A luge? On Bogus Basin Road? She loves gravity sports.
They come flying around the corner — just zip, and then they’re gone. One, two, maybe three skateboarders going impossible speeds through the curves on Bogus Basin Road. And as the piéce de résistance, there goes — shoom — a pair of luges. They’re even faster and lying down, just 4 inches off the road.
Of all the crazy …
It’s the suddenness that brings us up short, and in a surge of responsive adrenaline, we shake our heads and label them, yep, absolutely crazy.
The thing is — they aren’t, really. The downhillers thrive on going ridiculous speeds, it is true, and they speak an insider language about wheels and bearings and the moves they make; but they’re interesting people, experts in their own way — and clearly addicted.
“Different people have different responses to challenging ourselves,” says 54-year-old CJ Wilkinson, or “Mama Wilky,” a hospice nurse and self-proclaimed skate mom. You wouldn’t pick her to be one of the lugers.
“We all have a different tolerance for what is exciting or thrilling,” she says. “And we find different things thrilling. …
“Riding luge just quiets my mind. I have this focus when I’m riding — and a peace that is opposite of what you’d expect.”
Wilkinson was introduced to the world of downhill skateboarding and luging while following her teenage son in the downhill skateboard race circuit. As a concerned mother, she bought him a really good helmet. That’s all she felt she could do.
“The light in his eyes, and the passion that he had … I’m not going to get in the way of him doing what he needed to do,” she says.
“I’m not one of those moms where I bite my nails. It was a little intense, watching him learn, because you have to fall down and figure out how to navigate. …
“But it lit up his world and that brought us all joy.”
Downhill skateboarding didn’t light up her world, but then she saw the luge. That was three years ago, when she was 51 years old.
“I went 12 miles an hour on my first run,” she says, “and I thought I was going to fly off the face of the Earth.”
Another part of her love affair with the luge was that Wilkinson had been debilitatingly sick with Lyme disease since 2011.
“I really just missed moving,” she said, “and I was struggling with depression and anxiety. …
“I found the most amazing peace in my helmet. I put my helmet on — and it’s me and the road and off I go. It was part of my wellness journey.”
It still is.
They meet in the dark on the weekends in the summer, the people whom Wilkinson calls her skateboard family.
“It’s not a big scene,” says Brandon Ayllon, 24, a biochemistry student at the College of Western Idaho who is part of that “family.” About a half-dozen riders gathered in a parking lot on lower Bogus Basin Road, which, he says, is pretty much “everybody” who’s into downhill speed.
What he likes about Wilkinson is her friendly, inclusive personality. “There’s a stigma with skateboarding that you have to be some sort of punk or rebel,” Ayllon says. “But when you see CJ, she’s the polar opposite.”
And, he adds, “The best part is that although she’s the polar opposite — she’s faster than you.”
The legality of downhill skateboarding falls into a gray area, but all riders must obey traffic laws. Their pre-dawn mornings are not so much clandestine as they are in deference to cars. Uphill cars passing uphill cyclists are the most troublesome; the cars swing wide into the downhill lane, which is the one the boarders are using.
“I’m always planning for a car to be there,” Wilkinson says. “I’ve had to ditch off the side of the road not to be hit.” She plots her line and escape routes corner by corner. She’ll sit up to slow down and to see what is coming.
“Now if the road were closed, I could go even faster, because I could use both sides of the road to make my turns and go without concern,” she says. “But with the cars there, that’s why we go first thing in the morning.”
Along with other riders, Wilkinson’s husband, engineer Dean Wilkinson, 53, is a faithful companion on the training runs. He diligently drives the follow vehicle, but when there’s an extra driver, he’ll jump on a gravity bike, g-bike for short, a pedal-less bicycle with a low center of gravity.
He, too, likes the thrill of downhill. “Speed, control, banking, leaning into corners, not crashing — knock on wood,” he says. “It’s fun to put it out there.”
Cade Keller, 17, an Emmett high school senior, and part of CJ’s “family,” came to downhill skateboarding from ski racing, which has many similarities, including the speed. “When I first started, 30 mph was as fast as you could possibly make me go,” he says. But he gradually got more comfortable. “Suddenly, I realized that I — and my board — could handle the higher speeds.”
His personal best was 65 mph. “It was a rush. Seeing the world go by you that fast — outside of a car — was a completely different experience than I’ve ever done before.”
The fastest CJ Wilkinson has gone is 70 miles per hour — in training in Colorado, not on Bogus Basin Road.
“You can feel your legs lifting, you know. It was pretty intense,” she says. The world record for a gravity-powered street luge is 101.9 mph, set by American Mike McIntyre in L’Ultime Descent in Quebec in 2016. (The fastest for downhill skateboarding is 89.41 mph, set by Kyle Webster in 2016.)
As much as it looks like it, street luge is not a free-fall. Like the luge in the Winter Olympics, Wilkinson steers her sled deftly around corners by leaning her upper body, but unlike winter luge, she counterbalances with her legs. “Always mindful of aerodynamics,” she says.
To slow down, she “air brakes” by sitting up, or by pressing her shoes on the pavement — she’s glued tire rubber to the bottoms. Wilkinson says people think the hand brakes on her husband’s g-bike give him an advantage, but she can out-stop him with just her tire soles. “The riders behind can tell where I’ve been because I leave a smell from when I put my feet down,” she jokes.
(Skateboarders, on the other hand, tuck to lower their center of gravity, and lean forward to control their turns. They skim pucks attached to their gloves on tight corners, a little like Olympic speed skaters.)
“It is crazy at a certain point,” says Cade, the Emmett senior. “(But) I don’t skate a hill unless I’m comfortable I’m not going to wreck and I’m comfortable with the people around me. It’s about the way you see things.”
“It’s just another thing that’s out of the norm,” says Ayllon, the downhill longboarder. “Some people may not understand (downhill riding) at first, but when we show them our equipment and procedures, it’s like a weight is taken off their shoulders.”
He laughs. “It’s taken years for my mom to start openly saying, ‘It’s OK, go have fun.’ ”
Because the sport demands so much focus, Ayllon says it helps him set aside extraneous noise in his mind. “The whole point is to keep you in your happy place — and that allows you to forget any negativity.”
Wilkinson agrees. “It doesn’t feel crazy to me,” she says.
In fact, a group in Utah uses gravity sports — like downhill skateboarding — as a tool to fight anxiety and depression and to bring awareness to mental health issues. They call themselves “Skate to Fight.” Wilkinson joined forces with them and made a sticker for her helmet visor that says “Luge to Fight.”
“I’m pretty passionate about caring for one another in an honoring way,” she says.
Wilkinson also rides three evenings a week on Old Freezeout Hill in Emmett, which is slower than Bogus Basin Road; and trains with mentors in Colorado, Oregon and California. The International Downhill Federation holds World Cup and World Cup qualifying races around the world.
Downhill skateboarding is the dominant competitive sport. The class of lugers is small enough that men and women compete together.
However, in 2017, at a race called Windwalk on the Maryhill Loops Road in Washington on the Columbia River, there was a women’s-only luge race with three contestants.
“I ended up third,” Wilkinson says, and laughs. “All three of us decided we must have world status, right? And so — one, two and three (me) in the world.”
The status is, of course, unofficial. But Wilkinson wants to be first among those women.
“I love to see how far I can push me,” she says. “I don’t want to take out the girls that are faster than me. I want to see if I can get me faster than them, because I think they’re amazing.”
Because for her, speed is just a means to an end.
“I’m not a thrill-seeker, although I find (luge) thrilling,” Wilkinson says. “It’s very much a calm, spiritual place for me. I don’t think it’s crazy at all. …
“I kid you not. I put my helmet on and it’s just me and the road, and everything else is quiet. I don’t have ‘ifs’ and ‘should I’s?’ and ‘what am I going to do next?’ It’s just peace and quiet — and I thrive. …
“I love it.”
WANT TO LEARN?
CJ Wilkinson has some firm guidelines:
— Don’t skate alone.
— Start small. “On little hills, so you get used to turning,” she says. “There needs to be proficiency at sliding to a stop; you have to be able to stop quickly; you have to be able to carve off speed. There’s a whole set of skills that need to be in place before you hop on Bogus Basin Road or any of the big hills. It’s all doable; you just have to gradually work up to it.”
— All the gear, all the time. She wears a leather suit with padding on hips, knees and elbows plus gloves and special shoes. And, of course, a full-face helmet.