Making its debut at the Games, the newest medal event is generating more than its share of excitement.
Start with four racers in a mad dash to nose ahead of each other, throw in a few gates, some 20-metre gap jumps and a series of oddly spaced rollers, and anything can happen— which is exactly why ski cross should prove to be one of the most exciting events this February at its Olympic debut.
To advance through three elimination-style heats leading to the final, first-one-down-wins race, ski cross racers must be skilled enough to crank hairpin turns without losing speed, strong enough to fend off inevitable body checks and knee pushes, smart enough to pick their passing moments perfectly and brave enough to take flight at 70 kph as part of a chaotic formation that includes four helmets, eight flailing poles and 16 sharp ski edges.
Ski cross has taken the most elemental thrill of skiing—beating others down the hill—and modernized it with banked turns, sculpted jumps and an appealing, made-for-TV format that promises more triumph, calamity, confrontation and threat of violence than the most creatively scripted reality TV show.
Canada’s ski cross team got out in front of the pack two years ago and proved that our racers are the best in the world with a resounding success at the World Cup event that tested out the Cypress Mountain Olympic venue last year. Our racers took five of six medals, leaving just a lowly 3rd-place podium step for the rest of the world.
The final Olympic lineup won’t be determined until January, and you can bet the rest of the world will be cheering on Canada’s mogul and aerial teams until then. That’s because ski cross is part of the three-pronged freestyle family. With only 18 openings available to Canadian freestyle athletes, our ski cross racers will have to earn their Olympic starts by performing well relative to the other two disciplines.
The formula for working out which freestylers get an Olympic bib isn’t a secret— it’s just impossible to understand. Expect four to six ski cross racers to get the nod. With three of our men ranked in the top five in the world and two of our women in the top three, the ski cross team is well positioned to take advantage of any opening.
Carve or slide a turn? Take air and double up rollers or absorb the lip and stay on the snow? Draft a leader or go for broke? Risk a pass or hope someone else does and takes the leader out? Being the first to the bottom in a ski cross race requires a whole series of correct tactical decisions. As ski cross vet Stan Hayer explains, “You might be trailing the leader and think you can pass, but if you try and get mixed up with him, then someone from behind can come and pass both of you. Sometimes you have to sit, be patient and anticipate making a move later in a different passing zone.”
If a course has a long straightaway leading to the finish, it can actually be a disadvantage being in the lead too early. Canadian coach Eric Archer remembers a race in Europe last year in which Chris Del Bosco purposely stayed behind other racers to reduce his wind drag and increase his speed before stepping out and passing them before the finish. “He was never in the lead going into the straightaway, but he must have passed eight or nine guys in four
different heats on that one stretch,” remembers Archer.
Contrary to conventional skiing wisdom, a perfect carve is not always the preferred turn. If you set up too wide for a carve, you might find trailing racers cutting in on the inside. To enable a tight turn and protect their position, good ski cross racers have taken to powersliding, a technique by which they establish the right direction by turning their skis sideways before hitting the edges and cranking around. “The carved line might be faster, but if you set it up, two others will blow by you,” explains Hayer.
Barr returned to competitive skiing in 2002 after retiring from the B.C. alpine team in 1997. In 2009 he climbed the podium at both the World Championships and the World Cup Olympic test run at Cypress. Consistent results left him ranked 4th in World Cup standings.
Hometown: Quesnell, B.C.
“This stuff is right up my alley,” says Bennett, who prefers X-Games courses because they feature bigger jumps than the World Cups. Growing up smack dab in the middle of B.C. left Bennett a little removed from races at times, so he built a start gate in his backyard to practice on his own. He ranked 16th in FIS points for 2008-09.
CHRIS DEL BOSCO
Colorado native Chris Del Bosco invoked his father’s Canadian citizenship so he could race for the best team in the world. He’s raced ski cross for 10 years and edged out teammate Stan Hayer to win the Olympic test run at Cypress last year, a result that helped him climb to 2nd place in the World Cup rankings.
Hometown: Kimberley, B.C.
After a stint racing slalom and GS on the Canadian alpine team, Hayer switched allegiance to the Czech Republic. He placed 10th in the combined downhill and slalom event at the 2002 Olympics before making another switch to ski cross. “It’s a lot more fun,” says Hayer, now Canada’s ski cross captain. “For each race you get three days of skiing sculpted courses and hitting huge jumps. At the end of a ski cross race I want to go up and do it again. That didn’t happen in slalom.” He was hampered by an injured knee last year, but still won the X-Games and placed 5th in World Cup rankings.
Hometown: Squamish, B.C.
Winning the World Cup Olympic test event at Cypress last year marked a triumphant return for Cline, a pioneer of ski cross who took six years off to have two children. Now that Cline, a former Ski Canada ski tester, is back, she sees times have changed. “The girls are more vicious now,” she explains. When her youngest daughter was just three months old, Cline had to leave to pick up training again in Australia, but believes the sacrifice will be worth it. “I’ll never have nagging feelings about what could have been,” she says. She ranked 7th in the World Cup rankings last year.
McIvor was the only ski cross racer guaranteed a spot in the Olympic start gate in the fall, having performed well in key 2009 races. She’s proven capable in the clutch, making it into the finals of a race in France in 2008 despite dislocating her shoulder halfway through the semifinal run. She won both the World Cup championship and World Cup Olympic test run at Cypress, and was ranked 2nd in FIS points in 2009.
Named to the team in its inaugural year at the age of 18, Murray comes from proven skiing pedigree. Her mother, Stephanie Sloan, was a three-time world champion in freestyle, and her father was none other than Crazy Canuck Dave Murray. Murray has adapted some of the same Crazy Canuck ethos to her new sport: “You don’t have to look pretty, whatever is fastest works.” Murray ranked 11th in the World Cup standings last year.
Hometown: Kelowna, B.C.
After leaving Alpine Canada’s 2010 development team, Serwa took a blind stab at the 2008 Canadian Ski Cross Championships at Red Mountain. After a few training runs, she came away with a silver medal and a new sport to pursue. She bested that with a 1st in the Nationals last year, and climbed to 3rd overall in the World Cup rankings to be named FIS rookie of the year.
WATCH OUT FOR: Tomas Kraus of the Czech Republic and Ophelie David of France led the World Cup and FIS rankings last year and are considered the main competition challenging Canadians for top spots on the podiums.
TUNE IN: CTV has vowed that every second of ski cross competition will air live on one of the consortium’s outlets. The men race from 12:15 to 1:30 PST on February 21, and the women follow the next day at 1:00 to 2:15. See www.ctvolympics.ca for details closer to the start gate dropping.
Skiers duck the ropes cordoning off boardercross courses and let it rip. But because skiers travel at nearly twice the speed boarders do, it’s clear skiers need their own courses, or else stronger fences keeping them out and higher fences keeping them in.
Ski cross is introduced as an event at the Winter X-Games.
FIS adopts ski cross as a freestyle discipline and hosts a World Cup series. Sunshine Village begins three years of hosting the X-treme tour.
Heyday of the professional tours, where sponsors, excited by the spectator potential of the new sport, host events featuring poor organization and rich prizes for privateer racers.
The IOC announces ski cross will be a full medal sport at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, after the successful introduction of boardercross at the 2006 Torino Olympic Games.
Ski Cross Canada is launched under the leadership of team president Cam Bailey. Canadians climb the podium 14 times at 12 events in the inaugural year.
Now 10 years old, the sport has begun to develop its own racers instead of just taking retiring alpine skiers. The average age of racers is now eight years younger than it was in 2000.
The Canadian team (men and women) finishes the season as the top-performing team in the world. Whistler Mountain Ski Club hires a full-time ski cross coach and begins to develop a ski cross program.
First-time Olympic competition for ski cross.