In my mental catalogue of mountain sounds (which ranks from the highs of near-silent powder slashes to the lows of Austrian après music) this is definitely a new one. The sights are pretty strange too: the blur of a multi-corking snowboarder, way overhead; a flash of blue and yellow; the face-first landing that's the source of that alien noise; and the undignified penguin slide to the bottom of the slope, complete with ear-grating skidding sound.
It’s a full-on assault of the senses which, initially at least, is right down there with Markus Becker’s Das Rote Pferd. Still, given the ear-to-ear Cheshire cat grin on the rider as they clamber off the landing area and head off for another go, it can’t be all bad.
"If Elon Musk’s annual employee picnic had a bouncy castle, it would probably look something like this"
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.
“We've now crossed a line" he says, cup of tea in hand in his Livigno apartment. The bag can only operate in fairly optimum conditions, and today doesn’t come close. “You can't technically acquire the skill to get to the top of the sport by doing that anymore, because there are groups of athletes that have access to training way beyond that."
He cites Maximise - another airbag facility in Montreal - as an example, as well as end-of-season private park sessions laid on for the American and Canadian teams (indeed, ahead of the Olympics, a park has been built onto the side of Whistler just for the Canucks). “Those private sessions with sled laps and fast repetition, and the acquisition you can get done within a short period of time is so far in excess of what we can get done lapping Freeway Park in Breckenridge in late December. It's just not a level playing field."
In some of the major parks, national teams must now forego the pro line in favour of a ‘prime line’ - monstrously large features designed to open up new trick possibilities. Given the amount of snow-shifting involved, and to limit access to only the best of the best, it comes at a huge cost - something that, unless you're Shaun White, requires the support of national funding to meet. Not paying means battling the crowds of locals on smaller public jumps, and before long you’ll be falling way behind.
Some aren’t stopping there, even; during our last visit to Stubai, a popular pre-season destination for competitive riders, the American team had another trick up their sleeve. An array of cameras, all hooked up to a private wireless router, beaming every aspect of takeoff, execution and landing right to the coaches’ iPads. The network name? ‘SECRET WEAPON’. Like we said, it’s an arms race.
While that particular setup doesn’t appeal to Hamish (“the Americans like a lot of feedback… whereas as coaches, we try and keep it simple. The riders have to do the work - it's them that need to figure it out"), he’s been aware for some time that, for the Brits to keep pace, they’d need something special of their own.
Hence the airbag project, the seeds of which were first sewn way back in 2009, although it took until late last year to make it a reality. Like most successful British endeavours, there’s been a heavy international element; the bag was made by Dutch company BigAirBag, an Italian resort is playing host, and the kicker shaping is being handled by those masters of Austrian precision, Schneestern. Unsurprisingly, given that they’re the same folk responsible for the impossibly well-groomed Olympic slopestyle course, there’s not a snowflake out of place.
"with innovations like the airbag, could we be boarding a high-speed hovercraft to a situation where non-snowboarders can be fast-tracked to success?"
We’ve only seen one day’s worth of bag training, but already the positives are obvious. While it’d be nice to speed things up with a snowmobile, a la Shaun at his private halfpipe sessions, lapping the chairlift allows for five or six hits every hour. The riders haven’t taken long to get used to the setup; some are now wanging triples like it’s going out of fashion.
Not everyone’s approach is the same. Jamie Nicholls is wading into uncharted territory with backside 1620s, while Aimee Fuller is refining her signature double backflip. Katie Ormerod, aware that her grab is the missing piece in her Big Air game, is working hard on improving that element of her cab 9 and is visibly pleased with the results. Matt McCormick, meanwhile, is launching lawn darts head-first into the bag. If elite training sessions aren’t supposed to be fun, nobody told him.
So the benefits are tangible and measurable, which is exactly what the paymasters need to see on a project of this nature - but the airbag approach is not without its critics. When we first shared images of the setup in Mottolino, Sebbe De Buck’s response was brief and to the point: “Cheat".
He’s not alone; ever since the first bags appeared, several influential voices have declared them to be too far removed from snowboarding’s roots. Maybe they’re right - it’s certainly a world away from the much-revered ‘old days’, where raw talent, drive, and an ability to stomach huge risks were what got you to the top.
But if bags are too far, what else is? It’s been a long, long time since the podiums featured riders that hadn’t made some use of a facility, or an institution, that could help them get there. Never mind the most successful riders; even those most often held up as bringing ‘core’ values to the comps they entered (Danny Davis and Halldor Helgason to name just two) attended specialist snowboard schools - arguably more exclusive, and certainly more advantageous, than what these guys have on their hands with the airbag. Should anyone who visits the foam-pit funhouse that is Woodward at Copper be called out too?
"it’s a world away from the much-revered ‘old days’, where raw talent, drive, and an ability to stomach huge risks were what got you to the top"
It’s a moot point, anyway; not being considered ‘legit’ by the vocal minority hasn’t typically deterred anyone with their eyes on an Olympic (or X Games) medal. There’s a bigger concern, though, and it’s one that gets flagged up even by those who’ve loved watching 1440s turn into 1620s, and beyond.
And it’s this: with innovations like the airbag, could we be boarding a high-speed hovercraft to a situation where non-snowboarders can be fast-tracked to success?
National bodies could forego the traditional sources of competitive snowboarders (groms stoked on shredding, learning as many tricks as they can while emulating their favourite riders) and instead take a more calculated approach. Step 1: identify kids with precocious gymnastic ability at an early age. Step 2: teach them how to snowboard. Step 3: get them up to airbag standard, then crack a beer and watch the medals fly in.
Well, no. It doesn’t work like that. How can we be so sure? Because the Chinese already gave it a go. Hamish recalls his visit to the northern Chinese resort of Yabuli, where 100 kids had been invited to participate in a year-long training program. At the end of that, they’d be whittled down to 50, then to 25 the following year. The end result, he notes, wasn’t what the Chinese powers that be (or their American and Canadian coaches) had hoped for.
“Out of that, they got two or three pipe girls into the top ten, but they never managed to get anyone into the top five or three. So through just throwing the cheque book at it, yeah you can get… well, you know, if you’ve got billions of people in your country, and some are willing to move to your purpose-built training environment, then yeah, you can get people into the top ten.
"But in a ‘freesport’ that’s constantly moving, you’re never going to get into the top three doing something like that, because it takes something more. It takes an appreciation of why people involve themselves in a freesport, and why they push progression for the sake of progression. If you take that out of it, you don’t ever get someone to the top."
As for countries that are currently getting it right, he cites the Norwegians, with their snowboard schools and impressive local freestyle facilities. Riders like Stale Sandbech and Marcus Kleveland are right up there with the top level of both slopestyle and Big Air, but have perhaps the strongest overall skill-set (not everyone on competitive snowboarding’s top tier can do this).
There’s also the Japanese, who have a whole scene built around airbags like Chiba Kings facility in Ichihara.
“They were ten years ahead with the development of reduced risk stuff" says Hamish. “There are seven or eight dry slopes that don’t have any landings, they’re just airbags. They have comps at the weekend onto airbags. It’s all built around reduced risk, and they’ve got a talent pool twice as deep as any other country."
The key difference between those nations and the British is, for now, access. There’s a world of difference between flying your top-tier riders out to the Italian Alps, and having facilities on hand for the next generation to stumble across snowboarding on their own terms - after school, and at weekends - and fall in love with it.
At present, the closest thing Hamish and his team have at present are the UK’s dry slopes and indoor snow slopes. He says that by working with these places, “we can identify where the breeding grounds are of the next generation of kids, and an ability to reach into those scenes and help them, without ever taking away any of the desire to do the sport.
"It means more kids snowboarding to a higher level more often, and enjoying it more. That’s the pinch; you can’t implement a sport development network or project that refuses to acknowledge why people get involved in the sport in the first place. And the fact is freeskiing and snowboarding are fun. Take an inch of that out of it and you’re destined to fail."
"Snowboarding isn’t destined to become like skeleton bobsleigh, where someone who matches a physical profile can be parachuted in to a four-year training program"
So the bag is actually one piece of much bigger puzzle. It's the top of the pyramid, with fountations based firmly in grassroots snowboarding. And that’s the crucial factor; Forget raiding the gymnastic academies, looking for kids with lots of natural talent but no prior experience of the mountain. That’s been tried, and it doesn’t work.
No matter how many airbags, foam pits and coaching regimens get deployed across the competitive snowboarding world, it isn’t destined to become like skeleton bobsleigh, where someone who matches a physical profile can be parachuted in to a four-year training program.
Massive injections of cash can certainly help, but to call projects like this airbag the death knell for ‘real’ snowboarding (whatever that is) isn’t fair. It may no longer be enough to just be talented; but even when we eventually start seeing pentacorks stomped at will, the guy doing it will, first and foremost, be a snowboarder.