The fastest hill in the world for skateboarding is a long, winding piece of pavement stretching a little over a mile, riven with bumps and cracks and bearing the unlikely name “Harmony’s Downhill.”
In three days of competition at the Downhill Longboarding World Cup, riders will speed down its uneven terrain. The hay bales and crowds on the sidelines will have to make way for ambulances four times during the three hours of qualifying sessions on day one alone.
“There’s only one way to go down here, and that’s the fastest possible,” says Brazilian Carlos Paixão, who hit 73.9 mph, a record, on the first day. “If you’re tough you keep the pressure on and don’t slow down. But the most important thing is to always keep your arm back and your knee still; keep your chest and your chin on your front knee and look straight down the way you’re going, not staring at the floor.”
The tutorial is helpful for the tiny percentage of people around the world insane enough to don leathers and a helmet and bomb down hills in the name of an adrenaline rush and glory in a nascent sport. As it happens, the best in the business (and a few bold amateurs) have gathered here from 15 countries near the quaint southern Brazilian town of Teutônia, which boasts the legendary hill and little else. This is only the second time in the 10-year history of the Downhill Longboarding World Cup that the event is being held here. Through this year, all you had to do to take part was bring approved security gear (leather clothing, helmet, gloves) and pay the entrance fee. But that will change in the future, presumably to save on medical bills. “From now on,” says Alexandre Maia, race director and member of the excellently named International Gravity Sports Association, “we’ll give priority to the ranked elite.” After all, riders here reach speeds of more than 70 mph for a duration of 15 to 20 seconds. And all this over a stretch of track a third of a mile long.
“I used to ride at Pikes Peak, in Colorado,” says defending champion Kyle Wester, “and there I go as fast as 60 mph. But here we ride between 71 and 74 mph for a long time. There’s nothing quite like this in the world.”
Under a baking sun and temperatures of around 86 degrees, the riders wander around the top of the track, leathers open. Nearby is a small church and a rustic shed where meals are served and people camp during the three-day event, which, this year, will include 230 riders.
Day one is when most of the accidents happen. The track overflows with competitors dropping in. Marshals are there to space the riders every five minutes as they make their practice runs.
When the crowd—assembled along the side of the road on the grass—hears the whir and scrape of approaching riders, their expectation is audible.
“Ooohhh!!” they murmur as a skater shoots by, adjusting his path along the track.
From the riders’ perspective, it’s all about … well, perspective.
“I talk to myself while I’m riding, trying to be relaxed and make sure I’m having fun,” says Wester, whose time was good enough for third. “At the main corner, if you can hold the pressure at high speed, there’s a better chance at winning. Finding the right path on this road takes a lot of concentration.”
Four school buses ferry competitors back to the top, and organizers close the track on occasion to let cars, or ambulances, go through.
One of their customers was 19-year-old Debora de Almeida, who lost her balance after the main corner and was thrown from her skateboard, crashing on the blacktop in a fall reminiscent of the worst MotoGP has to offer. “I wasn’t sure whether I was going to stay in the right or the left lane when I ran over a bump,” she says. “It was impossible to not fall down since I was going at top speed.”
She slid more than 25 yards on her stomach and suffered a twisted ankle and a dislocated shoulder and knee, not to mention the bruises. In order to ease the pain, a doctor on the scene took more than five minutes to remove her clothes before sending her to the hospital.
Was it worth it? “Yes, of course,” says de Almeida two days later, an ice bag on her ankle. “The will to drop is very intense. Teutônia is different from everything, it’s pressure all the way down, and there’s always a surprise.”
By the final day, the numbers of competitors have decreased as riders get eliminated, and the technique improves until there are only two remaining: record-holder Paixão and fellow countryman Max Ballesteros.
At the base of the hill, on the finish line, the speaker echoes announcing the main event while the crowd clusters closer to the track. It’s impossible to see the finish line from the top, where the race starts. You can only hear, far away, the sound system.
The top is quiet, almost empty. A dozen locals drink beer and share the space between the shed and the starting line. At the race marshal’s words—“Riders, set ... Go!”—Ballesteros and Paixão push off and start down the hill, vanishing at the first bend. Paixão is first.
The speed ticks up—25 mph, 30 mph—through the portion of the track called “toboggan,” where the road has yet to drop, and a slight left is followed by a right turn.
Ballesteros remains close, looking for space, but when the speed reaches 55 mph, he spreads his arms to slow down at the beginning of the main curve. Paixão decides to go full throttle—his body leaning forward, the G forces punishing his muscles and dictating the precise movements of his hips, ankles, and knees. This is the most important corner of the track, where the athletes enter the final and fastest stretch.
The speed increases while the wheels start to chatter over the rough and uneven paving. The surroundings—small properties and a cemetery on the side of the main corner—whiz past.
After 1 minute and 20 seconds, Paixão crosses the finish line first, to the cheers of the crowd, and etches his name into the history of the feared track, and the young sport celebrating it.
“I guess the most important isn’t the strength or technique, it is all about cold blood and a clear head,” he says. “Some people have a lot of technique, but when they get to Teutônia, they freak out and ask themselves if this is real. And there’s not much we can say, right? That’s what it is: This is Teutônia.”
Check out the February 2014 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands January 14) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.