Dear Rider review – A History of Burton and Snowboarding

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I have next to no snowboarding experience, but having watch ‘Dear Rider’, I get why my partner says it’s his ‘favourite activity in the world’ (and he really loves mountain biking too, so I hope ‘being with me’ isn’t considered an activity and I’m top of some other list…). The film takes its title from the introductions written in the front of the Burton Snowboards catalogue each year by founder, Jake Burton Carpenter. The excerpts read out in the movie evoke the same sense of freedom, fun, outdoor culture and community that I myself might hope to convey in an editorial for the mountain biking arms (or legs?) of Singletrackworld.

Using a combination of archive footage and interviews, the film charts the life of Jake, and with it a history of snowboarding. There’s just enough riding footage to give you a feel for the joy of it, and plenty of interviews and interesting archive shots to hold the attention. It reminded me very much of ‘Mountain Biking: The untold British story’ in both style and depth of coverage.

Taking inspiration from early ‘Snurfers’, Jake set about improving on the design to take it from something that had similar status to a sledge, to a more advanced piece of equipment that could be considered part of a sport. The film tells how in the early days there was little appetite for the snowboards, and credits his focus on creating a culture around the sport for finally driving interest into the scene. We also learn how the growth of the sport led to challenges – both to the culture that had developed in the sport, and to the reputation of the Burton business. Steering Burton along the way is Jake, and in parallel to learning about snowboarding we also learn about him. Even if you’ve no interest in snowboarding, the film is worth watching for Jake’s life story. It becomes more dominant in the second half of the film as he faces a series of health issues – one of which is like a mini version of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and could be a movie in its own right.

My partner was part of the early West Coast snowboard scene – working in a Colorado ski shop in the early 80s, he and friends were able to move from Snurfers and home-made boards to bought ones, including Burtons (He still has his second Burton board, a 1987 Cruzer 165). His perspective and experience makes me wonder just how much Dear Rider is biased towards placing Burton at the centre of growing snowboard culture. Perhaps like mountain biking there were pockets of it with different pioneers in different places, that gradually came together to form the critical mass needed to move from niche pastime to a mainstream sport. So, I’d venture to say that Dear Rider is the history of Burton Snowboards, and a history of snowboarding. Nonetheless, it’s compelling – and moving -viewing, and I think it’s probably nigh on impossible not to watch this movie without wanting to give snowboarding a go.

Indeed, it made me want to go boarding to the extent that I found myself looking up the cost of lessons at our local indoor slope. Which only served to remind me why I have never got into the sport. I absolutely love snow – probably because I so rarely see any of it. For maybe two days a year there might be enough on the ground to go sledging, and if I’m really really lucky, two days every three years or so there might be enough snow on the ground to snowboard on the hill behind my house. I’ve got an old second hand one in the loft that I bought, just in case. But trying to make it down a hill in six inches of wet UK snow – avoiding frozen cow pats on the way – is hardly prime conditions for experiencing freedom. Thrill…maybe, though it seems closer to peril.

For many like me, especially those who don’t live in a snowy place, the barrier to entry is too high to really get into snowboarding. I’d need snow, a board, boots, clothes… and I’d need all of that often enough to actually learn and progress. And then I’d need all of that for my kids too, whose feet don’t seem to stay the same size for much more than a couple of months. Perhaps what I need is a board with some kind of universal binding, like 1980s adjustable roller-skates, that would let me share a board with my kids, using wellies or walking boots. There was something about those early Snurfers, and the first half of the 1980s things really took off – and before bindings – that I long for. The simpler kit, though it performed less well, looks more attainable. Watching the early riders ‘just about getting by’ and making do with bodges felt like it went hand in hand with doing it for joy. I wonder if that same spirit exists today, away from the pistes and lift passes, on snowy hills on urban fringes, or in small towns hundreds of miles from the nearest ski shop? Are there kids pulling amazing tricks in the snow on the boarding equivalent of a bike shaped object in the local woods? 

Watching from the outside of this world, I was totally drawn in to the possibilities that snowboarding offers. There’s much of the same freedom and thrill there as I find on a mountain bike, only with glittering white snow as a backdrop. Dear Rider showed a history – but now I’m wondering about the now, and the future. What will the culture and technology look like? Both Jake Burton Carpenter and Sherman Poppen – the inventor of the Snurfer – died in 2019. Will snowboarders look back and say it was the year that snowboarding died, or will the culture that Dear Rider showcases continue to grow and evolve? I guess that might be up how today’s riders take forward the legacy the sport’s creators left behind. If you want a primer on some of what that is, go download Dear Rider and learn some snowboarding history.

Dear Rider is available to download now from a variety of platforms. Here’s the official blurb:

DEAR RIDER, a feature documentary from Red Bull Media House and Emmy®-winning director Fernando Villena, is a celebration of the life and vision of Jake Burton Carpenter (1954-2019), the pioneer who propelled the sport of snowboarding into a global and cultural phenomenon. The film will be available in the UK on digital download from 24 January 2022.   

The intimate and revealing documentary features interviews with Jake’s family, friends, and fellow snowboarders, including action sports icons Shaun White, Kelly Clark, and Mark McMorris, as well as a wealth of archival material and home movies. DEAR RIDER pays homage to Jake’s beloved and loyal “riders,” the audience he faithfully addressed every year for decades on the first page of his snowboard company’s catalogs. Acclaimed actor Woody Harrelson, a close friend of Jake’s, narrates catalog passages interspersed throughout the film.

Snowboarders poaching take over the USO halfpipe and fly high during the mens halfpipe finals in Vail, CO on February 27, 2020

Inspired by the Snurfer, a surfboard-styled strip of wood, Jake created his first snowboard in 1977 as an inexpensive alternative to skiing. From there, he developed increasingly versatile boards while encouraging ski resorts, sponsors, and world-class athletes to take up what the media dubbed “the worst new sport.” By the late 1990s, Jake’s vision had catapulted the punk-infused culture of snowboarding into the mainstream and onto the world stage—the Olympics.

But as Jake and his eponymous company, Burton, thrived in the new century, the entrepreneur battled two very serious health problems: Miller Fisher Syndrome, a rare nerve disorder, as well as cancer, which ultimately claimed his life in 2019. Today, Jake’s memory lives on throughout the snowboarding community, and his wife Donna Carpenter remains at the helm of the family-owned business.

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