For keen-eyed observers of the snowboard scene, Winter X Tignes is offering us a chance to look past the individual brilliance of big-name "stars" and take a close look instead at a trend that has led some longer-toothed industry veterans to grow misty-eyed and start harking back to a more innocent, early-1990s era of snowboarding.
Wondering what I'm talking about? A look at the podium of the men's slopestyle at the recent Burton European Open in Laax should help explain. That event was won by Aleksander Østreng. In second and third? Another pair of Scandinavian spellcheck destroyers: Finland's Peetu Piiroinen in third and last year's BEO winner Roope Tonteri in second. This is just one example of a wave of "Scanners" that's been washing over contest podiums all season long.
Snowboarding linguists date the etymology of the term "Scanners" to somewhere around 1994. That was the year a film called "The Scands," featuring Terje Haakonsen, Ingmar Backman, Johan Olofsson and Daniel Franck, hit the shelves. Who were these mysterious new snowboarders from the land of fire and ice so far away, all pale skin, consonant-filled surnames and ridiculously progressive freestyle skills?
Collectively, these guys had such an impact that even today, twenty years later, the whole Scanner thing still makes a handy reference point whenever a new wave of Scandinavian rippers appear on the international scene. Usually this happens every five years or so, and there's no doubt that a quick (ahem) scan of the contest sheets from the past year reveals that we're in the middle of such a phase right now.
Consider the evidence. As well as Piironen, Tonteri and Østreng, Norway seems to have an entire battalion of rippers emerging on the scene. A truncated list of athletes who show up at the X includes: Ulrik Badertscher (winner of the Oakley Air and Style in Beijing), Stale Sandbech (2011-12 TTR World Tour overall champion), Torstein Horgmo (gold and silver Winter X Big Air medals), Gjermund Braaten (Dew Tour Breckenridge slope winner) and the Helgasons. (Yes, Iceland does count as Scandinavia.)
Of the Helgasons and Torstein Horgmo, we are sure you all know. But what about these other guys? Well, a number of them are here at Winter X Tignes. So we thought we'd put together a handy guide, so during the Slopestyle event (elims are Thursday at 5 a.m. on ESPN3, finals are 5:30 a.m. ET on ESPN3 and 12-3 p.m. ET on ESPN 2) you can follow along with the next generation of Scanners.
Østreng redefined the phrase "dark horse" at last month's World Snowboarding Championships in Oslo. After being almost completely ignored by the local Norwegian press in the build-up to the event, he took fifth in the slopestyle and put an end to those local "Who is he?" headlines for the foreseeable future. If anything, the opinion of the crowd watching the WSC live was that his third run (which included a cab 9, front 10 and perfectly stomped backside 12) should have taken him further up the leaderboard. Regardless, it was still a hell of a way to announce himself on the national stage.
More impressive was when Østreng then followed that up a couple of weeks later with an even more impressive result, taking the win in slopestyle at the Burton European Open in Laax. Nobody was more surprised by that one than the likeable Norwegian himself. "I haven't realized that I won yet," he said afterward. "I tried to step it up in the third run, and it worked out!"
From nowhere man to podium favorite in a matter of weeks. It'd be quite a story if Østreng were to keep this form up in Tignes.
Ulrik first made the radar of snowboarding's collective consciousness when he landed the first 1620 back in 2009. Though the spin had a bit of a pirouette quality to it (and he has yet to do it again, let alone try it in competition), this Norwegian with an almost-impossible-to-spell last name proved he was no one-trick pony when he came in second in slopestyle at the 2010 U.S. Open and won the 2011 Burn River Jump in Livigno.
Just to prove it wasn't a one-season spike, he followed that up this fall by winning the 2011 Air & Style Beijing with a double backside rodeo 1260 -- a trick that, still, only he can claim. (Halldor Helgason is said to have landed the double rodeo 12 Japan grab -- aka the "Lobster Flip," or as we like to call it, the coolest-looking snowboard trick ever -- after his heat in the Winter X Aspen 2012 Big Air. But until we see the footage, we can't verify the claim.)
Badertscher has yet to make the top 10 of a Winter X Slopestyle podium, but that repertoire and those other contest scalps suggest it's only a matter of time before he does. Could it be Tignes? We'll see.
First things first: Seppe Smits isn't Scandinavian. He comes from Belgium, one of Europe's flattest countries. Indeed, Smits' biggest achievement to date could well be constantly answering the one question he always, always gets -- "How did a kid from Belgium, one of Europe's flattest countries, end up one of the best snowboarders in the world?" -- with a smile. Still, he shares podium space with the other heavy-hitters featured here so often that it seemed natural to include him in the same crew.
He's certainly one of the most consistent of the new shredders out there, riding in 26 contests during the 2010-11 season (his first as a pro) and consistently making headlines in the process. Notable results from that season included a podium at the inaugural Air & Style Beijing and a win at the first FIS slopestyle World Championship in January 2011. He followed that this year with strong slopestyle podium spots at the U.S. Open and WSC and the TTR World Tour Big Air Champion title. Expect this popular rider to show strongly in Tignes, and keep an eye out for the lesser-spotted cab 1440, which he's been known to throw down.
Versatility is the word that springs to mind when considering the riding of this preternaturally talented young Norwegian. Rails, pipe, slopestyle -- this kid kills it all with a smile on his face and effortlessly smooth style. There's also something pleasingly understated about this polite young man from Oslo, for whom any of the accolades that regularly come his way seem secondary to his obvious love of riding itself. Hell, even his recent TTR World Tour championship title pretty much slipped under the radar.
It's an approach that certainly impressed John Cavan, his Rome team manager. "Word came to us about Ståle from several people in Norway," says Cavan, "but his brother Frode's images caught our eye. He seemed like someone who could ride everything, not your typical pipe jock. Upon meeting him this summer, our hunch was confirmed. He's a super-down-to-earth kid who seems able to do anything he wants on a snowboard. I watched him slaughter a pipe session and then jump right into riding some rails and he seemed to learn so quickly."
All this and he's still only 19. Forget the "brother of snowboard photographer Frode" sobriquet that attached itself to the kid during his early career. These days, Sandbech is out on his own.
"He's one of those riders who is totally dedicated to making it. He knows what he wants, and he knows how he's going to get there. Anything else takes second place to that."
Gjermund Braaten's team manager Jonathan Weaver is talking about how 21-year-old Braaten's determination has seen him overcome two injury-plagued seasons and still post some of the most impressive results and performances around.
Last season, Braaten broke his collarbone "three or four times," Weaver said. This year, his slam at the WSC ("The worst slam I've ever had," says Braaten) saw him bow of the contest out early and spend the past month recuperating. In between, he won the first Dew Tour slope at Breckenridge with a run that included four double corks and posted one of the standout video parts in Standard's "TB20."
"He's had a month off now, though, and is raring to go," reckons Weaver. Look out, Tignes.