Camaraderie, controversy in downhill skateboarding

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Downhill skateboarders are bombing down the steep roads that connect Santa Barbara’s front country to its back country. If you regularly drive the steep mountain roads, like Gibraltar, Camino Cielo, Painted Cave and San Marcos, you may have caught a glimpse of them passing by you at speeds up to 50 mph. It might have caused you to grip your steering wheel a bit tighter.

As the sport has grown in popularity in Santa Barbara over the past few years, there have been more close calls between cars and skaters. Last June, 27-year-old Tara Tate was hospitalized with critical injuries after striking a pickup truck head-on while skateboarding down Gibraltar Road, near East Camino Cielo.

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Skater Tara Tate. Courtesy: Tom Flinchbaugh

That accident and others spurred local government to take action. Last year, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted to ban downhill skateboarding on most of these roads.

That sparked the interest of filmmaker Paul Mathieu. His new movie, Wheels Over Paradise, is filmed partly as a skate video, partly as an issue-based documentary. It documents the camaraderie of the sport, and the controversy that surrounds it.

“I was so impressed by the talent and athleticism of the skaters,” said Mathieu, who quickly introduced himself to skater Tom Flinchbaugh and proposed making a film. “I’m drawn to the independence and freedom that the sport allows, but I was educated along the way about the dangers of the road.”

According to Mathieu and writer Cortis Loukes, the top level skaters they filmed have the control necessary to use the roads safely, just as motorists and cyclists do.

“Many of these skaters pride themselves on being very respectful on the road, and very concerned with safety, because they know the risk,” said Loukes. “When one of their own goes astray, they try to self correct within the pact.”

But, not all who skate these roads are experienced enough to practice the sport safely. That’s what prompted the ban. By law, the California Highway Patrol must now put signs up declaring the ban.

“Once those signs go up, you’re going to see a real push to clamp down.” This could include verbal warnings, citations or fines.

Lowkes doubts the risk of violations will keep this band of skaters away. If anything, he says, it has given them a little extra juice to get out there and push it.

“When someone has a passion like that, whether it’s film making, media, opening your own bakery or skateboarding, I think you’re going to see that shine through and see these guys continue to carve a niche for themselves,” he said.

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(Images courtesy of Tom Flinchbaugh, 2016 West Beach Films)

Wheels Over Paradise premieres at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Friday, February 12th and Saturday, February 13th.