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Thursday, March 20, 2008
Updated: May 1, 2:20 PM ET
Spin Science

By Jeff Foss

At what point do you stop adding rotations and focus only on style? The magic number seems to be anywhere between 1080 and 1440.
Running backs spin erratically to evade tackles. Figure skaters spin gracefully to impress judges. Tennis players put reckless topspin on their volleys and golfers add deft backspin to their chips. BMXers spin handlebars, pitchers spin curveballs, and foosballers spin their tiny painted men.

Dizzy yet? Good.

The fact of the matter is that spinning and sports go hand in hand. In the world of snowboarding, where styles and opinions differ dramatically from one rider to the next, spinning is one of two judging points that stands up to cold, hard mathematical scrutiny (the second is speed). You may have to slow down the tape and count on your fingers, but you can't argue with degrees. 180, 360, 540, 720, 900, 1080, 1260, 1440 ... it's enough to make your head spin.

But when it comes to riding at the highest possible level (and taking into account the aesthetics of a spin, something many riders prize above all else), is there such a thing as "too many rotations?" At what point does the seductive art of spinning begin to ... well, spin wildly out of control?

Jake Blauvelt spins a hefty pipe air in Tahoe with an emphasis on style, not degrees.
"The hardest thing about this sport has always been to do a difficult trick and make it look smooth," explains two-time X Games Slopestyle gold medalist Andreas Wiig. "At a certain point, we could reach a level where it might not make sense to go for the next big spin, just because it gets too hard to hold everything together."

Wiig is referring to style, that fundamental component to snowboarding you can plainly distinguish but never quite define. Style's loathsome enemy is physics, a force Einstein (fun fact!) once labeled as the "fifth superpower." Only by defying physics with Jedi-like body control can a rider make the decidedly unnatural human state of soaring through the air with a board strapped to his feet not appear decidedly unnatural (or better yet, stylish). "Style means making it look easy," explains 2008 Nippon Open Slopestyle winner Mikkel Bang. "And really, that's what it's all about."

Yes, style and physics are constantly at odds. Lucky for us, style is winning: We're seeing bigger tricks, smoother spins and steadfast progression every year, meaning riders are getting better and better at controlling the physics of being in the air. But it isn't an exponential learning process. "Truthfully, I think 1080s are just now starting to look great across the board," says 2007 X Games Gold medalist Steve Fisher. "A lot of guys have been doing them for three years, but they have only just recently started looking super smooth, pristine and consistent."

Head X Games judge Tom Zikas thought Torstein Horgmo's switch backside 1260 was practically flawless. "He just made it look really, really easy," he remembers. "It was like he was doing a 900."
The illusive 1260 isn't quite as polished as the quotidian 1080 among top pros like Fisher, but it can't be far off. Torstein Hormo's ridiculous switch backside 12 in the 2008 Winter X Games Big Air contest, David Benedek's stunning double-cork 12 in the 2008 Vail Session, and Chas Guldemond's insane backside 12 melon at the 2008 US Open all showed the world how silky smooth three-and-a-half rotations of can look.

But it doesn't stop there: Guldemond scored third place in the 2008 Vail Session with a ridiculous 1440. The trick may have been a little rough around the edges (as with any first attempt—give the kid a break!), but it really doesn't matter. What matters is that he's a supernatural spinner with the will and ability to take his riding to that level. Other riders will follow suit if that's their M.O.

Thanks to secret weapons like the cab 1260, Kevin Pearce has spun his way onto the podium several times this year.
"There's no such thing as 'too many spins,'" insists Travis Kennedy, another superbly spin-savvy rider. "As long as you make the trick look good, I say go for it—all you need is the balls and the terrain."

Kennedy raises an interesting point: If snowboarding does go in the direction of bigger spins (with good style), then most slopestyle jumps and halfpipe walls will need some serious steroid injections. Riders would need more time in the air to complete their rotations, and this translates to larger features, riskier speeds and sketchier physics (damn you, physics!). "I don't even think we'll be truly ready for 1260s in the pipe until 18-foot walls are history and 22-foot walls are the standard," notes Fisher. "Once that happens, 12s will come much more into play."

Larger features present broader difficulties, and while adding four feet to a halfpipe wall makes it a whole new new ballgame, adding forty feet to a standard 65-foot tabletop makes it practically an endgame. "With Slopestyle, I don't know how many riders want the terrain to just keep getting bigger and bigger so they can do more and more spins," says Wiig. "There are so many other ways to make your tricks look good, like doing better grabs or trying rodeos, backside rodeos, double-corks ... things like that that add style."

Travis Rice may have come up short with his spin-erific double cork 1080 in the X Games, but he kept it real with old-school tweaks a week later in Jackson and won.
To further muddle the situation, you have the whole "less is more" argument. During the last Winter X Games, when Heikki Sorsa unstrapped his back foot before the final booter and floated his now-legendary one-footed frontside 360, there was a collective pants-pooping within the snowboarding universe. The Finnish phenom's maneuver was so sick, creative and unexpected that nobody cared about the fact that he only squeezed in a single rotation. As it turns out, slow spins are just as technical and badass as fast ones.

The spin debate can go round and round for hours, but regardless of the number of rotations or how fast or slow these rotations might occur, most riders seem to agree that style remains tantamount. "Right now, it seems like 12s are the biggest thing people are doing while keeping it all together and smooth," says head X Games judge Tom Zikas. "A lot of guys are capable of spinning more than that, but it can get a little sketchy in terms of grabs and style."

Adds Zikas: "Of course, that isn't to say bigger spins can't or haven't been done. We love to see them ... with good style."

Kennedy sings a similar tune. "As long as people can get these tricks to look good, I say go for it," he says. "The only 1620 I've seen was in a video game, but I'd love to see it in real life ... if somebody could make it look smooth."

So there you have it. Now who's up for a game of foosball? I call no spinning.