On the surface, Long Jump has to be the simplest event contested at X Games Aspen this year. The premise is easy to understand: Travel as far as you can from takeoff to landing, with the biggest jump in the final round winning it all. When you dig a little deeper, however, this vertical drag race takes on a whole different character.
Last held at X Games Aspen in 2010, the event (formerly called "Knock Out") consists of competitors getting two attempts to make their longest jump, and the rider with the shortest jump is then eliminated from the event. The starting point for each round is a fixed distance from the takeoff ramp, and each rider has a finite distance to reach maximum speed. The sleds are based on the ISOC Pro Open racing rules, where rider and sled must weigh no less than 650 pounds, and there are no slick aerodynamic add-ons allowed.
One factor that surprises many first-time viewers is that the run-up to the ramp is actually on carpet. Without the carpet, the powerfully spinning tracks of the sleds would tear a massive trench in the snow on the way up to the ramp, rendering the approach almost useless. In the 2010 competition, the carpet's wear and tear added to the complexity of the battle. This year, X Games snowmobile sport organizer Joe Duncan said that the carpet will be high-quality green artificial turf, which should give all the competitors a chance to gain ultimate traction in their approach throughout the contest.
With this playing field being somewhat leveled because of the weight restriction, it means athletes are digging deep to find any advantage.
"Long Jump is looking to be an epic battle with all competitors having factory support and great mechanics fine-tuning their sleds. Heath Frisby and Joe Parsons have Skidoo engineering mechanics Cory Davis and Christian Bros tuning their machines. Racers are taking their first swing at Long Jump; and last, but definitely not least Colton Moore and the Bikeman crew have been dialing in his sled built just for Long Jump," said Duncan.
Runaway favorite in the competition is the 2010 gold medalist, Levi LaVallee. Not only does he have his LaVallee Racing pro team tweaking his equipment -- he and the team have spent months leading up to the competition actually practicing specifically for this unique discipline. Since there isn't a long jump competition outside of X Games, it's rare for competitors to practice before arriving in Aspen.
LaVallee also holds the record for the longest distance ever jumped on a snowmobile, at 412 feet, 6 inches. That record was achieved under some very different circumstances with a long run-in (also on artificial turf) that took up a huge chunk of downtown San Diego (at Red Bull's New Year. No Limits 2012.)
"Minimizing track spin off the start. Then you will hopefully get a little more speed at the ramp. Then just preload the snot out the suspension and hang on," said LaVallee regarding his strategy on the carpet leading up to the ramp.
Hoping to prove a spoiler and not let LaVallee run away with all of the hardware, 2010 Knock Out silver medalist (and 2007 Snowmobile Freestyle gold medalist) Chris Burandt is rejoining the competition to chase the Long Jump medal. For the past few years, Burandt has enjoyed Winter X Games as an analyst for the snowmobile disciplines, but this year he gets to pull double duty as both competitor and analyst in the same competition.
"The event shouldn't be much different than the last time we did Long Jump. I think the key component is going to be sled setup. Instant acceleration, traction off the start and maximum speed off of the ramp is what's going to win. I'm hooked up with one of the best builders in the sport, Tim Bender from Hentges Racing. His attention to detail will hopefully help me get that extra edge over the competition," said Burandt.
He doesn't think it will be much of a distraction competing and announcing at the same time.
"Being miked up is going to be pretty cool, I think. It will be neat to be right on the course talking with the other competitors about the action. People may think I'm crazy when they see me talking to myself," said Burandt.
Though the common belief was that the best mechanics and ability to deliver efficient traction is the killer app, LaVallee believes a rider can have influence over forward progression by moving his body weight forward.
"Some guys try tucking low for aerodynamics, but I actually throw my chest over the front and keep the nose of the machine high to simulate a bunnyhop on a bicycle. The higher you can get the front up on a bunnyhop, the higher you jump," LaVallee said.
Burandt, however, is unsure of how much value the rider could add.
"Sled setup is going to be everything. I'm not sure if there is any way to get more distance once in the air but I definitely think the technique when you leave the ramp will result in more distance. It will be interesting to see how the different riding styles of the competitors work out with regards to distance," Burandt said.
Whether it's tuning or rider influence that makes the difference, LaVallee and Burandt will go head-to-head against four pro riders to fly the farthest on Saturday at X Games Aspen.