It sounded like a crew of fighter jets making a low swoop over Telluride. The insanely loud scratching noise was actually the sound of metal snowboard edges on the hammered snow of the course, and the first heat of four riders was hurtling down at the same speeds vehicles travel on a highway.
Even from the relative safety behind the mesh fences (you have seen racers cartwheel through these before, no?) I could feel the buzz as the snowboard cross riders flashed past, trying to pass each other on the steep corner berms and popping up in unison over the menacing jumps.
Snowboard cross was added to the Olympic mix at the last winter games in Italy, in 2006, but the sport was already a spectator favorite because of its spectacular crashes and carnage at the X-Games and JEEP King of the Mountain Tours. Racers ride four-at-a-time, jockeying for position, and it can get as ugly as a Chinese Downhill or a Cannonball Run. Saturday, though, was a beautiful day for the U.S. riders who dominated the World Cup in Telluride, the only Olympic qualifier held in their home country.
Ross Powers, best known for the two Olympic medals he won in the halfpipe, is on the U.S. Snowboarding's B Team roster for the snowboard cross event, but he outperformed all his A Team buddies, taking third. Seth Wescott, who has the first and only Olympic gold medal in snowboard cross (Torino, 2006) placed sixth. Nate Holland took seventh, Graham Watanabe took eighth and Nick Baumgartner came in ninth.
Aside from the occasional elbow, it was a clean couple of hours on the course. There was a lot less contact than, say, a rugby game, but certainly more than you would see in a traditional race like the parallel giant slaloms held earlier this week in Telluride. The top female rider in the U.S., Lindsey Jacobellis, got clipped in the semi-final heat and was knocked out of the top 10. Jacobellis and her partner Faye Gulini had some redemption on Sunday, taking first in the newest type of race, the team snowboard cross. The team race, where the second rider pushes out the start gate as soon as the first rider crosses the finish line, is not an Olympic event, so Sunday's race was a matter of pride and not points.
Speaking of points, this week's race was the second of five qualifiers (the first was held last spring in Argentina) and so far, French rider Pierre Vaultier has vaulted to the top spot, ranking first with 2,000 points after finishing first in both events. Seth Wescott took second in Argentina, and is still ranked second overall with 1,200 points. Graham Watanabe was third in Argentina, and managed to stay afloat in the rankings with a spot in fourth place and 920 points.
Other U.S. riders are still in the running: Powers is ranked sixth, Baumgartner tenth and Holland eleventh. Jacobellis is eighth with 530 points. Next up for the World Cup athletes is Bad Gastein, Austria, on Jan. 9-11, 2010. The winter Olympics will be held this spring, in 2010, in Vancouver.