On a typically sunny Colorado day in December, 2009, Mike Riddle drops into a massive halfpipe in Breckenridge for his final qualifying run at the first Winter Dew Tour stop of the season. He launches a ridiculous Double Flatspin, followed by back-to-back 900s, and an Alley-oop flat 360, setting him up for a show-stopping, last-hit Switch 900. The crowd goes nuts and the judges concur. The run is good enough to place him atop the qualifying field. It’s just one of many big results the 24-year-old Edmontonian has posted in six short years of competitive pipe skiing. He’ll have another shot for glory in the finals against the best in the world.
Riddle’s journey to the start gate of the season’s first prime-time halfpipe event involved years of continuous training. For Riddle and the rest of the world’s elite pipe skiers, skiing long ago shed any seasonal affiliation as their struggle to reach the global apex of pipe performance became all-consuming. The search for the perfect 22-foot pipe—the size used both for training and big-time competitions like the X Games and Olympics—keeps elite riders like Riddle globe-trotting throughout the year. But there’s one country that remains conspicuously off the radar in this quest: his own.
Despite a storied history in the freeskiing movement and its stature as one of the strongest national contingents in slopestyle and halfpipe, Canada is nowhere to be found on the training and competition landscape for these events’ biggest and brightest stars—even those who call it home in the ever-shrinking off-season.
No surprise then that although Riddle’s trek to Breckenridge was lengthy in terms of development, it was a mere stone’s throw on the ground; basically a short jaunt off Colorado’s I-70 for he and his counterparts on the Canadian Halfpipe Team—an unofficial cabal formed four years ago in the complete absence of provincial and national support infrastructure. On their own dime, the team spends the pre-season picking over the Rocky Mountain state’s buffet of park-and-pipe-focused resorts preparing for a televised comp circuit (three stops of the Winter Dew Tour on NBC, and Winter X Games on ABC and ESPN) that kicks off the second week of December.
“We’ve done virtually no training [in Canada],” says Riddle. “The parks are good, but if you want to be competitive you have to go down to Colorado. They just have so many resorts in close proximity that you can ride pipe at one and still hit jumps the same day at another. Everything’s in one area.”
Indeed. A mere 24-kilometre stretch of highway provides access to the 22-foot pipes of Copper and Breckenridge, and world-class early season park facilities at Keystone. In addition, Woodward at Copper—a dryland training facility featuring foam pits, rails, and mock halfpipe—is available. It’s one of several pockets of freeride culture developed for both skiing and snowboarding that have gained momentum in the U.S., France, Switzerland and Norway over the past decade.
But there’s scant evidence of any of that momentum here. Although both freeskiing and snowboarding continue to mature and legitimize themselves in the mainstream, the supposed payoff—more people exposed translating to higher participation numbers and resort visits—is nowhere to be found.
Canuckistan’s few elite facilities—two 22-foot pipes and a small handful of expert slopestyle areas—are spread across almost 5,000 kilometres, and most aren’t running with dialed features until well into December. It’s a far cry from Colorado’s morning commute to guaranteed early season conditions.
It wasn’t always this way. When halfpipes grew from standard (12 to 15-foot transitions) to super (17-foot) around 2003, support from resorts was plentiful. Whistler was drawing the best of the best for the World Skiing Invitational every spring while Lake Louise hosted Snowboard Superpark and Cutters Cup (a grooming competition that created mind-bending obstacles). Eastern ski areas moved dirt in during the off-season to accommodate larger pipes, and parks generally continued to grow in both size and quality. Canadian riders thrived atop the international slopestyle and halfpipe scenes with strong showings at X Games and the U.S. Open of Freeskiing. This magazine rode the wave of their popularity.
But with the next generation of grooming equipment now disseminating globally, Canada suddenly finds itself lagging in the latest round of pipe-and-park evolution. Our athletes remain among the world’s best, but how long can this last without dedicated facilities and support? And perhaps a bigger question: Where have the high-profile, big-name-drawing events gone?
While those answers are shrouded in mist, the look of the current landscape is clear. Freestyle bodies already have enough trouble supporting existing Olympic disciplines, and private-sector support has been virtually non-existent. Still, with all the energy and commerce surrounding the new freestyle, it’s remarkable that a country with Canada’s freeskiing pedigree and prowess hasn’t hosted a ski halfpipe or slopestyle event of any international significance in five years. Sochi will mark the only chance at Olympic gold for a number of top skiers who’ve been in the game for a while, so athletes like Riddle hope their support of FIS events dating back to the first World Halfpipe Championships in Finland in 2004 will help their cause in the selection process for 2014. It may, though it remains anyone’s guess what a national halfpipe program will look like—or how it would prioritize development of new talent beyond Sochi.
If last winter’s Olympic snowboard show taught us anything, it’s that only Shaun White, aided by sponsors, can afford a private halfpipe. The rest of the world is dependant on resorts to supply the goods. And the latest round of pipe-cutting technology is an investment many must look long and hard at.
“Including snowmaking, a new groomer with hydraulics upgrade, and the global pipe-cutting machine, we’re looking at over a quarter-million dollars,” remarks Brain Finestone, Park and Pipe Manager at Whistler Blackcomb, on the resort’s most recent purchase. “It’s our single largest parks investment ever.”
Money, however, may be only one of the barriers to both short- and long-term success. As halfpipes grow, they also become less accessible. While it’s generally accepted that larger pipes are safer and more forgiving due to longer transitions, it’s also conceded that 22 feet (seven metres) is an intimidating introduction to the medium. That puts resorts in a tough spot. Are they meant to find room for an additional pro-size pipe while continuing to build smaller, more progression-friendly tubes? Or should they just go big, ditching their five-year-old groomers altogether in the process? These questions would be easier to answer if halfpipes were a proven skier draw. Unfortunately, skier numbers have remained flat in recent years, prompting some resorts to scale back terrain parks or remove them altogether.
For Whistler, it meant parking two 17-foot Superpipe cutters and focusing on one 22-footer and a smaller 15-foot beginner’s pipe this winter. Tough decisions for any resort to make, but more so for those that see no return on investment from current terrain park programs, along with rising insurance costs; suddenly freestyle terrain starts to seems like a liability and ditching it a wise business option. Thus, as much as there’s opportunity for things to improve, there’s a real chance they could get worse.
Physical infrastructure, however, is only one piece of the puzzle. A SBC Skier trip to Stoneham, Quebec, last spring revealed a perfectly groomed but empty 22-foot pipe, begging the question of other factors that might contribute to a decline in pipe riding. One overlooked issue is growing specialization. It has become difficult, especially in the recent economic climate, to convince the average jibber kid—and more importantly, their parents—to invest in pipe-specific skis and/or grassroots (resort-based) coaching. Especially when there’s a complete lack of structured training and competition available at the next level, leaving no defined goals to strive towards. Thus we have a sport becoming more and more specialized in an environment with less and less incentive to participate. Need we point out that this is exactly what happened to the original freestyle movement as it fractured into ballet (acro-skiing), moguls, and aerials, the latter of which is no longer even recognizable as skiing?
Canada has always been a key, respected player in competitive freeskiing, but like the previous generation, the current crop of talent is still doing so on their own dime, with little or no outside funding. For their part, the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association (CFSA)—link to both FIS and Canada’s provincial freestyle branches—remains optimistic on this front, but lacks the resources to move forward with new freestyle in a meaningful way.
“We are in one sense waiting. We won’t create a national team until [we get Olympic approval],” explains Manager of Media Relations, Kelley Korbin. “But in another sense we’re doing our homework and trying to set in place policies and procedures so that we’re ready and won’t have to play catch up.
“[When] it becomes an Olympic sport all those funding mechanisms kick in and enable us to go out and get more money from Own The Podium and government partners, which in turn creates a better product to sell sponsors.”
While it’s positive to hear about CFSA’s eagerness, it also sadly illustrates just how much rides on Olympic approval. Perhaps of more concern, resorts, organizations and athletes have no idea how it will all shake out. From funding channels to team selections, there’s plenty up in the air only three short winters before Sochi. (Inclusion is a virtual certainty: as of mid-October, ski halfpipe has jumped through all but the last Olympic hoop—full approval by the IOC executive and organizing committee in Sochi.)
For Trennon Paynter, a former Olympian and founder of the Canadian Halfpipe Team, focus has now shifted from lobbying for inclusion to making sure that the crucial initial steps to create a legitimate halfpipe campaign in this country are taken with the athletes’ best interests in mind.
“I think we’ll face some really interesting decisions because there are a few different [team] models out there,” Paynter says. “In moguls, you had athletes like Alex Bilodeau and Jenn Heil named to the national team who were actually part of a private program.”
Another model, of course, is ceding control to the CFSA of the program that he and his athletes have created, something Paynter is aware carries a high risk.
“Do we put someone else in charge of making decisions that are always best for the athletes? Do we continue running our own program and work in conjunction with the national association for spots and funding?” he wonders. “We still need to make sure that we’re in charge of our own destiny.”
Beyond details of team selection and resource allocation, there are bigger-picture worries for all. Just how much money will flow into the sport if a decision is made?
“Some people are probably expecting a little more than is realistic,” Paynter says. “That, in the same heartbeat of the Olympic nod happening, money will instantly fall from the sky for everyone involved.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Canada’s strong halfpipe presence could fast-track it to more funding—perhaps surpassing the already established snowboard program.
“If you look at Own the Podium,” says Paynter, of the program that targets medal contenders, “where a lot of the funding came in leading up to Vancouver and suddenly here’s a sport where Canada can get not just one, but a whole bunch of medals, I think that’s going to really help.”
Lots of expectations, but even more “ifs” and “whens.” The common ground in this discussion, however, is the delicacy with which these questions have been handled. With so much at stake and few concrete indications of how things will pan out, speculation over the sport’s fate has run rampant within the professional bubble. Much of this has been off the record, and a serious conversation about the consequences for freeskiing outside the realm of the stunt ditch remains non-existent. [Freeski pioneer Anthony Boronowski tackles the concerns and reasons for the silence in “Hard Bargain” on p. 72.]
Of course, not every variable is unknown. Snowboarding just wrapped its fourth Olympic experience and is as good an example as any of what freeskiing can expect. Not surprisingly, Scott Birke, Editor of Snowboard Canada, has charted a nationwide decline in talent and interest as halfpipes have grown while support infrastructure shrinks.
“We had a hugely strong contingent. The world started to notice that there was this group of crazy French-Canadians that killed it in icy pipes and started dominating the global scene,” Birke says. “We don’t have that culture any more. We don’t have the infrastructure for something like that to happen organically the way that it did in the early 2000s.”
And how does Birke interpret the current nature of Canada’s national team in ski halfpipe?
“I think it’s cool that it’s unofficial—it still has that non-ski-racing sort of feel,” he says. “Once it gets into that ski-racing program, which is what snowboarding is into at some levels, you’re being coached by people who’ve never come up through the ranks who may know how to coach on paper, [but don’t know what it takes] to perform at that level. I’d hate to see pipe riding relegated only to a specialized elite who can afford private coaches.”
Cue reference to freestyle aerials again.
Food for thought, though the time for digestion of these issues is running out. Canada is currently well-situated for Olympic-level halfpipe with top athletes like Justin Dorey, Riddle, Sarah Burke and Roz Groenewoud, but there’s a very real risk we’ll plateau—then decline just as our single-planked comrades experienced—if things don’t change from the current grassroots scene all the way to the start gate in Sochi.
Within three short years, this country needs to have a program in place for elite national-level athletes, define a selection process for 2014, constructively bridge the gap from privately funded athletes to a program that works with FIS and the CFSA, and provide direction for resorts on how they can contribute to a progressive infrastructure.
These waters will no doubt muddy further as funding is allocated, and become murkier still if those expectations end up being unreasonable and riders are left, once again, to make due on their own.
Back in the start gate at Breckenridge, Mike Riddle is ready for the finals. Up against international superstars like Simon Dumont, Jossi Wells and Xavier Bertoni, Riddle charges, looking to improve on his qualifying effort. Nailing his double, back-to-back nines and finishing with a Switch-to-switch 720, Riddle locks up first place. It’s a big win, and pudding-like proof that Canada has been doing something right in the pipe, despite the challenges. With eyes now set on X Games and beyond, the Canadian halfpipe contingent can only wait, and hope that their unofficial efforts up to this point are rewarded with a fair shake come Sochi.