We caught up with Travis Rice ahead of the first stop of his Natural Selection Tour
It’s late on a Thursday night in east London when the phone rings, but immediately you can hear the wind and tat-tat-tat of snow hitting off the speaker on the other end. “Man, we just got a two-foot powder dump here and we’re just dealing with some avalanche mitigation at the end of the day”. Travis Rice is calling from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a few days ahead of the first stop of the Natural Selection Tour.
The competition, staged over three venues, will see 26 of the world’s best riders gather in Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Wyoming, from February 3rd. Here, they’ll battle it out on some of the most awe-inspiring natural terrain, with the top placed riders going on to compete at Baldface Lodge, British Columbia, before the final showdown up in Alaska’s Tordrillo Mountain Range.
“It’s pitched as the ultimate test in all-mountain freestyle and backcountry riding”
It’s pitched as the ultimate test in all-mountain freestyle and backcountry riding. Competitors will have the chance to showcase their best on an a pristine backcountry face, stacked with natural features (some of them given a little man-made enhancement), while the eyes of the snowboarding world can watch the event unfold live on Red Bull TV.
With the stage now set, we caught up with Travis to get his thoughts ahead of snowboarding’s latest flagship event.
It’s less than a week to go until the event window opens, and it sounds like you guys have a lot of snow already. How’s the competition face shaping up?
Frankly, I’m really feeling good about the amount of work and effort we’ve all put into the lead up of this event and the state of our event venue itself. We’ve worked real hard and we’ve collaborated with a lot of teams here at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
“It’s been years of work culminating in us being a week away from putting this contest on”
Covid has obviously made this a very unique year, especially to be doing a contest like this so we have some really locked down covid protocols and this is going to be the first major live broadcast that I’ve ever been a part of hosting.
So yeah man, it’s been years of work culminating in us being a week away from putting this contest on. And like I said, we probably got close to two feet today so we’re just making sure we’re staying within our safety protocols. But it’s all really exciting and it looks like we’ve potentially managed to manifest some beautiful and ideal conditions for our event.
Have you got your line figured out already?
I think the simple answer is no. I’ve been so focussed on getting the event and the shape of the course in as great condition as possible. Of course, I admittedly know this terrain very well being one of the course designers, but I think the unique nature of the way the contest runs is that you’re gonna have to be adaptable.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of constant adaptation with how people figure out what line they want to ride because there’s simply so many options”
We’re going to be doing these drone flights and providing riders with a ton of education, so everyone’s going to have the same amount of information and they’ll really be able to study the whole slope. But when it comes down to how the event runs and when you’re dropping, everyone’s going to have to be adaptable.
You might have a line in your head and you’re like “I’m gonna hit this big gap at the bottom and that’s gonna be my line”, but if you don’t go until the back of the field and, say, someone bomb holes the landing out, it’ll be like “Oh, shit, I’ve gotta change my line”. So I think there’s going to be a lot of constant adaptation with how people figure out what line they want to ride because there’s simply so many options.
There’s such an experienced and lineup of riders with a crazy number of X-Games and Freeride World Tour winners. What kind of rider do you think this series is going to favour?
Well, I think the simple answer is that it’s a combination. I think Jackson has the most freestyle components on the tour. I mean, all of the venues have both freeride and freestyle elements, but I would say it steadily becomes more big mountain. The venue up in Canada is going to be a little bigger than the one here, out in Jackson, and then the one in Alaska is going to be a little bigger than that.
Can you tell us a bit about the judging format?
At the end of the day, judging will be based on overall impressions. We’ve got three awesome judges, including Chad Otterstrom. I think the fun thing for the riders and the viewers of this event is that the judging format is head to head. It’s really only two people against each other. So, as an example, you’ll have ‘Lady A’ drop against ‘Lady B’ and it’s win or lose. It’s a best of two runs out of three format, so if ‘Lady A’ lands the first run, then ‘Lady B’ lands the second run, it’ll force a tie break and whoever wins that will advance onto the next round and force the other rider out.
“I think that as a viewer I’m the most excited about the women’s field. We have such a cool roster of women riders”
Speaking of the which, how stoked are you on the women’s line up this year and what are you looking forward to seeing from them?
Honestly, I think that as a viewer I’m the most excited about the women’s field. We have such a cool roster of women riders from veteran level, hyper experienced riders like Hana Beaman and Robin Van Gyn to the freestyle prowess of Elena Hight. And you’ve got these cool stories coming together where you might have like Anna Gasser against Marion Haerty. Both of them are at the best of their respective disciplines, but it’s about how their strengths in what they’re so good at doing are going to play into their approach to the course. I think that’s going to be really fun to watch.
Pro riders have been shaking up the competition format for a while now. We’ve seen it in the likes of David Benedeck’s Gap Session back in 2007 or Danny Davis’ Peace Park. Why do you think these alternative comp formats are so popular among the riders as well as the viewers?
You know, I think at the end of the day the reason why there’s adaptation and evolution is that those like myself — those that are so close to what’s going on in the industry and have so many close relationships to the top riders and a little bit of the voice and direction within the industry — we just see opportunities and the evolution that our beloved pastime deserves.
I know that, for me, over the last 10 years of the evolution of this event, I’ve had so many conversations with riders and industry leaders from around the world and it seems like snowboarding has been headed in this direction for fifty years.
“I think the venue is going to reward the riders that are best at adapting to changing conditions”
Like, honestly, with where the film side of the industry has evolved to, where the competition side has evolved to and, ultimately, where our current world view is, the current state of how we even consume media and the fact that now the technology exists, it’s attainable to do live events like this from remote locations.
On that point, when you hosted the test event this time last year, the quality of footage and camerawork was one of the things that stood out the most. Can we expect to see something similar for the tour itself?
We’re hoping for the same, or even better. That was definitely a test of what we had been working on last year. I think the big difference is that we’re going to be trying to do the same thing this year with much bigger race drones.
One of the big tech hurdles we’ve had is that watching an event with just an opposing perspective of a mountain with riders going down it. It’s really hard to feel connected to what you’re watching on TV, but now we’re able to bring a really immersive viewing experience.
The example I’d give is this drone solution we’ve been working on. We’re providing live coverage from these follow drones which give an almost video-game level, third person angle, right over the rider’s shoulder. I think it’s really gonna showcase to people who both snowboard all the time and people who’ve never snowboarded before this experience that is captivating. Viewers should really be able to understand what’s going down.
“We’re providing live coverage from these follow drones which give an almost video-game level, third person angle, right over the rider’s shoulder”
We’re shooting with different cameras and we have to have these pretty high powered RF and microwave transmitters to be able to broadcast from a race drone live to the world. It’s pretty wild the level of technology needed to do this! Our main live partner Uncle Toad’s Media Group are going to be working with the team on Red Bull TV where we’re going to be broadcasting the event live. We’re stoked! I think half the fun watching this contest, frankly, is just gonna be seeing how well or… for that matter, how bad we screw it up! [laughing]
Obviously, this isn’t an event that comes together with a few mates and some shovels, can you give us some idea of the collective effort and work that’s gone into getting the comp face event ready?
Yeah, I mean I started talking with Jackon Hole about this event almost four years ago. That’s how long it’s taken to bring it to fruition. We did a month of work in the summertime three years ago and actually built two test features then, just getting on the same page with Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Bridger Teton Natural Forest.
On top of that, over the last two years we’ve been putting our team together, which started with myself, Circe Wallace, my agent and partner in a lot of major projects, Liam Griffin, who ran the Burton Global Series for a number of years, and I brought on our COO, Carter Westfall, who comes from an NBA and more mainstream sports background like a year and a half ago.
And we have a number of great investors who really believe in what we’re doing and we’ve been bringing on brands for the last year and a half which, in a Covid year, is really difficult. So hats off to all of our partners that are literally making this possible, namely Red Bull, Yeti, Backcountry, GoPro. The list goes on!
“I think riders know that the runs that they take during the contest might be some of the best lines that they ride all year”
Frankly, I think what we’ve set out to do, for a lot of ski areas, would be really intimidating. I’ve spoken to other resorts that have told me that. In Europe, I worked for two years to bring an event there which just ended with resort management saying it was too risky. I would say that this event is at least a first of its kind, proving that it’s possible and creating a model. It’s pretty unique.
What kind of vibe are you picking up from the athletes so far? Are they feeling nervous, super competitive, or do you think with everything that’s gone down in the world over the last 12 months, everyone’s just grateful and stoked to get the opportunity to ride here?
That’s a good question. I think, ultimately, riders are probably feeling all of the above. I know, for the most part, riders are really stoked to come out here to Jackson. They’re thrilled. They’ve seen all the work that we’re doing and they know we’ve done everything in our power to make sure that this event is gonna be fun, y’know? If we do our job and we have good conditions and the course is built properly, I think riders know that the runs that they take during the contest might be some of the best lines that they ride all year.
And when you consider the strength of the rider lineup it’s so hard to try and guess how they’re all going to stack up. If you were a betting man, who would you be putting your money on?
Apart from yourself, of course!
Oh yeah, of course! [Laughs] The cool thing about this event, I would say, is that every rider coming out to compete has a shot at making it onto the podium. It’s just going to come down to how they’re feeling and the choices they make on the day. There’s a really big strategy component. Like I said, conditions are going to change on course as people ride it. I think the venue is going to reward the riders that are best at adapting to changing conditions.
I guess that’s snowboarding at it’s best.
Absolutely. The reality is that natural terrain and snow conditions are variable. They always are. Let’s see who can handle it best.
Last question – and I think I might know the answer this one – what board are you going to be riding for the Tour?
The Golden Orca! It’s a board that I’m announcing tomorrow, we’ve literally just released it. I’ve been working on it for almost two years now and it’s taking everything I’ve learned from the Orca over the past few years and turning it into a twin, basically. It’s a directional twin, so it still rides in the directional manner of the Orca, but I think it’s the best possible switch freestyle pow board.
Damn, that’s gonna be good to see. Thanks for taking the time to chat to us Travis. Good luck next week, we can’t wait to watch it!
The first stop of the Natural Selection Tour will run between the 3-9th February, 2021 (weather permitting). You can stream the event live on Red Bull TV or here on Whitelines.
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