Snowboarding today is becoming increasingly specialised. Where it was once the case that riders would regularly film pow kickers, hit up rails, straightline chutes and dip into some contests throughout the course of a winter, it’s far more common to be ‘the rail guy’ or ‘the pipe guy’ or ‘the backcountry guy’.
But there are still a few who buck the trend and could be said to define the term ‘well-rounded’; hell, these cats are so well-rounded they’ve become circular. We hit up a bunch of the riders still pushing this overarching vision of snowboarding to find out more...
The seed of this article was sown a while back at the premiere for Videograss’ movie, Retrospect, stood with Austin Smith. This was around the time that double corks in to pow were transitioning from being movie enders into stock tricks and bungees and winches had helped transform the urban landscape.
Austin’s part stood out for successfully sending it in both arenas, and having been equally impressed by a recent re-watch of cover boy Mark Sollors' all-terrain dominance in In Color, I remarked on how well-rounded parts were a) rad and b) fewer and further between than previously. I wondered if Austin could shed any light on why this was? “The level’s getting so high," he replied, “that to keep up in both gets harder and harder. I don’t know how much longer it will be possible to do that."
Fast forward a couple of years and snowboarding’s gotten even more nuts, yet a core crew of guys are still putting out well-rounded parts. The list would include the aforementioned Messrs Smith and Sollors, along with a handful of others - several of which we spoke to get their thoughts on the status quo.
Eero Ettala, famed as much for his nocturnal assaults on Helsinki’s architecture as he is for stomping into pow, echoes Smith’s assessment and offers some humble explanation: “The level of riding in each discipline is just getting so damn high these days, that most of the riders just pick their strongest discipline and stick with it. It has just gotten to a point that being semi OK at everything is not good enough anymore, you either need to be one of the best at something or really damn good at few things."
Anyone who’s hung their jaw at Bode Merrill’s mindblowing two-song ender in Absinthe movie, twe12ve, can attest that he’s clearly an authority in the matter - he effectively filmed a full backcountry part and a full street part in one season. Bode has a theory why versatility was more common in days gone by; that it was down to ‘everyone still figuring out what could be done as far as pushing backcountry and urban progression and they were unsure which way to go because it was so new to them.’
With the playing field more defined these days, it’s easier to focus on slaying one aspect, as he says: “After the distinct realms of snowboarding were defined they separated more to really show what could be possible in one area of snowboarding, rather than snowboarding as a whole. When that happened more influence was pushed on kids to go one way or the other."
Unlike the other riders we spoke with, though, Bode’s not of the opinion this makes putting together a rounded part more difficult. On the contrary: “I think it's way easier actually. You don't have to get as many shots in one area and you're free to pick and choose the ones you like best to fill up a video part."
Another dude to recently drop a full urban part and a full powder part in one all-conquering two-song megapart is Pat Moore in 2011’s Forum movie, Vacation. Former teammate and emerging all-terrain boss in his own right, Ethan Morgan was floored: “One whole song with street, and one whole song of pow. I couldn't believe that he was able to pull that off, after knowing how hard it is to do both."
Moore is still blowing minds with his circular skills, and as the only rider to feature in both this year’s X Games Real Snow and Real Snow backcountry, would be more than entitled to blow his trumpet and crown himself as Master of Everything.
But he’s a down-to-earth bloke and offers this opinion instead: “Seven years ago I had tricks in halfpipe and park that were current to the trends of snowboarding," he says. “These days for me to film street, backcountry and then have double corks in the pipe and triple corks on park jumps is just unrealistic. The specialty aspect of competitive snowboarding has progressed each aspect much further than anyone thought possible."
As to why specialisation has become more rife, Pat’s on the same page as Bode, saying, “It’s much more difficult than when I started. I think that's from pros having a specialty. Now you can be just a rail kid or just a pipe rider, whereas when I was coming up you we encouraged to ride everything."
NUTS & BOLTS
If you’re focussed on filming the urban part to end all urban parts, or the kind of big mountain riding that would have Jake Blauvelt amping, there are a glut of factors that you need to deal with to get it done. If your scope is wider these issues are compounded.
For most, following a set schedule is the way to go and Dan Brisse’s example is pretty standard. “I do all of my urban stuff first as there are generally cities with snow before the mountains are set to go. There is a point in the year where I say I am done with urban riding no matter what the conditions are like in the city, and that decision happens when my footage feels strong enough."
Ettala and Moore agree, with Pat adding “It's just time management, really good backcountry riders usually dedicate their early season to riding pow and getting warmed up and that's when I'm out riding urban stuff. So midseason I have to play catch up, but it's also nice because I know I'm sitting on footage from street trips, so there's pros and cons."
Bode Merrill’s approach appears more freeform, something he attributes to where he grew up: “I was blessed to be in Salt Lake City where there are big mountains and the snowy city and some of the best terrain parks, so it wasn't a question of which one I wanted to ride. It was a question of which one I wanted to ride today? At this point it's the same way. It's just a question of where the snow is good and where you want ride because it's all fun!"
Ethan Morgan’s been knocking out impressively varied parts the past couple of years - hunt down his Isenseven Kaleidoscope ender, or last year’s part in Standard’s 2112 – and offers an honest assessment of the pitfalls. “The hardest is the fact of getting the shots of each discipline, some years you have bad snow conditions in the streets, some years in the mountains, and chasing after that good snow is the hardest in my opinion. If you get unlucky with that, you’re fucked."
He continues: “Your time schedule is way more packed than a usual time schedule of someone who is only doing street or pow. That means one can't just go out into parks that easily and practice on rails or jumps; you have to be out there trying new tricks whilst filming, and in my opinion, trying new tricks in the streets is way harder, not to mention in pow."
And if you want an example of such a schedule, Halldor Helgason - who's as adept at stomping pow dubs as he is tap dancing down multi-kinked lengths of metal - is on hand to show your his: "November till beginning of January I film street. January till February park and do some contests. February and March film pow. April and May film park."
The result is something of a season-long endurance test. As Eero says, "Urban shooting in Finland is mostly working at nights and backcountry is early morning wake ups... so you kind of feel that you're jet lagged all season long."
The backcountry/street divide might be the most visible that snowboarders strive to bridge, but on the contest side of things the level is equally insane and it’s increasingly common for fewer riders to hold it down in both slopestyle, big air and halfpipe.
Still, there are guys who buck this trend here too. As a rider who’s won countless 6-Star big air, slopestyle and halfpipe titles - not to mention four Overall TTR World Snowboard Tour crowns and an Olympic silver in the pipe - Peetu Piiroinen is more than qualified to namecheck: “Scotty Lago is always impressive, Ståle Sandbech is awesome, it seems like he barely even rides pipe during the season, but then in a competition he can go and beat guys that only focus on pipe. Danny Davis and Janne Korpi are really good at both of them and I can't go without mentioning Shaun White."
Indeed, you’d not get good odds on White doubling gold in Sotchi but, practically, what is the difference in the skills you need? “I reckon in pipe you need to be more technical in your basic board control," states Peetu. “Maintaining speed, edge control, getting the right pop, reading and riding the transition is way more challenging than your average slopestyle run and it's more risky too. Then again in slopestyle you have to have good rail skills to complement your kicker tricks."
Aside from the significant skills and training you need to compete at a high level in both, Peetu believes the lack of crossover is equally related to resort infrastructure: “I guess the main thing is the lack of pipes in the resorts, and I mean like proper X Games-style pipes. So its harder to get involved, where as most resorts have at least one good kicker and a ton of rails."
But, as with the guys focussed on filming, the boundless progression means to have the cutting edge tricks in both on lock is becoming ever more challenging. “The tricks are so demanding these days that you sort of have to focus on either one," he explains. “In addition to that its also a question of time, if you ride all disciplines your calendar is just rammed with events and it takes a toll on your body, not enough time to rest and heal up from small injuries and the constant travelling."
Rare as it is to find riders bossing both pipe and slope, it's rarer still that you find someone who'll film a career-defining powder part one year only to hit the dude tube hard the following winter with eyes set on the rings of glory, but that's exactly what Arthur Longo has done.
Like the others, Arthur attributes his diverse skill set to the terrain and facilities he had access to in his fledgling years. “I guess so far I've been able to do both cause I grew up in a resort where I could do everything," he says of his grommethood spent in Les Deux Alpes. "When the pipe was good I was riding it and whenever there was some fresh pow I was out there enjoying it. I like riding both but nowadays it seems that you have to focus on one thing if you want to keep up."
In fact Longo serves as a case in point illustrating the difficulties - though he's spent the last few years filming heavy backcountry parts, he'd still show up at a few pipe contests each season and blow minds with his blend of stratosphere-scratching amplitude and legit style. However, to give himself the best shot in Sochi, he’s had to forego trips to AK to concentrate on honing his semi-tubing. “It seems that talent is not enough anymore. Kids are talented plus they go training everyday. It's really hard to keep up and yes it's a full commitment, at least for me."
But as a solid foundation for well-rounded shred chops, it’s hard to beat a good apprenticeship in the pipe. Müller, Kalbermatten, Anderson, Keller, to name a few cut their teeth in the u-jump and Pat Moore is well aware of the benefits: "I grew up riding halfpipe and park jumps, I'd say halfpipe riding is where I got my foundation, you really learn how to control your edge and your body from halfpipe riding. I'd say it's the most difficult part of snowboarding to get good at aside from big mountain."
THE FUN FACTORY
At the end of the day snowboarding is supposed to be fun and, even though these guys get paid to do it they’ll still gravitate to what they enjoy. Hence if someone digs riding rails and has little time for hiking around in tit deep snow, it doesn't reflect badly on him if he focuses on what stokes him out.
After all, the likes of Gigi Rüf, Nicolas Müller and Jake Blauvelt do alright for themselves without having to concern themselves with long nights set to the humming of a generator; likewise with A-list jibbers like Dylan Thompson or Joe Sexton. "I don't really focus on that my part HAS to have all three disciplines in my part," says Ethan, "it is more that I really like to ride different things because they are all equal amount of fun to me, but just in a different way."
For Eero Ettala, ripping a variety of terrain was also something that's always stoked him out but also admits the respect of his peers was another important factor in where he took his riding: "I wanted to show all the other riders that I was able to ride everything and not just park – that everyone would expect from a Finnish rider."
Brisse's reasoning is similar, born out of the stoke he felt coming up: "When I was younger I always just was more impressed with the riders that hit jumps and rails in their parts, so I always wanted my parts to be like that." For Bode mixing it up prevents shredding getting stale, giving him a 'different thrill and excitement', a point which Halldor agrees wholeheartedly with: "if you go all in on just one thing I think its way easier to get over it with snowboarding," he says, "and it's going to be hard to step it up more and more in just that thing as well."
Merrill also points out the craft of creating a video part as a motivating factor. “For us riders who make video parts for a living there's an art form involved in filling up a song with your hard earned shots throughout the year and I think having the same style of shots in every video part year after year can get stale for the viewer." Back to Pat Moore on his motivation: “I also know that it is unique to have lots of different riding in a part so I keep that in mind when filming," he states. “My dream is to have every aspect of snowboarding in one part, everything from AK lines to rails to halfpipe."
THE FUTURE IS FOCUSSED?
Getting back to the importance of mixing things up to keep things fresh referenced by Halldor and Bode, when I interviewed Dylan Thompson last year getting a sled and hitting pow jumps was high on his agenda for future seasons - and you'll no doubt have seen Jed Anderson's debut dip into Arlberg's backcountry a couple issues back. "Nowadays I think more and more rail kids are figuring out that powder is the shit," says Bode. "I still don't think the powder guys at heart will ever go start riding rails though..."
But will the level of riding in individual areas soon become so elevated that it will be practically impossible to hold it down across the board? The guys we spoke to weren’t sure. “I don't think it will be like it is today," said Dan Brisse. “Already you can see in riders parts that do have both urban, and backcountry, that each rider tends to lean a little towards one or the other as their stronger suite in boarding."
Pat Moore was more positive, explaining how though things will certainly become more specialised that there will always be interest in mixing things up: “I get stoked when someone has like Chris Grenier has a cool shot in the halfpipe or when other rail kids have backcountry shots." “It’s always going to be possible," agrees Halldor, “but its going to be harder and harder of course, if you're going to be able to do that you will have to spend a loooooot of time on your snowboard and send it all the time."
From a contest perspective, both Peetu and Longo lamented the increased seriousness as a factor that will widen the gap - to the detriment of having fun - while Ettala is more upbeat, “as long as riders just keep getting creative, that’s the key!"
We’ll finish off on an optimistic note from Bode Merril: “Yes. I think the progression of snowboarding is getting a good mix between bigger and better and smaller and creative. I think it's not going to be about inventing new tricks or going 300 feet. I think it's just going to be about whatever looks good. And that could be anything if done right!"