As the competitors barrel around the course with reckless abandon, fans offer an array of oohs and aahs, marvelling at every bold high-speed pass or spectacular crash.
Thinking NASCAR? Think again.
The sport of ski cross will make its Olympic debut in Vancouver later this month, and should instantly become one of the most popular spectator sports at the Games. The longtime X Games event sees skiers head down the hill in groups of four, battling for the lead while traversing bumps, jumps, turns and straightaways at speeds that can reach 80 km/h.
Ski cross specialist Stanley Hayer, a Calgary native, believes the sport will have mass appeal to the uninitiated.
“Lots of excitement,” said Hayer, one of seven Canadians who will compete in ski cross at the Games. “(It’s) a sport that’s going to be really easy for them to understand. That’s the biggest thing.”
The premise is simple: The first two skiers down the hill advance to the next round. But there’s nothing easy about how they pull it off.
As the gate drops, all four athletes look to reach the first undulation with the lead. Whichever skier had the fastest qualifying time is awarded his or her choice of lane for the race — an advantage if used properly, since passing becomes more difficult the further the skiers advance down the hill.
“It depends a lot on the course,” said Chris Del Bosco of Sudbury, Ont., a contender for gold in Vancouver. “Getting a good qualifying position, you know you’re skiing well, and if there is one gate that’s a little bit better than the rest, then you have the opportunity to use that. I think it adds a little bit of confidence.”
The middle section of the course sees skiers use drafting — a popular race car and cycling tactic — to slingshot past the opposition. If the draft attempt is executed at the right time, a skier can vault from last to first. If it’s done incorrectly — too close to a mogul, for instance — the athlete can end up careening into the safety fence.
Canada has a strong contingent for ski cross’s Olympic debut. Joining Hayer and Del Bosco on the men’s side is Dave Duncan of Golden, B.C., who made the team with a third-place finish Sunday in Lake Placid, N.Y. — the final day of Olympic qualifying.
Kelsey Serwa of Kelowna, B.C., who won in Lake Placid, and Whistler, B.C., native Ashleigh McIvor, who sits second in the overall standings, lead a strong women’s entry that also features Danielle Poleschuk of Winnipeg. Whistler’s Julia Murray, ranked fourth in the world, tore knee ligaments during a training session last month but hopes she can race in Vancouver.
“We’re the best team out there,” said Serwa. “Everyone watches to see what we’re doing in training and qualifying.
“I couldn’t ask for a better team. Training with the girls, we all help each other. We train with the boys … it’s just a great environment. Everyone kinds of feeds off each other.”
Like golf courses, ski cross runs vary greatly from one site to the next. The course at Cypress Mountain is expected to be especially challenging — an asset to the Canadian skiers, who are among the most technically sound competitors in the world. The venue has also been plagued by a lack of snow and straw is being used to shore up the course.
“We were there last year, and the course that was built was good for us,” said coach Willy Raine. “We’re hoping it’s going to be something similar to that.”
Raine believes it takes a certain type of ski-cross racer to be successful on a consistent basis.
“On the guys’ side, the size is definitely important … the ability to absorb terrain, to be comfortable at high speeds and in close proximity with others,” said Raine. “You’re going (quickly) down the hill, and you’re comfortable just nudging people around you and letting them know that you’re there. It’s intimidating at the start.
“On the ladies’ side, it’s probably more confidence and ability, and a little bit of risk-taking. Our girls are strong, they’re confident in their abilities and they don’t mind mixing it up, and that makes a big difference.”
As competitors deal with frequent close contact, challenging course conditions and high speeds, crashes are inevitable — and in some cases, serious.
French skiers Florent Astier and Robin Lenel were recently taken from the course on stretchers after wiping out during a heat in Lake Placid.Astier ended up needing surgery for a severe spinal cord injury.
Murray may have jinxed herself, saying prior to her knee injury that she had been relatively injury-free during her career.
“Nothing too crazy, just a few hits to the chin,” she said. “That’s it. I guess all winter sports have their ups and downs. There’s been a lot of torn knees.”
You’ll find Hayer on that list, too.
“I had a meniscus taken out last year, that’s been bugging me,” said Hayer. “But I didn’t crash. So I just kind of tore it. I got taken out in the first race but I didn’t crash, and I landed on my leg and I must have torn it.
“Second race I tore more and then I spent the rest of the season skiing on six Advils, two Celebrex and Tylenol 3’s. So that’s the same thing I’m doing now. My operation didn’t seem to have worked so good, so I’m pumping drugs every race. So I can play the ‘I’m out to lunch’ card sometimes when I do interviews.”