When Mountain Dew and Alli Sports decided to pare down the Dew Tour from three winter stops to one this year, the implications were layered. Two of the biggest events of the season, in Vermont and Utah, were lost. But the remaining stop -- the iON Mountain Championships, which kicks off in Breckenridge, Colo., Thursday and features 10 competitions between freeskiing and snowboarding -- will be staged on the largest scale in the tour's five-year history.
The finals have been expanded from two days to four, Big Air was added to the docket in both sports, and every competition -- including semifinal heats -- will be broadcast live either on the web or across NBC's television channels. In addition, the lack of a second or third winter Dew Tour stop means the prize purse increased for this one. Men's and women's winners will receive $25,000 per event, a significant bump from years past, and even the last-place finisher gets $500.
"Part of the overall philosophy we developed with Mountain Dew was to have bigger, better, more premium events," said Alli vice president of events Chris Prybylo. "With only one winter stop, we really wanted to blow it out and give more opportunity to the guys who compete."
That was the impetus for adding Big Air, but the halfpipe and slopestyle course also have been tweaked. The slopestyle changes began last winter, when event organizers met with a handful of athletes in Utah to discuss improving the course. After further input from the likes of Sage Kotsenburg, Eric Willett, Bobby Brown and Tom Wallisch, course builders added rail features (each rail section now offers three unique options) and lengthened Breck's course by a couple hundred feet, according to Prybylo. The course starts with two rail sections then transitions into two jumps, followed by a third rail section then two more jumps. It is one of the longest courses the competitors will see all season.
"The athlete involvement has been more focused and greater than ever before," said competition director Dan Skivington. He added that Wallisch, a wizard on rails, played a particularly large role in designing that segment of the course.
The halfpipe, meanwhile, has been shortened from 603 feet last year to 575 this year, Skivington said. That may lead competitors to cut their runs down from six hits to five, though snow conditions and speed will also factor into that.
Perhaps the most notable change to this week's event as far as athletes are concerned is the move from an open format to invitation-only. "That was something we struggled with the most, candidly," Prybylo said. "One of the things we were proud of with this tour was there was a lot of talent discovered through the open format. But we were trying to balance the amount of practice we could give the guys. Some of the feedback we got from the athletes was, we need more practice, we need more time. That'll be something we look at on a year-to-year basis."
For athletes like Louie Vito, the two-time defending tour champ in Snowboard Halfpipe and an Ohio native, the new format is less of an issue than paring down the tour. "For me, it doesn't really make a difference" whether it's open or invite-only, he said. "The only thing that's a bummer about going from three to one is we have no more East Coast stops. I had a lot of East Coast people hit me up who were pretty bummed about that. But we still have one in Breckenridge and we can expect the same thing but better this year."
Vito will be part of a stacked field in the pipe that includes Shaun White, the defending champ at Breckenridge. White flew in Tuesday afternoon and began training Wednesday, according to his coach Bud Keene.
The first final of the week is set for Thursday night with Freeski Big Air.