Bordeaux City Lights

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The Grapes of Wrath

It all started in the scarier hours of the night, when it gets very cold and humid. It was such a long time ago that Jesus wasn’t even born yet. He was actually not to be born for another couple centuries! Dark times, I’m telling you. That night, as the stars were shining over what was soon going to be called Burdigalia by the Romans, the founders of that little port -a Celtic tribe coming from the north of what would one day become France- all gathered around a big fire. The “Bituriges Vivisques”, as historians would one day fondly remember them as, had an ugly business to do. But, hey, there’s no such thing as tin business…

Just kidding!

Red wine and fine skating

Got you worried for a sec’, uh!? You envisioned yourself embarked in a five thousand plus words lyrical odyssey about a French town you only know of because it seems to embody the making of fine red wine. Or, even better, you probably have never even heard of it because you are young enough to drink carbonated sodas only, and your parents are crass enough to believe there is no such thing better tasting than beer in tall metal cans… well, I’ll try to save you from the cultural verbiage and go straight to the point: the shredding! Hmm? The schralping! Uh? Ok, the nollie flips…

It was pretty common knowledge that the city offered a great plaza.

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So, once upon a time, Bordeaux was mostly known in the great big world of skateboarding for, well, two things mainly: first, it was pretty common knowledge that the city offered a great EMB-like plaza -but made out of marble and not disjointed red bricks and cheap concrete- free to skate all day, but that you really wanted to avoid, because of its locals! Secondly, Bordeaux was often pronounced very softly in conversations about where was hiding a certain Brit named Tom and that most of the world was looking for. But, we’ll get back to that later…

Locals Only?

I am not even sure how to explain to young and easily perverted minds what was going on in Bordeaux at a time that could be referred to as… the Nineties. By then, skateboarding and nollie flips had been invented and were ruling the seven continents and the seas around them.
Gator was in jail and Tony Alva already old. Scary, uh? The whole planet was revolving around a certain town called San Francisco and a very tiny segment of it that would be often mentioned as the Mecca, or wrongly as EMB (which was actually the code-name for its locals: Embarko’s Most Blunted).Anyway, the rest of the world was trying to emulate the tricks, the attitude and the lifestyle coming out of this one spot where most of the trick you think are “modern” were first landed –then- by a certain Henry Sanchez. So, in every small village/town/suburb of Austria, New-Zealand or Sweden, skaters were looking for a spot more or less (often the latter, to be fair) looking like Embarko where they could learn to smoke their first cigarettes, drink very cheap beer and puke it, over-wax everything in sight and land nollie flips also. Those were dark ages also, in some matters…

The general vibe ended up pretty sour after a while.

Bordeaux had one thing most villages will never have: an actual plaza that was amazing to skateboard. It was even pretty much new, and lying in front of a concrete complex mixing a museum, an art school and a theatre, which made it even easier to localise. In a major university town like Bordeaux, the police do not really feel like defending public marble from crooked grinds, especially if it’s located in a very open space – read scorching from direct sunlight most of the time. Therefore, the Malraux plaza soon turned into a skateboarding heaven, until the side effects of heavy localism started to show their ugly heads. As you would expect, some local skateboarders turned very good at skating the place, but the general vibe ended up pretty sour after awhile. Somehow a very common activity of the Bordeaux inhabitants’ -that you could describe as “drinking cheap beer in the sunlight at the hottest hours of the day”- caught up on a lot of people skating Malraux. And a general sense of failure started to float on the place.

Bordeaux ended up being black listed from tours as a place to visit or skate.

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While some were skating their little hearts out all day everyday, a few were busier trying to act like gangsters, or just dickheads really, to the shame of those first mentioned. Believe it or not, but Bordeaux even ended up being black listed from tours or as a place to visit and skate even. The fact that the city mostly consisted of really old architecture (read cobblestones here) did play a part, but it was mostly the unfriendliness of a handful of people that got it written off by most. A lot of skaters from Bordeaux actually survived that short era by developing an avid habit of travelling, just to stay away from the doomed plaza. Most of the new generation, one that is now all over the national mags and even getting recognition out of France also learned early that you could look for other things in life, even spots in the suburbs. You could say bad things can have positive effects … still, as the Malraux plaza was slowly crumbling from the non-stop skating and turning into the corpse of a spot, things didn’t look really bright.

Penny tales

Just as Bordeaux was slowly building a bad rep’ in France’s skateboard community collective memory, a revolution was changing the world: the almighty Tom Penny, after conquering the States via a few interviews and video parts that shut down all the haters and turned them into fierce believers, decided he had enough of the American dream and pulled a Houdini while doing the usual European summer tour. He basically disappeared for a few months that turned quickly into years. As time passed, the most ridiculous stories began to circulate via various mediums. This is a time when the internet was still growing, and way before blogs and Suckster.com. I cannot even imagine what you would have read on those, if technology had allowed it!

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If skateboarding is what you make of it, you cannot deny the major influence played by its environment.

Still, while dumb rumours were sprayed left and right, a few began to realize Tom was just doing what he wanted, which was living with his mum in a tiny rural village near Bordeaux, in the family house he used to visit every summer as a kid. Therefore, the most wanted lad in the universe could play chess with his mum all day, or get into a train to meet some childhood friends and slappy noselide curbs all night (the brightest side of being insomniac). Every time you would get into town, you would hear the latest tricks he might have tried or done, usually unbelievable ones, while sessioning with another local legend, Serge Defreitas. I actually remember bumping into both of them, at that time, in the middle of the night in Paris while getting home, and seeing them trying some strange bench to stair antics…

Then, Tom would go on some solo mission somewhere else, usually visiting friends in Europe and adding, with no concern or care, to his own legend. But, yeah, for a while the surest place to have a Penny sighting, for what was left of the nineties and the beginning of the new century, was Bordeaux!

New era for all!

If skateboarding is what you make of it, you cannot deny the major influence played by its environment. Bordeaux, once and for all –or what it seemed like- a bourgeois and stale city got to enjoy a new bloom of some sort when it changed mayor. Jacques Chaban-Delmas, a partisan hero during the Second World War, had been elected in 1946 and was still holding the reins almost fifty years after. Bordeaux’s inhabitants could feel they needed something new, and voted for a new Mayor in 1995. Alain Juppé quickly put the old lady on a heavy diet, and Bordeaux has since been going through major changes, one being the return to an old favourite: the tram! For the past couple years, Bordeaux has been one mess of a traffic jam, so a whole new grid of tramway lines had to be set up. And, yes, the social-economic expert in you knows what road renewing, plaza redoing and a general street- lifting brings: spots! Lots of them, plus a quick way to get there… In virtually two years, the new generation of skaters received a reward for their years of polishing their skills on one dying marble plaza and a metal skatepark by the river: a whole new town of some sort.

Bordeaux has virtually turned overnight into a new Mecca for skateboarding.

A local board company even grew on those newly fertile grounds. Opus ended up being short lived, but it still united even more a scene that was now booming. Bordeaux now has a lot to skate, including a second skatepark along the river again, but this time in the shade and way more contemporary. Look at the photos and realize they show more than the best skaters of one town. They also feature fifteen years of skateboarding in Bordeaux, as some of those actually have witnessed, and survived it all. Still doing it. Still growing. You’re just never too old to better yourself, even as a city.

Bordeaux has virtually turned overnight into a new Mecca for skateboarding. It will never be The Mecca, but it is now known as a good place to go, and meet good people. Be aware it wasn’t such an easy change, and nothing is either black or white, though. And enjoy the best part of Bordeaux now: its people and their diversity, not its spots.

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