We’re in Mottolino, an Italian resort not far from the Swiss border, and someone’s just touched down on the airbag. You might have seen one before, but this thing is in a completely different league to the common-or-garden variety found in the bigger resorts, where tourists pay a few euros for a shot on the bag and a few more for a ‘guy in the sky’ souvenir picture. No, this one is absolutely state of the art. The size, and indeed the shape, are like nothing we’ve ever seen before. If Elon Musk’s annual employee picnic had a bouncy castle, it would probably look something like this.
The jump’s certainly as big as any you’ll find elsewhere in the world, and the bag’s landing area sits at a similar angle to that of a contest-ready Big Air jump. It’s undeniably impressive and, based on the riders’ reactions, clearly an absolute hoot. A (very nearly, but not quite) consequence-free fun machine, where any trick that can be imagined can be attempted.
Aside from a handful of Italians, who’ve been invited to use it as part of the deal to host the bag here, it’s for the exclusive use of the British snowboard team (and their skiing equivalents, of course) – the product of years of hard work, planning and fundraising. The riders are on cloud nine, but you’d be hard pushed to convince UK Sport’s purse-string holders to part with the bag’s £100,000 price tag just for shits and giggles; something else is going on here. What we’re looking at is just one example of how, for those on national teams and Olympic programs, it’s no longer enough to just be a good snowboarder anymore.
“An array of cameras, all hooked up to a private wireless router, beaming every aspect of takeoff, execution and landing right to the American coaches’ iPads. The network name? ‘SECRET WEAPON’”
It’s a change that has come around relatively recently. Even just a few years ago, the majority of professional snowboarders pretty much rode the same mountains, and parks, as the rest of us. Hit Whistler, or Mammoth, or Snow Park NZ (RIP) on the right day and you could be lining up at the drop-in alongside some of the world’s best riders. While that can – and does – still happen, British head snowboard coach Hamish McKnight explains how that approach is no longer enough for those at the very top.