Mountains jut from the Iberian Peninsula in a broad freehand S that stretches from the Mediterranean Sea in the South, up to the Bay of Biscay and back to the Mediterranean along the spine of the Pyrenees. Their combined altitudes make this the second highest country on the European continent, beaten only by Switzerland. Yet despite this great scope to ride Spanish snowboarders, at least beyond Spain’s boarders, are rare as rocking horse dung. I tracked down three members of the Spanish scene – photographer Andoni Epelde, young blood Marc Salas and Spain’s all-time international star Iker Fernandez, to find out why Spanish bulls struggle to raise hell beyond the Iberian Peninsula…
In the 1990s Iker Fernandez was at the forefront of freestyle snowboarding, competing in contests across the globe as well as filming with the A-list video productions of the time. He did it all – from pipe to park to backcountry – with faultless style and tricks that were boned to the point of popping base plates. To this day his name is most frequently dropped when the question: “name a Spanish rider?” comes up. He learned the art of riding from brothers Dani and David, already on the pro circuit, and honed his bones both wearing down the reels on his VHS watching Terje and riding along side his idols. “I was lucky to be able to travel from a young age because my older brothers” says Iker, in answer to the question of how he made it on an international level. “I rode in the best places with the best riders and that helped me progress my snowboarding; and I had good support from my sponsors”.
His brother Dani remembers modestly how Iker’s riding improved rapidly until in his own words “he left us behind”. Iker managed to secure Burton, Nixon and Volcom as backers and scored not only a memorable appearance in Subjekt Haakonsen, its follow-up The Haakon Faktor, and parts with Absinthe Films who were at the time a leading light in the new wave of snowboard cinema. Iker also competed in both the Torino and Salt Lake Olympics, a feat that does no harm to any rider’s reputation and recognition to the wider world beyond core snowboarding. In the case of Queralt Castellet, Spain’s most recent head-turner on the contest circuit, he says that having a rider that can do well – or perhaps even get on the podium – can do wonders for a sport’s reputation back home: “It is good to have riders like her in the Olympics, especially if she can get a medal. Winter sports are not that big here, so if somebody can do good, it will help a lot.”
To say that winter sports are not doing well in Spain, at least for the Spanish, is an understatement. With youth unemployment over 56% last year, snowboarding – costing the best part of at least a grand to get kitted out for (not to mention €40 day passes in most resorts in Spain) – plays second fiddle to the more accessible skateboarding and surfing. In the case of snowboarding’s sideways cousins, as Andoni Epelde says, “all you need is a board and you go”. “I remember when I started snowboarding it was really on the up,” reminisces Andoni. “All the people wanted to go snowboarding and bought all the new stuff. But now I think it is for sure going down”.
Board sales in Spain are scraping the barrel, the printed core media is down to two issues of Surfers Planet per season, and core stores – long viewed to be the incubators of roots in snowboarding – have gone to the wall. But every cloud has a silver lining, Andoni points out: “It sometimes happens that it snows a lot on a Tuesday night, you go to Astun on the Wednesday and you have half a metre of fresh snow and there is nobody.” All this doom and gloom in the snowboard market also means that there is little cash for sponsorship, which both Andoni and Iker believe is another key reason behind why Spanish riders aren’t breaking out beyond their own peninsula. “There is just one brand that is going hard with the riders and giving money, and that is DC,” remarks Andoni. “But I don’t know what will happen next year. The other brands don’t pay anything. Riders are motivated but they have no money to travel so they’re just doing all their stuff here in the Pyrenees”. Iker confirms Andoni’s viewpoint: “The market is smaller than in other countries so it’s difficult to support the talented riders with money, [and as a result] they can’t travel around and continue progressing… or at least as much as other riders from other countries”.
BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME
Iker and Andoni also believes that the lack of parks in Spain is a contributing factor, as Iker explains: “Spanish parks are getting better but not all season long; sometimes only for a month or two when they have to build it for a contest or something. That makes you need to travel to get to ride good places, parks and so on.” That isn’t to say that there aren’t parks. “In Spain the most motivated resort is Sierra Nevada,” believes Andoni. “They are doing like five or six jumps and a lot of rails and a halfpipe too. He also mentions Andorra. “But that isn’t Spain,” he laughs.
The thing is, is it really imperative that Spanish snowboarders do make it outside their home territories? After all, everyone is in agreement that there are Spanish kids killing it, even if some of them are adopted Argentines…
There is also a burgeoning movie industry, churning out the likes of the tasty Spanish Paella, Pain in Spain and Love Winter. And with the freedom of the internet the entire universe can now tap into the stuff that Spanish groms are getting stoked on – home grown, home consumed riding goodness. Marc Salas is currently ranked 833rd on the Snowboard World Tour, but talking with him it’s clear he doesn’t give a damn. He is part of a new breed of Spanish jibbers who take a large slice of their inspiration for snowboarding from the images of of Videograss and the like.
“In Spain, like everywhere else jibbing is more and more popular these days,” says Marc. “Even though we’re closer to Africa than Austria trends arrive here too. And those trends really fit with our sunny, warm, mellow winters. You can ride park every day, but not powder. There are some big names you might hear of from here like, Mati Ian, Bryan Longley, Pepino and Loren”. Marc also fingers Madrid’s indoor slope, Zanadu – a snowdome much like those in the UK, Holland and Germany – as a factory that churns out metal-munchers in abundance and to a high standard too.
“There’s such a big jibbing scenen in Madrid, even more than into the Pyrenees,” asserts Marc. “Kids from the city these days are more excited about snowboarding than the ones living by the mountain. Like the ‘Crios crew’ for example; a bunch of kids from Madrid killing the rails and boxes on the indoor slopes every day, no matter what. That’s cool!”
Andoni is super stoked on this Madrid connection, especially the young Juan Polanco: “He grew up in Zanadu. You need to watch him as he is going really, really good!” Iker also mentions him in his list of up-and-coming jibbers as well as Marc and Fran Massaguer: “Then there are some jumpers like Carles Torner (Turni), Kike Carcelen, and young riders like Manex Azurra and Maria Hidalgo that are looking great for the upcoming future”. In the end true Spanish snowboarders will keep on snowboarding because they love it not because one of them makes it in the big time. “Maybe its all down to because we love living here,” reasons Marc for the lack of his countrymen attracting attention on an international level. “Personally I love traveling and visiting people and new places but I really love filming here: the way I feel, the weather, longer days and basically because here we have many spots that nobody knows. Someone has to hit them and show them to the world”.