We live in a world where everything gets more specialised, more complex, more difficult. And yet, we all say things like, “variety is the spice of life!” and long for the good old days, when things were so much simpler. This whole pulling-in-opposite-directions is especially relevant to snowboarding, it seems
– by Jason Horton
The Rise & Fall of the All-Rounder
If you’ve been around the snowboarding block a few times, you’ll have witnessed the rise of specialisation. Back in the early days of the sport, it was all snowboarding: racers would show up for the halfpipe contest, freestylers would race slalom, and everyone did contests. But not for long. Over a relatively short period of time, between 1989 and 1994, racing withered and died while freestyle flourished, and the image of the sport shifted too: the rise of the snowboard video saw to that. Thanks to the work of crews like Standard Films, Mack Dawg and Fall Line Films, backcountry freestyle was getting served up alongside sex, beer and rock’n’roll to create a thing more intoxicating than any sport could ever be: this was pure ‘Xtreme’ lifestyle.
The nineties were basically a decade-long progression explosion where freestyle diversified, and the biggest stars did it all. Terje dominated halfpipe contests, won the Baker Banked Slalom AND dropped sick backcountry parts; Jim Rippey made a name dropping huge cliffs AND rocked up to Innsbruck to win the Air & Style big air contest. This was not only the golden era of snowboarding and video, it was also the golden era of the all-rounder.
And like all golden eras, it had to come to an end. Some might say the end began with the 1998 Nagano winter Olympics, and snowboarding’s inclusion under the jurisdiction of the FIS, the international ski federation. I would argue that snowboarding is a victim of it’s own progression (continues after the edit).
Progression: a blessing and a curse
Take the classic progressive trick, the double cork: since JP Walker pulled the first legit one in 2003, we’ve seen this trick go from video rarity to contest necessity. Today, you need to stomp at least a triple cork to stand a chance of making podium. Meanwhile, 9 out of 10 of today’s backcountry video pros can’t even do a triple cork. For progression to continue past a certain point, specialisation is inevitable, and we’re long past that point. As double cork pioneer David Benedek, puts it, “The era of the all-rounder is over… in order to succeed in competitions… you literally have to spend your season in the snowpark to be at that level of faultless repetition.”
The current cutting edge of progression says it all. Last year, British snowboarder and former gymnast/acrobat Billy Morgan broke the quad barrier for the first time ever. An amazing achievement to be sure, but did it turn Billy into a sporting star, in the same way a world record would in athletics? No. In fact, the clip probably generated more hate in the comments section than love, at least from core snowboarders. Your average armchair sportsman thought it was great, naturally.
The fallout from this ever-increasing specialization is threefold: first, the tricks in backcountry video parts have stopped progressing, unable to keep up with the acrobatics of the contest stars. Second, the Rock Stars have been replaced by the Contest Kids: clean-cut professional athletes lacking the appeal that a mind-blowing video part cut to a rocking soundtrack brings. And finally, the sense of fun, rebellion and accessibility that brought Gen-Xers to the powder party 20 years ago has been replaced by the daunting task of stringing together a faultless combo of triple cork variations over jumps the size of small mountains.
And there you have the dilemma: the more competitive snowboarding resembles a mainstream sport like gymnastics, the more core snowboarders hate it. And what’s good for the sport isn’t necessarily good for the culture, or the industry. As legendary photographer Andy Wright puts it: “You have these articles in the New York Times saying snowboarding is in decline… why? Because some athletes in the Olympics don’t have sponsors anymore? Anyone could have seen that coming – those people don’t sell snowboards. It’s like a gymnastics meet, those guys don’t have any relevance, and I don’t think it’s inspiring anyone to go snowboarding at all.”
To sum things up, you could say that ‘discipline’ is at the heart of snowboarding’s problem. To keep progressing, pro snowboarding had to get disciplined. But in doing so, it became just another sporting discipline. Which goes against everything that made snowboarding so appealing in the first place. Iikka Backstrom, a Finnish pro who has maintained a two-decade career purely on the strength of his video output puts it like this: “I started snowboarding because it was fucking cool. It was freedom, there were some rad-ass dudes doing it, and I wanted to be like them. We all had idols, and it seems like no one has idols anymore. Today, they just care about… spins.”
Hit & Run: a not-so-disciplined contest
What to do? Well, some would argue that the only cure for discipline is a good dose of anarchy, and for boycotting the contests completely. Others would say that the divide between contest jocks and everyone else is only going to get wider; that we should all just get used to it and let people identify with who or what they want to. Still, if snowboarding getting a little bit of its soul back is the mission, shaking up the regimented discipline of the contest scene would be as good a place to start as any.
Sooo… how about creating an event that is held on a medium-difficulty course and is open to all, from local shreds working a season to international pros? With a format that is aimed at all-rounders, testing all aspects of board control including transitions, banked slalom, jibbing and kickers? And with a couple of those old-fashioned video stars as judges? With a BBQ, and beers. And absolutely no FIS/TTR affiliation.
This is the DC Hit & Run. A three-part event series held last winter at Mammoth, CA, Meribel, France and Whistler, BC. A format combining the turns and speed of a traditional banked slalom with the tricks and style of a freestyle event: the rider’s overall goal is to get down the course as fast as they can, while dropping their best tricks. The better the trick, the more time deducted off their run. The person with the fastest overall time wins.
The event concept is the brainchild of Bobby Meeks, DC’s Global Director of Snow Marketing, and if the name rings a bell, it should: Meeks was a pro snowboarder from 1994-2005 and was part of the coolest snowboard movie production crew of all time, Robot Food. Bobby’s parts were always a mix of stylish tricks and goofing around, so it’s no surprise he’s applied a similar approach to the Hit & Run. Meeks puts it like this: “Competitive snowboarding is getting closer and closer to gymnastics every day. That’s why it’s important to switch it up a little with contests like the Hit & Run which are all about fun and a rider’s overall creativity, instead of being scripted.”
The format seems especially appropriate to the Meribel leg of the series, which we attended. The French have a love/hate relationship with ‘serious’ snowboard contests and have a dismal competitive track record in proportion to the number of fine riders and resorts they possess. Mathieu Crepel is the exception, and in many ways can be compared to the great Terje Haakonson: like Terje, in his earlier years he won a cabinet full of halfpipe and big air gold medals, before transitioning smoothly to filming big mountain video parts with Standard Films, where he also absolutely killed it. Like Terje, he just won the legendary Baker Banked Slalom, both regular and switch. Crepel is one of the world’s greatest (and most underrated) all-rounders, so when he showed up at the Hit & Run the win was never really in doubt. As someone who spent the past two decades at the forefront of the sport, Crepel has greater insight than most:
“The level of riding in snowboarding contests today is crazy, and I imagine it must be pretty intimidating for kids (and their parents) to think about getting into a sport that’s so hard and dangerous. So that’s why events like the Hit & Run represent what parents should be looking for their kids – it’s not about performance, it’s about fun. I started snowboarding because it was fun, and that’s what we need to bring back to the sport.”
What defines the spirit of snowboarding? Well, a powder day, obviously. But after that? Going up the mountain with your friends, hitting fun features, carving sweet turns, going hell for leather and riding absolutely everything in your path. Maybe this should be the spirit of snowboarding contests, too.