Prelude: Arriving in the cold

It’s impossible to talk about our journey to Sochi without first mentioning Moscow. When we arrived in Moscow, we went from sun to snow, from moving on our own to being forced to follow the flow of traffic in this massive metropolis. Moscow is huge. Berlin instantly feels small and rural compared to the plazas, the style of buildings, and the sheer amount of people running around. We stayed in an apartment in one of the nicest parts of the center, and by “nice” I mean nice bars, nice girls, and very nice skate spots. The bottom line is: Moscow is a great place to skate. And when I asked Alexey Lapin, our guide, if people get kicked out of spots, he told me it rarely happens. Which is weird to me, because Moscow police tend do these random ID checks, where you have to give them your passport, they search you, and then tell you to move on. Our crew was also subjected to these checks and it always left us feeling a bit weird. I mean, why does the police drive around to stop and search random people? Aside from that, we got the general feeling that the Russians know the system and act accordingly. On our fourth day in Moscow, the ground had kind of dried up and – I can’t lie – although it was fucking cold, I really wanted to skate. We didn’t get very far, though, because as soon as I thought about skating it started to rain. What we did end up doing in Moscow was: partying, visiting tourist sites, and smoking. A pack of cigarettes costs about 1 euro, so it’s safe to say we smoked a lot before we packed it up and got on a plane to Sochi – home of the 2014 Winter Olympics, which could mean great spots. Or not. Alexey had told us it might be hard to find good spot but our flights where booked.

Versochi, Versochi

The first thing I noticed when I stepped out of the Sochi airport was a Christmas tree right next to a palm tree. This basically gives you an idea of the geographic scale of Russia we had traversed via plane for about two hours. We had gone from -7 Celsius and snowy to 18 degrees, palm trees, and a beach. We had a car service take us to our hotel-slash-wellness center, which sounds a whole lot better than it actually was. The hotel was right next to a spot called The Circus; a small plaza-type of spot with a curb, different sets of stairs, a ledge over the stairs, and movable benches. This would be our warm-up spot for the remainder of the trip. On our second day – our first full day in Sochi – we ventured out to the Olympic Center in town. We took the bus and after about an hour we arrived at the exact location where last winter, the world’s best athletes fought for that number one spot. The place was immense, built to house huge crowds and now only one year later it was sort of abandoned. There were people milling around, both working and visiting, but all in all there was this weird emptiness. Our local guide Soma showed us around the place. Soma, as it turned out, never traveled alone and took his wife everywhere. His wife was a nice but quiet girl who was also Soma’s filmer. That’s right: She would strap on her rollerblades and attach a GoPro cam to a stick and film her husband. True love. To be honest, I was a bit skeptic at first, but when I saw some of the footage she filmed, it was actually filmed well.

Scouting out the scene, we were walking around looking for stuff to film. When we found a bridge decorated in the Olympic colors, our film crew launched the drone and within a couple of takes we had eyes on our next spot: A giant plaza comparable in style to those Chinese marble plazas that you see in the biggest budget skate films today. We spent a couple of hours at this marble plaza, playing skate and sitting around as the film crew took some portrait shots of the skaters. Afterwards, we took the bus back into Sochi’s city center, marveling at the unique atmosphere of the place that was so different to what we had first experienced in Russia. The crazy thing was, the whole time we where in Sochi I didn’t really feel like I was in Russia at all. Moscow’s brown marble, tall and important looking buildings and sculptures were replaced by pastel colors, tile floors, and seaside boardwalks. The people also looked and acted differently than people in Moscow. I asked Tolia, and he told me that people in Sochi live more of a country lifestyle and are looked upon as hillbillies by their compatriots.

On our walk back, Alexey suddenly told us that Turkey had just shot down a Russian fighter jet. That marked the start of our discussions about politics. Russians are well aware that the western media doesn’t always portrait them in a positive way. At the same time, they are well aware that the state owns most of the TV stations in Russia. As fate would have it, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin even paid a visit to Sochi during our stay. Security got noticeably tighter during his visit, more police on the corner, and a general feeling of tension was in the air. Even in the days afterwards this tension remained palpable. This was confirmed when we where kicked out of a spot by somebody in civilian clothes. Alexey, who is usually not one that is easily shook, told us that we should move and get out of here immediately.

But hey, this obviously didn’t stop us from skating the next spot and the next one after that. Productivity was high, most days we went out early warmed up and ended up skating out all day and sometimes nights, too. At the same time, Alexey was always walking around when we got to spots to try and find the right angle. And the right angle most of the time meant space and distance so he could show more than just the action. Most of the time, you didn’t even know he was shooting a photo or how many he had shot up until he showed you the pictures.

Our nights in Sochi were spent talking, singing, smoking, and drinking. In Sochi it was illegal to sell alcohol after 11 o’clock but our local ‘minimarkt’ had found a way to do it legally. You had to order inside, then walk around the building to a little window and there – filled in a soda bottle – you got a freshly tapped liter of beer. As soon as we found this out, our nights got a whole lot longer.

The Most Expensive Road

The legend of the Most Expensive Road was one of the main reasons – it not the main reason – for us to travel to Sochi. They spent $9.4 billion to build 28.9 kilometers of asphalt through tunnels and over bridges. The road needed to be built in order to connect Sochi to Krasnaya Polyana where sports like snowboarding, ski jumping, luge and biathlon took place in the 2014 Winter Games. The road was built just before the Olympics and its price tag made international headlines.

The 2014 Olympics were supposed to be an event that would show the world how Russia had gotten back on its feet after some tumultuous years. And in a way, the Games did just that – there is definitely great joy associated with the Olympics. It’s a moment in time where legends are formed, careers and dreams are made – or broken – and the location of the event is elevated to one of the main tourist destinations in the world. Surely, most of us would never have heard of Sochi, if it wasn’t for the Olympics. There was also another side story, the price of the Games raised eyebrows even before the games landed in Sochi. In total, $51 billion is the amount of money the games cost. Just for perspective, the previous edition of the Winter Olympics had a price tag of $7 billion. It is not uncommon though that the price varies from edition to edition, but the Sochi Olympics took the cake by being more expensive than all other Winter Games combined.

You can imagine the thrill I got just thinking about cruising on this pricy road. The thrill of doing a power slide on the asphalt that costs so much that it would have been cheaper to build this road out of gold, caviar, foie gras, or just plain hundred dollar bills. I listen to a lot of hip-hop and I think I would describe my mood somewhere between BALLIN’ and having doubts about the inherent political side of our actions. On that note, the fact that we were a mixed group of Russians and Westerners did ease my mind a bit. I comforted myself by thinking that, if the Russians themselves supported the idea, it must not be bad. We drove out the road on our last day and, as I mentioned before, the famous road is located outside of Sochi. And as it turns out, you can’t just park your car anywhere on an open road. Luckily, our driver had done this trip before and knew a great location that had a little shoulder so we could park, get out, and set up our gear. The location looked perfect, we were surrounded by mountains, there was a little river flowing, plus not that much traffic. And there it was – the legendary road.

Photos by ALexey Lapin / @lapinotomy
Written by Roland Hoogwater