On almost any day of the year, Harvard, Mass., is the archetypal New England village. Just 32 miles west of Boston, the town’s hills are still farmed, as they have been for 350 years. Revolution-era homes still dot the countryside, and Fruitlands, a former commune cofounded by Louisa May Alcott’s father, still holds farm-to-table gatherings.
But for three days in August, Harvard becomes an adrenaline-infused micro-city for alternative sports fans. The Central Mass. Longboard Festival, now in its sixth year, will be held in Harvard Aug. 7-9. The festival attracts nearly 500 professional and amateur athletes from as far away as Colombia and Australia, and it’s rewriting New England tradition in a most unlikely place.
“There’s definitely a counterculture aspect to it,” says Harvard native Mike Girard, the festival’s 25-year-old founder. Girard, who sports a blond mustache and is known in the professional skating world as “Dad,” says Harvard has welcomed the annual skater invasion. “Residents have sent me notes telling me, ‘It’s great to see the young people having fun.’ ”
As the festival kicks off, hundreds of longboarders have fun by bombing down Harvard’s tree-lined hills at speeds topping 40 miles per hour. They compete in downhill races and half-pipe competitions, with winners taking home $5,000. They catch big air and ride rails at a skate park, and skim the pavement for crowds at the slide jams, where skaters rocket downhill and then slide sideways, bending their bodies parallel to the ground.
Some skaters dress in patterned Lycra bodysuits or protective head-to-toe leather. Others wear cut-off jean shorts, high socks, and Chuck Taylors. A few ride shirtless. They sport helmets and beards, pigtails, and trucker hats.
National sponsors stake out tent space while DJs lay down a soundtrack, and barbecues and a blowout after-party attract wild crowds.
It’s an otherworldly scene set against a bucolic backdrop, but for Australian Adam Yates, Harvard is the ideal setting for skaters to “get their stoke on.”
“[The course] gives those that skate everything a perfect environment,” says Yates, who competed at his first Central Mass. Skate Festival in 2014. “There’s heaps of features, and with big cash on the line, skaters go big, sometimes resulting in big bails.”
Those wipeouts are not rare, although the festival has seen only one broken bone. Helmets are required and pads are the norm.
For locals, an international longboard festival is just the next evolution in the town’s anti-establishment tradition, says Harvard Selectman Stuart Sklar.
“We’ve got a long history of that sort of thing in Harvard,” says Sklar, whose 19-year-old son is an avid longboarder. “People with strong beliefs. Transcendentalists and Shakers. And that main road is a hell of a hill.”
Sklar says that kids in Harvard who haven’t found their place in traditional “round ball” sports are finding a place in longboarding.
“We try to fit everyone in the same hole, and that’s not always the [best way],” he says.
Appealing to a new generation of longboarders is key to growing a sport that Girard says is “still hiding in the rafters.” Street skaters rejected longboards as too safe soon after inventor Tom Sims introduced them in 1975.
‘Longboarding is such an accepting and open-minded community. A lot of people are realizing they’re skateboarders in more than one sense of the word.’
At 28-60 inches long, longboards are more stable than traditional street boards. That means greater accessibility, but it does not translate into X-Games appeal. That alternative sports juggernaut still denies longboarding a permanent spot in its pantheon.
But that’s changing. Hip city travelers are now cruising longboards through financial districts, and novices are finding an easy entrance into the sport. Even traditional skaters seem to be coming around.
“Longboarding is such an accepting and open-minded community,” says Kristen Howard, co-owner of Uncle Funky’s Boards, a skate shop in New York’s Greenwich Village, and one of the festival’s sponsors. Now 33, Howard has been longboarding for seven years. “A lot of people are realizing they’re skateboarders in more than one sense of the word.”
Still, nothing sells a sport like danger, and adrenaline fiends have discovered longboarding’s sexier secret: More stable boards mean higher speeds.
Recent YouTube videos capture longboarders racing down mountain passes at more than 80 m.p.h. The videos have gone viral, rallying skaters and fans to turn out for events from British Columbia to humble Harvard.
Girard’s own viral videos were the impetus for the Longboard Festival. In 2009, Girard, then 18, had just returned from a college study abroad trip to France, where longboarders scream down the French Alps for fun.
“There’s no race there,” he says. “They shut down the road and a ski lift takes you to the top. You ride the road all day and camp. France opened my eyes to longboarding.”
When he returned, he posted videos of his rides down Harvard’s pitched, rustic roads, and longboarders across the Web responded. They wanted to skate New England’s countryside.
Girard quickly gathered residents’ signatures and approvals from town officials and scraped together the first Central Mass. festival. That year’s event drew just 50 riders.
Six years later, the festival has become an international phenomenon, with hundreds of skaters staying at the nearby Devens Marriott and buses shuttling riders to events.
“Mike’s festival is widely recognized in the United States and internationally as a must-see event,” says Kyle Chin of LA-based Loaded Boards, one of the festival’s top sponsors. “He’s doing a great thing for the East Coast scene.”
Although longboarding is growing (Chin says US sales are steady and Europe is seeing strong growth), the festival in Harvard has yet to break even. Last year Girard put up $30,000 of his own money for equipment, labor, food, promotion, music, transportation, prizes, and other expenses.
“It’s not profit-driven,” he says. “If I can keep [the festival going], it feels like I’ll have made a positive contribution to the community.”
That might not be a vision for a transcendental utopia, but after six years, longboarding in Harvard is a tradition. And that main road is a hell of a hill.
For more about the Central Mass. Longboard Festival, go to firstname.lastname@example.org.