A New Breed: Young Faces of Pro Snowboarding

Published in Whitelines Magazine Issue 96, March 2011

Words by Ed

A new Breed
“Has freestyle snowboarding become glorifed gymnastics?”

Thus pronounced Tim Warwood, the man tasked with providing live web commentary for the Nike 6.0 Air & Style in Munich. OK, so Tim’s never been shy of a dramatic statement for the camera, but as he struggled to articulate the mindbending tricks being thrown down one after another(“There goes another spinny one!”) I couldn’t help but agree with him.

Pro snowboarders today are a different breed. For one thing, they’re younger. Gone is the time when the Air & Style saw the likes of Nicolas Müller, Travis Rice or Gigi Rüf take a weekend out from filming to put on a show for the fans; in their place is a new generation of teenage contest machines – many of them graduates of dedicated snowboard schools.

The standard, even over the past 12 months, has simply gone through the roof. It’s crazy to think that in 2005, David Benedek was the talk of Munich for pushing the creative and technical boundaries with a backside 180 shifty shifty. A 180! Last Saturday, Nils Arvidsson was going for 1260 shifty shiftys, while guys like Peetu Piiroinen and Seb Toots were turning Warwood’s head inside out with their twisting, inverted double cork variations (again, a trick Benedek pioneered only four years ago – what would he make of the double cork monster he’s unleashed, I wonder?)

Younger riders have always taken the bar and raised it, but today’s youth have something else in their armoury: professionalism. Just as Arsene Wenger famously inherited a boozy, full-English-breakfast culture at Arsenal in 1996 and revolutionized the players’ diets and fitness levels, so too the modern snowboarder has learned to eat right, drink right and train right. Word is that five years ago, all 16 guys at the top of the Air & Styledrop-in ramp regularly smoked weed; at this year’s event, there was just one (no prizes for guessing who– that’d be the same guy who kept it rock n’ roll by repeatedly trying a weird new trick he’d never landed before in the superfinal, eating shit every time!).Driven, presumably, by the increasing influence of the Olympics and the serious sponsorship cash that comes with it, unstructured progression has started to be replaced by full time coaches, gym work, trampoline training and even air bag practice. Competitors don energy drink beanies and Nike boots, and ride pillion to the top of the ramp on the latest motorcycle from BMW. No one talks about ‘stomping’ anymore; it’s all about ‘landing bolts’ – a coaching term for staying solid and centred over your bindings. In a nutshell, they have become bonafide athletes.

In the fitting arena of Munich’s Olympic Stadium, the benefits of this scientific approach were obvious for all to see.

But while no one can deny that the unfolding ‘Playstation era’ is impressive to watch, some are beginning to question whether something is being left behind. Style, soul – call it what you will. A few weeks ago, Torstein Horgmo attempted to repeat his world first triple cork at the X Games in Aspen. He didn’t quite manage it – the result was more of a triple backflip, and he scraped his landing – but the judges still rewarded him with victory. In contrast, back in 2002 David Benedek (yep, him again) won the Air & Style with a stylish720, whereas a world first cab 1260 by Canadian Marc André Tarte was only good enough to come third. Bottom line, David’s looked cooler.

Maybe the whinging old timers amongst us need to get over the fact that stylish 5’s and 7’s are yesterday’s news. But it does make you wonder – has freestyle snowboarding become glorifed gymnastics? If technical difficulty continues to prevail, where does it all end? And at what point do we find ourselves in the decidedly uncool realm of aerial skiing? I mean, just consider this: for most of its history, snowboarding has modelled itself on the underground counterculture of skateboarding, but can you imagine a skater taking pointers from his coach down at the local park? He’d be laughed out of town.

LNP, who we interviewed for this issue, is one of the riders leading the resistance. As a member of that other new breed – the urban rail rat – he is championing a more skate style shred career, dressed in the kind of thrift store outfits that would have corporate sponsors tearing their hair out. Read his outspoken take on the state of the industry on p.70.

For others, like Team GB coach Hamish McKnight – who was in the stands at Munich to cheer on his prodigy Jamie Nicholls in the Stairset Battle – there isn’t really any issue. “Snowboarding’s basically always been gymnastics,” he reasons above the bedlam. “And what are you going to do when you can already pull a 900 with great style? Keep pushing the boundary obviously – add another rotation, or an inverted element.” Progression is inevitable, Hamish explains, but the mechanics of the jump and the criteria of the judging will make sure it stays within a snowboarding aesthetic rather than straying into pure aerials.

Whatever you think of it all, these are definitely interesting times for the ‘sport’. From contest jocks to rail punks, line chasers to internet stars, snowboarding is growing up and moving in some very different directions. As we wrap up this final issue of the season and head out to the mountains ourselves, we’re already looking forward to documenting where it goes next.

See you there.

– Ed

P.S. Couldn’t let this editorial go without mentioning our first ever dryslope cover! Congrats to Marc McClement and the Scottish scene for keeping the flame alive.

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