May 8, 2003


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It's All Downhill From Here

Gravity Games a magnet for urban daredevils

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Street luge competitor J. Robert Bethae hurtles down McLaren Park's John F. Shelley Drive at last weekend's Gravity Games

By Paul McHugh

The International Gravity Sports Association knows how to bring a storm to San Francisco. It seems all the group has to do is schedule an event. They were nearly rained out at the first IGSA San Francisco Gravity Festival last May.

This year's sequel seemed threatened with a similar fate. But enough sunshine peeped past clouds last weekend to let experts in street luge, downhill skateboard (with standing and lay-down divisions), downhill inline skates and gravity bike (in two divisions) plunge down a twisty kilometer of pavement in Mclaren Park.

"Racers take your mark. . . Get ready . . . Go!" bawled the starter, as up to eight lugers at a time launched wheeled sleds. They hit speeds surpassing 50 mph while jousting for position through the turns.

Gravity sports are both egalitarian and ecologically sound. They're egalitarian mostly because they're relatively cheap. Also, events can be easily mounted in an urban setting. They are environmentally good because these wheeled rigs are emission-free - their pilots push them from a start line, then gravity takes over.

None of which would matter a whit if these sports weren't also exciting. They offer a constant frisson of danger, as pavement whizzes by, scant inches beneath hurtling riders. The sports demand a combo of cool nerve and bold drive. This heady, adrenaline cocktail woos and draws auto and motorcycle racers, downhill ski racers and other daredevil types.

"I saw street luge on TV two years ago. I thought, I've got to give that a try," said Andy Lally, 28, a Grand Am sports car driver with a win in the 24 Hours of Daytona (in 2001) to his credit. "You don't need a big budget for this. And when those sleds go eight wide in the first turn, man, that's just as much fun as auto racing. In some ways, it's a more pure. Form. Lally was seeking to depose John Fryer of Oakland. Fryer, 36, is an Oakland building contractor and former motorcycle racer who held the luge title from the 2002 festival. This pair had recently clashed in Oklahoma, with Fryer winning at luge and Lally taking the honors on "classic" boards - sit-down skateboards that harken back to roots of the sport.

Further proof of the draw of these gravity sports, and the regard in which they're held, was the presence of two members of the U.S. Olympic luge team. They were on hand to try the street version, with an eye to forging closer connections between street and ice activities, participants and their fan bases.

It must be said, these activities do have a goofy aspect. It's obvious at the start line. Street lugers must start their sleds by shoving forward with gloved hands on the pavement for about 20 feet - a maneuver called "paddling;" They look as awkward as a walking catfish trying to cross a mud flat. Gravity bikes have to be launched with kicks. Initially, they wobble and threaten to smash into one another, until riders can drop and tuck in behind the fairings (windscreens). Then, they lean together into, the first turn like motorcycles, graceful at last.

The most graceful of all is also the hardest and most daring of the gravity sports: stand-up, downhill skateboarding. Balanced atop their small boards, these riders delicately blend body english and posture to maneuver at speeds exceeding 40 mph. Their shredded leathers and scarred helmets attest to a harsh penalty for any error,

Marcus Rietema, director of the IGSA, worked with San Francisco promoters, Robert Wurgaft and David Miles to shape the festival. Prior to that, Rietema competed in most of these sports. He also designed courses for the X-Games. "The whole idea of gravity games is poised for a big leap forward," Rietema said. He cited the interest of race pros such as Lally, the emerging alliance with U.S. Luge and the young folks now pouring into the downhill skateboard divisions. IGSA presently puts on 20 events worldwide, 10 in the United States. A national championship, scheduled for the McLaren Park venue in September, is being planned with a $25,000 purse and ; cable TV coverage. "We're trying very hard to get away from that "extreme" dog-and-pony show. We want to be seen as presenting legitimate sports," Rietema said.

Because of the length of the course, on-site spectators could only view a slice of any given heat. Rietema wants to fix that by setting up 6 cameras to capture action from various stations, edit the footage in a post-production facility, add commentary, then air the result as virtual-live coverage on cable.

The challenge will be capturing the excitement of elements such as the Lally / Fryer duel. They came in first and second, respectively, in the classic (lay-down) skateboard event. Next, Lally and Fryer fought to the semifinals in street luge. Elimination rounds concentrated the available talent. Hurtling sleds zipped across the finish line in dense packs. Only split-seconds separated victory and defeat.

In runs lasting only about 40 to 50 seconds, luge riders had to achieve a hot start, pick tight lines through four curves (by shifting body weight to steer) and avoid rough pavement. As their speeds whipped past 50 mph, they had to draft a leader if possible, intimidate anyone attempting to pass and then choose the right moment to cut an inside move and shoot to the finish.

Between heats, as they and their sleds rode a shuttle truck back to the start, racers gabbled about the way they had grazed hay-bale barricades, and the tangle of tactics and maneuvers that had created their finish positions.

Ultimately, neither Lally nor Fryer emerged as top dog. Fryer washed out in the semis (finishing sixth overall) and Lally was smoked in the last heat by first-place finisher Brent DeKeyser, 25, of Long Beach. Second went to Mike McIntyre, 31, Glendora (Los Angeles County). Lally took third.

Other opportunities beckoned.

Gordy Sheer, 31, of Lake Placid, N.Y., directs marketing for U.S. Luge. Sheer holds a silver medal for two-man luge from the 1998 Winter Olympics. During Saturday's practice heats, he had his first: chance to try a street sled. "There was a moment of pure terror in Turn 2, until I recalled that this thing doesn't turn like an ice sled," Sheer said. "It was so much fun! Now, I can carry the word to my teammates."

That improves the odds of an exchange program. The current plan: Members of U.S. Luge will learn street chops from the Wild Fro Racing school, near Gilroy; street lugers will get a chance to zoom down the Olympic ice course in Park City, Utah.

"I need to get on that ice course so. bad," Lally confided. "It's one reason I'm trying to rack up points here today."

E-mail Paul McHugh at pmchugh@Sfchronicle.com.