"It kind of spoil's ESPN's show here, doesn't it?" Canada's Stanley Hayer asked with a smile.
Sure, but don't worry about us. Big corporations are folding left and right, there are family folk on the payroll with doe-eyed children who need shoes& but we'll be fine, right?
I kid. Hayer, who won silver in '08, earned every prong on his snowflake shaped hardware, overcoming snowfall that turned the course into a leg burning Bataan Death March. (During the first quarterfinal run, ESPN's crack course photog Josh Duplechian heard nothing but unprintables from the racers. "It looked like a Nordic Track course." Hayer was quick out of the gate in all three of his runs and managed to avoid the trouble that eliminated many of his competitors, including Rahlves in the Final.
Still, Hayer almost ran out of real estate. Coming over the final hit, Japan's Hiroomi Takizawa and Switzerland's Andreas Steffen were closing fast. "I skated down the last pitch, and if I hadn't I don't think I'd have won. They'd have passed me on both sides. I was fast, fast, fast, and I got to those last turns and my skis died," Hayer said.
Rahlves cruised through the quarter and semi-final rounds, and looked good coming out of the first turn and seemed content to draft behind the 6'4" Hayer, but then Steffen stole the draft and later Rahlves was rubbed out as racers lobbied for position further down the course. "I was going to pull into Hayer, pass him, and then walk away. I had good momentum camped next to him, got by him, and then I couldn't go. The skis weren't running," he said. As for the contact, Rahlves called it "part of the fun. But that last bit blew it for me."
All part of Rahlves' continuing education in the world of ski cross. "He's earned the reputation of not being the cleanest ski crosser. Daron complains when someone cuts his line, but he does the same thing. It's just a matter of racing enough," Hayer said. "You can't just force your way in, which Daron does sometimes. He's getting better for sure, but he's also using his arms a lot more."
The grind of ski cross catches up with everyone, Hayer notes. "It's been a year out of Alpine for him and you can tell. He's starting to lose his touch a bit. Give him a couple more years, and he'll start looking like us. He's gonna start skiing like a wacko with knocked knees."
"This was so amazing," David exclaimed. "I surprisingly caught some speed in those last turns. All I thought was I have got to pass and I have to pass now."
Of course, nothing about David winning was surprising. Also not unusual? The lack of an American podium threat. No US skier has medaled at Winter X since Patti Sherman-Kauf took bronze back in '02, and prospects for future growth currently aren't all that bright.
"I'm gonna be brutally honest- there's not even any girls right now who can even contend. Our girls, they seem to have no aggressive ski in them at all," says Daron Rahlves. "You see some of the girls like David or (Karin) Huttary, and a few others, and they scrap."
Getting female racers into the ski cross pipeline has been a challenge. Like Rahlves, Casey Puckett is a guy with an alpine race background who moved to ski cross as he got older. He says many of the top female racers just aren't willing to stick around. "I know (US coach) Tyler Shepherd has been trying to recruit, but generally all the fast girls just want to move on. After a long alpine career, they're like "I don't need to go out (for ski cross)," he says. "The girls we're getting right now, they like skiing big mountain and have a small racing background, but they're not quite as fast as the girls they're skiing against."
With ski cross on the slate for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, it'll be interesting to see if the US can put together a competitive team. "The girls we have now," Rahlves says, "they have a lot to improve on, that's for sure."
Even more impressive than Walker's win is how he did it, after missing all of the training and sessions because of a race in Europe.
Q: You barely had a chance to look at this thing before the competition, right?
A: I got one quick slip before we ran, and that's it. I watched as much video of it as I could, but didn't have much to go on. It showed me where people were landing on the biggest hits. That's key for a monoskier, because we really can't absorb very much at all. It did help, but I didn't know what it was going to be like until I ran it.
Q: Were the conditions different today than what you saw on the video?
A: They didn't seem to change much. But it was slow today. The S turns and through the gap jumps, that was really slow. I had to almost skate to try and get through it. But everyone was struggling. We can't generate speed unless it's through gravity.
Q: When you can't get a look at a course until it's basically race time, how much more of a challenge is that as a skier?
A: We train for that. I just came from some World Cup races in Italy, and we get a short inspection and then we've got to run it. We need to know where we're going. I inspected this one as best as I could, and tried to commit it to memory. I had to think fast and react fast, and I train for that. So I was ready for it.
Q: There were a lot of wrecks on the course, but overall it seemed like as a group the mono skiers were more aggressive. A lot of guys hit that last kicker.
A: The more we get to run it, the more confident we get. We know where we need to go slow, where we need to go fast, how much we need to pop each jump. But in the end, a lot of it is just blind faith. Especially that last jump.
Palmer admits it's tough to stay motivated, especially when conditions get bad and the physical issues pile up. Still, he's aiming to compete at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. "It's the main thing I'm boarding for," he says. I'm just trying to concentrate on what keeps me motivated, just trying to get results."
They haven't been good of late, but Palmer remains confident. "I know I have the speed to beat every one of these guys, for sure," he told me after the SnowboarderX comp Saturday afternoon. "I just have to get my training and my head together and I'll be right back in there. I'm just going through a *&^#$ drought."
He's certainly getting support from his teammates. Earlier in the week, Seth Wescott said Palmer was a threat to win at Buttermilk, and Nate Holland is a believer as well. "He made the team in '06, he's fast in our training camps. He took a hard fall Friday, and I think that's why he didn't do well (Saturday)," Holland says. "I'm definitely going to back Palmer going to the Olympics. I think he can do it for sure."
The winter of 2010 isn't all that far away. Unless you're a 40-year-old dude with a lot of mileage in the bindings. A stage like the Olympics is a hell of a carrot to dangle in front of anyone, but we'll all have to see if in the end Palmer gets the stick.
That doesn't mean that there aren't endless types of snow. Icy snow, dry snow, wet snow. Cold snow, warm snow. Big crystal snow, small crystal snow, in-between crystal snow. The stuff comes in all shapes and sizes, and each can change how a pair of skis will run down a cross course. Each fraction of a second is huge, especially on a run like the one at Buttermilk, long and filled with technical features.
To maximize speed, athletes need not only to work on their form on top of their skis, but make sure the setup underneath them is fast as well. Enter the wax man, responsible for wringing every ounce of speed from a pair of skis that the racer might not be able to on his own.
"This race is so dictated by the first hundred yards. If you're out in front, you have a huge advantage," says Eric Holmer, who handles the planks of Errol Kerr.
It's a process that begins long before guys arrive in Aspen. "I got all of Errol's skis in September and I could just start cycling layers of wax in all fall," Holmer says. "I've had four months with the skis and know them inside and out."
From there, it's a question of matching the best skis -- the "race rockets" if you will -- with the best potions for the circumstances. Wax men are jittery before race day, since any change in the weather can undo the previous day's strategy and force some adjustments on the fly. With wet conditions expected for Sunday's race, they'll be breaking out plenty of waxes infused with moisture repelling fluorocarbons, powders, sprays, and overlays that can prevent sticking and keep skis fast. Tiny bricks and little jars that can cost over $100 a pop.
"We're going to be using a lot of wax. Expensive wax," Holmer laughs. "Nobody holds anything back."
Because the stakes are so high, trade secrets are well protected. Wax techs will commonly throw off peers by placing dummy products on their table. Those techs who do well -- Curtis Bacca, who has won medals with the Crist brothers, Daron Rahlves, Nate Holland, and Lindsey Jacobellis among others, has achieved seemingly mythical status in the industry -- are in high demand.
There's no perfect formula for success, but that won't keep guys from trying to find it. Says Holmer with a smile, "There's a lot of science and there's a lot of art, and there's a lot of voodoo, and there's a lot of b.s. to ski teching."
Sunday's forecast calls for snow and fairly warm temperatures. Keep your fingers crossed.
As for the comp itself . . .
The road to the medal run in Men's SkierX is going to be rough. The bottom half of the draw is particularly burly, and some big names could be eliminated along the way. The third quarterfinal heat includes four finalists from last year's race: Tomas Kraus, Errol Kerr, Michael Schmid, and gold medalist Daron Rahlves. Only three will make the semi-final. In the top half, everyone is wondering how X Games rook Brady Leman, the top qualifier after Friday's time trial and a 22 year old pup in a sport dominated by older athletes, will fare with five other racers on his hip.
Three more Canadians to watch? Stanley Hayer (last year's silver medalist), Chris DelBosco, who worked all summer to put on weight that'll come in handy if the course slows down, and #2 seed Brian Bennett.
Women's SkierX is Ophelie David's party, and she tends to be resistant to crashers. Her qualifying time was a full second faster than #2 seed Magdalena Jonsson. She's dominated the World Cup scene and has a track record of success in Aspen, winning gold in '07 and '08. No reason to believe she won't make it a threepeat.
Kevin Bramble turned in the top qualifying time in today's Mono SkierX time trial- no shock there- making tomorrow's Final a three man race between Bramble, Tyler Walker, and KJ van der Klooster, who has far larger cajones than you, my friend.
Those were Nate Holland's first words to me in the media tent after he made Winter X Games history with a fourth straight gold medal in Saturday afternoon's Snowboarder X Men's competition, referencing a comment I posted earlier in the week from Seth Wescott questioning Holland's physical fitness heading into the weekend.
First of all, thanks for reading the blog, Nate!
Second, yeah, I guess you're not. though your blistering time trial on Friday afternoon kind of let that cat out of the bag. And if there were any questions about how Holland was riding coming into Winter X 13 (there was at least one), none of them were shared by Holland himself, who put 'em all to bed when it was over. "I'm confident in my riding, and just proved it," he said, "on the longest, most physically demanding course there is."
What impressed about Holland's work today wasn't just his speeda lot of guys were fastbut his patience, and ability to see the big picture. "He proved here he can time trial quickly, but to him, I don't think it's a problem if he didn't qualify fast," said silver medalist Graham Watanabe. "He has a racer's head. He sees the lines, he sees the opportunities to pass, and if he's out front he doesn't leave you many openings."
Third in the early going behind Stian Sivertzen and Watanabe, Holland didn't force the issue. Instead, he drafted behind his teammate Watanabe, shot past, and then patiently tracked Sivertzen, moving into first with a beautiful inside move on a turn before the final set of rollers. Game, set, match.
"Today was pretty much a forced pass. I took a really direct line through that option feature and got right into the mix," Holland said. "I was able to let my board ride and got Graham there. A little later, I took down Stian."
On a day where collisions hurt favorites like Wescott (knocked out in the semis) and Baumgartner (clipped by Watanabe in the Final) Holland was able to steer clear of trouble, staying aggressive without making mistakes. "I'm pretty smart on the course. You can't win the race in the first turn, but you can sure as hell lose it. I'm not sure everyone out there understands that."
Now, it's on to the fivepeat.
"As long as I come here, I'm going to come here to win. Not just to show up and throw the name around. Maybe the media can put a lot of pressure on me to see if I can do it."
We'll try our best.
(Final Note: In yesterday's time trial wrap, I erroneously lumped Holland into the group of riders working with wax tech Andy Buckley. Holland was, yesterday and this afternoon, working with legendary tech Curtis Bacca.)
It would be nice to say that the other 11 riders in Saturday afternoon's
SnowboarderX Women's competition pushed the now-five time gold medalist. It
would be great to report of tension through the final turn. Except it would
be more fictional than a James Frey autobiography. In her semifinal run,
Jacobellis was about four seconds ahead of the field. In the final, she led
after the first turn, and again won by seconds. Light years in boardercross
It's not that she can't be beaten, but for Jacobellis in Aspen, it's become
a "Tiger vs. the field" type deal. "The World Cup courses are just a totally
different kind of riding," says Maelle Ricker, who finished fourth on
Saturday and has had as much success against Jacobellis internationally as
anyone. "Here, she really has an advantage. She has all the skills and all
the tricks in her bag."
On a run with rollers, jumps big and small, flat and steep sections, tight
turns and wider spaces, the full range of Jacobellis' skill is on display,
and it's pretty clear her background in all mountain and pipe riding puts
her well ahead of the field.
"I think it's the course. It's very big, and it's technical because it's
big, and there are a lot of features we just don't encounter on the World
Cup tour," she said after the win of the reason for her success. "If the
course isn't that difficult then we're all together because we're all
excellent riders and there's no feature that would separate us."
My sportsmanship-free translation, not hers: "When the course is hard I'm
better than everyone else." Can't say I disagree, especially in tough, slow
conditions like the women had today, when any bobbles prove unusually
Short of moving the X Games overseas or slipping the maitre d' a sawbuck to
build a separate, FIS-esque coarse for the boarders, it could be a while
before the field as a group catches up with Jacobellis.
"She's just got crazy amounts of natural talent. There's only so much that
the masses can have of that," says Graham Watanabe, who won silver on the
men's side. "A lot of these girls they have natural talent and then they
work extra hard. But there's only so much you can do in a gymyou have to
make do with what you've got."
Or so it used to be. Now Howard explains it all to you, including three key
spots to focus on while watching the SnowboarderX and SkierX Finals on
Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
On his building philosophy: "Being an athlete in this sport, I was never a
very good glider. I didn't grow up racing, and was always that guy in third
who needed more features to provide a chance to pass. That's how I build
these days. I always build and design looking at it for the guy in third.
Because that was always me."
On eliminating the piggyback: "Last year, I don't think anyone who had the
hole shot finished first. They got passed at some point. They were breaking
the wind, and everyone else was staying close and drafting. This year, we
tried to add features and tried to make it more condensed and tight, so
there's not a lot of time to hang back and draft."
It's not just about going fast: "At this level, speed change is important.
The better athlete is able to find a fast line, or be smoother, where
someone who is off just a little bit will be dramatically slower. So there
are a lot of parts of the course where the speed changes. From high speeds
into tight turns, or lippy takeoffs so there's more air, instead of low
On what to look as a viewer:
1. The start's always the most interesting, because it sets up the race.
The start to the first turn is going to be very interesting, and the hardest
part for me to watch. It's important to me that everyone get through the
2. My favorite feature is a triple that's right by the pump house. It's critical, because it's a blind feature that goes downhill and if you hit it just right it carries you through the next section, to the over/under figure eights. That's going to be really exciting to watch, just because it's a big option and literally is an over/under figure eight. You have to go right or you have to go left, and who knows what's going to happen there?
3. The finish. It's huge. A 75 foot jump, and some of the skiers are going 40 or 50 feet past the landing, and a good 30 feet in the air off the top of the table. It's sort of a last ditch effort to get to the finish line, and it's almost impossible for them not to go huge.
Still, the rest of the field isn't just going to roll over and let Holland make SBX history. With podium favorites including Seth Wescott, Graham Watanabe, Nick Baumgartner, and Marcus Schairer all qualifying near the top, there's an opportunity for top riders to clear the chaff in quarters, set up a stacked pair of semi-finals, and an even more competitive medal run.
For the women, boring as it may be the race is still likely Lindsey Jacobellis' to lose. She dominated this year's World Cup scene, and would be working on a fourpeat of her own if not for her memorable kerfuffle at the bottom of the hill in '07.
But should you be the sort of free spirit forever seeking to poke holes in the C.W., Maelle Ricker would be a good choice to score an upset. She arrived in Aspen riding well, and bested Jacobellis a few times during the World Cup season. Plus, she's Canadian, and they're a crafty bunch.
Of course, the real wild card here is weather. Snow has been falling throughout the evening, is expected to continue through the night and into tomorrow afternoon. Good news for anyone with a lift ticket to Snowmass, bad news for anyone looking for speed on a boardercross course.