With last week's U.S. Halfpipe Grand Prix at Copper Mountain and this week's opening Winter Dew Tour stop at Breckenridge, snowboarding's halfpipe season has fast gone from dormant to cranking.
For casual followers, this winter might ring inconsequential compared to Olympic seasons, when every major contest draws a premier field and the trick innovation seems to occur at warp speed. It's almost like you can feel the sport exhale after a year like the one that just passed.
But there are still plenty of storylines going into this winter. We've picked a few to follow as the season warms up.
1. Missing star power. Shaun White rarely competes in non-Olympic years, and, though he's expected to compete, as of now he's not on the Winter X Games confirmed athlete list. Hannah Teter and Gretchen Bleiler also have significantly scaled back their contest schedules this winter, and elite European and Japanese riders aren't always at the same events as American stars.
Pipe ace Louie Vito said he's doing the whole Winter Dew Tour series and both Grand Prix contests, and Kelly Clark indicated she'll follow a full slate of events this year too. Yet the only time we see all of the best women's riders together could be the last week of January in Aspen: Teter, Bleiler, Clark, Kaitlyn Farrington and reigning Olympic gold medalist Torah Bright are all scheduled to compete at Winter X 15.
Unless White surfaces in Aspen, when Iouri Podladtchikov, Peetu Piiroinen and Scotty Lago are slated to compete, or at the U.S. Open, which is heavily supported by his board sponsor, Burton, we could go a full winter without seeing all the top men at the same event.
2. Slow year for trick progression? A straw poll of pros and coaches last week hinted we shouldn't expect to see any revolutionary advances in pipe riding this year. Vito and Lago both said they're not working on any new pipe tricks and haven't seen anyone else throwing any either. Neither has U.S. head coach Mike Jankowski.
But all three men said they expect to see more riders learn the high-scoring double cork -- which is "a lot harder" to execute in the pipe than off a jump, Lago said -- and to see more 1260s. A winning run could include as many as three or four doubles, Vito said.
"I'm feeling the vibes that people are kind of just perfecting what's been going on the last few years, but you never know," Lago pointed out. "All it takes is one person to start the revolution of a new trick."
Luke Mitrani could fill that role. "I think one day kids are going to be doing triples," he said. "I've actually been thinking about trying one."
Bright is believed to be the only woman to have attempted a double cork, but Farrington, who won the opening Grand Prix, said she's hoping to try one soon. "I just have to get my guts up for it and maybe I'll try it on an air bag when we go to Minnesota," she said.
Clark remains dubious of doubles. "I don't think women's snowboarding is a one-trick thing," she said, adding: "I don't think we're there yet."
3. F.I.S. rift still lingers. In many regards, the long-simmering debate over whether the International Ski Federation represents snowboarding's best interests has waned. The last four Olympics have delivered the sport unprecedented renown in the mainstream consciousness, for starters. But among the core pros, it's not that simple. And this winter, with the biannual F.I.S. World Championships taking place the same time as the second Winter Dew Tour, the debate has been stirred anew.
For the first time, slopestyle will be contested at the World Championships, a big step toward gaining Olympic status. But there's a chance none of the best slopestyle riders will be there, in part due to their continued skepticism of the F.I.S.'s ability to stage a premier snowboard event.
"I think it's still there," Lago said of the rift between snowboarders and the F.I.S. "The way they run the contests -- it's a good contest, but it can be run a lot better. More practice time, let us use the snowmobiles to go up instead of hike it; it's so strict. It's just not snowboarding. It needs to be more mellow."
"When you're doing contests over here," Vito said of the U.S., "99.9 percent of the time the pipe's going to be good. But when you go over there, you never know what you're going to get."
Jankowski, the fifth-year U.S. halfpipe coach, said he believes the venue quality has improved and that F.I.S. judging standards reward a rider's run fairly. But some of his peers view the issue differently.
Ben Jolly, the halfpipe coach for the Spanish national team -- most notably Queralt Castellet, who won last year's Dew Tour at Breck and qualified for Olympic finals in third place -- doesn't believe F.I.S. contests are equal to pro events.
"You look across the board," Jolly said, "and the best snowboarders in the world don't do F.I.S. There has got to be more cooperation between F.I.S. and the rest of the snowboarding world. Like, they put the World Championships the exact same time as the Dew Tour. Snowboarding these days, you have to get recognized. And you don't get recognized for winning a F.I.S. event. But you do get recognized for winning the Dew Tour. It's all about the level of competitors in the event. That's why we're skipping the World Championships and going to the Dew Tour."