Ticket to Ride? | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News » Business

Ticket to Ride?

John Van Hazinga's business is going downhill -- and that's the way he likes it


Published October 8, 2003 at 2:13 p.m.

John Van Hazinga has timed the stoplights on Pearl Street. When he's in the mood for some pre-winter, double-black-diamond action, he stands at the intersection of Pearl and Prospect with one foot on the ground and one foot on his long wooden skateboard. He waits for the light at Pearl and Winooski to turn red. When he sees the signal, the 26-year-old Burlington skateboarder launches down the steep slope, sailing through one green light after another. As he zooms past Willard, he knows he's doing at least 30, the speed limit. A cop once clocked him there doing 37.

If you saw Van Hazinga cruising down Pearl Street in his long-sleeved T-shirt and Bermuda shorts, you might think he was a scruffy skate bum -- and, well, he is. But the bearded, 6-foot-1 ex-high school lineman, known affectionately to many as "Big John," is also an athlete, craftsman and businessman. For the past four summers, he's been selling his handcrafted skateboards under his label, "Ridin' High." This past June he opened a skateboard shop of the same name on the corner of Pearl and Battery Streets.

The abandoned, seedy storefront across from Battery Park has been an eyesore for years. That's changed now that Van Hazinga and his long boards have moved in. The windows, once covered and opaque, are now full of healthy houseplants. Seven afternoons a week, a fleet of demo boards lines the exterior wall along Pearl Street. Inside, potential customers can sign one out for a spin, or browse the shop's selection of skateboards and skating accessories.

Van Hazinga also sells T-shirts, shoes, wheels and trucks -- the metal pieces that attach the wheels to the board -- but the main attraction is the boards themselves. One wall of the shop is stacked high with shelves holding dozens of skateboards.

"I like to get people out of their cars, out into the fresh air and rolling down a hill," says the youthful entrepreneur. For Van Hazinga, running interference between the established business community and the authority-questioning skateboarder subculture may be an even more delicate balancing act.

Van Hazinga has been skateboarding since he was 7. Born in California, he moved to Texas as a young child, then to New Jersey, and finally to Vermont after his tenth-grade year. He later attended the University of Vermont. In addition to making skateboards, he supplements his income by working as a carpenter -- he built his own yurt on land he owns in the Adirondacks. But mainly his life and his hobbies revolve around some sort of riding. In the winter it's snowboarding. In the summer it's surfing, wakeboarding and, of course, skateboarding.

Before he opened for business one morning last month, Van Hazinga and I went for a couple of runs down what he calls "Mount Burlington." He suggested we take the free-ski lift -- a.k.a. the College Street Shuttle -- to the top of Pearl Street and work our way back down. I hadn't been on a skateboard since 1989, so I tagged along on my bike. Van Hazinga rode his long board.

Long boards -- which measure between 30 and 60 inches in length -- are Van Hazinga's niche. Sturdier and less flexible than their shorter, more popular cousins, long boards are designed for distance rather than tricks. The culture that has coalesced around them more closely resembles the snowboard and surf scenes than the hardcore, punk, short-boarder style often on display at the skate park.

Van Hazinga touts long boards as an urban alternative to gas-guzzling cars and SUVs. He finds a variety of ways to demonstrate their viability. He owns an electric board that can ferry him up hills, for example, and has strapped a harness to Zoë, his German Shepherd, so she can pull him along the straightaways.

But the riding we're doing this morning is not about transport -- it's about fun. We're going out to "bomb hills," to roller-surf the asphalt slopes. Van Hazinga tells me about a map of Burlington he and his friends have created on which they've rated the streets, using the same system developed by ski areas. Mansfield is a green trail. Loomis is blue. Pearl and College Streets are double-black diamonds.

We've planned to ride down College Street, but as the shuttle bus chugs up the hill, it starts to drizzle. Van Hazinga explains that we'll have to switch to a less treacherous path. The slight rain will pick up the oils on the road and slicken the surface, making braking more difficult. He and his friends use the language of skiing to talk about long boarding, but there's one important distinction, besides the weather conditions: When you're bombing hills, you're often riding in traffic.

Skateboarding on Burlington's high-traffic roads is legal, but dangerous. It freaks out motorists, who often eyeball speeding boarders with a mixture of worry and contempt. Bicyclists experience a similar reaction, but bikes are sturdier than skateboards and have real brakes. With skateboarders, you wonder, What happens if he falls? What if he can't stop in time? Why can't he go back to the skate park where he belongs?

Van Hazinga is concerned about safety. He takes into account road conditions and he wears a helmet. When he rides the roads, he stays to the right, in bike lanes if they're available, though he complains about the prevalence of boarding hazards such as sewer gates and debris. Van Hazinga still takes a few chances, though -- like grabbing onto a handle on the side of a Coca-Cola truck as it passes by. He also enjoys executing a maneuver called a "manual," which has him lifting the front wheels off the ground and coasting precariously down the road on his back two wheels. But that's the only trick I see him try on our downhill runs.

Though his thrill-seeking might seem reckless, Van Hazinga is actually pretty careful when it comes to colliding with cars. He's been there, done that. A car mowed him down one evening while he was skateboarding down a friend's driveway in New Jersey. He was 12. "It was right at dusk," he recalls. "The car didn't have its lights on. It was still my fault. I skated out of the driveway without really looking." The car hit him going 40 miles per hour. He broke a finger, his nose and his right femur.

An ambulance brought him to the hospital, where he stayed for 49 days. Because of his broken femur, he spent 42 days in traction. "Those first two days in traction were the most painful days of my life," he says.

After he left the hospital, Van Hazinga had a full leg cast for four months and a leg brace for another four. He used a wheelchair to get around, and quickly learned how to pop wheelies on it. Though he was fearless in the wheelchair, it took him two years to get back on a skateboard. "When you get hit by a car doing 40 mph and you lose a year of your life," he says, "you think about that before you get on a board again."

When he did finally return to skateboarding in the early 1990s, Van Hazinga realized the sport had changed in his absence. His skateboarding friends were more interested in doing tricks than in skating hills. "It seemed like the era of back-yard skate ramps and bombing hills had faded," he laments. "Skating parking lots, doing flip tricks and skating curbs was the new thing."

This "vertical" skating style grew out of the West Coast practice of skating drained swimming pools. Riders took to the air, practicing aerial maneuvers such as the "ollie," a kind of skateboarding jump. Big John couldn't ollie.

Long boards first became popular in the 1960s, when the sport was young and still equated with surfing. In the 1990s, they experienced a comeback, and Van Hazinga hopped on board. He's been riding one ever since.

Van Hazinga got into manufacturing boards in 1997 as a result of an accident: His friend's mom backed over his friend's board in her car. She snapped off the board's nose, but the rest of the deck was still intact. Van Hazinga picked up the pieces, smoothed out the tip, attached some wheels, and started his career. He now sells a "classic," a "cruiser" and a "classic cruiser." He also custom-shapes boards for his customers, who can find boards from a variety of manufacturers at Ridin' High.

The store's name and its pot-smoker innuendo might raise some eyebrows, and for good reason. The past three summers, Van Hazinga has been selling his boards through other stores, like Threads of Zion, Counter Culture -- a tattoo and piercing parlor -- and Vermont All Stars, a head shop that has since closed. As these locations might suggest, Van Hazinga, his product, and many of his customers are part of a subculture that is sometimes at odds with the mainstream.

And Big John is no angel. He got into the skateboard business after he was suspended from UVM following an altercation. When an R.A. -- Van Hazinga's former roommate -- found him drinking in the dorm and threatened to report him, Van Hazinga got angry. "I was about a handle deep in Jim Beam," he says. He jumped off the balcony and punched out a window.

He's had other run-ins with the police, including a DUI in high school. The morning after my first visit to his shop, Van Hazinga was scheduled to appear in court to discuss a disorderly conduct charge. When he arrived at court, however, he found that the charges against him had been dropped.

Though he concedes he's had a few run-ins with the BPD, Van Hazinga reports he has little trust in the law. "I've straight-up had the police tell me they don't like skateboarders," he says. The police, for their part, claim to be merely an intermediary between skateboarders and a public that is hostile to their daredevil subculture. Burlington police Lieutenant Scott Davidson denies there's any hostility between the cops and the boarders, and he praises Van Hazinga's new business. "I think it's a good thing," he says. "It's a nice shop."

That's not an uncommon sentiment among Burlington residents who've passed the squat little structure for years. Van Hazinga's location at Pearl and Battery is prominent. The building used to be part of an apartment complex, and was later a creemee stand. It's been zoned as storage for more than a decade. Its diminutive size -- there's only one room and a bathroom -- the lack of parking, and its distance from Church Street make it an unlikely commercial property.

Don Harrington, who owns the building, is impressed with what Van Hazinga's done so far. "I think it's a good use of the property," he says. "I think he's pretty determined with what he wants to do. I think he'll do well with it."

Now that winter's on its way, Van Hazinga will probably cut back his hours, staying open on weekends until Christmas, then shutting the doors until spring. There isn't much demand for skateboards in the winter, and Van Hazinga can't yet afford to stock snowboards. But he has big plans for the site, including painting a mural on the outside and installing a rooftop garden. For now, though, he's just enjoying his last few chances to skate before the snow comes.

Asked why he loves skating, Van Hazinga reveals a philosophical side. "My goal is not to see what tricks I can do," he says. "It's to ride a manual all the way down Pearl Street. For me, that's like the moment of Zen. Just let it go, let it ride."

Speaking of...