In 2014, Chris Bustamante got a call from his friend, Rolando Martinez, asking him to drop what he was doing and take a drive upstate New York with him the next day for a quick skateboarding trip. Bustamante’s gut reaction was to decline the invitation. He’d been introduced to downhill skateboarding only two years ago—by another friend, Tyler Pizzanelli, who worked at Flying Point Surf Shop in Southampton—and while he enjoyed the thrill of cruising down the gently sloping hills Long Island has to offer, he wasn’t sure if he was ready for flying down actual mountains. Bustamante made excuse after excuse, but Martinez persisted, telling him he wouldn’t hang up the phone until Bustamante agreed to the trip.
Less than 24 hours later, Bustamante and Martinez were on their boards as they made their way down Bear Mountain. It was a transformative experience for Bustamante.
“It was the first time I felt the chaotic but calm sensation of being in a pack with friends, going over 40 miles per hour on a beautiful mountain road,” he said.
That feeling—the pure adrenaline rush that speed offers, combined with the comfort and camaraderie of doing it in a pack—is what Bustamante, 26, says drew him to the sport of downhill skateboarding. Five years later, it has taken him farther than he ever imagined. He recently returned from Barcelona, Spain, where he competed in the World Roller Games, an 11-day competition that features a number of “roller” sports, such as downhill skateboarding and inline hockey. Think speed-skating, downhill skiing, and figure skating, but on inline skates and skateboards. Because he has dual citizenship due to his father moving to the United States at age 19, Bustamante represented Colombia, an opportunity he was afforded because he belongs to Fedepatin COL, which is the downhill skateboarding federation of Colombia, and had the resources to earn him an invitation to the event. In men’s pro downhill skateboarding, Bustamante finished in the top 35 out of 120 of the best riders in the world and had the best finish out of his Colombian teammates.
Bustamante, who was born in Southampton but grew up in Montauk and graduated from East Hampton High School in 2011, now splits his time between the East End—where he works for the family business, Warren’s Nursery Inc. based in Water Mill, owned by his mother and father, Victoria and Fernando Bustamante—and Santa Barbara, California. He heads out to the West Coast for a few months every winter, where he skates and reconnects with friends he made during a year studying landscape design at Santa Barbara Community College. Growing up in Montauk, Bustamante tried other sports as a kid. His older brother, Nick Bustamante, 27, was into surfing, the town’s pastime, but Bustamante said he connected with downhill skateboarding because it appealed to him in a way surfing did not.
“I think what drew me away from it was having to wait for the right wave, and the patience needed to get a good ride,” he said. “With skateboarding, the wave is always perfect; instant gratification every time.”
If downhill skateboarding sounds insanely dangerous, it is—kind of. There’s no denying that riding a skateboard down steep and winding mountain roads at speeds that are more normal for a car on a highway isn’t safe, no matter the amount of protective gear—and there’s a lot of it; helmets, gloves, and full body leather suits—that’s involved. But Bustamante and other devotees of the sport like to emphasize the high level of skill and strategy that’s involved in getting to the point where doing that doesn’t seem like such an enormous risk.
“I know it sounds cliché, but it’s just like anything else. If you are really into skating and take the time to learn at your own pace, safely, then you’re going to be fine,” he said. “Usually what draws people away are bad crashes when someone is pushing themselves past their boundaries too early.
“You definitely have to be ready for some road rash at first, but once you start feeling pretty good at speeds of around 30 miles per hour, accidents become fairly avoidable.”
Bustamante says that these days, he reaches speeds in the 40-to-45-mph range on a regular basis, but he’s gone as fast as 70 mph. Races are crowded affairs as well, with anywhere from 50 to 200 skateboarders, separated into four-man heats. The races can range from 1 to 3 miles long, taking anywhere from one and a half to four minutes to complete. People unfamiliar with the sport tend to hone in on the extreme speeds, but Bustamante said the skill and strategy involved are often underappreciated.
“People usually assume off the bat that downhill skateboarding is just standing on a board trying to make it down, and even though that’s technically what we’re doing, there’s so much technique and skill that goes into it,” he said. Fine-tuning a tuck position for optimal aerodynamics and perfecting a “tuck-lean” through corners are important skills to have in a skateboarder’s arsenal; drafting is another key aspect to success, as is learning the best ways and most appropriate times to pass another rider—in a straightaway (easier) or in a corner (trickier). Touching another rider is sometimes necessary for safety and spatial awareness purposes, but it can also result in a disqualification if an official determines it was unfair or unwarranted.
And then there is the battle every competitive athlete deals with, perhaps more acutely felt for those in sports that have a high degree of danger.
“Race mentality is something that is easy for some and can be very unnerving and scary for someone else,” Bustamante said. “I personally deal with race stress by doing my best to stay calm and have fun and not worry about the outcomes. I’m still working my way there, but when I started racing and competing, I had a very hard time dealing with my nerves. So I’m happy to be where I’m at now.”
In terms of a competitive career as a downhill skateboarder, Bustamante is still in the beginning phases of gaining experience and notoriety. The World Roller Games was his first international competition, although he’s raced in several states across the country, from the Northeast to North Carolina to California, averaging about five to seven competitions each year. The fact that most races are in the summer, which is when Bustamante is busiest at work, means he doesn’t make it to quite as many competitions as he’d like, but he says time spent in Santa Barbara from January through April helps make up for that.
Sponsorships—from Pantheon Longboards, Skidz NYC apparel, Valkyrie Trucks, and Riptide Bushings—have given Bustamante an extra boost. He also skates with a group called The Hilltown Crew, out of Springfield, Massachusetts. The group, founded by Jeff Molongoski, whose son, Ryder, is a downhill skater, hosts Northeast skaters on a regular basis at a cabin in Massachusetts. Those trips, Bustamante says, have helped solidify his love for skating and hanging out with like-minded individuals.
He does, however, have his sights set on bigger goals.
“I’d really like to start finishing at least top 10 more consistently at most races coming up this year and next year,” he said. He hopes to compete in the next World Roller Games, set for 2021 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He mentioned the possibility of downhill skateboarding being added to the 2024 Olympics, like street skateboarding was for the upcoming 2020 Olympics, and said he’d try for that big goal.
“I will be 29 then, but it would be a dream to be a part of something like that,” he said. He admitted that once he hits his 30s, traveling and competing probably won’t be as big a part of his life, but he said he doesn’t anticipate ever forgetting the feeling that drew him to the sport in the first place.
“It will never truly be gone from me.”