The Word on the Street: 'Vert's Far From Dead'

By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A speed bug bit Adam Taylor, 18, when he started skating on vert ramps seven years ago. He liked how fast he raced up and down the sides of the 13-foot, U-shaped ramp. He liked how high he soared above the ramp's walls even more.

Yet despite the allure of big air and adrenaline that the outstretched skatelite and plywood offer, many of Taylor's peers haven't followed him to the mammoth vert ramp.

"There's definitely been an age gap," Taylor said. "I think that's part of what has made vert less popular. For so long, everyone saw a bunch of older guys skating vert who might not have been in on all the trends or thought that only old guys skated vert."

Of the 12 vert skaters pre-qualified for this year's AST Dew Tour, which kicks off its five-stop summer season tomorrow with the Panasonic Open at the Camden Yards Sports Complex in Baltimore, only four are younger than 28.

Taylor, a Cocoa Beach, Fla., native, and San Diego's Alex Perelson, 17, are the only two younger than 20 and represent a contingent of up-and-coming skaters often touted as the future of vert by longtime riders who believe these riders will invigorate one of the oldest action sports disciplines.

"There aren't thousands or hundreds of them, but there's plenty to sustain vert and push it forward," said former pro vert skater and NBC analyst Paul Zitzer, 36. "A lot of skateboarding's popularity comes from vert. It draws people in and it's fun to watch. It makes people want to ride a skateboard."

Since its heyday in the 1980s, vert's popularity among skaters has steadily declined. The advent of the X Games in 1995 brought stars such as Tony Hawk into the spotlight, but as vert grew into a consistent crowd pleaser -- the Dew Tour expanded its seating for the vert ramp this year after attendance swelled in 2007 -- the hardcore skating world labeled it as more mainstream entertainment and gravitated toward street and park skating.

Couple that perception with the reality that some of the sport's most prominent names are older than 30 -- Baltimore native Bucky Lasek (35), Bob Burnquist (31) and Andy MacDonald (34) -- and "vert became uncool," according to veteran skater Buster Halterman, 36.

It became so "uncool" that ESPN announced in April that it was eliminating vert from this year's X Games to make room for a new SuperPark discipline. After a week of backlash from skaters and growing rumors of an athlete boycott, ESPN agreed to reverse the decision and bring back the oldest discipline in the games.

Removing vert "didn't make sense at all," Taylor said. "It's the foundation of so much in skateboarding, which was one of the reasons all of us wanted it back in. Vert's far from dead. There are a lot more young skaters my age in the wave of vert that's coming up."

Ultimately, it's a misconception that only older skaters can tackle a vert ramp. Age and experience just happen to correlate directly with two factors that have long limited vert's appeal: ramp accessibility and having the patience necessary to learn the most basic skills and tricks.

In the 1980s it was easy to find a vert ramp, and it only took about $1,000, a few excited kids and a willing parent to build one out of plywood for a neighborhood. But standards have changed, with ramps usually costing nearly $1 million and measuring about 100 feet in length.

The modern-day behemoths are privately owned and exist in a few pockets across the country or in the back yards of experienced pros, while easy-to-maintain skateparks have popped up in nearly every city and suburb, making it easy for youngsters to emulate the professionals they see competing in street and park disciplines.

"Even if kids could find a ramp, many of them were turned off by the reality that vert skating does take a bit more discipline and a lot more time," Halterman said. "It's not that street's easier but a lot of the fundamental tricks just come a bit easier than taking a bag of pads to the ramp and putting in a couple of years to get proper airs and get over the fear factor of getting on a 15- to 20-foot ramp."

It took an 11-year-old Taylor eight months to successfully drop in on a vert ramp. And that would be the hardest part, if a skater didn't need to learn how to reach the top of the ramp or get out and over the coping on the sides to perform even the easiest tricks and airs. The difficult ones can take several months to perfect.

And although everything contributes to why vert might never be as popular as street skating among younger skaters, none of the current athletes who inhabit the U-shaped ramp is concerned about the sport's long-term survival.

"Honestly, I wrote vert off in my head a few times in the past only to be surprised when I see new kids coming up and being taken seriously," Zitzer said. "Vert's always struggled for one reason or another and no matter what I think, it's going to stick around one way or another."

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