Nick Franke and his creation. Peter Lundström
On 30 November 2006, two days before the Nokia Air & Style, Nick Francke puts aside his shovel at noon and climbs the steps of the 40-metre high scaffolding in the Munich Olympic stadium. He is nervous. This is no surprise, as in less than a minute the 29-year-old American will jump the super-sized kicker and fly over 25 metres. He doesn’t know if he will land safely or crash – Nick is the head shaper at this year’s Air & Style and will be the first one to test the jump. For two days he’s been working from 8 in the morning until 11 at night – sometimes even longer – to build the perfect kicker for the world’s best 16 snowboarders. His swollen, red hands say more than words can: it is a hard job.
The arena. Alex Roberts
Since the beginning of November, loads of artificial snow has been produced from water in the stadium, and Nick and the other shapers are now spreading it evenly on a construction that weighs 355 tons. The slightest change of angle can decide the fate of the contest – if the run in is too flat, the riders won’t have enough speed to show their most technical tricks; if it is too steep, there’s not enough airtime to float the 10-metre gap between take-off and landing. But there is more that can go wrong. “At an event in Poland there were problems with the snow production and I barely had time to finish the jump. Plus I had designed the jump for a 20-metre drop-in ramp but they made it 17. So unfortunately I was pretty much the only one who could ride it," Nick recalls.
But in 2006 the Air & Style team has worked very well. They had asked riders like David Benedek and Mathieu Crepel for advice to improve on last year’s ramp – in 2005, criticism was directed his way as the run-in was too narrow and steep so the riders couldn’t show the tricks they normally master. As Nick drags his board the many steps up to the start, he says: “This year the ramp is designed bigger and the run-in is two metres longer. That should give the riders more time for preparation and more airtime. We’ll see if it works."
Torstein Horgmo, fs 1080. Peter Lundström.
To build huge ramps and also jump them, you need experience. Nick was a pro himself and took part in the qualifications for the Air & Style 2002 in Seefeld. It all started in the winter of 1986 on the northern slopes of his hometown Gilford in the state of New Hampshire, close to the Canadian border. “Since I first touched a snowboard, I’ve been building jumps. I think it is a natural part of freestyle riding. Through learning how to drive a snowcat and using specialised shaping tools, experimenting, refining and learning new techniques, I gradually advanced", says Nick. At some point the hobby became his profession and today Nick gets jobs all over the world. For many years he worked in the Gap1328 summer camp; today he shapes the Nordpark in Innsbruck and since 2004 he has been responsible for the kicker at the Air & Style.
In contrast to the rainy Air & Style 2005, the sun has been shining in Munich for a few days and brings comfortably warm temperatures. Nick is all sweaty when he finally arrives at the platform of the steel construction in the Olympic stadium. He steps into his bindings and takes a deep breath. “Every time a large jump has to be tested it makes you nervous, sometimes downright petrified." He starts, 70 metres to go until the take-off. He speed-checks several times – just so that he doesn’t get too much speed and lose control in the air. That could be bad. Last winter in Oberstdorf at the ‘Stairway to Heaven’. Nick tested the jump, landed badly and broke his back. But as he leaves the kicker this time, everything goes smoothly. After a huge straight air, Nick lands safely. But the baptism of fire is still waiting – tomorrow, on 1 December, at the official training of the pros.
It is successful. “After my knee injury last season I was a little worried whether I was ready for a jump like that. But after the training it was obvious: the kicker was so much fun. I still have a big smile in my face when I remember it!" says Philipp Strauss who was a starter at the Air & Style Rookie Challenge. Most if not all of the invited riders think like Philipp after the first session. The level is incredibly high: right from the beginning David Benedek starts with a double-cork 1260 and stomps it after the second try. Marc-André Tarte gives the double backflips a go and Shaun White, who only confirmed his participation in the event some weeks before, throws down one 900 after another. For two hours Nick stands right next to the take-off and after every jump he pulls out his rake and smoothes the snow. “After the practice session, shapers and riders met to discuss the jump," says Nick. “The riders were pretty happy. They just wanted to make it a bit steeper. There are always small changes, it’s just a part of the job."
Nick and his colleagues are shaping until the evening hours. He makes some more test jumps and in the end he is satisfied. “You really have to like cold and exhausting work. I don’t know many people who love shovelling snow all hours of the night and day!" Nick laughs. At around 11 in the evening he is going back to the hotel, and the jump is ready. 2 December, 1pm. Masses of families, teenagers with vodka bottles and groups with beer crates swarm into the Olympic stadium. This evening a total of 27,500 people will be sitting in the stands of the arena to witness the best Air & Style ever. Opposed to last year, when the ramp was built sidewards on to the audience and the view on the jump was far from being great, the organisers decided to relocate the construction to the eastern aspect. Spectators could see the run-in, take off and landing from every seat. When the show starts with the Rookie Challenge at 3.30pm, Nick is relaxed. “The majority of the work is already done and the riders are satisfied." With every rider’s jump, you hear a loud “Yo" from the shaper crew on the platform next to the take-off.
Travis Rice, about to put down the contest-winning double-backflip late 180. Scalp.
As the contest starts at 5pm, the atmosphere in the stadium couldn’t be better. In every round the riders have to show three jumps, of which only the best counts. It will be a close race: David Benedek puts Nicolas Müller out of contention with a perfect double-cork frontside 1260, Eero Ettala’s switch double backflip has to abandon the field to Travis Rice´s double cork frontside 10, and Risto Mattila eliminates Marc-André Tarte with a cab 10. While the freestyle motocrossers’ two-strokes drown out everything and lay down one backflip after another, Nick grabs his rake and whips the jump back into shape. Round 2 is ready to start. Only eight snowboarders are left and every one of them was deserving of victory, a stack of dollar bills and a BMW G 650 X. Hampus Mosesson fails in his duel with Risto Mattila by one point, and Shaun White´s cab 1260 is maybe only a little bit less spectacular than Antti Autti´s frontside 1260. The other two riders in the final are Travis Rice and David Benedek. The audience is going wild.
Nick Francke leaves his workplace at around 9.30pm. Travis Rice is victorious: after two slams he wins the 13th Air & Style with a broken board and a double backflip late 180 followed by a cab 540 on the small jump. Local hero David Benedek unfortunately couldn’t stomp any of his legendary double cork 1260s and has to be satisfied with a fourth place, while Risto Mattila snatches the second place from under Antti Autti´s (frontside 12 and switch bs 5) nose with a cab 10 and a switch bs 5. As the stadium empties and the masses make their way to the parties, everyone is left with the same feeling: the 06 Nokia Air & Style was perhaps the contest with the highest level of professional snowboarding ever seen. But it is not only the riders who have done their best. In four days Nick Francke has shovelled, shaped and worked for more than 48 hours. “The best compliment is when the riders are happy. Some said it was the best contest jump they had ever ridden. I was honoured but for me it is just a normal job."
1. Travis Rice (USA)
2. Risto Matilla (FIN)
3. Antti Autti (FIN)
1. Mikkel Bang (NOR)
2. Iouri Podladtchikov (RUS)
3. Christian Haller (CH)
1. Wiley Fulmer (USA)
2. Beau Bamburg (USA)
3. Nate Adams (USA)