The Mid-Life Longboard Purchase and Use Lifecycle: A Selection of Advice

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I’ve bought a few longboards over the past couple of months. Some for me, some for the rest of the family. In the process of doing that, I’ve read dozens of pages and watched plenty of videos trying to figure out how to buy longboards well.

I’ve also let pass a few oblique references to mid-life crises. If you’re reading this because you have made it out of your teens, have moved on past the vast and ever-extending frontier of late adolescence, and are now enjoying the years where it has become slightly bewildering that people your age look much older than the Bitmojis you and your partner made together one Saturday morning while the 14-year-old was out doing whatever but it involved some friend you haven’t met, public transit, and a promise to be home before curfew, welcome. My main advice to you about whatever side-eye your inner monologue is giving you about taking up this hobby is to ignore it: One of the nice things about wisdom is that it includes learning about your limits. Just get out there, give it a shot, see how it feels, and quit if/when it stops being fun. If it never becomes fun in the first place, put the board up on Craigslist for $25 off retail. Someone will grab it then ask /r/longboarding if it was a good deal, but by then it’ll be too late.

Finally, this guide is written for people who just want to learn how to cruise around safely and comfortably, and have not developed a particular interest in one discipline or another, whether that’s downhill, dancing, or freeride. A lot of the advice out there tends to assume you’re interested in a particular discipline, and that’s going to take you places you might not need to go right away if all you’re trying to do is figure out if longboarding is even something you want to stick to.

Unfortunately, like any hobby that involves buying gear, a lot of longboard review sites are nothing more than poorly-written, dubiously researched Amazon affiliate plays. At some point I will add a few links to topics where I’ve gone back and found a decent resource I’d recommend. In the mean time, just know that YouTube is a pretty good resource, and that most longboard reviews are either written by the retailers themselves or garbage designed to get clicks on the affiliate links.

A Quick Cultural Note

Though longboards are pretty much “long skateboards with big wheels,” neither longboarders nor skateboarders think much of that sort of reductionism, and they represent two distinct tribes.

It’s important to understand this distinction because each group will have very different advice to offer you as you go out onto the ‘net to learn more about your new hobby. I strongly recommend you read this essay by Kathy Sierra (yes, that Kathy Sierra) to get an idea of the roots of this cultural divide and how it plays out today. It is my observation that skateboarding is dominated by and marketed for boys and young men, while longboarding has provided a more welcoming space for girls, women, and older folks; including older skateboarders who are looking for a gentler way to remain on four wheels a bit longer than the halfpipe and swimming pool will allow.

1. Buying your first longboard

Here’s what I did first: I picked one from Amazon that looked nice and cost under $75. It was not great, but I didn’t know that and it was perfect for the three-week crash course I embarked on at a nearby playground.

That wasn’t the best way to do it, but I wasn’t up to going into an independent shop and I’d had a bad experience buying Ben a skateboard at a Zumiez.

On the bright side, Amazon reviews let me find my people: Older folks who had never been on a longboard before, or who had been skaters as teens but had not done it in a while. The former could speak convincingly about their experiences as newbies and how they did on the board; the latter could probably comment on where the board fell short and offer advice on easy fixes.

Here are some characteristics to look for:

  • Long — For stability and smoothness. Definitely look for something longer than 36″. Any shorter, and you’ll gain maneuverability but lose both stability and tolerance for poor foot placement. At the same time, keep it under 48″ or so unless you’ve had past experience navigating barges, commuter ferries, or oil tankers.
  • Wide — So your feet fit comfortably. Look for something around 9″ or more.
  • Low — So your center of gravity is lower and your balance is better. Look for “dropthrough” or “dropdown” boards: They’re built in such a way that the board itself is lower to the ground. That makes for better balance and easier pushing.
  • Stiff — To remove a little variability while you master being on a board with wheels. Avoid plastic and look for hardwoods.

Slightly longer-term, I’d prioritize width and height over flex and length if I had to settle on my first board being my last for a while, and if cruising were what I was going to be into. The board I eventually bought as my “real” board is much flexier than my first, which has its pleasures, but I appreciate the fact that it’s much lower even more.

Definitely buy a skate tool before you check out. They’re a three-way socket tool with a little screwdriver insert. The sockets allow you to do a number of things when you get your longboard:

  • Tighten the kingpin/trucks.
  • Tighten/loosen the wheel nuts.
  • Tighten the hardware that mounts the trucks to the board.

You’ll have to do these things, or at least have a tool that allows you to do them, before you can ride, and paying the $8 for this tool beats rummaging around in the toolbox. You can also stick it in your back pocket when you head out for a session so it’s easy to do some initial tuning as you learn. Long term, you’ll have to be able to work with your trucks, wheel nuts and hardware to keep your board in good working order.

Also, buy some protective gear:

  • Knee guards
  • Wrist guards
  • Elbow pads
  • Helmet, though you can use a bicycling helmet if you have one

Over time, you’ll probably drop the knee guards first. Of the several spills I’ve had, they haven’t been essential. I’ve been very grateful for the rest. I won’t go out without wristguards and helmet, and I recently began to take my elbow pads along again if I’m going to be navigating sidewalks or sketchy terrain because I got tired of opening my elbow back up even when wearing long sleeves.

Finally, shoes are a consideration: I bought some Vans because they’re easy to find, fit my wide feet pretty well, and offer a large, flat sole with plenty of grip. You can probably get away with any rubber-soled sneaker if all you do is cruise. Sometimes I wear retired running shoes, but I prefer my Vans Sk8-Hi Pros for the ankle support. Just remember that you’re going to be making a lot of hard, repetitive contact with the pavement when you push, and you’re going to be shifting your weight around a lot on the foot you keep planted on the board: You’ll want some cushion. Vans offer that, cheap Chuck Taylors do not.

2. Receiving Your Longboard

When your longboard arrives, take it out of the package and give it a good look. Having ordered a few cheap boards and one less cheap board online, I’ve been surprised at how variable assembly seems to be, so take the time to do this little pre-ride inspection:

  • Grab each wheel and give it a spin. Each should spin freely. People get hung up on whether the wheel can spin for more than a minute. Don’t bother. If it spins freely for 10 seconds or so, it’s fine. If it doesn’t, use the skate tool to loosen the nuts a little bit, but not too much:

  • Give each wheel a wiggle to see how tightly it’s on the axle. If there’s much play at all, tighten it down to minimize that as much as possible while still letting it spin freely. You can improve this with “speed rings” (washers that go between the nut and the wheel) and “spacers” (metal sleeves that go on the axle inside the wheel) but for now don’t bother.

  • Check the hardware that mounts the trucks to the deck. You’ll see four small nuts and bolts on each truck. Use the smallest socket on the skate tool along with a screwdriver to make sure all these are tight. If they’re loose, it’ll affect your ride and it’ll make annoying buzzing or rattling sounds.

  • Give the trucks/wheels a wiggle. They should move easily and return to center. If they don’t return to center or flop around, look for the kingpin—a nut and bolt pair that hold the axle to the hardware mounted under the board—and tighten it. The best advice I can give on this is to tighten it until the washer underneath the bolt doesn’t turn freely, then consider another half-turn of tightness, at least when you’re starting out.

Something to remember about the advice you’ll read about truck tightness: In your first few weeks, you will probably not be putting yourself in positions where you need to–or could safely–make a sudden maneuver. People advocating for loose trucks are more experienced and put themselves in different situations from someone trying to learn how to push around a parking lot or playground.

3. Picking Where to Ride

If you can, go find an empty parking lot or playground with blacktop. If there’s a slope, make sure it’s gentle. Watch out for:

  • Even small pebbles and twigs
  • Cracks
  • Weeds growing out of cracks

… all those things will send you flying, especially if you haven’t mastered how to distribute your weight or are still moving slowly.

Park-n-ride lots are ideal on weekends: Pretty empty and unused.

At first, you should probably avoid:

  • Streets. Motorists can be unforgiving and they’ll ride right up on you then blare their horns. In Portland, you’re allowed to be on the street, but you don’t need to be looking over your shoulder or taking a spill in traffic.
  • Sidewalks. Lots of cracks, pebbles, and twigs that aren’t great under normal circumstances, and will stop you dead and make you fall off when you’re going slow.
  • Multi-use paths. Like streets, you’re allowed to be on them, but you’ll have fast-moving bicyclists, dogs, other pedestrians, etc. to deal with. And think of other people: Usually when you spill it means your board flies off straight behind or in front of you. Even a bicyclist being careful around you shouldn’t have to dodge your board (or your body).

4. Early riding

I am not going to write about how to actually start moving around on a board. There are tons of tutorials that all repeat the basic advice of “figure out which foot you balance on, stand on the board with that foot, push with the other, bend your knees slightly” etc. I’d recommend searching YouTube, and if I ever get around to putting together a bibliography, I’ll pick a few for you.

I will suggest a few things you should do as early exercises, and consider doing just one thing at a time:

  • Push so that you go in a straight line. That takes some fine-tuning of your balance, so once you’re able to move on the board at all, make “going straight” your first goal.
  • After you push, pay attention to how gently you put your pushing foot back up on the board. If you plant back on the board hard, it destabilizes you.
  • Lean gently to steer inside a narrow path. Rather than taking on curves and turns right away, learn how to weave and drift. My local playground had handy running lanes for the 50m dash, so I picked the two lanes I wanted to stay inside and learned to weave around within them.
  • Learn to gently drag your foot to stop. It’s another balance and muscle control challenge to drag your foot enough to slow you down without planting it and falling off. It’s okay to just hop off, but you won’t be able to control your board as well and it’s sorta hell on your joints.

Also remember that a little speed is actually your friend: If you go too slow, the stopping power of a twig or pebble increases quite a bit. If you’re going faster, you tend to roll over them.

Finally, consider tightening your trucks down when you’re first learning to just go in a straight line. The board won’t be as responsive to leaning to steer, but it’ll also feel more stable. As you get more comfortable, loosen the trucks a half turn at a time. One way I learned to judge how to tighten my trucks was foot pain: the board felt wobbly underneath, and my feet hurt because I was “monkey-toeing” the board. Tightening the trucks helped give me a sense of stability, my feet relaxed, and things felt better. I eventually loosened back up as I got more comfortable.

Oh … one more thing:

Rest!

I went out and rode for an hour or two every single day for a couple of weeks. I got sore and tired, and stopped progressing. After taking a forced week off so my knee could stop throbbing, it got easier again.

Since then, if I do a long session one day, I’ll try to take the next day off. That makes my next session feel pretty good, and I can tell some muscle memory consolidation has gone on during the break.

5. After-market improvements

People eventually come to have opinions about every single component of their board. I’m going to propose a few high-priority things for the beginning rider that are easy to replace or experiment with that will make a difference, in priority order:

First off, bushings: These are the barrel- or coned-shape bits of polyurethane that sit in the trucks. They come in a variety of hardnesses (“durometers”). If you’re a heavier person, you want harder bushings. Remember that in the youth-dominated world of skateboarding and longboarding, the definition of “heavier” shifts to the left a bit. Here’s a good intro to bushings. I’d recommend either “barrel” or “standard” bushings.

When I took my board into a local shop and asked for advice on how to improve the ride, the first thing they did was grab some harder standard bushings and pop them in for me. The ride improved immensely: I was able to loosen my trucks while keeping a feeling of stability underfoot, so the ride got more comfortable and I had more maneuverability.

If you don’t weight more than 170 or so pounds, you can probably leave your bushings alone, though anyone over 140 or so will probably benefit from consulting that intro and picking something of medium hardness.

Next up, wheels: These are sorted by hardness (“durometer”) and size (in millimeters). From what I’ve seen, most retailers will sell complete boards with a 70mm wheel of soft durometer (78a). That’s a good, general-purpose choice.

If you’re just interested in cruising around, I’d recommend looking at a larger wheel. If you’re a heavier rider, I’d recommend looking at a harder durometer.

This is a good time to take the plunge and visit a local longboarding specialist, along with your board, because they can help you make a good choice and avoid some problems.

Larger wheels make it easier to roll over rocks, twigs, and cracks. They accelerate more poorly, but they hold a higher speed and roll longer. If 70mm is “normal,” 80-85mm is on the larger end. If 78a is “softer,” 86a is at the hard end for a longboard. 75-80mm/83a is a good cruising wheel for a larger person.

You should go in and ask at a shop, though, because if your wheels are too large, you risk the board coming in contact with the wheels in turns (“wheel bite”) and that can dump you off your board. Your board manufacturer may have a recommended setup on their website, but they tend to be conservative. Your local shop may know, and if they don’t they can take the time to help you figure it out.

Next, bearings are worth a look. Amazon decks probably have cheap bearings that don’t spin very well. Bearings are rated with an “ABEC” number, the higher the better. Most boards ship with ABEC 5 or 7 bearings, ABEC 9 is the highest rating. “ABEC 11,” btw, is a brand name designed to confuse you, so don’t humor them.

I’ll offer some very specific brand advice here. If it’s spring or summer and you have months of dry riding ahead of you, just buy Bones Reds: They’re great. If you’re headed into wet weather, or live somewhere that’s wet a lot of the time, consider Zealous bearings: They have built in spacers and speedrings, with a thicker lubricant that resists washout in wet riding. Zealous bearings have a slightly longer break-in period, but people who ride in all weather swear by them because they don’t require as much cleaning and lubrication.

Finally, you’ll read some advice about speed rings and spacers. While they do allow you to tighten down your wheels (which makes them more stable) they aren’t absolutely necessary. Spacers in particular, if they aren’t built in to your bearings, can sometimes rattle or buzz and they don’t do much for novice riders or cruisers. For just cruising around, you probably don’t need to bother with them, and not having them makes changing your wheels or bearings easier and faster.

That’s a great springboard into the next section, which is …

6. Learning to shop retailers

I mentioned just going to Amazon for your first board because I assumed you’re as shy as me, and are possibly wanting to avoid a big commitment if you’re not even sure you want to do this. I don’t feel 100 percent comfortable with that advice, so I’m going to make up for it by recommending that you engage with a local, independent retailer early on, even if you hate dealing with specialist retail. There aren’t any secrets to doing this, really, so think of this as a way to set expectations and judge whether your local retailer deserves your money:

First, just avoid Zumiez if there’s one near you. If you go in to buy a custom board and mostly know what you want, you’ll probably do okay: I’ve watched the folks at the one down the road build boards and they seem competent, but those folks aren’t always around and they will try to upsell you when they are. I stopped through to buy bearings once, and they “strongly recommended” $75 Bones Swiss. I said “no thanks, just the Reds” and got a little smirk and a “had to try” shrug. When we got Ben his first skateboard, they kept pushing premium stuff in the name of “your board being unique to you.”

Worse, you might get a clerk who doesn’t even skate. I hung back and watched Ben get interrogated at length about his riding, only to be told, “I don’t skate … I just like the clothing culture.” And another, when asked if he had any risers in stock, tried to sell me bushings.

I feel sort of bad writing this because there’s a middle-aged store manager at our local one who is friendly, non-aggressive, a little flirty, and definitely skates, but she’s the outlier. Sorry if you’re reading this!

If you do have a local, independent shop, give them a shot. In Portland, we’ve got Daddies, and they’re great: The shop itself is well stocked with boards, and they’re a large online retailer so there’s a ton of stuff in the warehouse even if it’s not right there on the retail floor.

They set the standard for retail: They help you stand on several different kinds of board to figure out what’s comfortable. If they’re building one for you, they talk you through the options based on what you want to do with the board, starting from a reasonable baseline of good but inexpensive components. They’re happy to assemble it for you, and will talk you through why they’re doing what they’re doing. When I walked in unhappy with the way my board was handling, they knew to swap out the bushings right away, and installed them for me, too.

If you can’t get that kind of treatment, I’ll note that none of the routine stuff about a longboard is hard once you do it a few times:

  • Picking and changing wheels
  • Changing or cleaning bearings
  • Tightening the kingpin on your trucks
  • Changing out your bushings

All of that stuff is easy. There’s a ton of information online, and if you don’t care to use Amazon on principle, there are several online retailers who will ship stuff for free.

The best piece of advice I can give you if you choose to do any of the routine stuff on your own is to just change one thing at a time. For instance, most retailers don’t offer to customize bushings when you order from them, so you’ll have to do that for yourself. Disassemble just one truck so you can model from the other one and make sure you’ve put it back together correctly.

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