[Christian Haller is a transition master. Photo: Thomas Copsey]
Once the bastion of snowboarding, halfpipe riding has fallen from grace in recent years. Accusations of being too specialist, to stale, too boring, now hang like an albatross from its neck. So how can we approach the Ivory Tower of transition from a different angle?
Words: Joe Cavanagh
At the end of each season, I find myself trying to pinpoint a highlight of the competitive season's activities. It’s not necessarily a trick with the most rotation, or a trick with the most airtime; it’s not always a trick that’s done 10 times bigger than anyone else, but that does factor in. It’s a manoeuvre that has that strange element, that to borrow from the design lexicon, has both form and function.
It’s something that uses terrain in a way that exceeds what I thought was possible. Now, normally I find myself umming and ahhing over the manouevre for the entirety of the summer to give myself the joyous benefit of hindsight. This year however, I’ve been sold since the 31st of January.
Now, double inverts are ten a penny on the competitive circuit these days – realistically they’re now a setup trick to various varieties of triple inverts – but it was the feature on which it was dispatched that did it for me. He threw it in a way that traditionally-set criteria can't quite cover.
Transition riding has always been the crucible of progression. Terry Kidwell’s first few feet of amplitude, taking him above the snowboarding horizon of the time, were launched from the chiseled angles of a hand-dug quarterpipe. Indeed, if Kidwell is one of the pilgrims of freestyle snowboarding as we know it, then the Tahoe City Quarterpipe was the Mayflower.
Next came the 90s explosion, with Terje as a god-like figurehead. His video parts effortlessly blended the halfpipe scene he dominated for a decade with creative tricks across every kind of terrain.
But as halfpipes grew into superpipes and Shaun White began an era of ruthless medal accumulation, it seemed the link between transition riding and 'normal' freestyle snowboarding was broken. Pipe riders were increasingly becoming 'contest jocks' – specialists within a single discipline that, while spectacular to watch, seemed increasingly alien those who wanted to ride the whole mountain. The truth is that without a perfect halfpipe in your local resort (that is to say unless you were based in Laax, Kaprun, Flachauwinkl or a handful of other mountains with the right investment and machinery) then your chances of replicating the gymnastic aerials of White and co. seemed minimal at best. Better to focus on something attainable, like rails, kickers and freeriding.
Moreover, while in slopestyle you’re presented with a variety of features that favour different rider’s strengths, you know as a pipe rider that the walls will generally be 22ft high, and you’ll be able to get at least 5 hits in. There’s even a mathematical equation for working out the amplitude a rider can get out of a pipe – and if there’s one thing snowboarding hates, it’s predictability.
One variable that doesn't factor into precictability, though, is creativity.
Whilst amplitude might be a law of dynamics, it isn't the only criteria we judge transition riding by.
Transitions then, seemed to have lost their appeal as freestyle's natural home. Progression here had now been reduced to a series of extra inverts played out amongst an athletic elite on outrageously expensive private pipes.
Fast forward to 2015, and a new wave of riders like Ben Ferguson, Ayumu Hirano and Taku Hiraoka are joining the likes of Danny Davis, Arthur Longo and Christian Haller in blurring the lines of transition riding.
Once as mythical as tales of untouched powder in Japan, switch methods, alley-oops and true Haakon flips have all made appearances into competitive transition riding this season. Ben’s backside 180 into the pipe is as important as any first, second or third hit in my opinion.
Riders are now challenging the preconception that pipe riding is a formulaic display, and are riding the walls with their unique interpretation of the terrain they’ve been presented with.
All of which brings me onto the current contest scene. For whilst there are some arguments to diversify the competitive circuit across multiple different terrains, in an attempt to be more like the World Surf League’s ‘Dream Tour’, we need to be realistic about what we can achieve and build on what we already have.
"Ben’s backside 180 into the pipe is as important as any first, second or third hit"
I think we need to create ways to integrate what we already have in snowboarding into snowboarding, and I think that we’re beginning to see that.
That’s why Ståle Sandbech’s double crippler is my standout moment of the slopestyle season, because it was a transition maneuver in an elite level slopestyle competition; it brought two different schools of snowboarding together in a way I hadn’t seen for a long time.
By integrating different terrain into courses, we develop a wave of riders that can ride anything put in front of them. Pipe riding will always take place in a pipe, and that’s fine – I think the current generation of pipe riders (and judges) have taken it upon themselves to challenge the notion that pipe riding is stale, which is highly commendable and a frankly thankless task on the most part.
But what I think we can do outside the elite superpipe world, is introduce more and more transition riding into local snowparks, into regional competitions and into elite slopestyle riding. In the words of David Benedek:
"I think right now, what they should do with Slopestyle is really put more creativity into the course building to stop three doublecorks in a row by every competitor. That's fucking boring.
When I started it was way more about different lines and different choices. They should build stuff that's so odd you can't even do a doublecork – even if it's 10 whoop-di-doos into a drop down. Some Crazy shit.
It should be about who can ride this thing creatively."
Already, across the globe we’re seeing resurgence in transition riding in a multitude of different forms.
Events like the Red Bull Double Pipe are turning transition riding into the Frankenstein’s Monster of halfpipe creations, albeit a more beautiful one; edits from crews like Warp Wave are taking the art of edge control - the essence of transition riding - and applying it to the whole mountain; and you only need to see some of the lines taken at Nine Knights to realise that 'tranny finding' is firmly planted in the current scene.
Most recently, Danny's 4th iteration of the Peace Park project flexed its angular muscles. When you consider that the inception of the project was 'just' a pipe with rails added to the lip, we can begin to see how far this train of thought has progressed recently.
When you think of the most progressive and respected riders in snowboarding, a large majority of them learnt their trade pumping transition. Riders like Terje Håkonsen, Nicolas Müller, Jed Anderson and Jake Blauvelt all come from pipe riding backgrounds, whilst big mountain heavyweights Jeremy Jones and Xavier De Le Rue, come from racing and boardercross heritage respectively – both of these disciplines require edge control of a scalpel wielding surgeon.
All of the aforementioned, and many, many more are now pioneers in their various aspects of snowboarding, but the thing they all have in common is that they can ride a snowboard. They know exactly what their snowboard is doing under their feet, whether it’s navigating AK chutes or Anchorage car parks. Jed Anderson, who many would call the rider of a generation when it comes to urban riding, filmed a backcountry section that defies out naming of him as an 'urban' snowboarder. But Jed had a troubled path in the stunt ditch world, leading to him bowing out from the competitive circuit, which goes to show that although rookies have an enthusiasm for pipe, it's a complex fire to keep burning.
Luckily for young riders keen on competitive transition riding stronger lines are beginning to be carved out. Laax hosted the 10th Ice Ripper World Rookie Fest back in January with over 85 riders across the girls’ and boys’ categories taking to the Crap Sogn Gion to test their mettle on the world’s longest pipe. In the words of one of the organisers “Transition snowboarding is some of the most fun you can have on a snowboard, and there needs to be more of it. Especially when it comes to getting kids stoked on it".
But rookie riders aren’t just limited to pipe when it comes to transition riding anymore. The meteoric resurgence in banked slaloms has been pivotal in generating a new wave of riders that can pump transition, and love to do so.
Across Europe, events like the Sudden Rush Banked Slalom in Laax, to the Monfaton Banked Slalom presented by Deeluxe, to the Volcom Kitzsteinhorn Banked Slalom are seeing a roster of young riders taking to the berms and turns of banked slalom.
I challenge anyone to go to a banked slalom and not enjoy it – having been in attendance at the Laax banked slalom, it was a different world to the 6AM reshapes and riders meetings of the competitive circuit that I’m used to.
Taking those steps even further are events like the Lib Tech Holy Bowly – arguably one of the most progressive transition courses of the last five years. What started as rumours of a Japanese bowl-riding movement, The Wall season ender and the occasional shot on Facebook from the Land of the Rising Sun was adopted, evolved and brought to US soil at Park City in 2014, much to the applause of the snowboard industry.
The riders in attendance were as varied as the features hewn from the Utah mountainside; Chris Roach and Jamie Lynn joined a diverse spread of the current crop of snowboarding’s finest, from all disciplines and facets of snowboarding.
The design and integration of features like that are the future of the way transition riding is going to be relevant in snowboarding to a new crop of riders.
I'm of the belief that if you put a 22ft superpipe or a bowl like the Holy Bowly in front of 10 groms, that hadn’t ridden transition before, I’d take my last run and hang up my boots if the majority chose the superpipe.
Whilst I think pipe riding is one of the most important skills to have as a snowboarder, I don't think it's a feasible option for many snowboarders starting their journey into riding.
Is a 22ft superpipe fun for someone taking his or her first forays into transition riding? I don't think so. Superpipes are intimidating beasts and they're three times overhead for most of us fully grown adults – what we need is transition that’s fun to ride at first, fun to learn how to pump on and pop out of, and I don’t think superpipes are the way to achieve that stoke at first.
"We need more minpipes, Holy Bowlys, Ride the Snakes and the plethora of other events that use this kind of terrain design.
It's transition that is accessable to all riders, of all ages and of all ability levels.
It's simply just fun to ride."
By creating a series of different events, and by experimenting with course design, I think that we can build a framework to get entry-level riders excited about transition snowboarding. By taking incremental steps towards a 22ft halfpipe, instead of just presenting them with them with the sheer walls of one, we can create a generation of riders that can ride a snowboard, and close the gap between riders being ‘specialists’ in different aspects of snowboarding which has become more apparent over the last few years.
We need more mini-pipes, Holy Bowlys, Ride the Snakes and the other events that use this terrain design blueprint, as it’s transition that’s accessible to all riders, of all ages and of all ability levels, which is fun to ride.
After the Laax Banked Slalom we took a few laps through the 6ft mini-pipe in the late afternoon sunshine; there were three of us slashing, popping and inevitably taking a tumble or two as we went. There were groms of knee height carving the walls with grins wider than the flatbottom whilst the heavyweights of snowboarding gave a display in the use of effective edge – and that shouldn’t be a once-in-a-season event.
I'm of the impression that there should be transition terrain that everyone can hit, and that’s how we create a future generation of Markus Kellers carving superpipe on a swallowtail, or DCPs launching assaults on mountainsides.
Now, I’m not saying this is a solution to save pipe snowboarding by saying everything should be held on courses that have more bumps and craters than a Chamonix couloir. But, I do believe by challenging riders with terrain as much as they’re challenging us with the level of their riding, is key to the progression of snowboarding. If we start that transition to transition earlier for newer riders, I think that’s a healthy thing for snowboarding.