Updated: Sep 15, 2020
For decades, millions of longboarders have used the foothills of West Coast mountain ranges to stage exhilarating downhill rides that were the pastime of the most daring riders.
But fraught with the injuries that are a right of passage for a skilled rider, Jesse Andres, a graduate in business from Oregon State University and founder of Brake Boys, an Invent Oregon Collegiate Challenge competitor, wants to make longboarding safer and more accessible. Andres has designed a universal footbrake for any longboard that riders can use to safely slow their descent.
“Longboarding has a negative stigma against it because people think that, oh, if you longboard, you're going to get hurt,” Andres said. “A lot of people just immediately are like, oh, wow, I'd be longboarding and go down this big hill and then fall on my face because I don't know how to stop."
These people aren’t wrong. Longboarding is an extreme sport, and the thrill is as pervasive as the risk. More a surfing simulacrum than for stunts, longboards are built for carving curves on long downhill ribbons of open road, where cruising speeds can reach up to 60 miles per hour for the fastest boards and most advanced riders.
“It's so exhilarating. It's so much fun to just be going that fast down the hill and just feel all that adrenaline and the wind blowing against your face,” Andres said. “It's a combination of the adrenaline going down a super big hill like that and saying, I conquered that hill. It’s awesome.”
It’s also dangerous, and injuries on longboards are more frequent and more intense than typical skateboards. In 2013, an American Public Health Association study found that longboarders are significantly more likely to suffer head trauma, including deadly traumatic brain injuries and intracranial hemorrhages.
Because of the risk, it isn’t an easy accomplishment to develop the skill to manage that rush, that thrill, safely. And Andres didn’t grow as a longboarder without scrapes and bruises along the way.
Andres, who first started riding a longboard in high school in Portland, learned to fear steep downhill rides and high speeds. “It's a lot more hilly and really difficult to learn, you know?” he said of Portland, where hills are dramatic and concrete pocked from wet, rainy winters. “So lots, lots more accidents and knees getting bruised.”
At high speeds, a dismount can be exceptionally dangerous. “When you're going down a hill, you'll feel something called speed wobble, which is where your board is going so fast that it starts to go back and forth,” Andres said. “It’s really hard to keep your balance when your board is wobbling back and forth so fast.”
What happens next depends on the rider. “A lot of people don’t know what to do,” Andres said. Some riders immediately jump off and run alongside their board, trying to catch it. “Oftentimes, you'll pull a muscle because you're running too fast.”
Others try to slow themselves by dragging their feet on the pavement. “That requires a ton of balance,” Andres said. “And it tears through your shoes because of the friction between the pavement and the bottom of your shoes.”
Someone who miscalculates at any point during this physical challenge may surprise themselves with injury. If the rider is going fast enough, the injury can be catastrophic. But Andres thinks it doesn’t have to be that way.
When Andres enrolled at Oregon State, he found a different kind of terrain more ideal for a novice longboarder. Deeper in the Willamette Valley, the landscape flattens. The hills are mellower, enough that they are ideal for novice longboarders like freshman-aged Andres.
“It's just a gorgeous campus. Longboarding around campus with my friends is one of my favorite things to do on a nice sunny afternoon,” Andres said. An avid outdoorsman, Andres spent his afternoons in Oregon’s riverlands riding and fishing like a Western Huck Finn. “I started riding every day to class,” he said. “And that's really when I started to get into the longboarding vibe.”
The slower pace of Corvallis taught Andres that longboarding doesn’t have to push the absolute outer limits of risk—in fact, it shouldn’t. “It's all about learning how to do it safely and making baby steps,” Andres said. "You don't want to go down a ski slope on a black diamond your first time. You want to start out on the bunny hill."
That inspired Andres to develop a footbrake that will allow longboarders to take off the edge of steep hills if they need it. Brake Boys makes steep hills safer and more appealing for the kind of rider who needs it.
“My goal was to go out and make a universal longboarding brake that would fit on longboards of all shapes and sizes and would be adjustable to the rider’s natural riding motion,” Andres said. “So that literally anybody could go buy this, put it on their board, feel comfortable braking and feel safe.”
Unlike the brakes that are currently available on the market, Brake Boys integrates into the trucks of a longboard—the apparatus that houses the axles and wheels. In concept, Andres’ brake is very similar to a bicycle. When a rider steps on the pedal, the wire between the brake pads tightens and creates friction between the brake pads and the wheels.
That means there’s no need for a costly new longboard, which is typically the most expensive piece of equipment for street-based board sports. There’s no need to modify the deck a boarder has, which could result in lasting damage or ruin the aesthetic of the deck. “In the longboarding community, fashion is sort of a big deal,” Andres said. “What board you have expresses yourself.”
But most importantly, with Brake Boys, a rider can develop their riding ability without risking a life-altering injury. They can progress at their own pace.
“Now I love going up to Portland,” Andres said. “It just takes a little bit to work up to that kind of hill, you know. That's also where my break comes in. I want to make it easier for people to start out on bigger hills and feel more comfortable going down them.”