The Freeride World Tour starts its six-event season this weekend in the snow-starved European Alps. Originally held as the Verbier Extreme, the renamed Freeride World Tour has showcased the cutting edge of competitive big mountain snowboarding for the last fifteen years.
Since there are three other snowboard contests going on this weekend, including another big-mountain comp -- the North Face Masters -- in Snowbird, we thought we should tell you more about this contest, and what place it has in the history of snowboarding. ESPN reports on the past and present of the FWT from the death-sport capital of the world: Chamonix, France.
In the beginning there was the Verbier Extreme
Like all of snowboarding's iconic brands, the contest first grew out of the passions of a couple of hardcore shredders. Seeing what was happening with the illustrious King of the Hill event in Alaska, snowboarders and filmers Nicolas Hale-Woods and Philippe Buttet figured they could do something similar at their home resort of Verbier in Switzerland.
The first Verbier Extreme contest in 1996 was a one-even, snowboard-only affair (the tour now includes skiing), held on the venerable Bec des Rosses, a 600-meter, 45-60-degree face. At that time, many believed the Bec to be unrideable, yet the competitors somehow managed to find fast, fluid lines down it.
As (then-called) "extreme" snowboarding contests fell out of fashion in mainstream circles, the King of the Hill and other freeride contests eventually shut down. The Verbier Extreme continued through the dark years, developing into big mountain snowboarding's longest-running, most prestigious event. American Steve Klassen took first in the event in 1996, and went on to win it a total of five times. Verbier's Gilles Voirol never won, but was consistently in the top three until a tragic accident in Bella Coomba took his life.
The Verbier Extreme becomes the Freeride World Tour
In 2008, Hale-Woods long-time dream of an international, big mountain tour was realized when he launched the Freeride World Tour with four events, a qualification series and the Verbier Extreme wrapping the tour up as the grand finale.
Today the FWT continues to be an incredible showcase for the evolution of big mountain competitive snowboarding. To see how far this side of the sport has progressed since its early days, one needs only to look at Xavier de Le Rue's incredible, mach-20 run in the Nissan Xtreme Verbier 2010 by Swatch. The three-time Freeride World Champion's line was unthinkable when the event was started 15 years ago.
The 2011 FWT features six events on three continents supported by 30 Freeride World Qualifier events on four continents with the first happening this weekend. This first event is traditionally held on the French/Chamonix-side of Mont-Blanc, but as of this morning the venue has been moved to Courmayeur, which is on the Italian side of the mountain. The move is due to less-than ideal snow conditions in the Alps right now.
Last year'd tour champ, speed-master Xavier de Le Rue, is coming back to continue his run towards Steve Klassen's record of five Freeride World Champion titles. Standing in his way are riders like Mitch Toelderer (AUS) who won the Chamonix event in 2010 (the only event Xavier lost last season), Chamonix locals Douds Charlet (FRA) and James Stentiford (UK) who finished second and third respectively last year. Americans Matt Annetts (3rd overall in 2010) and Andy Finch are also hungry to prove they can beat the world's best big mountain snowboarder.
In the women's race, 2010 Freeride World Champion Aline Bock (GER) is looking super strong after her impressive win on the gnarl-factor-11 face at last weekend's Freeride World Qualifier at La Clusaz. However, in the overall 2011 standings, Aline is trailing Austria's Liz Kristoferitsch who came second in La Clusaz and is benefitting from points earned at the Scott Czech Ride, which was an FWQ event held at the end of the 2010 season. Sadly, North America's best and only hope in the women's division was shattered, along with Susan Mol's femur, when she hit a tree shredding early season pow in her home resort of Crested Butte, Colo. Susan was second in the overall standings in 2010.
While it's a shame that poor snow conditions will keep us from seeing riders boost massive airs to hero-snow landings, the real test of a big mountain rider is how smoothly he or she can negotiate steep, icy faces and big drops that end in bulletproof landings. No doubt, whomever emerges at the top of the heap this weekend will be an amazingly strong rider, rather than an amazingly lucky one. Huck and hope tactics from the rookies in the field with nothing to lose will not be a part of the game on the formidable faces of the French Alps.