The news that Shaun White is planning to compete at Winter X Games Tignes 2012 certainly shakes up the game of making SuperPipe podium predictions, especially in light of the perfect score he posted in the pipe at Winter X Aspen in January.
"The SuperPipe field is quite different right now than that of Slopestyle, where there's a huge field of emerging riders to mix up the leader board on a weekly basis," says Shawn Carney of Snow Park Technologies, who will serve as one of the judges when the Men's Snowboard SuperPipe Elimination gets underway on Wednesday, March 14 at 8 p.m. in Tignes, France (3 p.m. ET on ESPN3). "In men's Superpipe, if Shaun is competing everyone knows that he's veryhard to beat, if not nearly impossible -- [it's] the opinion of many coaches and riders."
Still, a White win won't be guaranteed, and it just might take another perfect score if he's to stay ahead of the likes of Ryo Aono, Iouri Podladtchikov, and Louie Vito, who have each been topping pipe podiums this season.
"As judges we're definitely looking for amplitude: riders going big and combining technical tricks," says head judge Tom Zikas. "This year we've been seeing back-to-back double corks become pretty much stock in the top competitors' runs, and it's gotten to where we're really looking for close-to-flawless runs, with a combination of high, technical tricks and getting the grabs executed perfectly. That's what it takes to get on the podium: Perfection, or very close to it."
In terms of sheer amplitude, Aono will be one of the top competitors to watch: The Japanese rider has been blasting as big out of the pipe as anybody this season. He's currently ranked in first place in both the Burton Global Open Series and the TTR World Snowboard Tour after wins at the Burton Canadian Open in January and the Burton New Zealand Open in August. He took third last week at the Burton European Open in Switzerland and won bronze at Winter X Games Aspen 2012 in January, behind White and Podladtchikov, and he has a double cork 1260 in his bag of tricks that can stand up to White's best.
"The Japanese riders have been on fire lately," Zikas says. "It seems like at every event there's somebody out there dominating, and they've come out swinging this year, for sure. Ryo Aono will almost certainly be a podium threat."
The judges often wish that they saw the same progression in risky, yet slower rotating pipe tricks, like alley-oop 360s and air-to-fakies, that are disappearing in favor of the double corks...” -- Shawn Carney, WX Judge
Podladtchikov is another favorite, particularly in front of a European crowd, and when he posted a score of 93.00 to take the silver medal in Aspen he proved he's capable of near-perfection. I-Pod's on a bit of a streak, too: He won the Burton European Open last week -- ahead of Danny Davis and Aono -- and won the World Snowboarding Championships last month in Oslo, Norway, ahead of Matt Ladley and Louie Vito. He's been landing both frontside and Cab double cork 1080s in his standard competition runs this season and can bring a double McTwist 1260 on a good day, and frequently says he loves the challenge of going up against White.
"In my opinion the double McTwist is one of the very hardest tricks out there, and when I-Pod lands them they're amazing," Zikas says. "I'd say Louie Vito's another guy right there nipping at Shaun's heels. He's been throwing as many as four double corks in his runs this year and has really stepped it up."
If it's going to take perfection or near-perfection to beat White, Vito just might be the guy: He racked up a score of 98.20 last week at the final U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix stop at Mammoth, clinching the 2011-2012 Grand Prix title. He also won the Dew Cup this season with second place finishes at the Winter Dew Tour Breckenridge and Killington stops and a win at the final stop at Snowbasin.
But Carney says big technical spins aren't everything, and says he's not necessarily looking for double corks in a row; he's also looking for progression and style in some of the more staple tricks.
"The judges often wish that they saw the same progression in risky, yet slower rotating pipe tricks, like alley-oop 360s and air-to-fakies, that are disappearing in favor of the double corks," Carney says. "Creative tricks like these are equally difficult and risky to do when done at height and speed. These could link today's techier tricks in a way that can continue to be rewarded by the judging at a similar level as the big spins and inverts...
"Taking those types of slower-rotating tricks and evolving them beyond their traditional place in our sport could be a way to keep them around as a part of podium runs in our biggest contests. A combination of huge technical spins with inventive uphill spins or huge slower rotations like switch McTwists, switch airs, switch airs to regular, alley-oop McTwists and Alleyoop 3's, 5's, and 7's, would be a great direction for our competitors to take in setting themselves apart from the inevitable technical evolution of superpipe riding."
In that department look to riders like Danny Davis, who is officially back in the mix after a full recovery from the back injury that sidelined him in 2010 and for most of 2011. He finished second behind Podladtchikov and ahead of Aono at the Burton European Open last week, putting his signature style on tricks like a switch alley-oop backside rodeo 540 nose grab. He's got the technical chops to make the podium, too, with two Cab double cork 1080s -- mute and indy -- and has been working a new crail grab variation of the spin that looks insane.
"I'm definitely stoked to see Danny coming back," Zikas says. "Back before the Olympics, when he won the Grand Prix at Copper Mountain, that was one of the best runs in halfpipe history. That kid definitely has it in him, and he's amazing to watch ride. It was great to see him climb back onto the podium this month at the Burton European Open."
On the women's side of the pipe, Kelly Clark is even more dominant than White is on the men's side: She's won 16 out of the 17 contests she's entered in the last two years, including Winter X Games Aspen 2012 and all three Winter Dew Tour stops this season, and it might have been 17 if it hadn't been for the minor injury that sidelined her before finals at the Burton Canadian Open.
Until recently she was the only woman bringing 1080s to superpipe competition, and she's been throwing them with confidence in most of her finals runs, making her nearly unbeatable. Queralt Castellet just landed a 1080 of her own in her winning run at the Burton Canadian Open, however, and has been openly hoping for a proper 1080 showdown with Clark on the world stage.
"There's a group of several women, in fact, who can take gold if they land their 'A' run," Carney says. "None can seem to match Kelly's average amplitude, but Elena Hight, Queralt, Torah Bright, and Gretchen Bleiler could beat Kelly on their best day, with combinations like switch backside 720s, alley-oop rodeos, and back-to-back 900s."
Other women to watch for in Tignes include Olympic medalist Hannah Teter, Rebecca Sinclair, Cilka Sadar, and Ellery Hollingsworth. Can't make it to Tignes to cheer them on in person? Check out the Tune-in schedule to catch all the action on ESPN3.
"Tignes has gotten a bunch of snow this season, and the SPT team has been onsite for weeks now to build a pipe base of perfect snow consistency so that the event has it's best chance of pushing the season's already historical evolution," Carney says. "There's a good chance that we'll yet again see several riders posting their personal best-runs-ever, while possibly seeing the sports' best runs ever happen again as we saw in Aspen with Shaun's back-to-back double-corking 1260s."