Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A shiver runs through it

Express Staff Writer

Graham Watanabe, a Wood River Valley native, is considered one of the best snowboard cross competitors in the world. Photo by Mountain Express

In two short seasons, 48 Straight's Jeep King of the Mountain World Pro Championships has turned into the must-see, must-compete winter series. Thanks to outstanding venues, generous prize money and wickedly competitive fields, the pool of athletes features a who's-who of current and former World Cup champions, Olympic champions, X-Games winners, professionals and up-and-comers as well as comeback kids.

"It's the whole package," athlete liaison Curtis Bacca said. "We have the best racers in the world, great prize money and outstanding courses."

Events include men's and women's snowboard cross, men's and women's ski cross and men's skier halfpipe. Dollar Mountain is the venue for the snowboard and ski cross events, which start today, Wednesday, March 12, with snowboard cross qualifying rounds. The snowboard cross finals will be on Friday and ski cross finals on Saturday. The halfpipe takes place on Bald Mountain and spectators can watch training runs on Saturday and the finals on Sunday.

"We have a really strong field this year," Bacca said. "We have four of the top five in the World Cup in the men's ski cross and we have a star-studded field in the men's snowboard cross."

48 Straight organizers have worked hard to make sure the cross course and halfpipe are the best they can offer, hiring esteemed designers Corley Howard and Frank Wells of Snow Park Technologies. The pair is to snow what football legend George Toma is to grass.

"Corley is the best snowcross designer in the world and Frank is the top of the top in pipe," Bacca said. "The course on Dollar has the potential to be the best course ever. Frank has taken the pipe all the way down to build it himself and get it just right."

With the help of 48 Straight's Reggie and Zach Crist, Howard has crafted a course on Dollar that Bacca says will challenge even the most able racers. Thanks to approval from Sun Valley Co., the start house has been moved to the very top of Dollar, adding significant length to the course.

"It's very fast, with a lot of doubles and triples, features and big air. It's also never ending," Bacca assessed.

Except for the very top, Bacca said, the whole course will be visible from the bottom of Dollar, making it a spectator's dream.

Whom to watch once you are at the venue is a dream as well, with a serious glut of the world's best winter athletes. Here are just a few of our picks for whom to keep tabs on.

Men's snowboard cross

Bacca wasn't embellishing when he called the men's snowboard cross field "star studded." The lineup includes icon Shaun Palmer, who resurrected his career by winning the first two Jeep King of the Mountain events this season, X-Games gold medalist Nate Holland, Olympic gold medalist Seth Wescott, Sun Valley native Graham Watanabe and Nick Baumgartner, both of whom have won World Cup events in the last month. All five men are members of the U.S. team and compete against each other on a regular basis, but organizer Zach Crist said one stands out for him.

"In my opinion, Graham is the best boardercross racer out there," Crist said. "He's just getting better all the time."

Palmer currently leads the Jeep King of the Mountain standings with 200 points. Holland is sitting in second with 160, Wescott is third at 130 and Baumgartner is tied for fourth at 120.

There are currently 27 men in the field, vying for 16 spots on the final race day. They include local riders Taan Robrahn, Yancy Caldwell, Spencer Cordovano, Mark Oliver, Darby Heaney, Dillon Witmer and Quinn Orb.

Women's snowboard cross

Besides Shaun White, if any one person is immediately identifiable with the sport of snowboarding it is American Lindsey Jacobellis, whose winning resume is as long and flashy as her curly blond hair. Just last Friday, the X-Games champion notched her fourth World Cup win of the season at a snowboard cross competition at Stoneham, Quebec. Jacobellis' win extended her lead in the overall World Cup standings and put her within 150 points of snowboard cross World Cup leader Maelle Ricker, who finished second. Jacobellis all but has the Jeep King of the Mountain overall title wrapped up with a commanding 110-point lead over U.S. teammate Callan Chythlook-Sifsof.

Alaskan Chythlook-Sifsof is the third-ranked woman on the Jeep Tour and was the U.S. snowboard cross champion and U.S. junior national champion in 2007. Joanie Anderson, the fourth-ranked women in the Jeep King of the Mountain standings, and Lynn Ott, are also part of the eight-strong field.

Men's ski cross

The world's No. 1 FIS racer and Jeep King of the Mountain leader, Tomas Kraus of the Czech Republic, heads up a men's field in which the golden ring is truly up for grabs. Daron Rahlves, one of the most successful American alpine racers in history (12 World Cup victories), is coming off a win in the 2008 Winter X-Games, and newcomer Errol Kerr has everyone on notice, with a semifinal win at the X-Games. Kerr is sitting in third place in the Jeep King of the Mountain standings, trailing Kraus by 70 points. There's also the Canadian contingent of Stanley Hayer, Davey Barr and Chris Del Bosco, who are all ranked in the world's top five and the top 12 in the Jeep King of the Mountain series. Last year's overall champion Casey Puckett is out with a shoulder injury. Locals trying their luck in the field of 41 are Biche Rudigoz, Wes Powell and Ryan Dean.

"I think Biche is going to surprise some people. He's going to do well," Bacca said.

Women's ski cross

The women's ski cross is wide open, thanks to a decision by FIS World Cup leader Ophelie David, winner of eight straight Jeep King of the Mountain events, to stay in Europe and protect her lead. Hoping to pick up where David left off are four of the top ten women on the Jeep tour, including No. 2 Magdalena Jonsson of Sweden and No. 3 Jenny Owens of the United States. Also in the mix are Canadians Anik Demers-Wild and Julie Murray. Sun Valley native Langely McNeal, 33rd in the World Cup standings, helps round out a field of 20.

"Langely is fired up and we're fired up for her," Bacca said.

Local Christine Cordeau is on the injured list, but said she may opt to compete at the last minute.

Men's halfpipe

American Simon Dumont was a fan favorite at Sun Valley last year and is still the man to beat as the defending Jeep King of the Mountain champion. The 21-year-old from Maine is an accomplished across-the-board performer who competes in all disciplines: superpipe, slopestyle and big air. Dumont has medaled in superpipe at the Winter X-Games every year dating back to 2004, including two gold medals. New Zealand's Jossi Wells, a 17-year-old prodigy, is always in the mix thanks to the ability to go big. Aspen's Peter Olenick will bring his "Whiskey Flip" to the Warm Springs pipe. Colby West, who finished fourth overall in last year's series, will be dropping in. Sun Valley product Ross Falcone, who has posted three top-ten finishes in NorAm halfpipe events this winter, including a second, will also compete in front of the hometown fans.

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