Stop the press: the winner of 07’s Air and Style was a Brit. No I haven’t been sniffing glue – word on the street is that Kevin Pierce has duel nationality thanks to his parents – in fact he travelled to Munich using our familiar red passport in order to ease his passage through customs. Believe it or not, this fact makes the winner of the Munich Air and Style more British than ‘winner’ of the British Champs Big Air (Maori Louis Purucker) who illegally entered the event in Laax before being disqualified.
The news of Kevin’s true nationality (oh c’mon, we’ve claimed Mike Catt and Kevin Pieterson for god’s sake) was a fitting end to our Air and Style experience. We’d travelled to Munich not just as ‘industry people’ but as British snowboard fans keen to see if this most famous of Euro events lived up to the hype. Was the oldest and most prestigious big air competition in the world still relevant? Was it the ultimate snowboarding spectacle we’d all dreamed of visiting when, during the mid 90s, Innsbruck’s cauldron-like (ski jump) regularly provided the stage for the likes of Jim Rippey, Terje Haakonsen and Jamie Lynn? Or had its move to Munich following the death of six fans in 1999 also signalled an end to the glory years? Certainly White Lines hadn’t covered the event for a while, preferring to leave the Euro mags to their annual feeding frenzy. Over the past few years, however, the event has appeared to have settled into its new home, and more and more the signs of an Air and Style comeback were appearing. If any further proof were needed that this was still THE jump contest of the year, it was provided in November 2006, when David Benedek threw down a double corked 1260 in the early rounds while Travis Rice claimed victory with a double backflip late 180 – two tricks which were widely hailed as the most progressive ever seen in serious competition. One thing was for sure, I’d still never been but had always wanted to, and now was as good a time as any. Air and Style 2007 – why not?
The editorial team was joined for this trip by British Champs organizers Stu Brass, Spencer Claridge and Matt Walder, plus two of DC’s UK team, Sam Cullum and Nate Kern. None of us had been here before so excitement was high – we felt like a bunch of football fans going to an away match. As soon as we set foot in the stadium for the pre-event press conference, we were starstruck. Even to a magazine editor like myself (albeit a provincial one) it was a shock to see all those stars milling around the place. “There’s Eero Ettala,” one of us would whisper with a nudge“ “Check it out, Travis Rice!” and even “Dude, don’t look round but Terje just walked in.” Glancing down the entry list was like reading a who’s who of snowboarding – with the conspicuous exception of Shaun White. Even the judges included snowboarding royalty, with Devun Walsh and Mads Jonsson amongst the panel. At a quiet moment during breakfast we spoke to Dani ‘Kiwi’ Meier, who was presiding over the judges, about what they would be looking for in the winning jump. His answer was technical, to do with a trick’s “volume” and whether the rider could “fill the space”. We weren’t exactly sure what that meant, but it sounded like innovative off axis rotations would be well rewarded. In short, we asked, was he talking about double corks? “Not necessarily, but we’re looking for something that grabs you here,” he said, thumping his chest. “To be honest I’ve tried not to fill the rider’s heads with too many instructions. I don’t want them to be worrying about what the judges are looking for when they drop in.” He was certainly downplaying the idea of ‘spin to win’, though, and was pretty dismissive of crowd pleasing backflips. “The crowd might love a backflip but we’ll only mark it at about 30 (out of 100).”
Following a day spent, like cup final day at Wembley, drinking too much lager and scoffing dodgy sausages, we finally took our seats in Munich’s Olympic Stadium for the showdown. The set-up was impressive: a mountain of scaffolding towered over one side of the bowl, where a terrifying steep run-in (complete with runway lights!) led towards the booter itself – beautifully sculpted from man-made snow. The landing was not the hideous blue ice I’d expected but in the cold Munich night it was hard nonetheless, and this was followed by a step-up jump to down box (worth just five points towards the total score). To a group of Brits brought up on dryslope and indoor events I think the sheer scale of it all was most awe-inspiring. I mean, this was a snowboard comp, yet here we were in a venue which once hosted the Olympic Games and the Champions League Final. Some 28,000 people were standing on the pitch or sitting in the stands, awaiting the arrival of the ‘be-goggled gods,” as photographer Nathan Gallagher described the riders. There certainly was something gladiatorial about it: the competitors strode out into the amphitheatre clad in helmets and occasionally full body armour, everyone in the crowd had their favourites, and of course there was a genuine chance that blood might be spilled.
The format for the comp was a straight knock-out, so the previous day the riders had gathered to draw their first round opponents. Straight off the bat two massive names were drawn against each other: Eero Ettala and Nicolas Müller – the snowboarding equivalent of Manchester Utd drawing Liverpool in the third round of the FA Cup. Of course with a field this strong there were never going to be any easy match-ups, but a few of the bouts stood out as particularly cruel: David Benedek vs Gigi Rüf… Heikki Sorsa vs Andreas Wiig… Kevin Pearce vs fellow American Danny Davis… Finally defending champion Travis Rice picked his ball out of the hat and theatrically crushed it under his foot before plucking out the name. “Mikkel Bang.” There was another gasp from the audience – 17 year old Mikkel was in the comp for the first time by virtue of winning the rookie category last year; now he was up against the odds-on favourite. Talk about a baptism of fire!
Up in the stands then, we sat and watched as some of the biggest names in snowboarding got knocked out in the first round. Wiig: out. Davis: out. Gigi: out. I was gutted in particular to see Mr Rüf fall by the wayside; aside from the fact he’s just a smiley, nice person, he was pulling (in my eyes) the most stylish trick of the night: a floaty rodeo 360 tail grab which seemed to happen in slow motion. He was just flying through the air upside down, grabbing his tail casually as if he had all the time in the world. “Sod the spins!” Gigi seemed to be saying. THIS is snowboarding.” It got my vote, but unfortunately he didn’t nail a clean landing. Nicolas Müller too wasn’t quite pulling everything together on the big kicker, narrowly missing out to Eero, but even on such a restrictive strip of snow in the middle of a stadium there were glimpses of his incredible eye for a line, shredding down the landing and slashing and handplanting the step-up jump. He really is a snowboarder’s snowboarder. Of the rest, Andy Finch should get an honourary mention for his ballsy, all-or-nothing approach reminiscent of days of old. The regularity with which he bounced down the landing following some whoppercock air, then dusted himself down for another attempt, was almost comic. Fair play to him for really going for it though. And hey, he’s thrown a kettle over a pub – what’ve you ever done? “Fincheeeeey!!”
At times it was hard to follow what the scores were because even on the big screen the numbers were in a tiny type. We had a complex sweepstake going, so this was confusing things. In fact we had two sweepstakes going, and at one stage Spencer was making noises about a sweepstake on the outcome of the sweepstake. I had Mikkel, Eero, Davis and Schmidt, and competitive banter was flying thick and fast. Though none of the riders were exactly shite, Mikkel, the rookie, was widely regarded as cannon fodder. “Anyone want to swap?” “No thanks! He’s got no chance.” Meanwhile Matt Walder – the lucky bastard – had drawn Travis and Benedek. We were drinking beers, surrounded by thousands of excited Germans, and we were filled up on bratwurst and litre-sized ‘steinies.’ It was great.
Then came the biggest shock of all, as Travis Rice was defeated by ickle Mikkel Bang. In your face Walder! Trice had been trying unsuccessfully to stomp a (deep breath) double backside rodeo 1080, which he had recently thrown down to win the Icer Air in San Francisco. It was a ridiculous double grabbed trick worthy of a computer game – never mind a real life contest – and since he’d been stomping a few more in practice everyone was expecting to see it place on the podium, most likely top step. Somehow though he found himself with only one jump left to play with, and with the pressure on to land it, his final hit looked a little less than relaxed. This left the door open for an upset, and to a roar of surprise Mikkel bust out a perfect backside 1080. Earlier that day we’d asked Travis who, if he had to lose to someone, he would like to see beat him. “I’d have to say Mikkel,” he replied. Wish granted.
Of the second round jumps, one stands out in the memory – Heikki Sorsa’s one-footed frontside 360. This was the first one-footed rotation successfully landed in competition. It might not sound that tech but think about it – all kind of things can go wrong when one leg is slipping around on the topsheet as you approach a floodlit booter! During one previous attempt, you could see from the big screen replay that he’d over rotated slightly; incredibly, Heikki had the presence of mind as he approached the ground to shift his free foot over one edge in an attempt to gain some extra purchase. It only just failed. This was one thing that you really noticed when watching these guys in the flesh: it’s a hard old landing, and when you’re coming down off the back of a huge rotation the smallest of margins separates a stomp from a stack. Several times guys like Bene and Trice looked like they’d set it down perfectly, only to fail to control their momentum in that split second afterwards and skid out or catch the nose.
Before the finals we were treated to a Freestyle Snowmobile Cross (FSX) event. Two whippy jumps had been built on either side of the main landing, over which six of the world’s best riders performed various tricks – including no-handers, supermans and – that crowd favourite – backflips. Just a few years ago snowboarder Jim Rippey pulled the first such backflip on a snowmobile, and it was thought of as insane; now it’s expected. Watching them yank those 200 kilo machines upside down at around 30 feet was pretty impressive, and no matter how often you saw them go for it your heart was in your mouth. Sure enough one unfortunate Norwegian, Stian Pederson, stalled a backflip and came crashing down chest first with his sled on top of him. A collective wince went up from the crowd but miraculously he walked away bruised but unscathed. “When you’re on a heavy sled, every backflip is different,” admitted second place Chris Burandt later, “And every time you approach the kicker you’re thinking, ‘oh man, here we go again!’”
“What are the prospects for a double backflip?” Asked someone. “Well they’re not there yet, but some knucklehead’s gonna do one soon and then we’re all gonna have to do them,” quipped Chris. Impressive though the noise and danger was, it did get a bit repetitive watching various yogic stretches mid air. Spencer certainly wasn’t a fan. “It’s a bit niche” was his hard-nosed verdict.
Next the stadium was rocking out to The Hives, and we were about the only folk in there who weren’t up on their seats making like Travolta. How miserably British we must have looked. The local spectators were on fire, doing Mexican waves throughout the night with the kind of choreographed precision only Germans can muster. This, and the fact almost all of the commentary was in German, reminded us that we were guests here. I guess even with millions of viewers around the world, 28,000 home fans in a stadium take precedence.
And then the big moment had arrived. The superfinal. Local favourite David Benedek was up against Torstein Horgmo, Kevin Pearce and the surprise package, Mikkel Bang. Every time Bene got ready to drop in the crowd went into overdrive, hoping he would finally seal the victory many believe he deserved last year. The MC whipped them up still further, getting them to scream his surname – if anyone’s seen a German team make a substitution in the Champions League you’ll know what I mean. “David?” he’d ask. “BENEDEK!” the crowd would bellow in reply. “David?” “BENEDEK!” Etcetera etcetera. This didn’t work quite so well with the foreign riders, particularly when the MC threw in a dodgy attempt at an English rhyme. “Big crowd and cheers, it’s Kevin?” Oh dear.
In this age of live internet broadcasts and web updates, you should all know what happened next. Kevin Pearce came through ahead of Bang with a phenomenal cab 1260, which was landed clean as a whistle. It was no less than he deserved, even if it did ruin two potential fairytales – a shock win for the rookie or victory for the local hero. What with Torstein’s impressive arrival however (this guy is an absolute machine) one thing was clear: the future looks bright. The average age of Pearce, Bang and Horgmo was just 19, and at 17 years old Mikkel was born in the bloody 1990s! I have to admit, I’d wondered previously if Mikkel Bang was destined for burnout. He’s been on the Burton team since a very young age, but recently – since he outgrew his cute grom phase and became a willowy teenager – the hype surrounding him had appeared to die down. Make no mistake though, he came of age here.
Finally Terje Haakonsen – Mr Cool in his casual leather jacket – was wheeled out to present the weighty medals, and everyone disappeared into the bowels of the stadium to get thoroughly hammered. The next morning one of the revolving doors of the Sheraton hotel was mysteriously missing – some proof, perhaps, that in this era of slick professionalism and corporate sponsorship a little of the Shaun Palmer, rock n’roll spirit lives on.
One big question loomed large as the hangover: Are we back to square one – spin to win? With a 1260 as the first-placed trick, that’s certainly how it looks on paper – despite all the judge’s cryptic talk of “volume” and “filling the space.” To be fair though, none of the really innovative tricks (bar Heikki’s one footer in the second round) were actually executed perfectly, so it would have been hard to award the win to anyone else.
In this month’s interview with Jamie Lynn – a legend of the Air and Style in the ‘90s and a former judge – he talks about how things haven’t moved on as much as you might think. “Riders are still pulling cab 9s to win events, which is what we were doing to place on the podium in Innsbruck in ‘96.” Well, that’s not quite true. A cab 9 is still a damn hard trick and might well be good enough to win a small event, but in the cutting edge arena of the 2007 Air and Style it wouldn’t even have made the final four. As a practitioner of style, however, Jamie’s eye for talent is as sound as ever. “Kevin Pearce is a phenomenal rider,” he said back in the summer, when we asked him which current riders impressed him. One out of two ain’t bad Jamie. And guess what? He’s a Brit!
1. Kevin Pearce UK (oh alright, USA) 286
2. Mikkel Bang NOR 281
3. Torstein Horgmo NOR 277
4. David Benedek GER 269
1. Tim Humphreys USA 249
2. Werner Stock AUT 243
3. Mason Aguirre USA 240
Image One: – ; Image Two: Vanessa Andrieux; Image Three: Christian Brecheis; Image Four: Air & Style