended by MBS riders. Unfortunately, Asian economy troubles put the dampers on their scene mid 90′s, but they can be credited with the first real ATB dedicated park, Asigiri Dragon Dirt. With funds running low, Lee and McConnell moved to Colorado Springs and, after meeting Evan Lipstein, snowboarder and business-whizz, launched MBS LLC., a ‘proper’ company. With Lipstein’s expertise and capital, the first mass-production high-end board rolled out in 1996: the ‘Revolution’ series. It rocked up at a surf and skate trade show in Long Beach, California, and really turned heads. National newspapers reported on this new invention, and kids called shops and to ask where they could buy them. They also finally reached the attention of the other innovators on other continents.
When MBS rolled out a line of boards for beginners instead of experts; the affordability meant they could expand globally. These less expensive boards accounted for a big slice of the business and they sold and sold. Sales enabled them to make the first videos and develop the sorely missing freestyle element. Although many standard features were now in place, heavy frame boards with foot securing metal-bars, were replaced by lighter unibody boards. Sprung channel trucks with egg shocks on the Meltdown and re-sized snow/skate style decks debuted with the Orbiter. The next generation had arrived. Mountainboarding was now a simmering grass-roots global sub-culture, if such a thing can exist. Pockets of riders gathered and formed crews, such as Paulo Solon (in 1995) in Brazil, with Skators, and Don Baker and Kevin Delaney (in 1997) in California, with Dirtheads. Hawaii had the Maui green wave team, including Paul Cleveland, holder of the 97 & 98 bx world title; They also produced their own board, the Maui Cruzer. In Oz, Munro boards was established, and in the Czech republic Biohazard Industries was founded by Igor Juricek.
In the UK, the bubbling scene was getting organized. Ian Mitchell-Innes and sons had formed Maxtrack, MBS’ UK distributor since feb ’97 with John Windham, and brought mountainboards to the UK. They promoted, put on demos, and ran the first official comp under the banner of the All Terrain Boarding Association UK ( Aug ’97 ): three events that year; Manchester, Oxford and Brighton, sponsored by Chiemsee, SS20 and Reef. Star riders then were Bud Gallimore, Joe Inglis and Martin Drayton. In ’98, the UK’s first dedicated mountainboard centre opened, Another World in Halifax. That year, Gallimore, Joel Evans and James Haigh flew to Claifornia for the World Championships where they took the under 18 titles. Also in ’98, Nosno formally acquired the patents to their invention and released the boards to the public at the British Championships, cleaning up in all categories. In ’99, the comps took place at Eastnor Castle in the Malvern Hills, and caused a bit of fuss: the course was designed to suit riders who could step out and push, effectively eliminating nosno and Stark riders. A meeting was had between Maxtrack, nosno, Stark, Stu Kirk and Jon Bisson. It was decided that an independent should chair the ATBA and Stu accepted the job. It was also agreed at this meeting that all courses used for competition should be able to be rolled from top to bottom without pushing, a very important development. It wasn’t till a year later that the governing body was properly formed, the ATBA UK. With Ian Johnson and the Dangerous Brothers crew, they rallied the disparate riders and gave a voice to British All Terrain Boarding. They also developed the first instructor-training programme. Stu Kirk later founded the first mountainboard shop in the UK, ATBshop, while Johnson founded Out to Grass, one of the UK’s most dedicated centres (in 2000). The Dangerous brothers from Bath had got boards from their local Route One shop in ’98 and started competing at the first UK comps like Eastnor Castle. Soon after, they began recording the action and released the first British videos as well as their own clothing, and then sponsored the series. In Colorado USA, DirtCloud Racing similarly produced mountainboard competitions and events for the riders by the riders. They consulted with resorts, camps and municipalities ( councils ) on the design and construction of terrain parks and assisted with creating recreational programs ( free try-outs ) for mountainboarding. Mitch Stegall, the founder of DirtCloud Racing and the US Open, had been involved with producing competitive board sports events since 1987 as organizer, judge, and competitor. Stegall coordinated ATB projects with Dan Dworkin and Patrick Thomas around the US from ’97. Meanwhile at MBS, following ‘differences’, Lipstein left and formed his own company, Hyline All Terrain Boards. Delivering their first boards in ’98 ? wood ply decks, innovative velcro bindings complete with leash, tools and instruction video, it was a good package, but hard pushed to compete against the brand Lipstein had helped build up. Being an Alpine sports fan, he went after snowboard and bicycle companies for distribution help, and scored a licensing agreement with BMX manufacturer Mongoose in 1999. The Mongoose UniCamb 117 was then awarded in the ‘NASDAQ-AMEX 1999 Sports Product of the Year’. This Award is one of the highest given by the industry to spotlight the newest and most innovative products available in the sports goods market place. The UniCamb 117 was selected as one of the top five out of more than 2,500 other sports products who competed in the contest in Atlanta, GA.
With more exposure and choice, budding engineers continued customizing their rides, and groups of enthusiasts got serious. ‘All Terrain Boarding’ was quietly going global. In 1998 in Fremantle, Western Australia, Dirtsurfer was established by design engineer and surfer Graeme Attey. The two-wheeled inline design was a direct reaction against skate-style boards, negating the need for a secondary truck system altogether. It was quickly adopted by kitesurfers as THE board to use on land due to it’s similar ‘rail edging’ sensation and the fact that the faster you go, the more stable it is.
Meantime, in New Zealand, Kim Henderson founded Kiwi-in-Motion. Meeting the demands of snowboarders, kitesurfers, wakeboarders etc in a land where you can do it all, that is home to ‘extreme’ sports, was no mean feet. However, it is that exact crossover potential that drove Henderson to making their own boards, so they produced A.P.T, or Adrenaline Pumping Toys ( don’t laugh ). Later, Kiwi in Motion built Gravity Hill in Taupo, a 12 acre mountainboarding destination that featured, amongst many other things, a 90m grass halfpipe.
The Australian Outback board, which had charmed Akoni Kama before he went to Earthboard ( more in a mo ), was being redeveloped in the UK by Henry Stark and Jon Bisson, although Outback decided to have nothing to do with it. After prototyping and patenting 3 designs featuring the Stark conversion, the partnership was disbanded and Stark Board Sports closed, 24 boards had been sold. Jon Bisson started Indescent to develop further board ideas and later went on to create the legendary ATB mag with wife Anni. EXIT took the original Outback design and re-branded it the ‘Threestyler’, buying them directly from the factory in China; they did not feature the Stark conversion…
Already making other products in the Action sports arena, Exit ‘borrowed’ board design from MBS and Hyline and created two boards, the FreeRide and the Airforce, and shipped them to their existing customers. This got more boards into the windows of shops in the UK and together with a ‘try before you buy’ policy, really started to get mountainboards out there. Scrub too, formed in 1998 out of a street sports & powerkite distributor in Bristol, and had eyes on a target market. Imitating designs and supplying entry level boards to their existing customers and in turn to centres, Scrub found a niche and filled it. Understated as they are, Scrub and Exit introduced many new people at grass-roots level.
Earthboard, from the US, was created in the early 90′s, apparently within 6 months of MBS. Hugh Jeffreys had some of SuperCruiser’s products and set to redesigning them. Rumour has it he met ‘the daddy’, Mort, who “passed on the dirtboard torch”. Their boards then started mass manufacture in the East in the mid 90′s utilizing over-size skate trucks, and became an international player- one of the three biggest US manufacturers in the late 90′s ( MBS, Hyline, Earthboard ). Earthboard ( ride the earth! ) attracted newbies and top riders alike; when Akoni Kama joined the team, development and riding exposure took the boards and the business to whole new levels. The story of Earthboard takes an unfortunate twist as from the late 90′s, Jeffreys and team sold fake shares in the business: attracting capital by misleading investors. Apparently, they claimed Vans were buying the company and that Wal-Mart had ordered $5million worth of boards. The funds this fib attracted meant that the boards and their awareness improved, bringing us the Prolite and more, but also that Jeffreys could ‘misappropriate’ $1.9m to buy himself several homes and boats! They were of course rumbled and paid the ultimate price in court later (in 2003). Back in Britain in the late 90′s, and NoSno, when not freeriding Europe, had had a successful launch with it’s UK team including the Tathams, Andy Potter and Chris McCarthy all competing and winning in comps. Potter also designed and built many of the boardercross courses and features as Makin’ Trax. NoSno co-founder Inglis meanwhile was sort-of promoting the boards on british TV. A surfer and extreme sports fan and yet a vet by trade, he was on the BBC1 programme ‘Vets in Practice’. His ‘hobby’ featured in 1999, where he claimed ” I’ve invented a mountainboard. It’s like a snowboard with wheels.” It featured periodically in the early reality-tv show inexplicably garnering 6 million viewers an episode. The sole manufacturer in France, Kheo, started to produce boards geared towards kiting. Parisian owner Chris Simon had been trying to distribute MBS and Mongoose boards for downhill use but found plenty of resistance. However, in 1999 he found he could sell boards to growing numbers of kitesurfers. He created his own rides, upped the specifications, and Kheo as a brand was born. Later, he showed his boards at The One and Only skatepark in Toulouse, where bmxers inspired the boardercross and freestyle element. In Colorado in 1999, MBS were joined full-time by Joel Lee, and put out the Grasshopper, a defining board. Composite decks were stonger, stiffer and poppier, and spawned copycats from major manufacturers, as mentioned before. Costs had come down and spec had gone up.
Centres started springing up worldwide to deal with the riders needs. In ski resorts off-season the tracks and lifts served the mountainbikers and now handfulls of mountainboarders, like the infamous Kratka Ridge in the Los Angeles National Forest, which held the US championships in the late 90′s. At these centres and in backyard spots, bigger dirt jumps were being built. Freestyle exploded accross the US and riders like Devin Garland, Saer White, Van DeWitt, Justin Rhodes and Austin and Leon Robbins could finally perform the tricks that they had dreamed of. Air meant more grabs, rotations, style and experimentation. Advances in tricks and technology, in line with snowboarding, meant 4 wheels became the most desirable type of downhill off-road ride. Various media recorded the fun. Photography, Video, and a fledgling internet captured moments of riding inspiration that spread globally; people wanting to showcase what they do. Rhodes, DeWitt, Brett Dooley and the Dirtheads crew put out the first quality footage that then became Flirt with Dirt, the first commercial video, then Down n’ Dirty, and the MVM ( MountainboardVideoMagazine ) series. Fellow Californian Rob Eakle, an early XT rider, also founded Off Road Boarding Magazine in ’99 with it’s editor Brian Bishop and other dedicated riders: a true fanzine to the sport at the time. It ran numerous pictorials, US riding spots, rider profiles and carried virtually no ads. It started small, hand photocopied in black and white and was given away at comps and shops. It finally gave mountainboarding a voice to be heard, at least in the States.
With such successful boardsport predecessors to compare to, still the minority were mountainboarding. With little money for advertising, manufacturers could barely even sponsor their riders, often only paying expenses to the ‘pros’. Reaching the potential target-market masses remained elusive, but the riding was getting better and the hardware improving. As the millenium bug was about to hit, the expectation of what was to come (for a sport that couldn’t even decide it’s own name) was high. Could dirtboarding be the next surfing? Could All Terrain Boarding be the next skateboarding? Could Mountainboarding be the next snowboarding?! As we hit the year 2000, pioneers MBS had sold 20,000 boards and ATB had spread across the Globe, from California to Cornwall to Costa Rica. Welcome to the 21st Century. Mort would be proud.
Words by Dan Wilson
Footnote: This history is by no means definitive. Please contact us with information you may have regarding ommissions or corrections. Thanks to everyone who contributed. Happy off-road wheelie boarding.