Lets Roll

Inline-skate scene seeks respect as it fears mass popularity

Photo by James BunoanOn the way to the Newport Beachpremiere of his most-recent video (BANG!), Shane Coburn carries a brown box containing T-shirts, sweat shirts and stickers from Mindgame, his Santa Ana-based inline-skating-wheel company, to pass out to the kids in the audience. Coburn, 30, is running late, but he stops to say some quick hellos outside the Lido Theater. Once inside, he spins toward the stage as if on wheels and glides down the theater's aisle.

The kids enter; ranging from their teens to early 20s, they search for seats while a cellist in front of the big screen plays a Beatles song. "We've stepped into a new culture," says a woman in a tall black hat, "and he's playing the Beatles." Struggling to be heard over the din, she repeats, "He's playing the Beatles for deaf ears."

Coburn is used to people not listening. He calls rolling—more commonly referred to as "rollerblading" despite threats from lawyers protecting the Rollerblade brand—"the redheaded stepchild of action sports." Profits? Groupies? Respect? Not so much. Rollers, he says, have become resigned to being labeled "gay" and "lame" by folks in passing cars—skateboarders, they suspect (they know).

"Right off the bat, people picture us in Spandex and banana-shaped helmets," he says. "That's kind of our burden, but we embrace it. My intention is not to make rollerblading like the next Xbox—the next big thing. Some companies just want to promote and make money. That's not the way to do things."

Coburn started Mindgame in 2000—after working for competitor Medium—because he wanted control. He believes inline skating's future depends not only on companies plowing profits back in to the sport to grow it—better equipment, videos and promotion—but also on customers doing their part, too.

"You can save $10 or $15 on a hoodie by getting something at the Gap, but the Gap ain't gonna be making skates with their profits," he said in a 2002 interview. "Spend that $25 with a rolling company, and you can be sure it'll come back to you some day in some way."

His passion for the sport belies a man who admits even he thought it was lame when a friend offered him inline skates as a way to get to work. It was 1993, Coburn had just moved to Newport Beach from New Hampshire, and he remembers taking off his skates a block before he got to his job at Tower Records because he didn't want to be seen by anyone. But after jumping off curbs on the way to work, he began to really enjoy the sport, so much so that though he had been saving money to buy a new skateboard, he opted to buy better skates.

"While I was sitting there in the store, lacing up my new Rollerblades, my friend and I heard this swish, swish noise," he says amused. "We went to the back, and there was this kid rollerblading on a half-pipe. And we thought we were cool for jumping off curbs."

He says rollers are "a bunch of introverted kids wanting to do something different" but then trails off, saying he doesn't want to overgeneralize. Still, Coburn seems to fit the description. When he isn't working to create new product or buzz—BANG! is Mindgame's third video—he enjoys spooning with his cat Bruce, attending yoga classes or drenching a Yerba Mate tea with honey at the Gypsy Den.

He has mixed feelings about his sport's growing popularity, saying he wouldn't mind the opportunity to make more money and build a better life for himself but that he would miss the close-knit community the sport is today.

"[Inline skating] is not something you do to gain popularity," he says, "but maybe some day it will."

The lights dim and BANG! begins. A pro roller dressed in a clown outfit—rainbow jump suit, giant bow tie as big as his head—praises skaters for transforming the seemingly useless, cold, hard concrete found at the local convenience store into a platform for rolling.

The video goes on to poke fun at the stigma of the sport, and shows rollers skating across balconies, down rooftops, off trucks, over fences, under rails and through gutters. BANG! captures Mindgame's riders in their worst and best moments—each fall is followed by a successful landing.

And then it's over. The credits roll and the kids get up to leave, one of them shouting from the back, "Thanks for keeping the scene alive!" In the lobby, a frenetic Coburn flits between this group and that, saying his hellos and goodbyes; spinning as if on an axis.

 
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