Date: Wednesday, August 15th, 2012
Writing From: Chicagoland, USA

Despite my nature to plan, plan, and overplan things, sometimes the best events happen spontaneously.

That’s what happened last weekend, when, without more than a few days of planning (consisting of “hey man what are you doing this weekened, want to go get on the water / ride the xled?”) a group of face level sports athletes got together to try out new sports they’d never done before.

I have a dream and I’ll put it out there publicly, since now I’m practically bursting with excitement: someday Face Level is going to put on the FLI Games, an all-face-level-sports event in the spirit of the X-Games. It’s going to happen.

Probably not in the USA, for liability reasons, but it will take place.

And judging from this weekend, it’s going to be more fun than I’d imagined!

This wasn’t a competition, but rather a product testing day featuring a roll call of inventors and pioneers in their respective sports.

Joining me at the Pigeon River in Tennessee were:
Adam Masters, the inventor of the Bellyak;
David Brush, the inventor of the Xled, along with additional riders and company guys from Brushfire Industries – Nate, Gary, and Stephen;
Kevin Yount, owner of Appalachian Riverboard Co and a well-known extreme riverboarder;
Jusbyn Lockhard, a riverboarder and kayaker from the area who is working on a documentary film about the psychology of extreme athletes.

What a group! I so appreciate everybody being willing to get together on short notice, and even more, the dynamic was sharing creative ideas with open minds all day long.

Getting ready for bellyak and riverboarding

Getting ready for bellyak and riverboarding

The Xledding guys had never been riverboarding, none of us other than Adam had been on the Bellyak, and other than Kevin nobody outside of Brushfire had ever used the Xled.

But as is typical with face level sports athletes, we’re all very comfortable being headfirst & horizontal to gravity, no matter the ship we’re steering (the Xled is said to be “hands-first”, since your hands are out in front, but technicalities aside, it’s a headfirst & horizontal sport).

So the ability to figure out these new sports came naturally, and the location and water level were just perfect, along with warm sunny weather.

But I’ll let the video at the end of the post tell you about the day – what you’re probably more interested in reading about now is a quick review of the Xled and Bellyak. So here we go.


BELLYAK

The Pigeon River was perfect for a 1st ride on the various Bellyak models (there is a play version and a downriver version, along with some prototypes).

It’s a class 3.3B river that was running higher than normal, about 1,900cfs. Few surface rocks, lots of waves, fun bouncy rapids, and a decent amount of flatwater.

Flatwater? I don’t remember any flatwater. But in looking at the footage from the day, there was a lot of flatwater in that 4 mile stretch. And yet, I barely remember it.

That’s because the Bellyak makes flatwater something you forget about. Why? Because, unlike being on a riverboard (especially the hydrospeed-style boards), kicking your way through the plodding current with a lot of drag, the Bellyak functions just like a kayak, gliding along on top of the water effortlessly.

In the rapids, it’s quite tippy at first. I was grabbing the handles, like I would on a riverboard, but Adam pointed out that he just floats through the rapids like he’s flying (unless he’s kneeling or sitting and doing tricks), arms extended for balance and quick hand-paddle strokes.

The handles are more for repositioning the body on the board.

Once I started doing that, I found it much easier to balance, and by the end of the run I was feeling confident in bigger rapids and even briefly caught a difficult surf wave.

Jusbyn Lockard on the Bellyak

Jusbyn Lockard on the Bellyak

The Bellyak is really, really fun though. I would have had my foot in my mouth from my initial comments on TeamFLI.com months ago when I first heard about it, were it not for the permagrin on my face all day.

Adam & co have created a great product in the Bellyak which opens up a lot of possibilities that riverboards are not able to address very well – the ability to run extremely shallow stretches of river, and getting people with lower body injuries on the water are among the top solutions it brings.

But just as a fun rivercraft, honestly, I loved the thing. I still have my questions about its viability in really big, really pushy whitewater, mainly because of the challenging balance and not really being able to use your legs like riverboarders do in that situation. Adam is bringing the boards to GauleyFest though, and if I can I’m going to give them a run and see how they do in bigger water.

For water up to class 3 though (which is all I’ve done on it), the Bellyak really is an awesome watercraft.

A few items of note:

  1. For competitions down the road, Bellyak will be a separate category from Riverboarding, owing to it using quite different technique and because it’s much, much faster in terms of pure downriver speed.
  2. It really is a separate sport. It’s a face level sport, but I’m considering it a new whitewater sport. Bellyak (or Bellyaking, whatever sticks) is a unique sport apart from Riverboarding.
  3. I want a Bellyak! There are some technical runs in the dry season where I live that are fun in a kayak but miserable on a riverboard – they’d be fun on the Bellyak though for sure!
  4. It’s long, like a kayak. Less volume, but the length will be an issue for traveling (flying).
  5. At the end of the run, as I stood in the takeout eddy, I was wracking my brain trying to figure out what was wrong, since I’d had a lot of fun – but something didn’t feel right. Then I realized, I was missing the sensation of the flow of water in my legs. For me, swimming is the big draw to riverboarding, and the full-body sensations at the end of a run are priceless. I missed that on the Bellyak.

Overall, I had a blast riding it prone, sitting down, and on my knees (which I’ve always thought was fun on previous boards I’d made that were wide enough). Plus Adam demonstrated all kinds of tricks the Bellyak allows you to do.

It won’t replace my Anvil as my number 1 river craft, but the Bellyak is definitely a well-designed board / boat and a new sport that is viable and will find a place creating a successful niche.

I’m a fan and supporter – check out their website (http://www.bellyak.com) and welcome the newest face level sport to the fold!

XLED

First of all, how do you pronounce it? Well, the best test of a name is on the street, and what I heard from most people were 2 different things:

  1. “X-sled” (when referring to the xled itself as a proper noun; “This is the new X-sled from Brushfire Industries.”)
  2. “Sled” (when referring to the xled informally; “That xled is fast!”)
  3. “Sledding” (when referring to the sport – still spelled xledding though; “This would be a perfect road for xledding.”)

This is something I’ve been wanting to try for a few years, and after everybody had drank their fill of the dirty bird (Pigeon River), Gary and Stephen jetted off in the Audi TT, top down and music up, looking for some curvy roads.

They found a good beginner spot not more than 5 minutes drive, and we all loaded up and rolled up into the hills.

The xleds look lightweight, but they’re not, weighing in at nearly 80lbs. That weight is due to the heavy-duty solid construction underneath, and keeps the xled stable at high speeds.

How stable? Well, you know that feeling you get on a roller coaster? How about driving a supercar at high speeds on extremely curvy roads?

I’m talking, the kind of vehicle that when you think in a direction, it goes there. Talking about cornering at high speeds with no lean. Pulling g-forces. The sensation of being glued to a track on the road.

That’s how the Xled feels. And it’s by design.

Similar to the Airboard®, whose performance is better and more responsive the faster you go, the Xled doesn’t hesitate when the rider gives subtle directions. The faster, the better.

And those directions are instinctive, since the hands are in the perfect position to control the xled.

You remember how I talked about the Anvil’s vertical handles being ideal, because of the way it gives the rider ability to control the board from a position of strength in every direction? The xled’s handles are positioned vertically as well, in a very similar manner. Thus, it’s extremely easy to control.

The one issue I had was that every time I turned, my body wanted to put my feet in the counterbalance position like I would on the river. So my feet naturally were a little “jumpy”, you could say, even though the design of the xled is such that your legs are firmly held in place.

That will take some getting used to. And some steel-toed boots because tapping your toes isn’t recommended without them.

But in that respect, the Xled is similar balance to the Bellyak, because you don’t use your legs on either of those, and one of the reasons I was feeling a bit tippy to start with on the Bellyak, is because I was instinctively trying to use my legs for balance and directional steering.

The xled uses a large number of wheels though and they are a softer, downhill skateboard wheel, making for a surprisingly smooth ride. Given that I was laying on metal, I was impressed with how comfortable the xled was even on less-than-smooth concrete.

WHERE TO RIDE?

Well, it’s a gravity board, so you can ride it anywhere there’s pavement and a little bit of slope. But, it’s really important to think safety!

If you’re going to use a public road, you should have spotters at the top and bottom of the area, kind of directing traffic so to speak. Two way radios and a bailout plan are good as well.

It’s also important to know the law and how it’s going to look at the Xled. Is it a bicycle? A skateboard? An alien vehicle? The laws are going to be different for each classification, and they’ll probably be classified differently in every state, and in various countries.

And should you encounter cops, they will classify it however they want to in that moment. Just another reason to make sure you know the local laws and abide by them (including trespassing laws, like in shopping mall parking lots and on university campuses).

Eventually we’ll find roads or tracks that are safe and fun to ride, and for events, roads or tracks that can be closed down and used exclusively for the Xled.

Until then, look at them as you would a downhill skateboard, and if you’ve got a fun paved hill in your neighborhood, it’ll probably work. Just remember that you are very low on the ground and not visible to drivers like a skateboarder would be.

FLI GAMES 2013


The end result of the first unofficial FLIday was that we’re all pretty stoked on the new face level sports we got to experience, and we’re looking forward to doing it all over again very soon.

How soon?

Well, all indications point to spring of 2013 as the next gathering, and while the event will be low-key to avoid any problems with the Ah-thor-i-tay, if you’re subscribed to FLI Life: Horizons I’ll keep you posted.

For those of us who love sports headfirst & horizontal, it was an absolute blast and a day we’re all looking forward to repeating.

Until next time, get outside and FLI!

joshgaltfli_sig.png
Josh Galt ~ FLI
Face Level Industries