Understanding the Sport
It’s a vertical free-verse poem on the mountain. It’s the ultimate expression of all that is fun and liberating about sliding on snow in wintertime. What? You haven’t heard about it? It’s called freeride and it’s arguably the most exciting snowsport competition of the 21st century
Forget placing slalom poles down the mountain. Forget building artificial jumps and hips and halfpipes and tabletops. Forget grooming the slopes even. Freeride contests are 100% natural, 100% clean. Indeed, the event is all about celebrating the god-given terrain features found on any mountainside in the most exciting and elemental format possible. There‘s a start gate at the summit and a finish gate at the bottom. That’s it. Best run down wins.
It truly is that simple. Think big-wave surfing. Think skiers and snowboarders choosing impossible-looking lines through cornices and cliff-faces and nasty couloirs. Think progressive: big jumps, mach-speed turns and full-on attack. Think entertaining. After all, it’s not just surfers who ride barrels…
So how do you judge a freeride contest? After all it can’t be easy – can it? It’s not easy, for sure, but over the years the judging system has been honed to the point where most freeride athletes are entirely comfortable with the format. A Judges’ Manual has been written by the event organizers and the Pro Freerider’s Board, and it’s all about overall impression. As the FWT Judges’ Manual states: “A judge has to ask himself at all times how fast, how big and how much in control a rider is compared to how steep, how exposed and in what snow conditions the action is happening.” In other words, the key to good judging is keeping the big picture in mind from the time the rider leaves the start gate to the time s/he crosses the finish line.
There are five categories, however, to which the judges need to pay special attention: difficulty of line, control, fluidity, jumps and crashes. Once these categories are taken into account the rest is simple.
Difficulty of Line
But let’s look at each category a little closer. Difficulty of line is pretty straightforward: it’s all about the path a competitor chooses to take down the mountain. What’s the danger factor like on his line? How does the rider link up the tricky passages along the way? How unique, imaginative, is her route compared to other riders? Is it a cool line? Does it tickle people’s imagination? That’s what the judges have to determine here.
Control is key in big-mountain riding. Possess it and your golden. Lose it and you can die. That’s why the judges can be ruthless with those who don’t show enough of it during their competition run. Did the athlete fall? Did he run the ragged edge of recovery all the way down? Or did he ride like he knew exactly what he was doing from start to finish? Often times, this is the category where neophytes struggle.
Nobody likes watching stop-and-go action. And the Fluidity mark is all about rewarding those athletes who can ride from start to finish with no hesitation, no stoppage and no confusion. Did the rider have to embark on a long traverse to hit his landmark cliff? Did he get lost on the way down and have to climb to regain his line? Did she hesitate before dropping the big cliff? This is what the judges are looking for in this sector. Again – flow is what it’s all about.
For many in the sport, the next category, Jumping, is what makes freeride competitions so exciting. Why? Because nothing is man-made – what you see is what you get. But like any other aerial sport, style and aggression play huge. How big was the jump? How did the rider enter the jump? What happened in the air? How well did he stick his landing? Was she like a cat thrown out a speeding car’s window? Or did she know exactly where she was at all times? This is what the judges need to assess before assigning their overall mark.
Few freeride competitors have made it through their careers without a big crash or two. That’s why the final evaluation, Crashes, is so important. That said, crashes have to be looked at from an overall-impression perspective as well. Did the rider lose it in a no-fall zone (a particularly dangerous section of the course)? Was the fall caused by a change in snow conditions beyond the athlete’s control? And what about that iffy landing? Was that a planned move to save the rider from a dangerous situation? Or just a sloppy fall?
So there you have it: everything you always wanted to know about freeride. Now all you need to do is check out a contest first-hand…