This is the fastest sport on skates

What started on a whim in the frozen streets of the Alps has evolved into downhill ice cross racing -- the fastest sport on two skates

Posted: Mar. 19, 2018 1:01 PM
Updated: Mar. 19, 2018 1:06 PM

Strap on your blades; it's going to be a bumpy ride. Somewhere between Olympic event and "Jackass" stunt is Red Bull's Crashed Ice skating race series. Racers scream down a twisty, downhill motocross route that pours out of the Gothic facade of this city's iconic cathedral.

Crashed Ice has all the energy of an ice hockey game, minus the sticks, puck and rules. Four skaters drop at one time and try to be the fastest down down a roller coaster of track while avoiding a collision with each other and spilling onto the ice or against side walls only 18 feet apart in the middle. In St. Paul in January, the rolling 340-meter course had a vertical drop of 35 meters.

It's also fast, with skaters reaching speeds of 40 or even 50 miles an hour. "It's pretty exhilarating going down the track," Canadian racer Jacqueline Legere said. "Once you're done, you're like 'holy! I just did all that.' Yeah, it's over very quickly."

Tens of thousands of spectators turned out for the thrill of watching it live over two nights, some of them even paying for better viewing areas. Many more watched Red Bull's live coverage on their TVs or phones.

The whole scene at the race is a party, if a chilly one. There's consumption of local delicacies such as deep-fried cheese and beer. Like the racers, spectators have a need for speed, but crashes (it's in the name) are1 also a draw for those watching. Big screens above the course replay highlights of close wins and spectacular falls from previous competitions.

The course of jumps, descents and hairpin turns was thronged with fans, their faces up against the Plexiglas at sections. Rock music played between the commentary.

It's even more fun to compete. "What drives me in this sport is just the adrenaline," said Amanda Trunzo on Team USA, who placed first among the women at St. Paul. "The fans, the crowd ... you can feed off of it. It's a sport that's unlike any other sport."

This year, the fastest of the nearly 150 racers was Marco Dallago of Austria, a testament not only to speed and dexterity but to not falling. When the competition was over, fireworks shot out from the finish line, and racers and spectators made their way to the nearby block party, which went into the late hours. The party never ends; it just moves on to the next city.

Ice cross downhill, breaking through

As an organized sport, ice cross downhill is less than 20 years old. The first official race was in 2001 in Stockholm, on a frozen hill of a street. The first world championship on a constructed track wasn't until 2010, in Munich. Two years later, St. Paul was added to the Crashed Ice race series of pro-am competitors. Today, the ATSX Ice Cross Downhill World Championship consists of four Red Bull Crashed Ice races and six Riders Cups, which is a beginner series. ATSX is the international organizing body for rules and safety regulations.

And they are talking to the International Olympic Committee about putting ice cross in the Winter Games, which recently added snowboard and ski cross. The number of ice cross racers is increasing, and the field is both elite and international (17 countries were represented in St. Paul alone). But the IOC is looking for the sport to have even more athletes, additional training facilities and more national federations in place.

The best of today's racers are likely to be sponsored by skate brands. The racers flash their logos for the camera, securing a supplemental income that, even with modest prize winnings, hasn't reached the level of liveable wage unless you live in your car, which some racers may as they travel between competitions.

Part of the allure of the sport is that the courses change from year to year, designed to be ever more technically challenging and exciting to watch. Some are longer, such as Finland's, which is an endurance run of 630 meters.

Chris Papillon designs the St. Paul track and explained that he "plays with the land," incorporating the topography of the location and working with the descent from the cathedral.

It takes about a month to build every year, and with a starting gate in front of the massive stained-glass window above the entrance, Crashed Ice St. Paul has one of the more dramatic entrances.

The competition is a single elimination bracket-style, with the two fastest riders going on to the next round. There are few rules, but the main one is that there no "intentional" contact between racers: No pushing or body checks, as hockey players would put it.

Of course, racing contact happens all the time, but if a rider feels like contact crossed a line, they can protest, and judges will review the video.

Jumping in

There are three basic types of skaters: speed, figure and hockey. Ice cross racers are more likely finding their way to this extreme sport from the last of those. Though ice cross is a speed race, it shares more DNA with hockey.

The speed technique of flat ice with long blades is very different from the way you gain speed in hockey and ice cross. Speed skaters reduce the frequency of their steps to glide fast, but hockey players practically run on the ice to build up speed.

Ice cross jumps and turns don't lend themselves to speed skates either, so these racers use hockey skates, which have the added benefit of protecting the Achilles tendon in crashes. Pads, back protection and helmets are increasingly borrowed from other racing sports, especially mountain biking.

But you need more than skating skills to be competitive. Racers need to be fit, strong and stable. And in particular, "what you need to perform well is powerful legs," Papillon explained, for endurance and "explosions" of energy over those jumps, bumps and turns.

What's challenging about training for ice cross is that almost all the race courses are temporary. There are only a handful of public training tracks in Europe and Canada. So in the absence of a frozen hilly street after an ice storm, competitors train on inline skates in skate parks.

They also do strength and CrossFit-type training year-round to build those leg muscles for speed and endurance. There's even something called a skating treadmill, which is like a regular one but as wide as a car. Ice cross skaters also need to work on stability training, such as balancing on a slackline.

Mental focus and agility is key to winning as well. Papillon recommends juggling while walking along a slackline. "You need to get your brain working on something else while balancing," he explained.

When you are ready to start competing, Riders Cups in North America and Europe are open to all. If you earn points at those races, you can earn a spot in Crashed Ice races.

Crashed Ice has male and female competitors, but the races are not coed. The age range runs from teens to 40s; the youngest racer in St. Paul this year was 16 years old, and the oldest was his father, Joe Schaffer, 46. And although the sport is global, most of the competitors naturally come from parts of the world where there's enough ice. The fastest racers seem to come from the US, Canada and Finland, Papillon said, with Switzerland on their heels.

Risk versus reward

There are injuries, of course, but not as many as might seem likely. Although falls are common, padding, helmets and having competitors who know how to fall all lower the risk of serious injury.

Among the many crashes at St. Paul Crashed Ice, everyone was able to get off the track on their own. "From the outside, it looks super risky," said Papillon, who once raced himself, "but they know what they are doing and the risk they are taking and are training for it."

"The best way to describe being on this track is kind of that out-of-control feeling that anybody's probably experienced, whether it be on a bike or skis or whatnot," said Cameron Naasz, a competitor in St. Paul.

"Going down a hill, straight bombing it, going full speed, you don't know if you're gonna fall or not. That's exactly what it feels like out on this track. So, in order to be good, you have to kind of flirt with the line of whether you're going down or you're gonna make it to the finish line."

"You gotta be a little bit crazy," said Reid Whiting, a former competitor who now does TV commentary for Red Bull TV.

"When you step up there and you see what's in front of you, you pretty much just have to push the fear aside and go for it. And if you can't do that, this isn't for you."

When there are injuries, they tend to be to the ankles and knees, sometimes wrists or shoulders if you're using them to protect yourself in a fall. Serious injuries are extremely rare.

For competitors, the rewards outweigh the risks. In addition to all the benefits of being competitively fit and mentally pushing yourself, ice cross appeals to those seeking excitement and euphoria. Few other sports carry so much of those qualities packed into so little competing time.

Danny Hansen of the Netherlands, who has lost most of his vision yet still competes, likens the experience of ice cross to flying and added, "It's just a feeling of freedom.

"Everything fades away. It's like being in that present moment," he said. "There (are) few things in life where your mind isn't always wheeling around, thinking about a million things. And when I step on this track ... all that matters is the track. ... You can just kinda lose everything but what you're doing."

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