This is a story about snowboarding. A story about skateboarding and concrete and chairlift rides. A story about halfpipes and rail jams and powder days with friends. But it is also a story about community. About passion. About grit and gumption. And about keeping it real.
It starts with Raul Pinto, a 45-year-old skateboarder, and a little shop called Satellite, a brick-and-mortar operation in a quiet corner of Boulder that’s surviving the pressure from Amazon and big box retailers. How they’re making Boulder County a better place to live, even though you’ve probably never heard of Raul or Satellite or any of the people that are part of the community — everyone from little kids, to punk teens, to grizzled backcountry snowboarders — is where the story gets good.
To understand this community and the impact that Satellite is making, you have to start with the right guy. And that guy is Raul Pinto.
Raul is a snowboarder. But, like many ’boarders, he got his start skating.
“I started skating in San Francisco,” recalls Pinto. “It was like how most kids got started back then. You meet a kid in the neighborhood who does it and then you want to try it, too. I fell into the right gang and it was over from there, I was into it. I was super lucky, I met people and they showed me the ropes, like, ‘this is how to grip a skateboard,’ and everything else.”
But a move to Sante Fe, New Mexico, at the age of 14 would end up changing Pinto’s world. “I started snowboarding then,” Pinto says. “And with my background in skating I picked it up really quickly and I was in the right place at the right time.”
That “right place, right time” was when the sport was exploding around the world, especially with a variety of disciplines such as Boarder X and halfpipe events. With a gritty, competitive attitude forged on the streets of San Francisco, Pinto ended up on the snowboard World Cup competition circuit traveling the globe for five years as a member of the U.S.’s B team.
“I had great sponsors and great support,” says Pinto. “It was just a cool learning experience.”
However, with the 2000 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake looming at the time, and seeing other athletes above him on the depth chart, Pinto decided to call an end to his time in competition.
“I was seeing a lot of friends drop out [of snowboarding], and I was on track to finish an architecture degree,” recalls Pinto. “I came to Boulder to go to CU and finish my studies and start my career in 1999, and the first month I was here I met JG Marrzota. He was running Brothers Boards at the time, and within a year of meeting JG, the shop was closing, and that planted the seed.”
The seed in question was Satellite.
Independent retailers have always provided centers of gravity for core sports enthusiasts in Boulder. From long-standing Neptune Mountaineering to long gone Gerry, they’ve historically been an anchor for community and culture. With the closing of Brothers Boards, local skaters and snowboarders lost their home. Pinto admits that Brothers was a tough place for some to hang out, especially for under-represented groups in skating such as females and minorities. He’s also quick to point out that he’s worked hard at Satellite to be inclusive and that Boulder, where the Front Range’s urban landscape and the mountains intersect, has a unique location with the opportunities that come from that.
“We took the leftovers of Brothers Boards, the concept, and then the goal was to make it as inclusive as possible” Pinto says. “Brothers was kind of a lion’s den, and I always remembered that and at Satellite we always ask ourselves, ‘How do we get more girls in the shop, how do we make it more comfortable for parents?’ Skateboarding is an intimidating thing, and snowboarding is another step financially. My dad had never been skiing or snowboarding and neither had my mom. I was lucky enough to have mentors. I think in the end, if we had set out to just be a massive store that sells a lot of stuff, this would have been over a long time ago. We didn’t even know if we would succeed, I was just excited to have a new clubhouse where we and everyone else could hang out.”
While he didn’t know it at the time, the Satellite “clubhouse” concept was a stroke of genius. With the rapid expansion of online retail, brick-and-mortar shops are under immense pressure. One solution to keeping the lights on, according to experts, is to offer the kind of in-store personal experience and expertise that you’ll never find online. The other? To intimately know who your customers are and to support what matters to them.
In this vein, local snowboarders and skaters have a level of advocacy and commitment from Pinto and the Satellite team that’s producing some mind-blowing results, particularly when it comes to on-snow opportunities at Boulder’s local ski area.
“The biggest thing [for snowboarders] is our relationship with Eldora,” Pinto says. “The contest series includes Methodology, Side Hit Séance and the Trick Ditch. With the Trick Ditch in particular, the USASA (United States of America Snowboard and Snowboard and Freeski Association) approached them to do a banked slalom, but we can’t just do what everyone else is doing in this day and age in snowboarding. We are picking our own line in what we bring to our community and it should be different, and I’m super proud of that.”
Trick Ditch, in which a banked slalom course is coupled with some massive jumps at the base of the run for a combined speed and style event, has resonated strongly. It’s had a maxed-out entry field for the past couple of years, and has been anchored by an all-day party at the base of the mountain — the event is rapidly becoming the must-do participatory event for snowboarders across the state.
But Pinto and Satellite’s efforts aren’t just confined to the snow.
“The biggest thing I’ve been working on in the last five years is the Green Block project,” Pinto says.
The genius of the Green Block project, according to Pinto, is that the program seeks to repurpose unused or underused public spaces and land for skateboarding. A key element of the program is that the stakeholders in the community — local skateboarders — are involved in all facets of the identification, design and build of these mini-parks and other features.
While the larger Satellite community has been strongly engaged, Pinto has taken community involvement one step further, bringing on board students from the same environmental design program at the University of Colorado that he attended to assist with the technical, behind-the-scenes design and development of the parks.
“It’s labor of love,” laughs Pinto. “A ton of emails and hassling city council to get them to give up public land to let a DIY skate park happen.”
He adds, “I think the coolest thing about Green Block is adapting it to something that is always changing. When I started skateboarding it was changing from vert skating to street skating. Green Block is looking at how kids are skateboarding now. One of the problems with a destination skate park is that you have to get there. Ideally with Green Block, they’d be in multiple places around the city, pocket parks that are more supervised by the neighborhood and more accessible to the younger kids.”
The program also may end up creating “skate parks” that look unlike anything you’ve ever seen, says Pinto.
“We are looking at drainage or overflow areas for flood control or sculpture parks, a totally different direction,” Pinto says. “Boulder is the type of place that could go in this direction.”
In the center of all this momentum is Pinto and Satellite, a small shop that sells stuff, but is also home to so, so much more. It’s less a satellite and more the sun, a center of gravity that remains true to Pinto’s mission to create a home for anyone who wants to slide sideways on snow or ride four wheels on a ramp.
“One of the biggest things is that Satellite has tried to bridge the gap of people coming into the sport and making people feel welcome,” Pinto says. “It’s the hardest part, letting people know this is your local shop, and that you should be coming through these doors to learn not to just buy something.”