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Traceur Justin Cruff, 19, of Castro Valley, practices a parkour move near his home on Wednesday, Mar. 14, 2007, in Castro Valley, Calif. Parkour is the art of jumping on, off and across things. A traceur is a person who practices parkour. <P> <a href="http://extras.insidebayarea.com/features/Parkour.mov" target="_blank"> Watch Justin Cruff demonstrate the art of parkour.</a> (14MB) <br> (Jane Tyska/The Daily Review)
CASTRO VALLEY — Every railing, balcony, gateway and mailbox in suburban Palomares Hills is another gem of opportunity for Justin Cruff.

Neighbors in his Castro Valley subdivision know the lithe 19-year-old as the guy who always jumps off things.

"A lot of people ask me, 'Why are you jumping off the wall or rolling around the ground?'" said Cruff, moments before launching off a staircase near quiet Pineville Circle. "I try to explain it."

That can take a while. But for those who come under the spell of parkour — a physical art that in-volves leaping from one place to another with efficiency, precision, grace and speed — the experience can be life-changing.

"The very first thing I did was a 'cat leap' off a little wall to a bike rack," Cruff said. "Back then, I wasn't really dedicated."

In the three years since then, his attraction to parkour has grown into a new way of living. Cruff now dedicates four or five hours every day to being a traceur, the name for someone who practices parkour.

Meanwhile, the worldwide movement surrounding the art form also has grown.

Jeff Schoenhard, co-founder of SF Parkour, an online networking group for the traceur community, estimates that at least a couple hundred Bay Area traceurs occasionally participate in "jams" — group parkour get-togethers.

That does not include others, like Cruff, who are practicing mostly in obscurity and alone.

"It's known as an urban sport, but most of our members come from the suburbs. I'm not quite sure why that is," said Schoenhard, 30, a business analyst from Berkeley. "I think it's going to continue growing. It may seem small, like an underground phenomenon, but not if you think of where it started."

Developed by a group of French athletes led by David Belle in the mid-1990s, parkour has grown in popularity in recent years with the help of viral video posted on Web sites such as YouTube. A quick search for movies will turn up hundreds of traceurs — mostly young men — showing off parkour moves in Estonia, Singapore, South Africa and across the U.S. and Latin America. One such video turned Cruff on to parkour in 2004, and he immediately was blown away.

"I didn't realize parkour was considered a sport," Cruff said. "I just liked to jump and roll around."

His younger sister is a longtime gymnast, and Cruff gave gymnastics a try when he was 16 but didn't like it enough to continue. Parkour, he said, adds an element of exploration and adventure to otherwise mundane physical activity.

After mastering some basic moves at home, Cruff, who works full-time spinning pizzas at Pyzano's Pizzeria in Castro Valley, began taking his physical experimentation across town after work. He has jumped off fences, church rooftops, soda machines and through all the concrete and metal outcroppings that surround local high schools, college campuses and business plazas.

He once tried scaling a balcony at Motel 6 in Pleasanton but was promptly kicked out by the manager there. Other than that, he said, people are usually curious and aren't bothered by him.

He added that while there aren't nearly as many of them — at least not in the Bay Area — most female traceurs are able to do as well in parkour as the men.

"We're always trying to get more female members, just to balance it out," Schoenhard said. "There isn't really any good reason for them not to do it."

Schoenhard led a group of traceurs in exploring the bunkers near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco a few days ago. There are many popular urban parkour spots in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and San Jose, although suburban and rural locations sometimes can be just as effective for certain moves.

"I also think there's an element of doing things you're not supposed to," Schoenhard said of parkour's appeal. "I'm not going to let a fence hold me back or keep myself within the yellow lines."

Cruff learns his moves by watching online movie clips, and has not been a big part of the region's burgeoning parkour scene. Yet he eagerly trains friends and whoever else wants to learn parkour in free lessons near his family's house. 

On a recent afternoon, he took a reporter and his neighbor, traceur-in-training Tara Sharif, 20, to an obstacle-filled path that meanders down a canyon near their neighborhood just north of Interstate 580.

Cruff wears long pants to protect his knees and a gray pair of narrow, size-9 New Balance sneakers he says are good for support and made of "vegan-friendly" materials. (His other passion, after parkour, is veganism.)

He demonstrates a Kong vault — one of the easier yet most iconic parkour moves. His hands grab a bar, gorilla-style, and push him over as he tucks them beneath his legs.

He then tries other moves, each seemingly more daring than the last. One of the most important elements of parkour is learning how to fall in a way that causes the least physical impact.

In the midst of every move he makes, Cruff said, he is thinking two things: One is, "How am I going to fall?"

The other: "What's my best solution on how I'm going to land?"

Sharif said a few days earlier, Cruff taught her how to do a "speed vault." She tried it 10 times in a row.

"You're kicking your feet up in the air as your body's turning. It's three things: a jump, a lean and a kick," Sharif said. "I liked it but it was painful."

Sharif said she thinks parkour is interesting to watch but doesn't expect to take it seriously. She is looking for a less challenging way of keeping in shape.

Cruff, though, said he's a traceur for life.