Peter Shelton

Build a bank and lean against it

Posted in Ski evolution, Watch columns by pshelton on December 17, 2009

The snowboardcross racers in Telluride for the World Cup this weekend will try to stay upright over the jack-in-the-box table-tops and tricky rollers peppering the course. And they will lay out horizontal to the plane of the earth as they whip around giant, fun-park hairpins. That’s the part of the course I’d like to experience, the high tea-cup walls where, like a swirling liquid, I’d be pinned by an alternate gravity to the smooth curved sides.

The giant-slalom racers, who will be competing Tuesday and Thursday, do something analogous on their boards. Only they don’t have the FIS homologated walls to bank against. On an utterly featureless slope, they will have to build their own walls with the biting edges of their boards. For every turn around every gate they will simultaneously create and stand against their own carved mini-walls.

This is the definition of carving: the weighted curved edge of the tool cuts its little trench in the snow. The rider has only to shape the radii of his trenches, aim them where he will, and (here’s the difficult part) manage the centrifugal forces from one high-speed arc to the next. (Newton’s first law: a body in motion “wants” to move uniformly straight ahead. . . You’re trying to ride the curves; physics wants to throw you straight off the side of that race course.)

I watched the PGS athletes train on Misty Maiden on Monday. One by one they peeled down the steepest part of Misty under the watchful eyes of their coaches and videographers. Every turn left an etched line, shaded by the low December sun, until the whole hill was marked, as if by thousands of fingernail clippings—or perhaps more appetizingly—thousands of razor-thin crescent moons.

Average skiers making the same number of turns would have pushed up nascent moguls. But these riders left none. They were not pushing any snow, not skidding at all. They could draw on this slope for days—indeed they did—without pressing up a single manmade bump.

It was fun to hear the babble of different languages in the lift lines: German, French, Canadian, eh, Japanese. Russian. From overhead on the chairlift, I spied a couple of intense and very different coach-athlete discussions. In one, an Austrian coach chopped the air with emphatic arms as his diminished super-hero charge took the criticism on slumped shoulders. In another tête-à-tête, a female racer crouched unmoving on her board’s toe edge, craning forward, waiting intently as her coach, young and blond and sitting like Buddha in the snow, fingered his stubble in search of the right words.

The intensity, the athleticism, and the foreign demographic make Telluride and Mountain Village feel like a credible international resort. It’s very cool. And no doubt very expensive to bring what used to be called the White Circus to town. (The cat time alone must be daunting.)

It is a circus, with crews erecting tents and the start-finish lines, setting the timing lights, digging in safety fences, building the courses themselves. I wonder: does the World Cup send professionals to sculpt the boardercross course with its complex jumps and curves? Surely they are using Telluride’s grooming machines, but are they directing local cat drivers or applying the finishing touches themselves? It looks as if several course features have been abandoned already, bypassed by the final layout, left out to the side like oxbows cut off from the main river flow. Was that part of the course-setter’s art, the calculus of vertical drop and expected snow temperatures and textures, tweaking the roller coaster for perfection?

I have a million questions. Like, do the PGS men and women run the same course? Do they alternate starts, or run one gender first? Will people without lift tickets be able to get to the Gorrono finish corral to see the action in person?

I could call Maryhelyn Kirwan, Telski’s communications director, but I doubt I’d get through. I’ve covered World Cups at other venues, and I can tell you that managing an international press room is akin to running a month-long war. European snowsports journalists and fans back home (you’ve heard this before, but it’s true) take all of this way more seriously than we do.

No, I think I’ll leave Maryhelyn to her already overflowing plate. I’ll just have to come up to the mountain and see for myself how the competition goes down, how deep the ruts get, how huge the forces, and how much fun those momentum hounds have, playing with gravity as if it were theirs to mold.

4 Responses

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  1. Lenora Walton said, on January 30, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    Very informative post. I’ve found your blog via Google and I’m really glad about the information you provide in your articles. Btw your blogs layout is really messed up on the Kmelon browser. Would be cool if you could fix that. Anyhow keep up the good work!

    • pshelton said, on January 30, 2010 at 6:36 pm

      Thanks for the feedback, Lenora. I don’t know how address the messed up layout you mention. I’ll look into it. -P

  2. Darron Speights said, on February 15, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    I have forgotten who it was but I first found out about your blog from a link posted on Twitter. . I totally loved your blog posts and want to read more! Are you on Twitter? We should connect.

  3. pshelton said, on February 15, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    Sorry, Darron, I don’t Twitter. Glad you like the posts, though. Keep checking in; there will be more.

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