- Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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When the first Olympic snowboardcross races are held in Sochi on Feb. 16, sports fans who watch the sport only once every four years will notice the racing looks busier, tighter and quite frankly, more exciting. That’s because for the first time since the sport’s debut in Torino in 2006, the Olympics is running six-person heats like those used at the Winter X Games. That means two additional riders on the course in each heat than in Olympics past and more chances for passing, heated mid-pack battles and, of course, crashes.
“When I started racing boardercross, it was six riders, so this is more what I’m used to,” three-time Olympian Lindsey Jacobellis, 28, said Monday afternoon at the news conference introducing the 2014 U.S. team. “Boardercross is dangerous as it is. I think more people just makes it more exciting for the audience.”
Nick Baumgartner, the 2011 Winter X Games champ and a two-time Olympian, said he prefers the intense, unpredictable racing that’s created by having more riders in the gate. “It is more dangerous and more exciting. Anything can happen,” he said. “It’s totally unpredictable. That’s why I joined the sport. If it’s dangerous and scary and I can overcome that, that’s what I’m looking for, that adrenaline rush. Add more people. Make it even scarier. That’d be great with me.”
In anticipation of this change, the FIS World Cup races leading up to the Olympics switched to the six-man format, as well. U.S. team rookie Trevor Jacob, who’s only been racing snowboardcross for two years, won a World Cup in Vallnord-Arcalís, Andorra, in January. Jacobellis won in Lake Louise in December. At the Winter X Games in Aspen in January, U.S. riders Nate Holland and Jacobellis each won their eighth gold medals, but neither has medaled in their two Olympic tries. With the format change and their unquestioned dominance of the six-man race at major events utilizing oversized courses, this most certainly could be their year.
“Six-man racing is a lot more complex race,” Holland, 35, said. “There are more mini battles for first and second, and third and fourth. And there’s more traffic on the course, so the percentage goes up of someone messing up and taking you out. Experience comes into play of identifying those situations where something doesn’t look right and avoiding them.”
Another important distinction between four- and six-man racing is the style of course -- wide, big and built for passing -- necessary to accommodate more riders. “The course here is built so wide and so big that I think it will be one of the best races the world has seen,” said Olympic rookie Alex Deibold, 27, who was the first rider to test the Sochi course, on Sunday. “There’s a jump where the lip is 60-feet wide. Being the first one down was terrifying. This Sochi course is the closest to a full-fledged X Games course we’ve seen. The racing is going to be amazing.”