The Swatch Freeride World Tour by The North Face kicks off its second season as a unified big-mountain series Friday morning in Courmayeur, Italy. The contest -- the only one out of six tour stops to feature just men -- will take place one month later than the FWT's original kickoff event was slated to take place in Revelstoke, B.C. The contest was slated to take place on Friday but was then delayed due to stormy conditions. The weather window for the event goes until Thursday.
The Revelstoke event was postponed until March due to inadequate conditions on the precipitous Mac Daddy face. In Courmayeur, athletes will tackle a similar venue as in past years, dropping off a ridge onto a vast alpine face on the south side of Mont Blanc. Defending world champions Drew Tabke (ski) and Ralph Backstrom (snowboard) will be in attendance, trying to keep both tour titles in America for a second straight year.
Tabke flew to Italy last weekend with fellow American Josh Daiek. In an interview Tuesday from the Hotel Croux in Courmayeur, Tabke -- who edged 2012 champ Reine Barkered by a scant margin (8,000 to 7,960 points) to win his first world title -- said he's looking forward to a slightly altered judging system this year.
Tour organizers have convened three-judge panels for each sport that will follow the tour all season, as opposed to using different judges at various stops. The eight-member Pro Freeriders Board (PFB) requested the move to give them more consistent scoring standards, said Bryan Barlow, who directs the FWT in North and South America.
"The problem was that each judge has a different style of things they like or don't like, and when we had one- or two-off judges, we didn't seem to be getting to a real clear winner," Barlow said.
"This way everybody knows what we're being judged on," Tabke added. "You can make it more predictable so riders can make better decisions."
Hugo Harrisson will be the head ski judge, with Eric Schmitz and Dion Newport scoring each event. Tom Burt will oversee the snowboard panel, which includes Berti Denervaud and Lolo Besse.
The other significant change is more prize money. Organizers upped the tour purse from $320,000 to $400,000 and added a $5,000 bonus for each tour champion -- another request made by the athlete advisory board. Tabke said the overall bonuses will give riders more incentive to follow the whole tour.
Backstrom, who won in Courmayeur in 2012, was scheduled to arrive in Italy late on Thursday, fresh off a two-week powder trip in Japan. "I'm just going to have fun this year," he said during a layover in Montreal. "I got the championship out of the way last season and I'm going to roll into Courmayeur tomorrow afternoon with a half-hour to an hour of pretty poor light to look at the face, so who knows how that'll feel."
He was one of five American men in the season-ending top 10 standings last year, a trend he attributes to a more laidback approach taken by the Americans. "I'm not sure what it is, but I do kind of feel like the Americans are less serious and have more fun," Backstrom said. "And I think that shows in our riding."
The nation breakdown was much more diverse on the ski side. Seven countries were represented in the men's top 10 and Tabke was one of just two Americans in the group, along with Silas Chickering-Ayers.
A number of newcomers will be in the field Friday, attempting to do what Nadine Wallner achieved last season. Wallner, who hails from the tiny Austrian village of Kloesterle won the tour title as a rookie after qualifying the previous winter.
"Last year was more difficult because I was riding all the faces for the first time," Wallner said by phone Wednesday. "Now I'm much more comfortable on all the venues."
She and the rest of the women, including defending snowboard champion Elodie Mouthon of France, are scheduled to join the men on the French side of Mont Blanc after the Courmayeur event. Chamonix plays host to the second stop on tour, then it shifts to Fieberbrunn Pillerseetal, Austria, in early February.
In March, the tour travels to Kirkwood, Calif., then finishes with the two steepest venues on tour: Revelstoke's Mac Daddy face and the famed Bec des Rosses in Verbier, Switzerland.