The field of dreams. Or nightmares. Depends on your POV. Photo: Sam Mellish
Here we are then. After much banter, mud slinging, cheerleading and a couple of tough years of point-chasing on behalf of the riders, we finally arrive at the PyeongChang Olympics. Yes, snowboarding's first chance at a disco dance in the blinding glare of the world's assembled media went down today with the Men's Slopestyle qualifications, and we have the blow-by blow.
Whether you're the kind of person who'll be enjoying this show with Bowie's Heroes blasting at full volume and marvelling at the mindblowing manoeuvres young snowboarders can whirl themselves through these days, or someone who views the Olympics as the snowboarding incarnation of death by a thousand cuts, one thing is certain: with now three disciplines, or races, or whatever the hell the FIS calls them (Big Air now joining Halfpipe and Slopestyle in the Olympic mixer in the South Korean Games), our funny habit of sideways sliding down snow-covered inclines plays a bigger part of the Games than ever before.
"Now with three disciplines, or races, or whatever the hell the FIS calls them, our funny habit of sideways sliding down snow-covered inclines plays a bigger part of the Games than ever before"
Slopestyle was ordained to take to the floor first, following hot on the heels of the ever-bizarre opening ceremony, and in a rather unchivalrous fashion it was the men who got the ball rolling. We'd all seen how last year's Test Event was generally received well by all and sundry, and in the last couple of days marvelled at the laser-cut geometrical perfection of the Slope course that Schneestern had crafted (even though there were certainly some chin-stroking, more skier-philic rail features - rainbow-DFD say whaaat?), but today, after a good few years of noise, it was finally time to shut the fuck up and watch the riders' actions speak louder.
The qualifiers were broken up into two heats, the riders in each heat having two runs with which to convince the judges that they deserved a shot at turning the Sendometer fully up to 11 in Sunday's finals (and when we say Sunday we mean Sunday, but 2am-Sunday-morning-Sunday in Euro timezones. Can't they just hold it in Laax every time?).
With six spots available to rocket riders to the finals from each heat, the pressure was on from the start.
Other than the odd Instagram follow cam, the first heat was really the world's first chance to see the much-vaunted slopestyle course in action. Whilst many likened it to a computer game course in terms of shaping perfection and scale, in truth it could have done with a few Mario Kart-like speed boosts. The rail section could do with some spacing out as the hits were coming so fast riders were struggling to adjust to the next feature, and just how are the judges scoring the middle lump-like feature given they're only dishing out six feature scores? Round two was even worse, with only two riders able to better their scores.
The jumps also proved tricky, with a few of the riders going massive off of one and two, but struggling to maintain speed for the money booter. And as many predicted, giving riders an option of hitting a transitioned take off or a straight kicker is hard to judge - for example, Jamie Nicholls and Roope Tonteri scored just shy of a point's difference with a straight backside 1260 and a transitioned front 540 respectively.
- Marcus Kleveland - 83.71
- Carlos Taylor Garcia - 80.10
- Sebastien Toutant - 78.01
- Mons Roisland - 76.50
- Torgeir Bergrem - 75.45
- Niklas Mattsson - 73.53
Potential course issues and judging complexity aside, the top spot went comfortably to Marcus Kleveland. There was never much doubt of any other result, and his first run score of 83.71 for a cab-270-on-270-off, gapped front 270, a BIG gap backlip to fakie, cab nose butter 720, skewed take off switch back 1080, cab 1260 and back triple 1440 set a high bar for the rest of the field.
More surprisingly, Carlos Garcia Knight from New Zealand clocked in with an 80.10 for second place. Like most of the non-Finnish pack, he took the straight line through jump two and went front double cork 1080, backside 1260 and switch back 1260, showing that so far at least, triple dipping hasn't been on many agendas, and we're a long way off seeing a slopestyle quad cork.
"Triple dipping hasn't been on many agendas, and we're a long way off seeing a slopestyle quad cork"
Surprise exits were always given taking the harsh field-narrowing from these qualifiers, but the much-hyped Chris Corning had a few issues with the rails that put him out of contention, though we're sure he'll come into his own in Big Air. Peetu Piiroinen and Roope Tonteri missed out on the finals, the latter by only one spot, despite getting both sendy and creative. Jamie Nicholls had a clean first run, but (with a few complaints from the British commentary) it was just enough for 8th in the end.
Team Norway have been the most successful so far, going three-for-three with Torgeir Bergrem and Mons Roisland joining Kleveland in the final. The former may have had a bit of a 'Hand Of God' moment as a heavy revert on jump two didn't seem to affect his score too badly - even he seemed surprised by his score - but we're sure in a few days it'll seem a minor controversy.
The wind proved problematic in the second heat, just as it had in the first, but it didn't stop the stacked field from throwing everything they had at the course.
All eyes were on Mark McMorris, fully recovered from another horrific injury and aiming to improve on his broken-rib bronze from 2014. Sure enough, he led the field after run number one and showed his consistency with a decent score in his second attempt too. Even in challenging conditions, he can make a triple cork look easy.
- Max Parrot - 87.36
- Mark McMorris - 86.83
- Red Gerard - 82.55
- Stale Sandbech - 82.13
- Tyler Nicholson - 79.21
- Seppe Smits - 78.36
The tricks that preceded his closing banger weren't too shabby either; frontside bluntslide 270 out, hardway frontside 270 on, a pitch-perfect backside 360 gap to 5050, switch backside 1260, and frontside double cork 1080.
However, even that wasn't enough to take down the Terminator of snowboarding, Max Parrot. With a line as clean and calculated as any we've seen from him (hardway frontside 270 on, backside 270-on-270-off, half cab-on-360-off, tweak backside rodeo nosegrab, frontside double cork 1260, frontside 1440, backside triple cork 1440), he scored 87.36 to qualify in 1st place.
A third Canadian, Tyler Nicholson, made it through in 5th place after a solid second run that made up for an embarrasing early crash on his first attempt. He, Parrot and McMorris will join their countryman Seb Toots in the final.
"Even in challenging conditions, Mark McMorris can make a triple cork look easy"
Another country getting four into the final is Norway, after Stale Sandbech made it through heat two in 4th place. By the time the Sochi silver medallist was dropping for his second run, he'd already been bumped out of the qualifying spots - but by digging deep and stomping a clean run (frontside lipslide to frontside bluntslide 270 out, frontside lipslide hardway cab 270, frontside 360 transfer, backside 360 hand-drag, frontside 1080, backside 1260, cab 1260 double cork), he'd done enough to make his second consecutive Olympic slopestyle final.
The USA's Red Gerard (seen above airing over the hitching post) and Belgium's Seppe Smits finished in 3rd and 6th respectively, completing the list of twelve finalists. Unfortunately that means no spot for Kyle Mack, whose Bloody Dracula grab off the first kicker was one of this morning's highlights. Also missing out are Clemens Millauer, a rank outsider whose impressive runs got him within one point of qualifying, and quad-cork pioneer Billy Morgan.
Tune in tomorrow to see who took the first snowboard medals from Pyeongchang 2018.