MARYHILL – Cradled between two brown protuberances of the Columbia Hills in Klickitat County lies longboarding’s serpentine version of Fenway Park.
Maryhill Loops Road is so original among Washington roads that neighboring U.S. Highway 97 even has an overlook so motorists can gaze upon the 2.2-mile road with so many twists packed into just one mile of land.
This week more than 240 gravity sports athletes from 14 countries will converge on the road for the Maryhill Festival of Speed. “It’s like our Daytona 500,” said race promoter John Ozman, a Longbranch resident.
About 20 of the competitors will race street luge, but the rest will take on the road’s 5 percent grade and 22 turns on longboards. They’ll wear full-face helmets and sleek leather racing suits, and reach speeds of 50 mph.
Two JumboTrons will display the action for about 2,000 spectators and races will be webcast around the world.
“It is the best place to ride,” said Cody Shea, co-owner of Tacoma’ Five Mile Longboards and an entrant in this year’s race. “There’s no place else like it.”
Maryhill Loops Road open in 1913 (a year after Boston’s Fenway Park) and was the first asphalt-paved road in the Pacific Northwest. It was built by Sam Hill, founder of the Maryhill Museum of Art, to create an easier route from Goldendale to the Columbia River.
Hill lobbied Washington and Oregon to build good roads and as they did, the windy Maryhill Loops Road lost its usefulness. But in 1998, a section of the road was refurbished.
The road, owned by the museum, is closed to automobiles (unless they rent the road for $1,000 per day), but is open to other users.
As it did a century ago, the road is once again catching people’s imagination. Cadillac filmed a car commercial on the road. Audi and BMW car clubs rent the road for events. And people visit to walk and bike the road.
However, Sandra Williams, the museum’s event manager, says longboarders rent the road more than any other users.
Longboarders discovered the road shortly after it was refurbished, Ozman said, and promptly developed a poor reputation in the area with unorganized rides on the road.
In 2006, Ozman and others started to change that reputation. He founded Volcanic Promotions and by 2007 he was staging a World Cup race on the road. In 2008, the Maryhill Festival of Speed doubled as the International Gravity Sports Association’s world championship.
“It’s growing so fast, it’s amazing,” Ozman said. And the event has a good reputation with the community and the museum, Williams said.
While the Festival of Speed keeps growing (it has a waiting list of nearly 70 people this year), another organizer is staging four longboard events on the road this year.
Seattle-based Dean Ozman’s Maryhill Ratz stages events that he likens to creating a “ski area for longboarders.”
About 150 riders pay $105 each for two days of riding. These rides sell out in minutes, Ozman said. These aren’t races like the Festival of Speed, but riders still get amenities such as protective hay bails on corners, ambulances at the ready and shuttle service back to the top of the hill.
For those rides (and the Festival of Speed) organizers also make sure the roads are clear of rattlesnakes and cows, obstacles users should be alert for, Williams said.
The next ride is a women-only event July 28-29.
Ozman has been riding at Maryhill since 2000, and his events are also credited with salvaging longboarding’s reputation in the area. He says some ride proceeds have gone to build a skate park in Goldendale and help the local food bank.
With five weekends a year booked by longboarders, Ozman believes the road could even host a sixth event. He’s sure riders will come. They always do. “It’s the best known longboarding hill in the world.”Craig.email@example.com 253-597-8497 Blog.thenewstribune.com/Adventure @AdventureGuys