By Matthew Reichman
Canadian Christopher Delbosco heaved himself through the gates, frantically ramming his poles in the snow,gathering momentum by skating on his skis; whoever forged ahead in the starting line”s flat sprint would probably stay ahead.
Like the final clicks of the chain at a rollercoaster”s apex, the first rolling bump allowed Delbosco to blink one last time before the course sloped downward and Sir Isaac Newton mercilessly took over. Screaming down at just shy of 50 mph, he soon found himself in third place by a few yards.
Trying to shave seconds on a risky turn, Delbosco went flying sideways across the icy track after his ski”s edge lost its fragile hold. Nearly colliding with the Czech Republic”s Tomas Kraus, Delbosco barreled through the orange plastic fence, at which point he, his chance at a spot on the winner”s podium, and a green Nature Valley banner all vanished in a cloud of snow.
Delbosco was one among many of the world”s skiing greats devoured by the cutthroat ski cross event in the 2008 Visa Freestyle International World Cup at Deer Valley last week. Although the International Ski Federation World Cup has made the rounds in the United States for years, it was North America”s very first World Cup Ski Cross. The ski cross, featured in the X-Games since 1998, will hit the Olympic stage for the first time in the 2010 Vancouver games.
“Being that it”s the first FIS ski cross in North America, and having it be here in Deer Valley, it”s pretty darn cool from our standpoint,” Deer Valley President and General Manager Robert Wheaton said.
The World Cup features three different events: the aerials, in which skiers build speed on a 70-meter runway to soar off a 4-meter-high kicker ramp to perform aerial stunts; the dual moguls, a steep 250 meter bumpy slope, punctuated twice by smaller kickers; and the new ski cross, a fast and furious version of downhill racing in which heats of four skiers gun down a devilish, narrow track of hairpin turns and jumps.
Thousands of spectators braved the almost intolerablyunpleasant 8-degree weather to watch 12 men and 12 women compete in the aerials finals Friday night. Launching off the kicker, which is inclined to roughly 70 degrees at the takeoff point, the skiers seem frozen in place, silhouetted 50 feet up in the middle of the absorbingly dark night sky. After flipping and twisting their way nearly into oblivion, the skiers, like falling cats, somehow end the dizzying three seconds in the air with their skis in the right place, touching down on the steep landing zone below.
“It doesn”t get any easier,” Australian Jacqui Cooper said. “I”ve been doing this for 17 years and I”m still scared.”
Cooper took second place in the Cup with a triple twisty, or three back flips combined with three 360-degree twists. Cooper was the first woman ever to successfully execute this trick. China”s Nina Li took first place in the competition with a nearly flawless landing.
At the beginning of the men”s competition, Dylan Ferguson, USA”s sole finals representative, over-rotated and smacked his helmet on the hard-packed snow. He, like the others who crashed and burned, shook it off as if he had simply bonked his head on his kitchen cabinet. Ukraine”s Stanislav Kravchuck won the night with a combo of a straight back flip, followed by a back flip combined with a 720-degree twist, and a final backflip with a 360-degree twist. He was victoriously pumping his arms almost before his skis ever touched the ground.
“I understand that I am won when I am standing here,” Kravchuck said. “When I am flying I am just trying to focus to land … when I am land, I understand that I am won.”
On Saturday afternoon the ski cross qualifiers gathered for the finals on the ski cross course designed by the same team that will create the 2010 Olympic course in Vancouver, British Columbia. The course starts with a slow flat run to a steep spine jump, which ended up eliminating American X-Games gold-medalist Daron Rahlves.
“Daron”s start is unbelievably slow,” American teammate Casey Puckett said with a grin. “He was fourth out of the gate in every heat. Each heat I watched him make passes pretty quickly, and I thought to myself, ”when he gets to the final, he”s not going to make those passes.””
Puckett took second place in the finals. While vying for the lead, he bumped into Swiss skier Michael Schmid, which gave third-position Canadian Davey Barr an opportunity.
“I had to be patient, and see what was happening around me, then generate some speed and make a move when they had some contact,” Barr said. “After that, I just tried to not look back and keep the lead.” Barr”s Canadian comrades lifted him up on their shoulders to escort him to the podium, where he had a ski in one hand and a Canadian flag in the other.
France”s Ophelie David, the women”s returning X-Games gold-medalist, won the finals by a long shot. Every time her competitors drew near, she somehow stretched her lead.
“You can hear the skis when we land,” David said. “You can also watch the shadows of the others. Sometimes you just feel them. We are used to that.”
The Cup ended Saturday night on the dual moguls course. Two skiers bolt down the course together, on mirrored tracks, as the judges grade their performance using three criteria: cleanliness and form of turns, which has a 50 percent weight; speed, which has a 25 percent weight; and two tricks off the ramps, where execution and degree of difficulty combine for a 25 percent weight.
Most the women did helicopters, or 360-degree twists, off the top kicker and some derivation of a back flip at the bottom. Canada”s Nathalie Bazin attempted a momentum-countering front flip, but popped out of the landing and rag-dolled down the remainder of the course. American Shelly Robertson took the United States” only World Cup first-place finish with her dual moguls performance.
“I was doing a 360 all night, and then I realized I was landing a little backseat, so I wanted to go a little bit bigger, and so I did a double twister spread up top,” Robertson said.
The men generally threw a back flip on the first jump and a variation of a 720-degree spin at the bottom. The neck-and-neck intensity of the final races made for some of the most picturesque moments of the week at the bottom kicker, where the two racers often met at the same time to fly into nearly identical cork-sevens, or off-axis 720 spins.
Canadian Vincent Marquis narrowly edged American young gun Landon Gardner in the final match to win the men”s dual Moguls competition. Gardner, a dark horse from the beginning, beat the likes of Canadian Olympian Alexandre Bilodeau to grab his second-place finish.
“He [Landon] was just cool as a cucumber and he just let those guys blow up,” U.S. freestyle head coach Jeff Wintersteen said. “They were skiing really fast, and Gardner just waited for them to make a mistake … he was skiing like a veteran tonight.”