The first flakes of snow to touch the ground last week instantly awoke ski and snowboard jibbers from their summer slumbers, leading them on a search for one item - a few good rails. Whether it was students setting up their first jumps at The Lowell Whiteman School or teens driving up Buffalo Pass to bring pickup-loads of snow back to the city, the recent winter-like weather has proved beyond a doubt that the demand for rails - and not just salvaged rusty wreckage - is at an all-time high.
When Charlie Mayfield, general manager of Granby's SolVista Basin, was unsure last winter what kind of rail features he should purchase to expand the ski area's terrain park, he decided to contact Kevin "Cactus" Nemec.
"He was helpful with contemporary rail design," Mayfield said. "It changes regularly, and then it's not what the kids are looking for today."
Having spent 12 years coaching snowboarding - including the past four as the head freestyle coach for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club - Nemec, 35, has begun a transition out of his coaching career to focus on Cactofab, his part-time custom metal fabrication business that he established by focusing on shaping and welding the steel that supports another kind of transition - the ones you see on skateboard ramps and terrain park features across town.
After teaching himself to weld, Nemec began making portable rails in 2002 for his teams of riders, recognizing their need for a product to push them in the new directions of an evolving set of tricks. Nemec then began a project two summers ago, contracted by the city of Steamboat Springs and funded by the Steamboat Skatepark Alliance, to refurbish the skateboard park at Howelsen Hill with newer, steel-framed ramps.
"We made six new ramps that connected and finished the 24-foot-wide main ramp that spines into a 12-foot-wide ramp," Nemec said.
Tommy Larson, Colorado Mountain College student activities coordinator, took notice, and with the student government, ordered a pair of rails and a three-foot mini-ramp from Nemec.
"With over half the kids skiing in the winter during the morning and going to class from three to nine, during the break around dinner, I always see four to 10 kids out there hitting the rail," Larson said.
Seeing a college campus turned into a miniature terrain park, Larson views the amenities as "a feather in (the college's) cap," and he has already submitted plans to add a 21-foot box this winter.
The rails where most skiers and riders recognize Nemec's work are those he built for the Winter Sports Club at Howelsen Hill or for the SOBE Friday Night Rail Jams that became fixtures in the Steamboat Ski Area's terrain park, withstanding heavy use from the masses.
"(Nemec) has creative ideas with the shapes and bends he wants to do, and they slide so well" said Winter Sports Club snowboard pro/am freestyle coach Spencer Tamblyn. "With even something as simple as a 40-foot flat rail for just presses and butters, it's hard to make it so it performs well for a long time."
Operating out of his Stagecoach home, the Cactofab nerve center is Nemec's garage workshop that teems equally with Nemec's project ideas and sparks from his TIG welder and plasma cutter. He holds firm to the belief he'll make whatever metal work he can - from bumpers and signs to motocross jumps, so long as it's "exactly how you want it and like nobody else's." A man of broad visions, quick to explain his business plan for resuscitating Stagecoach as a ski area or redesigning Howelsen's terrain park to serve as a multi-use downhill mountain biking park in the summer, Nemec has found a niche as a modern metalsmith, providing Steamboat's freeskiers and freeriders with what they want.
Wondering for a brief moment this week if the local seasonal demand for ramps and rails had reached a plateau, Nemec's phone rang for a bid to build a snow skatepark for this winter's Sports Illustrated Kids Next Snow Search, sending Cactus back to the grind.