Back to The Future | Could Old-School Freeriding Be The Next Big Thing in Skiing & Snowboarding?
For years freeride snowboarding and skiing have been considered something of a sideshow next to freestyle. Could that be about to change?
The classic snowboard movie Apocalypse Snow is a ridiculous film. Made in 1983 as a bizarre marketing exercise for the French resort of Les Arcs, it features Regis Rolland, one of Europe’s first snowboarders. Notionally the film has a plot, but the story is about as spurious as that of a 70s porno. It’s just an excuse for the action, which sees Regis being chased by baddies on skis, monoboards and pretty much anything else they can get their hands on.
Re-watching it recently however, what struck me wasn’t the non-sensical script, the strange exploding snow bikes, or even the pioneering use of zorbs. It was the fact that there’s not a single trick in the entire movie. No grabs, no spins, not even so much as a boned-out shifty.
For the past thirty years, snowboarding and skiing at the highest level has been dominated by trick-based freestyle. Freestyle has been at the forefront of the sports’ progression. It’s been the focus of core ski and snowboard media, as well as the X Games and the Olympics. Freestyle has garnered the biggest viewing figures. So the vast majority of sponsorship money has gone into films or events that focus on freestyle, and the pros who feature in them.
It makes sense – from a cinematic point of view, the spectacle of someone doing a 360 on a board or a backflip on skis requires little explanation. Freestyle contests can be staged on or near regular pistes making them easily accessible. In the case of Big Air, they can even be held in the middle of cities.
Freeride contests, almost by definition, have to be held in places that are more difficult to reach. And in the three decades since Apocalypse Snow was released, we’ve become so accustomed to seeing freestyle in videos that watching a part (let alone an entire movie) that doesn’t contain a single trick seems strange. For the longest time, riding fast and straight down a mountain just wasn’t that interesting to a lot of people. Well, until recently.
“I'm not saying that a triple cork is not impressive, it’s very impressive. But it is getting very difficult to relate to. With freeriding, everyone can relate."
As freestyle has become more complicated it’s become more difficult to understand. Rail tricks - hardways, switch-ups and the like - have become so technical that even commentators frequently call them wrong. On jumps, double, triple and even quadruple corks are now possible.
The complaint that these modern moves are “just gymnastics", is one that you hear ever more frequently from core snowboarders and skiers. And for an average viewer - for audiences outside of skiing and snowboarding’s core - freestyle is becoming increasingly difficult to relate to. Could the pendulum of popularity be swinging back in the opposite direction?
Bertrand Denervaud certainly thinks so. As the head of sport development for the Freeride World Tour (FWT) and a legendary snowboarder in his own right, he’s bullish about the prospects of freeriding as a spectator sport.
We meet him on the viewing platform at the Verbier Xtreme, the final stop on the FWT. Behind us, the world’s best freeride skiers and snowboarders are picking their way down the insanely steep Bec des Rosses face. (Or in the case of resident pro Xavier de le Rue, throwing caution to the wind and straight-lining the whole thing.)
“I think the big difference with freestyle and freeride," Bertrand explains, “is that with freestyle, if you're a 14-year-old and you can really understand what's happening, you can picture yourself eventually trying to do that. [But] with freeriding, everyone can relate."
Looking around at the two-thousand-strong crowd who are watching with us, it’s hard to argue with him. This audience is not only larger than any I’ve seen slopeside at any of the major freestyle events I’ve been to (including the US Open and the X Games), it’s also more mixed.
Grizzled Swiss mountain men with fat skis or splitboards mingle with posh British families and young park rats. People gasp at particularly impressive cliff drops and cheer as the results of their countrymen are posted on the big screen. A group of young skiers are creating a carnival atmosphere - they’ve brought drums, trumpets and football style chants, forcing Bertrand to speak loudly to be heard.
“I'm not saying that a triple cork is not impressive, it’s very impressive," he continues. “But it is getting very difficult to relate. [With freeriding] everyone can actually say: ‘OK well maybe I could not jump that jump, but I could ride that face.’ Or ‘I would love to do that turn.’ The fact that people can actually picture themselves doing that helps the sport to be understood by more people."
The Freeride World Tour’s audience has grown impressively in recent years. “For the Alaska [event in 2015 - the one immediately prior to Verbier] we had 150,000 people watching the live stream," Denervaud explains, which was the most ever up until that point. “We had up to 10,000 people tuning in at one time." The event is also broadcast on terrestrial TV in several countries, although figures for the multitude of different networks are harder to come by.
These viewing stats, while impressive, are still dwarfed by those for the biggest freestyle events. “Jenny Jones got three million [people tuning in] for her bronze," says Ron Chakraborty, major sporting events editor for the BBC, who we spoke to shortly after the Sochi Olympics. “If memory serves, the men’s halfpipe [final - in which Shaun White narrowly missed out on a medal] got about 2.6. That was great drama." And that’s just the viewing figures for one country.
Meanwhile the X Games, the biggest annual freestyle event in terms of media coverage, also attracts bigger viewer numbers than the FWT. Again stats for TV are hard to come by but Danny Chi, a spokesman for the ESPN-run competition, told Mpora: “This year we had a total of 12.1 million minutes viewed of X Games via Watch ESPN [their online subscription service] and the X Games website for the Aspen event."
To match that online streaming figure, the 150,000 FWT fans tuning into watch the Alaska event would have to watch an average of an hour and a half of the three-hour broadcast - unlikely given the nature of attention spans online.
“Grizzled Swiss mountain men with fat skis or splitboards mingle with posh British families and young park rats."
However, if freeriding viewing figures are still some way behind those for flagship freestyle events, they’re catching up. Even Chi admits that, for the average Joe, the complexities of modern freestyle can make it more difficult to understand than freeriding: “If you're talking about a mainstream viewer who tunes in maybe once or twice a year to watch X Games then I think it's not going to be as easily digestible for them.
“Hey, I've been working on the X Games a long time but I'm still not able to call all the rail tricks right," he says. Although he explains that given the contest’s target audience, this isn’t necessarily a problem. “I could easily walk downstairs from my office in LA and very quickly flag down about a dozen kids who could do that for me."
It’s not just modern tricks that make it hard for casual viewers to understand freestyle contests either. Rival tours run by the Federation Internationale du Ski (the FIS - who control the Olympic qualification process) and the World Snowboard Tour (the WST - seen by many riders as the legitimate governing body) make competitive freestyle snowboarding very hard to follow.
Each tour publishes different overall ranking tables and runs its own “World Championships". The situation in freestyle skiing is less acrimonious, but no less confusing. The FIS and the Association of Freeskiing Professionals (AFP) crown different “world number 1’s" each season. This, Denervaud says, is: “a problem for them". The single, unified Freeride World Tour is a doddle to understand in comparison.
The rise in the numbers of people watching freeriding in recent years has been matched by a rise in participation. Sales of freeriding equipment (such as touring skis, boots and splitboards) have grown rapidly in the past few winters, according to the research published annually by Snowsports Industries America (SIA). Its most recent data showed a 27 per cent rise year-on-year in the sales of ski boots that can be used for touring, while “backcountry accessories sales, including beacons, probes and shovels, increased 12 per cent".
In the long term this trend looks likely to continue. Freestyle, as both Chi and Denervaud point out, is a young person’s game. The pros who top the podiums are getting younger by the year. But as the original generation of snowboarders and freeskiers grows up, they’re moving away from the parks, and taking up freeriding in ever greater numbers.
James Stentiford, a freeride coach who runs courses from Chamonix, says: “Snowboarding has always been a very young person's sport. But if I look at my clientele, it's basically 30 somethings up to nearly 60 somethings." According to the most recent SIA report, a quarter of the 7.6 million snowboarders who visited American resorts last season were over the age of 35.
As the demographic buying freeride kit grows, the discipline will inevitably attract more sponsorship for videos, events and athletes. Already the past five years has seen a growth in the number of freeride-only snowboard movies, like Jeremy Jones’ impressively popular Deeper, which spawned two sequels. Similarly, it’s easy to imagine more freeride events springing up and joining the world tour. I ask Danny Chi whether the X Games would ever consider a freeriding contest.
“With 53 million views Cody Townsend’s clip - a freeride line - became the most-watched skiing video of all time."
“We wouldn’t rule it out," he says. He explains that freeriding’s dependence on conditions make fitting it into live TV schedules “challenging" but he points out: “For a number of years when we were in LA for the summer games we had surfing. The surfing was all the way down in Puerto Escondido Mexico [and] we needed to make sure the conditions [were] right."
One thing that might influence the X Games organisers he says, would be “if freeriding would ever be considered for the Olympics." Given that surfing looks likely to be included in the Tokyo 2020 games, it’s not a totally outlandish idea. The International Olympic Committee is certainly no stranger to introducing new skiing and snowboarding disciplines if they’re proved popular. They fast-tracked ski halfpipe and slopestyle for the Sochi games and are doing the same with Big Air for PeyongCheang 2018. And freeriding is nothing if not popular, especially with mainstream viewers.
Last winter, skier Cody Townsend released footage of a line in Alaska that he called “The Crack," a couloir so tight that it closed over his head. It was pretty much the definition of gnarly, and with no space to turn straight-lining was the only option.
Yet when this totally trick-free video was released, it blew up in a way that no freestyle skiing video has before or since. Not even Candide Thovex's viral smashes could match it. It was picked up by all the mainstream TV networks in the US, and saw Cody given the kind of exposure previously only reserved only for Olympians. “I got a report that said it had 53 million online hits worldwide," Townsend said when Mpora interviewed him last year. Cody’s clip - a freeride line - became the most watched skiing video of all time.
For years, freeriding was viewed as something of a sideshow. Under-funded and under-appreciated, this old-school form of snowboarding and skiing was just the older, poorer, less popular cousin of freestyle. But given the way things are going, could it in fact be the future?
The Verbier Xtreme 2016 will take place this weekend (April 1st - 3rd). Watch it LIVE at freerideworldtour.com