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Wednesday, April 25,2012

Pushing (and sliding) Michigan onto the map

Longboarders, under the radar, converge on Lansing for the state’s largest competition

by Sam Inglot

Two races took place in Lansing last weekend. One you may have heard of — the inaugural Lansing Marathon on Sunday had nearly 2,000 runners participate and got plenty of news coverage. You probably didn’t hear about the second one. 

On Saturday, the fourth annual “Madness in the Mitten” became the largest and longest-running longboarding event in Michigan.

The two-day event included a “main event” four-mile push race from Lansing’s east side to downtown on the River Trail, followed by a “slide jam” and a slalom race in south Lansing. Imagine that: Nearly 100 longboarders packing the River Trail from the Whiskey Barrel to the City Market. And doing so without the city knowing about it.

Madness in the Mitten started four years ago due to the efforts of Go Green Longboarding, a small group of longboarding Lansing-natives.

Winning the race was Go Green Longboarding member and co-owner of the Lansing skate company Bees Knees Skathletics, Jay Yerke. Yerke is considered one of the fastest longboard racers in the world. (Indeed, Bees Knees’ website lists upcoming events “we’re likely attending,” which includes races in Missouri, New York, Florida, Texas and Kentucky, among others.)

“It’s my home course, I know every rock and every crack,” Yerke said after the race, finishing the course in 15 minutes and 21 seconds. “I’m just trying to defend the home turf.”

The second event was a slide jam, which consists of boarders skating down a hill and pushing their board to either side of them, utilizing their momentum and softer wheels to spin, slide and contort their bodies while gliding over pavement. Skaters wear gloves with plastic pucks attached for additional points of contact with the road, shifting their body weight and board around to achieve the desired motion. Around 50 people participated the slide jam session.  

Yerke’s brother and business partner, Derek Yerke, said event attendance has increased every year since its inception. Last year they had roughly 50 participants — this year that number doubled with nearly 100 skaters of various ages, races and sexes descending from all over the state.  


Marketing the Madness in Lansing

In previous years the event has attracted skaters from other states, some coming from as far as New York and West Virginia. This year was an all-Michigan skater year, but longboard companies from all over the country wanted to sponsor the event. 

“In years past we’ve had to ask for sponsors but this year people actually contacted us and said, ‘Hey is Madness happening this year? We really want to hook it up,’” said Go Green Longboarding member Peter Croce. Croce also founded the Michigan State University Longboarding Club. “You can see there are over 100 people here. A lot of these people have a lot of buying power so it’s in the companies’ best interest to hook it up.”

Michigan skate companies also made a strong showing at the event.

“This one is definitely the premiere longboarding event in Michigan,” said Jim MacGregory, owner of Action Board Sports in East Lansing, a board shop that opened last year. “Which means good exposure for businesses. Longboard racing has been the fastest growing sector of the action sports market for the past four years.”

Action Board Sports, Bees Knees Skathletics, Smokin’ Mad Love from Grand Haven and Rey Trucks in Muskegon all pitched in gear and swag to sponsor the event and made a presence at Ranney Skate Park on Michigan Avenue where the event was hosted.

“There’s a community aspect to it,” said Paul Kuyt, owner of Rey Trucks, which opened in January. “That’s why I think this sport has more legs than some. You don’t have to be an angry, 14-year old male to do it or anything. It’s fun and it’s a great form of exercise.” 

At 47 years old, Kuyt also participated in the four-mile push race.

“It’s a great community. Very accepting. Where else am I going to go and have teenagers think I’m OK?,” he wondered.

And it’s growing.

“In ‘04 and ‘05 there were maybe five people that I could think of off the top of my head that even had longboards in this area,” said Alex Kwiecinski, who’s been skating for 18 years. He’s one of the founders of Go Green Longboarding and grew up in the Lansing area. 

Derek Yerke referred to Kwiecinski as the “Godfather” of the Lansing longboard scene.

“There were maybe five of us who knew what we were doing. We didn’t have the proper safety gear, we didn’t know proper braking techniques or proper sliding techniques. We would just find hills and ride down them and just hope, you know? Like Calvin and Hobbes in a wagon,” Kwiecinski said laughing.

Even with the growing popularity of the sport, this year’s Madness in the Mitten exceeded expectations.

“I did not expect it to get this big, I really didn’t,” Kwiecinski said. “If you told me the first year that we’d have 100 people here in four years, I would have said, ‘No, are you kidding me? There aren’t 100 people with longboards.’ But obviously it’s gotten to that point,” he said.

On the map, off the radar

“When you think longboarding you think East Coast, West Coast, Vancouver and Colorado. Those are the first places that people are going to bring up. So to be able to put Michigan on the map with an event like this is something else,” Kwiecinski said.

The event may be on the maps of skateboarders around the state and country, but it remains off the official radar and attention of the city of Lansing. The event has taken place every year with no official permit from the city. Racing without the city’s graces has never been a problem, including this year, but that hasn’t stopped Kwiecinski from considering the notion of getting an event permit in the future — especially considering the growing numbers. The city encourages that, considering the possibility of simultaneous events on the River Trail.

“We don’t require a permit but we definitely encourage the organizers of events held in the city to use our Special Event Planning Application so we are aware of the event and can provide whatever assistance might be required to make it a success and to prevent conflicts with other users of the River Trail,” Randy Hannan, Mayor Virg Bernero’s chief of staff, said in an email. “It is important for event organizers to let us know when they are planning to use public facilities so we can ensure that there are no other events scheduled for the same time. As you might imagine, holding longboarding races on the River Trail while other events are happening on the trail could be problematic.” 

Kwiecinski is OK with that. “I don’t think that it would be a problem. Lansing and East Lansing don’t really care about longboards,” he said. “When we were skating back [to Ranney Skate Park] probably five cop cars passed by us. Nobody even asked, ‘Jesus Christ, why are there 100 skateboarders going down the sidewalk right now?’”

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