Skateboarding Science – Part 1

At the start of things, skateboarding was simple: it was nothing more than a wooden plank on roller skates, designed by the surfers of the 30s; it became popularly known as sidewalk surfing for the next three decades. Skateboarding then had little mechanics other than starting off at the top of a hill and rolling down to the bottom, fun but not particularly difficult. The only real problem was staying on the board and avoiding crashing into things.

Now, because of technical advances in the hardware, board & truck design, the sport of skateboarding is at a much higher level. In this blog we look at how modern skateboarders can execute the tricks and maneuvers that seem so easy to them.

The Laws of Physics

Today, we expect top skateboarders to provide what is basically some acrobatics show, as skaters leap from ramps, skid over obstacles, flip their boards at top speed. Most onlookers to the scene are amazed at the dexterity these skateboarders display, it is almost as though they are defying the laws of physics, but in reality they are using these laws to give them an advantage.

The Ollie

Invented by Alan Gelfand in the 1970s, the ollie was a radical maneuver which many people think is still the most dominant trick in skateboarding. It transformed the pastime of skateboarding into a sport and now is fundamental to the repertoire of any good skater.

Skateboarders tend to use the ollie as a platform to execute more complicated tricks. Basically, the ollie is a way of jumping that can allow skaters to hop over obstacles, and up onto curbs and the like. For the viewer it seems like the board is stuck to the skater’s feet in the air, which of course it is not. In fact, the amazing thing about the trick is that in order for the board to jump up, the skater has to actually push down on the board, this is done by using physics and it is a paradoxical maneuver involving the rotation around multiple axis.

The Frontside 180

The frontside 180 seems almost death defying to the novice, a skateboarder flies high into the air off a ramp, seems weightless as he hangs there, then the skater turns in the air and progresses down the ramp. It is like the famous curved ball in cricket, scientists say it is just not possible, well obviously the frontside 180 is possible, it is just very clever.

What this trick is doing is utilizing the law of angular momentum, as they say in physics. The law states, if you’re rotating, you’ll keep rotating unless a twisting force, or torque, acts to stop you. Likewise, if you’re not rotating, you can’t rotate unless a torque starts your rotation.

And if you happen to be hanging in the air, the only force that can affect you is that of the force of gravity. But in the earth’s atmosphere, gravity can only make you fall not rotate; to defy this, skaters use a trick all cats use: as they turn in the air, cats turn their legs 90 degrees while their torso and arms rotate the other way, simple.

In part two we continue our exploration how science influences the tricks of the skateboarder.