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It’s evident throughout my call with Richard “Doc” Roberts that he’s more than a little concerned about our interview. I can’t say I’m surprised: As the owner of Skiboards Superstore, an online retailer devoted solely to the sale of the scaled-down skis that took the ‘90s by storm (also known, perhaps more pejoratively, as snowblading), Roberts has taken more than his fair share of ribbing over the years.
“I hope your editor doesn’t throw it back 20 years,” he told me more than once during our 30-minute conversation. What Roberts meant was: Please don’t treat skiboarding as some kind of goofy anachronism. I assured him this wasn’t our intention, and that we simply wanted to interview a person who’s made a living in the sport even after it waned in mainstream popularity.
Some quick background: Though skiboards were first created in the 1930s, when mountaineers used them as a lighter alternative to skis, their moment in the sun didn’t arrive until the ‘90s. In 1991, Kneissl started mass producing its BigFoot skiboard.
Other companies followed suit—including Salomon, whose Snowblade model became a metonym for the sport as a whole—and by 1998, skiboarding was in the Winter X-Games, right alongside skiing and snowboarding. But within just a few years, skiboarding was back to the fringes of winter sports, driven out by a combination of cliquish skiers and questionable ski design (the early Snowblade model, for example, had a foam core and as such couldn’t hold up at higher speeds).
But alas, I promised Roberts we wouldn’t linger on the past too much. So, here are the essentials in his story: Roberts, 71, opened Skiboards Superstore in 1996 as a brick-and-mortar business in Boulder, Colorado, though after a few years he shifted to an online-only model. (“When orders are piling in online and there are customers trying on boots for two hours, it got a little bit too much,” he explained.) The store sees about $1 million in gross sales a year, and business went way up during the pandemic. He’s also got a degree in self-actualization psychology from the (now-shuttered) Columbia Pacific University, and used to lead self-help seminars. And yes, he still rides his skiboards all the time.
SKI spoke with Roberts about his love of the much-maligned sport and why so many ski instructors come shopping at his store.
Max: Do you see many people on the slopes on skiboards when you’re on the mountain?
Doc: I do, but most people say, “Hey I don’t see any other people on skiboards.” If you’re not really looking, you wouldn’t really even notice, because skiboarders use poles so they just look like everybody.
If I go to a ski show and they’ll see my name tag says Skiboard Superstore, they’ll go, “Oh I thought those died like 20 years ago.”
And do people give you grief for skiboarding?
Yeah. In fact, I did an interview last year with a guy [from Vice] who actually came out here and rode skiboards. But his editor got ahold of it and threw it back to the early ‘90s and started calling them snowblades.
Rather than skiboards.
The worst blow to this whole sport was when Salomon came out with their snowblades. They were crap. They chattered at speed, they sank in the snow. They were cheaply made, really narrow, with non-release plastic bindings.
But they had a lot of exposure, so a lot of people got to try them but then went “Oh, these aren’t that great,” whereas there’s a lot of high-performance models that’ll equal anything that you can do on snowboards or skis. But there’s still that stigma.
Anyhow, that’s what that editor did—he said “Oh yeah, these are stupid.” It was a bad article. And I’m not sure that your editor is not going to get a hold of it and… There’s really a paradigm that a lot of skiers are still stuck in. And my background is in sports psychology, that’s what my Ph.D. is in, so I see it. It’s the same thing as when snowboards started coming around, it really shook up the ski world for quite a while before they just had to give in.
Where did you earn your Ph.D.?
Columbia Pacific University, out in California. I got it in human potential psychology, with an emphasis on sports. Are you a skier?
So you know those moments where you’re just in the zone? You’re not thinking, everything’s just happening and flowing. That experience, which a lot of more elite athletes experience in various sports, happens on skiboards much quicker. You don’t need years to get really good to the point where you can just let go; I find that with skiboards that happens very quickly, which is part of why I’d say people find it an addiction.
Yet they still get so much blowback.
Part of it is that people spend years learning how to ski, and I have a lot of customers who’ve never skied and are up doing intermediate runs on their first day. There’s a whole process that you go through when you learn on long skis; you get your skis, you get into lessons for a couple of years. I had some ski instructors say, “If the slope was full of skiboarders, we’d be out of business. People wouldn’t need instruction.”
The interesting thing is, skiers in my experience look down on skiboards whereas snowboarders are like, “Wow, those are really cool. I want to try them.”
Where does your fascination for skiboarding come from?
Well, it came from my background in skating. I was a competitive roller skater: racing, figure, dance, freestyle. That was my main thing, national competitions. And then skiboards came around—actually they were invented by skaters, so skaters would have a tool to convert to the ski slopes.
Did skating not convert to skiing on full-size sticks?
It’s not the same skillset, it’s not the same muscles. I never made that connection until skiboards came, and then I was like, wow, this is like skates on snow.
Do you mostly skiboard yourself these days?
I’m mostly on skiboards. It’s the equivalent of skis for me, plus I can go through some of these really steep, tight trees that you’d be insane to go through on long skis. That was one of the really thrilling parts of skiboards, is being able to go anywhere I wanted. If I felt like going through moguls backward, I could, pretty easily. Much more of the mountain opened up to do long carving turns, or short carving turns or spinning down the mountain on one foot.
Wait, you can go backward down moguls on your skiboards?
I can, though it’s a little straining on your neck. It’s not something I do all day long. [Laughs]
What does your clientele look like?
Well, there are different markets. A big part of my business is hockey players, ice skaters, roller derby girls. They all are instantly good when they hit the slopes. The other market is people who just want to get up on the slopes and have a great time. They don’t want to be in lessons, they don’t want to be falling all over the place. Ski resorts should be embracing [skiboards] because they don’t know how many people come up, try [skiing], and go “This sucks.” And so There’s a lot of drop-out in the ski industry just because they’re difficult to learn.
The other interesting thing is that I sell a lot of skiboards to ski instructors. They explained it’s partly because sometimes they’ve got to go in and rescue people in the trees, and it’s easier for them to be on skiboards and get in there. Or when they’re teaching lessons, it’s easier for them to be on skiboards.
[Laughs] People on skiboards teaching people how to ride long skis. It’s kind of ironic.
Well, I’ll have to try them out.
Well, don’t get on Salomon Snowblades, whatever you do.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.