The recent merger of the Freeride World Tour and The North Face Masters competitions was an inevitable next step in the world of competitive freeriding. Combining the two tours into one moves us closer toward the possibility of having one unified, global series, with one "World Champion" crowned at the end.
But with this merger we bid farewell to the only open-to-public freeriding tour in snowboarding where any old Gary could show up, strap in and have a shot at taking home the bacon. I know a lot of people will be unhappy with this news. There are not many contests out there where more than half of the competitors spend the night in the parking lot, where some kid from Colorado can wake up in his Subaru and a couple of hours later be standing in the starting gate behind Travis Rice.
Open events like this bring a group of people who have a shared love of a certain type of riding, and of each other. The end of the Masters series means there will be a community left astray.
I don't think I'd be where I am today if it wasn't for the open-registration format of the Masters. Being able to compete as a no-name kid from Jackson Hole is what gave me many of my opportunities that have lead me down the path I am on today. The tour is where I became good friends with (then champion) Aaron Robinson, who then invited me to travel and film with him during his last year on this earth.
These experiences completely changed my outlook on snowboarding and life in general. The completion and reception of Aaron's film "Manifest" is my most proud achievement in life so far, and I can credit all of this to a small gathering of snowboarders who came together three times a year to show their bones in that contest.
As a competitor in TNF Masters for the past three seasons, it's hard not to see the FWT as the higher standard. It's a pre-qualified-rider-only contest with far fewer competitors and more prize money, so one assumes for this reason it's a more professional arena for the exhibition and progression of big mountain snowboarding.
But high-scoring runs in the FWT tend to consist of navigating tight-knit rock faces at the top of the run, which often progress into massive cliff drops followed by high-speed runouts at the bottom. And while I have the utmost respect for this kind of riding, I would much rather watch someone like A-Rob or Sammy Luebke surf down a mountain with style, exuding a palpable passion for the freedom of riding a snowboard. The latter may be less gnarly, but does that make it less worthy of being called a "winning run"?
What is the criteria for the ultimate "big mountain line" anyway? Does it come down to the terrain? Will the venues chosen by the FWT, in having to cater to skiers and snowboarders alike, be compromised by the fact that the two disciplines have entirely different perspectives on what is the best way to ride down a mountain? Will snowboarders be forced to ride the mountain as a skier might?
And what about judging? With Tom Burt as head judge of TNF Masters, the riders knew that, along with the overall impression of how you flow down the mountain, your 'control' was a huge factor in how you were scored. Some past FWT winning runs might not take the top spot in Burt's arena. Just as a more freestyle influenced run might not win at Chamonix Xtreme. I hope to see some of the judges from the TNF Masters carried over to the FWT. A blend between the two judging criteria would serve the sport immensely.
My opinion on this might differ here from my European counterparts, but I think that the ultimate show of skill is to be able to pull off good-looking tricks in natural terrain while maintaining speed and control -- like Jake Blauvelt or Nicolas Müller, for example. So it's tough to say who wins with this merger. In the end competition needs to strive for the highest echelon, to be able to truly crown a "World Champion" of the given sport.
My hope is that the progression of big mountain snowboarding, outside of competition, is taken into account. What is the best way to snowboard down a mountain? Will this "World Champion" embody the progression of our sport? They are now setting the standard in competitive freeriding and their interpretation of this will be a crucial step in the success of the event.