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HBO's 'Dear Rider' Documentary Is More Than Just the Story of Jake Burton Carpenter

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Jake Burton Carpenter - COURTESY OF BURTON SNOWBOARDS
  • Courtesy Of Burton Snowboards
  • Jake Burton Carpenter

Jake Burton Carpenter originally wanted to be a surfer. Growing up near the ocean in Long Island, N.Y., he hoped his parents would one day surprise him with a surfboard.

Unfortunately for young Jake, that day never came. Fortunately for the rest of the world, that parental snub would prove to be one of the most consequential decisions in the history of winter sports.

Instead of a surfboard, Carpenter eventually got his hands — er, feet — on a Snurfer, an early predecessor to the snowboard. It was essentially just a plank of wood with a string attached, but it enabled Carpenter to combine his interest in surfing with the experience he'd gained skiing with his family in Vermont. In the decades that followed, his passion for this backyard toy would snowball into a global business that helped establish snowboarding as a popular Olympic sport.

Carpenter's evolution from a backyard snow surfer into the father of modern snowboarding is wonderfully captured in Dear Rider, a new documentary from HBO Sports and Red Bull Media House. The film was already in the works before Carpenter's death from cancer in November 2019. Because Burton Snowboards was the first successful snowboard company, Dear Rider serves not just as the portrait of an individual but also as a seemingly comprehensive history of a sport.

Directed by Fernando Villena, the film combines archival footage, intimate home movies, and recent interviews with snowboarding legends such as Shaun White and Kelly Clark to tell a story that is at times humorous, brutally honest and deeply moving.

Early in the documentary, Carpenter admits that he started Burton as an effort to build a better Snurfer, something he viewed as a get-rich-quick scheme. "I figured if I could make 50 boards a day, I could make 100 grand a year," he recalls in the film.

After leaving New York City for Vermont in the late '70s, Carpenter launched Burton Snowboards and quickly reached his production milestone of 50 boards a day. Selling the boards, however, would prove to be another challenge entirely.

Carpenter was forced to become a door-to-door salesman, traveling to retailers to demo his snowboards in hopes of a sale. In one amusing anecdote, he recalls leaving home with 38 snowboards and coming back with 40 because one retailer decided to return boards he had already purchased.

These earlier failures did little to deter Carpenter. At that point, he was no longer motivated by potential profit but by an intense desire to prove his doubters wrong.

"He's 'Mr. Laid-Back' and cool, but underneath he is driven," his wife, Donna Carpenter, says in the film.

Jake was working hard not only to persuade people to buy his snowboards but also to persuade resort owners to let snowboards on the mountain at all. He became a snowboarding evangelist, spreading his love of the sport to whoever would listen.

In Burton's annual catalogs, which were the closest thing to a snowboarding magazine at the time, Carpenter wrote impassioned introductions that always began with the salutation "Dear Rider." Amusingly, actor Woody Harrelson reads some of these missives throughout the film.

Those early days of snowboarding bore little resemblance to the gravity-defying maneuvers commonly associated with the sport today. The film includes footage of early competitions in which riders wearing speed suits and basketball shoes zipped down the mountain at terrifying speeds. "It didn't matter if you won; you were just happy to survive," Carpenter is heard saying.

While Carpenter saw "ski-style" racing as the future of the sport, "freestyle" snowboarding involving aerial stunts was starting to emerge on the West Coast. Its rise set off a bitter rivalry between Carpenter and Tom Sims, the founder of California snowboarding company Sims. This chapter of the film reveals the shrewd business side of an otherwise perpetually chill Carpenter, as well as some of his early missteps.

It wasn't until Craig Kelly, widely regarded as the first snowboarding superstar, left Sims to ride for Burton that Carpenter began to develop boards suitable to this new style of snowboarding. They helped propel Burton Snowboards — and the sport in general — to previously unimaginable levels of popularity.

Dear Rider features a cameo from Michael Jager, creative director of the now-defunct JDK Design in Burlington, which designed many of Burton's iconic — and sometimes controversial — boards and ads during the '90s snowboarding boom. Jager is credited as the film's creative director.

Jake Burton Carpenter - COURTESY OF BURTON SNOWBOARDS
  • Courtesy Of Burton Snowboards
  • Jake Burton Carpenter

The final third of the film, devoted almost entirely to Carpenter's various health struggles, takes a more somber tone. It covers Carpenter's first brush with testicular cancer in 2011, as well as his battle with Miller Fisher syndrome, a rare nerve disease that he developed just a few years later. While fighting that disease, Carpenter was on a ventilator and almost entirely paralyzed, unable to see or talk.

All Carpenter could do during that time was scribble barely legible notes to visiting friends and family. As his condition slowly improved, the notes began to reflect his sardonic wit. When a friend visited wearing a Burton shirt, Carpenter wrote a note that read, "I didn't know we made shirts that big."

Seeing Carpenter make a full recovery after being almost completely paralyzed is one of the most inspiring moments of the film. Within months of leaving the hospital, he was once again snowboarding, surfing and even partying it up at Burning Man.

In the short time between his recovery and the recurrence of his cancer in 2019, Carpenter lived an already eventful life to the fullest. He died on November 20, 2019, at the age of 65.

"We worked very consciously not to make this too sad, because Jake wasn't a sad guy," Donna Carpenter recently told the Associated Press.

The final moments of the film are still unquestionably sad, especially as we see the impact of Jake's untimely death on the athletes he inspired. But it's hard not to walk away from the film feeling inspired.

In 90 minutes, Dear Rider portrays a man who followed his passion to untold fortune and success, only to realize that none of that mattered as much as his friends, family and fellow riders.

Dear Rider is streaming on HBO Max.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Ride of His Life"