PICTON — You hear them before you see them. On a mid-June day in Stirling, an otherwise quiet stretch of winding country road is suddenly filled with a sound like a swarm of bees. It builds quickly to a rumble, as if a transport truck were about to pass. Instead, five men lying on what look like long skateboards whip around the corner at speeds of up to 100 kilometres per hour. And, just as quickly as they arrived, they’ve vanished around another bend.
They aren’t skateboarders, though — they’re street lugers, and one them, Kolby Parks, 34, is the reigning global champion in the sport. For the uninitiated: street luge involves lying face-up on a tricked-out longboard and racing feet first down a paved road. Parks has been clocked going 154 kilometres per hour, about 10 notches short of the world record. The International Downhill Federation’s World Cup Series, which Parks won in 2018, involves races on four continents.
“I’ve raced in England, France, Germany, Italy, Czech Republic, South Korea, Brazil,” says Parks. “I went to Australia for the first time this year. I think I’m forgetting a bunch of countries, too. It’s a lot of travel.”
Stay up to date!
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.
Parks has had an appetite for extreme sports since childhood. He remembers watching the Indianapolis 500 on TV and seeing a collision send one car flying through the air in a cloud of smoke. “In that moment, I turned around to my mom and said, ‘Mom, I want to do that,’” he says. “I was four years old.”
Street luge came of age at the perfect time for Parks. In southern California in the 1970s, speed-hungry skateboarders realized that they could move even faster supine. Over time, the boards got bigger, stronger, and faster, and the riders got bolder. In 1995, the once obscure activity was included in the inaugural X Games alongside skateboarding and BMX.
Two years later, classmates convinced Parks, then 12, to watch a video recording of the 1997 X Games. “It’s like the Olympics,” Parks remembers a friend telling him, “except for sports we like.”
The first one that came on was street luge. “It was love at first sight,” says Parks. “I’d probably ridden my skateboard on my butt before, but I’d never considered racing it.”
So Parks and his father, Gary, took the bindings off an old pair of skis and screwed them to a skateboard. That first board still sits in his parent’s garage, along with three other scrap-built prototypes from his childhood — one crafted out of bar stools he found in a dumpster.
Today, Parks takes the sport more seriously. Street luge isn’t televised or heavily sponsored, so travel expenses are the competitors’ responsibility. Cash prizes are awarded at some of the higher-tier races, but, Parks says, they’re “nowhere close to enough” to cover travel and entry costs. A few sponsorships over the years have helped to offset some of his equipment costs, but that’s it. So, like most other street lugers, Parks has a full-time job: he works as an educational assistant at Prince Edward Collegiate Institute.
To prepare for his championship 2018 season, he stopped drinking alcohol and cut down on sugar. He started eating more high-protein foods and built up strength by adding weights to his board while practising starts.
“For years, he’s dedicated his whole life to street luge — what he eats, his lifestyle, how he trains,” says his mother, Nancy. “That’s what I’m proud of.”
That pride, is, though, mixed with concern. “Do they know your speed record?” she asks.
“154 [kilometres per hour],” Parks answers, adding, “I told them that’s the only part you don’t like.”
Street luging isn’t without its risks. Parks himself has never been seriously hurt, but, in 2016, he watched as the luger in front of him “slid out, hit a wall, and knocked himself out.” He says he remembers other riders telling him it “sounded like a bomb went off.”
Last year, in Rio de Janeiro, when Parks secured his World Cup championship, an 18-year-old Brazilian skateboarder was killed during a race after he collided head-on with a motorcycle. The rest of the event was cancelled, and Parks won the championship on the basis of his qualifying time.
“As a sportsman, you crave that moment of release, of winning,” Parks says. “But I never really got that. But this drama — this young man who lost his life lost a lot more than … I try not to dwell on it too much.”
Parks is now training in preparation for trips to Italy and the Czech Republic to defend his title (as of August 1, Parks sits atop the world rankings). He kisses his girlfriend, Jocelyn Sippola, loads his dad’s truck with gear, and heads for the hills an hour northwest in Stirling. He’s meeting his racing buddies — a group of friends who call themselves the Kounty Knights and have been luging together for more than a decade.
Parks slides into his custom-made gold leather racing suit, and then he and the Knights prepare for a run down their makeshift course. One friend is parked at the first turn; the wife of another racer stands below the final curve. She makes a cellphone call to signal that the road is clear.
After their “second-last” run — superstitious riders never call a trip “final” — they grab their boards and walk back to their trucks.
Parks, a few steps ahead of his friends, notices a TVO.org video camera and stops, waiting for the others to catch up.
“That’s so Kolby,” says Ira Hewton, who’s known him since kindergarten. “Doesn’t want to put himself in front of his friends. Just enjoy the spotlight, man.”