In Defence Of Scooters: We Tried To Get A Different Perspective On The World’s Most Mocked Action Sport
Are scooters really that bad? Ryan Williams, of Nitro Circus fame, and Swiss inventor Wim Ouboter certainly don't think so.
Scoot. Scooter. Scootering. The words look unstylish written down, and they sound even more unstylish when said out loud. Skateboarders, BMXers, and literally anyone with the power of sight may disagree over many things in life; but show most people a picture of someone riding a scooter and you can virtually guarantee that every single one of them will be in agreement – scooter riding looks silly.
But are these critics being unfair in their labelling of scooters? Are we all judging a book by a cover, rather than trying to dig a little deeper? Have we, like a bunch of Donald Trump supporters who refuse to acknowledge the facts, turned a blind eye to truth and reason? Maybe there’s something we’re missing in our rush to pigeonhole things. It sounded insane, but when I started walking down this path I reasoned that there must be something special about it that the people who do it love.
“…they don’t, excuse my wording, give a fuck what other people think when they’re going fast from A to B.”
In a bid to try and understand scooters more, I figured the best course of action was to speak to two of the biggest names associated with them: Ryan Williams, of Nitro Circus-fame, and Wim Ouboter, micro scooter inventor and head of Micro Mobility Systems Ltd.
If you’re not familiar with Ryan Williams, he’s a pretty big deal. In fact, it’s not much of a stretch to say that he’s the biggest deal in the world of scooters. While travelling about as a member of Travis Pastrana’s prolific action sports roadshow Nitro Circus, Williams regularly pushes back the boundaries of what’s possible on a scooter. In 2013, for example, Williams nailed the unprecedented feat of three world firsts in the same St Petersburg show (a ruler front-flip, a cash roll tail-whip rewind, and a double front-flip tail-whip).
“Like obviously, I had tried them in practice and gotten pretty close so I knew I could do them. It was just about doing them all in the same night. And yeah, it was one of those days where everything just worked,” Williams tells us when the subject of that phenomenal evening in Russia comes up.
Williams, it’s worth noting, is also seriously handy on a BMX. This has, fairly or unfairly, lead to accusations from some that he’s a man who’s got his priorities the wrong way round. I pushed Williams on this to see what exactly it is about scooters that keeps him off the BMX and on the scooter.
“…I know that I’m representing scooters and so I always want to do my best for scooters.”
“The major thing for me is that it’s a BMX and a skateboard joined together. I like that it’s got a deck to do grinds on, so you can do all the skateboard grinds, and then it’s got the bars so you can do all of the BMX-style tricks. That’s my favourite part about it.”
For many people, especially youngsters, Williams is seen as someone who gives credibility to scooters and as someone who can help to legitimise scooters in the action sports community. How does Williams cope with such status, and the inevitable pressure that comes with it?
“It’s not a bad pressure. But I do feel pressure, especially when we’re doing the shows in front of new crowds that don’t even understand that I’m even going to drop in. The first thing they say to me is like ‘Are you going to drop in on that ramp?’ and I’m like ‘I’m going to do a lot more than just drop in on the ramp.’ So yeah, I do feel pressure to perform and land all my tricks at the shows on the scooter especially. Just because I know that I’m representing scooters and so I always want to do my best for scooters.”
Influential figures such as Travis Pastrana have only good things to say about Ryan Williams. Pastrana, for example, regularly cites Williams as the most talented member of the Nitro Circus team. For those scooter riders trying to build a legacy for their sport, comments such as Pastrana’s do nothing to hurt their cause. I spoke to Williams about what it means to be so highly rated by a leading figure in action sports.
“You can ride scooters different ways. It’s like dancing.”
“Ah, it feels awesome. Like I look up to Travis not only for the things that he’s done, but the way that he brings out the best in people. And that’s something that I idolise and want to be like, so for him to that say it’s just so surreal.”
Of course despite all the positive comments on his riding ability and talent, Williams is still well aware that many people have got a real issue with the way scooters look and the space they take up down at the skatepark. We asked him for his thoughts on these negative perceptions of scootering, and what he thinks the root cause of them are.
“It’s growing so fast that it’s kind of overwhelming people. I mean, you can jump on a scooter and it’s easy to start off with and that’s why so many people do it. And I guess people find that to be something to dislike about it, when it’s actually something we really like about it. Because kids can be, you know, seven years old and doing backflips and stuff like that. So they enjoy it more which in turn makes people jealous that it’s easy, and I think that’s why people label it the way they do.”
One argument that’s been laid at the door of scootering is that it doesn’t have the same history and heritage, as say skateboarding or surfing. I was curious to hear from Williams whether he thought the fact that scooters aren’t as well established as some of the other action sports was a factor preventing them for being accepted by the more core action sports community and thus holding them back from widespread acceptance. “I don’t think it’s holding scooters back as much as it used to because I think it’s a lot better now, but certainly it still does and it’s something that might deter some people away. But I think the majority of people are now facing the stereotypes head on. And, you know, it’s only the little kids at the skatepark that are brand new and don’t know the rules that are the ones the skateboarders are talking about. So, you know, all it takes is for that generation to grow older and know the rules and then it’s fine. Eventually, I don’t think they’ll be any bad blood between the sports.”
“What I really love about it [Nitro Circus] is that a lot of places that we go to in America and Canada haven’t seen scooter riding on that sort of level.”
Whatever my preconceived notions of scootering were before chatting to Williams, it’s hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm for it. He’s clearly a man dedicated to scooters not just in the here and now but also moving forward into the future as well. But what level does Williams think scooter riding can reach?
“I think it’ll continue to grow and I think it will just get more and more respected throughout the community. And I mean, I can already see it getting more respected. I can ride my scooter now and no one says anything at the skatepark, whereas when I used to ride scooters when I was like 12 it was frowned upon. Nowadays, it’s just sort of mixed in and become another sport at the skatepark. And I think in 10 years it will be even bigger than that, and there’ll be a culture behind it and a lot more people doing it.”
With recent developments, such as skateboarding and surfing being confirmed as events for Tokyo 2020, does Williams see a situation where freestyle scooter riders could go up against each other at an Olympic level? The thought of freestyle scooter tricks being rewarded for their style and execution with Olympic medals might sound ridiculous, but if scootering continues to grow in the way Williams predicts it will – perhaps it’s not such a far-fetched idea?
“I think any action sport being in the Olympics is a touchy issue. It’s sort of like if art was in the Olympics. You can ride scooters different ways. It’s like dancing. People always ask me: “Who’s the best scooter rider in the world?” or something like that, and I always tell them that it depends. Because it’s like saying who’s the best dancer in the world. You can have someone who’s a ballerina and you can have someone who’s a break dancer. And who’s to say that the best ballerina isn’t the best, or that the best breakdancer isn’t the best. You can’t really say who’s the best because the breakdancer can’t be a ballerina and the ballerina can’t breakdance.”
In an industry where athletes can get megabuck sponsorship deals for looking cool, and doing cool things, there’s an argument to be made that says action sports in general are too obsessed with image; too obsessed with what’s on the surface, and not what’s underneath. I was intrigued to find out whether Williams thought scooters were being unfairly judged on their appearance, rather than on the fun people get from them.
“I guess it’s only the people who are jealous who really worry about the style and the culture, and stuff like that. Whereas the actual athletes that are having fun doing their best, they don’t really worry about what they look like. They worry more about what’s fun and what they enjoy doing.”
Fashions change, trends change, yesterday’s top hat is today’s man bun. With commonly-held views shifting more than ever in these increasingly uncertain times, I wanted to know whether Williams felt his work with scooters was changing perceptions, and whether this meant anything to him on a personal level. His answer paints him as an ambassador for scooters; someone who wants to take his BMX-skateboard hybrid to the masses.
“That’s like the most important part to me. I don’t do many comps anymore, I just try to just focus on representing scooters rather than trying to have a little civil war at being the best at scooters…What I really love about it [Nitro Circus] is that a lot of places that we go to in America and Canada haven’t seen scooter riding on that sort of level. So when I turn up, they can’t believe I’m even going to drop in on the ramp let alone do any tricks. So when I do it they really appreciate it.”
A few weeks later I managed to nail down some time with Wim Ouboter. Born in 1960, Ouboter, from Switzerland, is the big cheese at Micro Mobility Systems. If you’re not familiar with the company, they basically kick-started the modern scooter craze in the 90s with their now world famous foldable kick-scooter. Their ‘Micro’ logo is synonymous with scooters in the same way that ‘Brompton’ is with foldable bicycles.
With an annual revenue of 60 million Swiss Francs (about 47 million pounds), over 10 million scooters sold, and roughly 3,000 store locations in over 60 countries across the planet, it’s fair to say that micro-scooters have been good to Ouboter.
“Things couldn’t be better. I’m not actually in Switzerland at the moment. I’m in Greece on an island. This is like my second working location in the summertime you know. Life’s too short to sit in the office all the time. Here you can sit on the balcony, and have both work and pleasure.”
Ouboter is a man who’s built his success on micro-scooters, and the consumer’s seemingly insatiable appetite for them.
He says: “I had a factory in the US, a textiles factory, and had to move back and forth to the shipping logistic area about 20 times a day. To walk this was taking a lot of time so I made something like this steerable skateboard…”
“Afterwards, I lived in Zurich and the idea came back to me again because in the evening when I wanted to go for that sausage, at a famous sausage place, it was too far to walk and I was too lazy to take the bicycle out of the cellar for a distance I like to call a ‘micro-distance.’ I knew you could cover this with something simple and easy, and looking at the in-line skate wheels I had I came up with the idea to make a small-scooter out of them. It actually worked, but the problem was it looked really kind of strange. You know, if an adult is riding such a small thing…people look.”
“So I knew I had to make it bigger, but also collapsible in order to hide it so I wouldn’t be embarrassed to go into a bar with this thing and then get a sausage afterwards. That’s the basic idea of my scooter. It’s all about having fun riding it.”
“…in the evening when I wanted to go for that sausage…it was too far to walk and I was too lazy to take the bicycle out of the cellar…”
Anyone who’s walked about in London during rush hour will know that it’s not unusual to see commuters getting themselves to and from the office on a micro-scooter. I wanted to hear from a man who’s witnessed the changing consumer perceptions of scooters, from the inside, how he feels about the shifts that have occurred in the last twenty years.
“Yeah, so at the beginning it was like a must-have toy for Swiss bankers. I never wanted to position it like this but for some reason, maybe the price, there was loads of bankers riding them. And then all of a sudden it was just not cool for them to ride them because loads of kids jumped on it and then for a while it was just a kid’s, let’s say, mobility tool or toy. We’ll say mobility tool because we have a vision that is urban mobility.”
“I would say that since about four years ago you see a lot more of the adults riding them again because it just grabs them and they don’t, excuse my wording, give a fuck what other people think when they’re going fast from A to B. Of course, we are not going to be accepted by the very, very, cool guys; the ones that are only riding the fixies, you know what I mean – the hipsters. But then, of course, there are the other ones who are so cool that they don’t even care about what other people do. And this is the movement I’d like to see things going in.”
It’s funny, really. I thought by chatting to two of the biggest names in scooters, I’d come away with a far clearer understanding of what scooter riding is all about. But, if anything, I’m more confused than ever. A scooter, I realise, is a thing of contradictions. Something that wants to find a welcoming home at the skatepark as well as underneath the feet of a suit-and-tie nine-to-five office worker.
“Of course, we are not going to be accepted by the very, very, cool guys…”
Not quite a skateboard, not quite a BMX. Not quite a legitimately core part of the skatepark scene, not quite an accepted tool for adults to get around cities. By seemingly being everything all at once, without nailing any of these ideas conclusively, it can feel to the outsider looking in like scooters are missing something fundamental and definitive.
One thing to remember in all this, of course, is that style is subjective. And while I, myself, am no closer to thinking scooters look good stylistically the fact that so many people enjoy using them must mean that a child-like enjoyment lays at the heart of what scooters are. It might not be a very fashionable idea, but if scooters make people happy then who are we, a supposedly more open minded generation, to tell them otherwise?
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