Steve Gruber is addicted to many things: Austria, the Ästhetiker crew, surfing, Cuba Libre, skateboarding and, of late, motocross. But his favourite drug, snowboarding, is not a recent addiction. One of the most popular and consistent riders talks to Onboard about his experiences over the last 15 years, why he occasionally feels old and what Cuba Libre has to do with his signature model.
You turned 30 in July. Do you feel old?
No way. Life doesn’t change suddenly just because you made it one step further on the age ladder. But I remember that when I was 15 and my uncle was 30, I thought he was pretty old.
Are there situations when you feel your age?
Not when snowboarding. But sometimes I wake up in the morning and have some trouble getting out of the bed. It just takes a little longer for the muscles to warm up. And sometimes I also feel my ankles a little bit, they are not the newest anymore – but I guess, many snowboarders have similar problems. When you are 18 years old, you charge off every kicker – it doesn’t matter how big, how icy or how hard – and when you get beat, you just go on. Today, when I feel that I’m not 100 % fit anymore and can’t give everything, I just stop and continue snowboarding the next day. I take care of my body – more than back in the days.
When there’s a party too?
Just because I turned 30 I don’t lock myself in the house and not go to parties anymore! I still like to go out – that is a big part of my personality because I like being with people and drinking some beers. A few years ago I just got wasted but still went up the mountain the next day. When I get drunk these days, I surely won’t be riding the day after; maybe that’s a reason why I don’t party that often anymore. I need to set some priorities: Either get drunk or go snowboarding. That’s the point when I feel the age the most, I think.
Can you still remember what it was like being 15?
Yes, I just started snowboarding. That was 1990 or 1991 and I made my first board out of plywood panels. Then I started my apprenticeship as a bike mechanic and it got wild. Suddenly I had a credit card, could draw money at every cash machine and took advantage of that. Every weekend we used to go to the mountains somewhere, have some party and my bank account was always in the red. That was kind of pricey because I only earned 400 euros a month.
Just because I turned 30 I don’t lock myself in the house and not go to parties any more!
But soon your situation changed…
Yes, with my first sponsor. In 1993 I went to the Kaunertal Opening with Dieter “Tex" Steinhardt. Tex was already sponsored by Oxygen and I also wanted to ride for some company. After the Opening we stayed on there for a few more days and did some pipe riding. Tex introduced me to Bertel Kletzmaier, who at the time was a rider and team manager for Heavy Tools. After some good sessions in the pipe I convinced him to send me a Heavy Tools board for free. But only with a bank transfer order – just so if I wouldn’t snowboard any longer, I would have to pay for it. Right at my first contest I got second in the youth ranking and had my first sponsor.
Did you earn money from snowboarding from that moment?
The time with Heavy Tools was sick. Friedl [Kolar] was also in the team and at some point also Tex. The company rented a small apartment in Kaprun and that is where we spent the winter. That was an easygoing time because at some point Heavy Tools also paid for our trips and handed us out blank cheques. So we booked ourselves into four-star hotels during the World Cups…
...and got yourselves deliveries of champagne to the whirlpool?
Yes, like that (laughs). Actually, it was some cans of beer in the shower and later we went on to the local bar.
At this time the legend around the Ästhetiker must have been born, right?
Yes, that was around 1994. In the beginning there were only three of us – Bernd Egger, Tex and me. In the western part of Austria a huge snowboard scene already had evolved, only our area in the East around Vienna was still kind of quiet in that respect. We wanted to change this and after a few beers we founded the Ästhetiker. At first I couldn’t relate to the name because I thought nobody would remember it, or even be able to write it down.
Last winter I rode more than ever before because the snow was so good and I couldn’t be without snowboarding.
But from three guys, soon a whole Ästhetiker crew developed…
At that point we went to the Zillertal on a regular basis, got to know many people there and made a lot of friends who all were like us: only interested in snowboarding and having some good parties. Soon we accepted more and more.
How big is the Ästhetiker crew today?
That is a little uncertain because nobody has an overview anymore. There are for sure 40 people, but the core consists of 20 people.
Soon after the Ästhetiker were founded everybody wanted to have their own snowboard crew. Did you set some trend?
I don’t know if that was us. But, you know, the good thing about snowboarding is that even though it is not a team sport you have more fun when sharing some runs with your friends. If you go into the backcountry on your own, it is sick. But actually you want to have somebody with you – even if it’s only for safety. Maybe you don’t want to share the backcountry with 20 dudes, but in the park it is so much fun.
Did your feeling for riding change over the years?
Back in the day, every day in the snow was the best day. Today, I see the mountains every day – if you have a perfect day with perfect conditions and the next day it goes bad, then you don’t like it too much. But nothing has changed regarding my motivation – far from it. Last winter I rode more than ever before because the snow was so good and I couldn’t be without snowboarding. Since I’m my own boss and don’t have a big sponsor anymore, I turned into being a lot more self-employed and now push some things more than I used to.
Few snowboard pros really like photoshoots for the companies. But it is a good opportunity to get to know photographers that maybe recommend you to some other people. A few years ago I didn’t care and thought: What the fuck. Today I’m annoyed at that because it would have opened even more doors for me than it already did. You can be the best snowboarder in the world – nobody will notice if you have no contacts.
Do you remember any situation that you would handled differently today?
Yes. Salomon once wanted me to film with Standard Films but instead I went to Canada with another filmer because Brusti [Patrick Armbruster] was filming there for Absinthe with Wolle [Nyvelt] and some other dudes. I thought that I could manage both but in the end it would have been smarter too concentrate on only one project. The chance to shoot with Standard you only get once – if you neglect it, you are out. Today I would try that. But I don’t regret my decision because I had a good time back then and maybe I would have spent three months in the States when I never really wanted to. There is so much potential in Europe and we should exploit that first. Crews like the Pirates or Yeahh Productions are starting it and I’m sure there are some to follow.
Four years ago you lost your board sponsor, Salomon, Why?
I can only tell you what they told me: due to cutbacks in the budget. Wolle and me were in the same team, we both live in the Zillertal, have a similar style and were shooting for the same movie. Well, Salomon had to ask themselves at one point why they should pay for two riders when one would be enough. Wolle is very talented and the economic situation for snowboard companies had been better. That is how the manager of the company is supposed to act, otherwise he will lose his job. Sadly…
Was it a shock when they dropped you or did you already suspect something was going on?
It was quite surprising to me. When they only invited Wolle but not me to a photo shooting in Argentina I knew what was going to happen. Shortly after that I got an official phone call. In fact, it was when I was on the way to a car company because I wanted to buy a new bus. That was cancelled all of a sudden.
What happened after that?
I rode for Allian for a while but the whole thing was a little bit unsteady because the boards didn’t sell very well. To ride again for a big company was not in my mind because they all had to tighten their budgets. And that meant “Steve we can’t guarantee you a wage but you can ride for us with a photo bonus." But you need a certain amount of guaranteed money – otherwise you can just ride for yourself.
I’m scared of avalanches. I haven’t been buried myself but I was there when Wolle got underneath one. Since then I’m more careful in the mountains and don’t even try slopes that seem to be sketchy.
That’s what you did then...
Yes. We, the Ästhetiker crew, asked ourselves why we didn’t produce our own boards. And because I had no more sponsor, we designed a board in my length (159). Thus I had a board for the winter and our group was matched with a status symbol for what we liked the most.
To start your own snowboard company is not that cheap, eh?
We are still some way away from having a snowboard company. At the moment it is just a very expensive hobby. It is the same with skateboards: You don’t earn any money with them unless the company is huge. We only produce 50 boards per season, which is really not much but we can’t afford more at the moment. But we will see what the future brings on…
How do you finance the company? Does every member of the Ästhetiker just throw some money in a big pot and that is what the boards are made from?
No, we saved some money from other activities like the Ästhetiker Tour. But it is not that simple to find a production plant that manufactures only 50 boards – normally you have to have a quantity of 200 boards. However, we found a small company in Lower Austria that used to produce skis and, for some time, also Burton snowboards.
And now your signature model, the Gruba Libre.
Yes. To define the shape was easy, we only had some problems with the design.
First we wanted to have a neutral design, with only our logo to be put on the front. I preferred an ice crystal shaped like an ‘Ä’. From this proposal a boulder out of ice developed in which the logo should be sculptured. The name ‘GrubaLibre’ evolved because I’d just returned from a surf trip in Panama and I used to drink litres of Cuba Libre on ice there – Cuba and Gruber sound similar and “libre", which means free, also matched because I had no board sponsor anymore.
You are your own boss right now?
Kind of. I still ride for some other companies but, concerning big board or clothing brands, I’m not bonded at the moment.
For a sponsor it is cheaper to put some money in to a young shredder who only earns half of what the older and more experienced rider gets.
Are you now happier because you can decide for yourself in which direction you want to go?
It is conflicting because I cannot live like I used to five years ago anymore – that was a different economic status. I would not worry about my bank account a few years ago. You just took a plane to Canada to go snowboarding there and you didn’t care if the ticket was 900 euros. Today it shouldn’t cost more than 700 euros. But I also think that the general situation in the snowboard industry has changed. Everybody has to reset their expectations.
What else do you miss?
Now I need to take care of myself if I get invited to an event or not. Previously that was organised by your company. They sponsored the contest and put you on the starter list. Today I need to call the organisers, ask if there is still a place left and go through the pre qualifications. If that doesn’t work out, I don’t care and then just go riding by myself or filming.
Do pro riders have an expiry date where they will be exchanged for young riders?
For a sponsor it is cheaper to put some money in to a young shredder who only earns half of what the older and more experienced rider gets. The companies prefer to take two youngsters than one old guy. Having a 16 or 17-year-old, you know that he will accelerate for at least five more years if nothing bad happens. A rider who’s known the business for ten years can promise you three more years – if he doesn’t fancy snowboarding anymore, he leaves because the companies are not interested in integrating their riders in the production or advertising them in some other way.
What do you think of this development?
I don’t like it that they tell the older riders that their time has ran out and that they are not welcome anymore. It is a pity. At the moment, the snowboard industry tends to think that everybody is disposable. There are very few icons who will stay at the core for a long time. It doesn’t help the sport to only appeal to a certain age group. Snowboarding is fun, even if you cannot do a Cab 270 backside nosepress on a kink rail.
Are you afraid of the day when you have to put your snowboard in the corner?
I hope that this day doesn’t come that soon, or even doesn’t come at all. But regarding the professional part I have to quit somewhere along the way and that won’t be easy – but until then there are still some kickers to be built and some lines to be ridden. I will quit the day I cannot keep up anymore. This season I will do some contests again – just for myself but also to see where my standing is. There you see how high the level is, who does what trick and in which direction snowboarding is developing. But I will also film again with Yeahh Productions – for sure in the Zillertal and hopefully in Canada as well.
Have you already been to Alaska?
Once. It was one of my best experiences. When you go with the helicopter you feel a little bit like Magnum in the snow. Then you back out and ride the longest, most beautiful slopes – that is what you have always dreamed of.
Did you feel any fear?
I had respect. When you sit in the helicopter you try to memorize your line, but once you are on the slope you can’t even see where it is going after the next hill. Mmm, yes, you are also scared sometimes.
What are you afraid of when snowboarding?
I’m scared of avalanches. I haven’t been buried myself but I was there when Wolle got underneath one. That was so bad. For a few seconds I panicked but as soon as I had his signal on my beeper I knew that we were going to find him. After ten minutes we dug him out – he was buried 75 centimetres under the snow and stood up as if nothing had happened. He was really lucky. The mountain rescue service had already called a helicopter that we waved aside and rode to the next lodge. Wolle just needed some hot tea after that experience. Since then I’m more careful in the mountains and don’t even try slopes that seem to be sketchy.
There are also so many other destinations where I want to go riding - Alaska, Iran, Turkey, Chile, Argentina, India, Russia, Japan…
Do you meet a lot of snowboarders who are in the backcountry without any equipment?
Yes. Some only take their beeper with them but no backpack with their probe and shovel. In the case of an avalanche even the best beeper doesn’t help that much because digging someone out with your snowboard or by hand just takes too much time. When I was filming for King Size in the backcountry with Marc André Tarte, he asked me in the morning if I could carry his shovel for him. I just replied that if the worst comes to the worst, should I dig me out by myself? He just didn’t know better. Shovel and probe are like the belt in your car. You won’t believe how important it is – until you fly through the front window the first time.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
(Laughs). 40 years is a pretty long time and then I’ll really be old. Either I’ll sit in front of my own lodge somewhere in the mountains and smoke a pipe. Or I’ll live in a small house on the beach looking out on a nice break. Assuming that I can still paddle… I surely couldn’t stand it without the ocean, or the mountains for that matter. Hmmm, that is difficult and means saving some more money.
New Zealand would be perfect...
That is true and I need to see that country one day. But there are also so many other destinations where I want to go riding - Alaska, Iran, Turkey, Chile, Argentina, India, Russia, Japan…
So you need to stay pro still for a while longer, eh?
Yeah, looks like it (laughs).
Thanks to: Dad, Chri (Bro1), Dominik (Bro2), Miri (girlfirend), Friedl, Tex, Bernd, Poidl, Wolle, Beckna, Andi, Mone, CK, AndyY, Mike, Bertl, Scharti (Adidas Eyewear), Ron, Robert (SP), Tscherno, Poldi, Bami, Drew (TTR), Fred & Magret, Walt (IrieDaily), Shin C, Gabe L, Brusti & Justin (Absinthe Film), Luchi & Darrel (Yeahh Production), Vincent S, Scott S, Mouse, Rich, Danny B., Scalp, Kiwi, Steve V., Alex, Rudi, Hasi, Pauli, Muck Cäpten Bire (Munchies), Marco L, Bene, Fischi, Hansi, Lozza, Luki G., Michl, Michi Albin, Chillip & Mathias and all those that I can’t remember right now. Thanks for such a great time and let’s continue with the next adventure.