INNSBRUCK, Austria -- Eric Willett joined some of snowboarding's true legends Saturday night here in Innsbruck, as his switch backside 1260 mute saw him beat fellow finalists Sebastian Toutant, Aleksander Ostreng and Mark McMorris to win the 2013 Billabong Air & Style contest. It was the Fresco rider's first major victory, and he was unsurprisingly stoked to take his place in the company of previous winners such as Kevin Pearce, Travis Rice, Jim Ripper and Terje Haakonsen.
"I'm feeling good! To be on top of the podium and have your name in the history books with those legends is the best feeling in the world," Willett said.
What made the victory even more impressive -- and the ridiculous standard of snowboarding that graced these finals from the earliest rounds -- was the way the riders also had to grip with some truly challenging conditions as the event progressed. The drizzle that had greeted Innsbruck in the morning soon turned to thick snow, making maintaining any consistency of speed an impossibility. As Willett said though, "We face a lot of challenging conditions in this sport. Last time it was ice. This time it was snow. You just have to deal with it.
Few shred comp sites can match the atmosphere of Innsbruck's Bergisel stadium. It's location, perched over the twinkling Alpine city, is also unique. 11,000 rabid spectators also helps. Certainly, every Saturday night final I have ever attended here has felt like the centre of the snowboarding universe, and this year's was no exception. It's probably why the event grew so quickly and helped kickstart the entire In-the-City thing in the first place.
Another reason is undoubtedly the tradition Air & Style head-to-head format, which was again used this year. Riders were drawn against each other before the Friday night Burn Style Session, and then had to ride against each other, with the winner going through to the next round. It means the event has a real competitive narrative, although there are drawbacks, as would become clear as the contest progressed.
With such a crew of riders in attendance, it was no surprise that the riding got very heavy, very quickly. Early highlights included Belgium's Seppe Smits knocking out Petja Piiroinen, an epic round two battle between Mark McMorris and compatriot Antoine Truchon, and Roope Tonteri putting out a strong Gjermund Braaten.
By the start of round three, four matchups would decide who would contest the four rider Super Final: Yuri Kadone vs. Seb Toots, Eric Willett vs. Seppe Smits, Roope Tonteri vs. Aleks Ostreng and, in what would be the day's most compelling spectacle, and definitely the best display of riding of the weekend, Stale Sandbech versus Mark McMorris.
This battle made it clear that the triple cork, until recently a certain to win any comp, is now just a stock trick in the repertoire of the world's best riders. Stale set the standard, absolutely stomping a backside triple cork 1440 mute to become the first person to land a triple at the Innsbruck Air & Style. Mark stepped up next, matched him with his own triple and also nailed his rail combo to pip Stale by the narrowest of margins. In the end, the Norwegian bowed out gracefully, putting McMorris into the final against Seb Toots, Eric Willett and Aleks Ostreng.
It was thrilling stuff, but Stale stomping one of the tricks of the night and still not making the final highlighted the discrepancies of the head-to-head format. As did the fact that the standard of trick in the Super Final was not as high as those in the McMorris/Sandbech heat. It's another demonstration of the difficulty of coming up with a satisfactory judging format for high-level shred comps such as this. Concentrate on the technical intricacies of the riding at the expense of keeping the audience's attention? Or settle on a head-to-head format, and accept the fact that the best trick might not always win? It's a question that is older than the Air & Style itself.
And so the three-run Super Final between Willett, Toots and McMorris beckoned. Willett looked up for it, and his switch backside 12 mute held the lead as the riders went into the final round. After stomping them in the previous round, McMorris couldn't manage it in the final and settled for a cab 12 indy for fourth. Aleks Ostreng's backside 12 mute put him in third.
That left Seb Toots, who had nailed a cab double cork 12 melon to sit in second, threw caution to the wind and went for a double backside rodeo as his final jump. He didn't make it and stayed in second. It seemed a strange move, given it was the first time he'd tried it all day, but later he explained the trick.
"I just didn't feel like trying a triple cork. I thought the jump was too small, and to be honest it's nice to have a podium that doesn't include a triple cork," Toutant said. "I think they're going to be a big part of riding from now on, so it was nice to just try a style trick instead."
A backside double rodeo attempt as a 'style trick' in the last round of a final? It's further proof of how far snowboarding has come in the 20 years since this contest was first held in the city. And yet the spirit remains, as yesterday's Style Session, and the interaction between all generations proved. Seb Toots put it well.
"Just to be part of this history is amazing. You can tell these guys love the sport. They've been doing it for so many years, and it made me realise that sometimes we can take this whole thing so seriously. It was nice to step back, relax and remember the fun in what we do," he said.
Amen to that. Here's to another 20 years.
2013 Air & Style Innsbruck: Final Results