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I'm on my back. My body is straight and taut, more rigid than it should be. I tuck my chin into my chest and follow the line of sight down my navel to the patch of blue sky I can see between my toes. The force of my grip on the handholds is completely disproportionate to the situation. I know this, but there's no convincing my fingers. My fingers are responding to the fact that my face is only a few inches from the pavement and the pavement is moving and, even though it's not moving very fast, this is a vantage point that takes some getting used to. I try to focus on earlier days of reckless abandon when I, having never before stepped on a skateboard, sailed down the ramps of a parking garage that may or may not have been closed, clinging gleefully to a friend who may or may not have been completely smashed. What I remember instead is being a small girl in the back seat of an old Dodge, watching the rushing asphalt through a gaping hole in the floorboard between my feet; the overwhelming sensation of speed was accompanied by an icy hint of vertigo that left the flavor of aluminum in my mouth. And that old clunker could only reach a fraction of the speed achieved by a modern street luge -- typically an 8-foot-long chassis made of aircraft-grade aluminum and equipped with modified skateboard trucks and wheels -- which can easily hit speeds over 60 mph.
"This is one of the fastest street-luge courses in the world," says 16-year-old Ian Heald, rocking back and forth on a skateboard modified with additional wheels to simulate the action of snowboarding. "They're not usually straight shots like this. Those dudes are gonna fly."
Heald is one of a small crowd sprinkled along the stomach-lurching grade of De Haro Street to watch 48 of the world's greatest street-lugers compete in the Red Bull Streets of San Francisco. Heald sticks his teriyaki-chicken skewers into one of the 1,800 hay bales lining either side of De Haro, from Southern Heights to Mariposa, and whistles gleefully as Pamela Zoolalian, the world's top-ranked woman street-luger, streaks by like a pink-haired, leather-encased bullet. Smoke and the smell of burnt rubber from her shoes fills the air in the braking zone as she pulls up just shy of the athletes' pit area. It's amazing to me that she can stop at all.
In The Street Luge Survival Guide, a book written in 1998 and still considered the luger's bible by many, local author and X Games medalist Darren A. Lott writes, "We are not idiots because we use our shoes to stop." But he goes on to say, "At 70 mph, you are traveling over 100 feet per second; you can barely get your shoes on the ground in 20 feet."
Of course, stopping isn't always the problem. During the qualifying rounds, Jeremy Gilder, a self-identified "gentleman amateur" from Oxford, England, hits the "cheese grater" (a patch of bumpy road) at a bad angle, which causes him to pivot slightly when he gets air over the second intersection; the askew landing hurls Gilder down the road ass-over-tip into a hay bale. Up close and personal, luge wrecks are almost as horrifying to watch as those in drag racing because, here, bodies fly across the track along with wheels and vehicles. Gilder isn't the first casualty of the day, nor will he be the last, but no one gives up.
"I already had one guy go to the hospital for stitches," says Tom Mason, the 2000 Guinness Book of World Records honoree for street-luge speed and the world-class racer most frequently disqualified for "rough riding" (i.e., pushing, slamming, and ramming other racers). "But he's already back on track. I expect at least a half-dozen more athletes to get put in an ambulance. But you got to suck it up and keep riding."
Other racers take a more delicate approach to the rough-and-tumble aspects of the fledgling sport.
"People look at what I do and think I'm a thrill-seeker," says Gilder, "but I'm really more of a novelty-seeker. I'm interested in breaking new ground, doing something that hasn't been done before. It's quite good to be in a sport so early in its formation, to help shape it, in a way."
While ice luge was added to the Olympic Winter Games in 1964, street luge grew out of skateboarding in the late '70s when folks like Bob Pereyra and Dave Perrydecided to lie down on their boards and give cars something to think about. Since then, the development of equipment has been slow; most skateboard wheels melt at these speeds, trucks snap in half, and shoes disintegrate, but speed records keep getting beaten. Surprisingly, the sport is still considered "craven" by skateboarding purists who believe balance is paramount, even as the elder skatesmen of their own sport take luge to more and more alarming heights.
"It's totally a youth-oriented game," admits 40-year-old Chris Chaput, who was the world's freestyle-skating champion in the 1970s and who now spends much of his time developing and manufacturing his ABEC IIwheels between street-luge races. "It's great that all these old pro-skaters can get involved while we can still be big fish in a small pond, but it's only a matter of time before the kids catch on."
Some already have, but it's difficult to consider any of the day's athletes old.
Well-tanned and wrapped in leather from head to foot, the competitors grab their luges and jump in the back of a flatbed truck that takes them to the top of the hill. They come tearing down the course in batches of six, speeding across the pavement at 60 mph, flying through the air, and all too frequently slamming into one another. Chris McBridecatches air and lands on his hands; even with gloves, his knuckles are raw and bloody after the race and he is unable to remove his own helmet; landing sideways, Darren Pineauis rammed at 50 mph by Beagle Jarvisand carried off the track in a golf cart. Baz Bazzelslides down the track on his stomach, tearing holes in leathers that have made it through competitions halfway around the world.
Lee Dansieof Renton, Wash., places first. Chris Chaput places second. And Pamela Zoolalian's boyfriend, Brent DeKeyser, places third.
"Those are some really tough guys," says Michael Bermudez, an EMT from Bayshore Ambulances who shakes his head in wonder. "Some of those cuts look really bad, but they act like they don't even feel it."
And it's not over. Not by a long shot.
During the four-man race, Chris Chaput takes first. Brent DeKeyser takes second. And Jeff Schonzeittakes third.
Then a 5-inch ramp is added to the track.
For many of the competitors, it's too much (live to luge another day, they say), but more than a dozen athletes -- McBride, Jarvis, and Gilder among them -- rise to the challenge. And during the Big Air event, another world record is broken, this one by old-school skate legend Waldo Autry, who soars 93 feet to a safe landing.
"Street-luging is safer than riding your bicycle," says 60-year-old Steve Pearlin the parking lot overlooking San Luis Reservoir at Dinosaur Point. I glance between my feet to catch the twinkling eyes of the snowy-haired man standing at the foot of my street luge. He's completely serious. "With this, you're only a few inches off the ground. If you fall, you're in full leathers and a motorcycle helmet. Nothing to worry about. Safer than skiing or rollerblading, and a lot more fun."
In 1998, Steve Pearl was lying on the floor in front of his family's television, pretending to ice-luge along with Olympic athletes. A short time later, his son told him about the street luge; Pearl got on the Internet and bought one, along with Darren A. Lott's book. He taught himself to ride and got in contact with other local street-lugers; soon enough the second-generation photo restorer had opened a side business called Wild Fro Racing.
"It's the happiest I've ever seen him," says his wife, Marilyn Pearl, who sports brilliant multicolored fingernails and a red-and-white-starred hat, "and I've seen him every day for the last 36 years."
"We'll be lying in bed," says Marilyn, "and all the sudden Steve goes straight as a board and he starts rolling his body side to side, practicing. He loves this. He wants everyone to love this."
The point of Wild Fro is, indeed, to share the joy. On weekends, Pearl invites street-lugers and potential street-lugers to ride a 2-1/2-mile downhill stretch of open road just off of Highway 152. Pearl's family -- children, nieces, nephews, and their children -- handles the paperwork and passes out Cokes, water, and pretzels so Pearl can spend time teaching newcomers how to ride.
Pearl gives instruction on the only permitted recreational street-luge road in the United States. Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't cars on the road, or rattlesnakes ...
"Or deer," says 35-year-old Brian Kiggins, having just soared down Dinosaur Point Road on a butt-board, a classic street-luge shaped like a very large skateboard.
"I almost hit a fawn," says Kiggins with a flushed grin. "It jumped across the road about three feet away from me. It freaked my ass out!"
More than 20 lugers are gathered in the parking lot, including a slew of Red Bull competitors, two newbie lugers whom Pearl trained only last week, and Darren A. Lott.
"Pearl's like the rest of us," says Pete Love, a world-class competitor from London. "He loves the sport so he's trying to figure out ways to get other people involved. It's great." As is the route, which Love describes as "very American."
"It's very fast," says Love, "with sweeping turns that don't require much braking. You just have to stay smooth and loose and take advantage of the aerodynamics. It's very nice."
During time trials someone breaks 75 miles per hour. It's not even close to a record, but it makes one of the younger riders hungry.
"Let's race!" he says.
"I raced yesterday," says Kiggins. "And we'll both race next week. Let's just ride. I just want to ride. Take it easy."
"I'm the future of this sport," says the 17-year-old buck. "What do you have? Maybe three years left. I've got 20."
Kiggins shrugs and says, "It's true: If you live out your natural life, you'll be riding long after I'm dead. Better to be safe, live long, and ride again."
Behind the pack of athletes, Steve Pearl runs alongside his 9-year-old grand-nephew, who is lying on a yellow luge wearing a bright red crash helmet and laughing.
"Isn't it fun?" asks Pearl. "Isn't it fun?"
Folks interested in street luge can call Steve Pearl at 1-866-584-3888.