Yesterday’s clouds blew through overnight, as if Colorado cleared its throat and hawked a big gray luger toward Kansas. Ross Powers and Nicola Thost took advantage of that weather and a huge pipe to win the Vans Triple Crown of Snowboarding halfpipe at Breckenridge.

Halfpipe final day was straight clear and cold. The women’s semifinal round was underway when I slid into my ten-dollar parking spot (outdoor, unheated). All I know is that the pipe was perfect and fast and the crowd was already assembled.

The semis were the first place that yesterday’s qualifiers met the top-seeded riders. Catherine Nieves of Vermont held her own in the deep waters of main-event talent, ending up on top after the best of two runs.

Other women who advanced to the final included: Lori Glazier (Whistler), Minna Hesso, and big-pipe badass Nicola Thost ( Germany).

The men’s semi started off with a practice session, the crowd getting a taste of the insanity to come. There were two heats of twenty, and only twenty spots in the final. How’d you like to get thrown into a heat with the lofty likes of Todd Richards (he won last year’s event), John Sommers, Tommy Czeschin, Jussi Oksanen, Xaver Hoffman, and, oh say, Ross Powers? Good luck; that’s not even all the rippers in one of the heats.

Aside from the big names, there were a number of lesser known riders going off. Actually, world-class riders were coming out of the woodwork, all of them at a level we rarely get to see. A pair of Japanese riders were the biggest surprise; both Michihiko Yoshina and Takaru Nakai turned heads with big upside down tricks.

Shaun White continued to impress, surprise, and prove my all wrong. He stepped his riding up to, not only the size of the pipe, but the stature of his peers. He nailed all his runs with smooth, pretty much flawless moves, and landed his puny butt in the finals with the world’s elite. After the semis, I sat down with Shaun for a minute.

What do you think of the event so far?

Shaun (read in high-pitched voice): It’s great, huge pipe. One of the best ones I’ve ridden so far.

Have you ridden pipes this big before, at Hood or anything?

Shaun: Yeah, at Hood I rode one that was about twice as big as this; it was scary.

What’s it take to get up and out of a pipe like this?

Shaun: You need fast wax. You gotta be amped and ready to haul.

What’s your plan for the final?

Shaun: I’m just gonna stick a clean run and try to go off, a frontside 720, backside McTwist.

Also moving through the men’s semis were Gian Simmen (luckily, after all the bragging I’ve been doin’ about him) and Ross Powers. They both pulled it off on their second run, after not having a very good first run. Not in the finals were Kier Dillon and Lael Gregory. I didn’t know Lael before, but had seen him boosting all weekend in practice. While he’d never ridden a pipe as as smooth and consistant as this one, Lael went down hard on his second semi-final run, breaking his nose (for the seventh time, and fracturing some teeth. “I shouda just done a straight air, but I wanted to do a frontside seven and I got pitched into the flat bottom,” Gregory said. “I don’t know, brain fart.”

Lael didn’t make the finals unfortunately, but if he had, he would have ridden. “It’s too good not to,” he said.

Final round competition started at about 12:30. Fans lined the side of the course and filled the bleachers at the bottom near the judge’s enclosed stand. Red Vans banners, red sunburned faces. The women started things off with a best of three runs format, perfect for taking chances and going off.

Lots of women rode well, but I can’t really go on about anyone but Nicola Thost of Germany. Put it this way, after her first run Todd Richards was asking for a towel, saying he was ready to throw it in. Throughout the contest, Todd was one of the biggest fans, supporting the other riders by slapping the tail of his board on the wall of the pipe. Nicola threw down some big clean airs including a frontside 720 and big, stylie airs to fakie. It’s not so much the tricks you do, but how you do them that makes the difference.

Other women did many of the same moves as Nicola, but not nearly as high or with as much style. I don’t think any girl rider could argue with the results; it was that clear.

Often times, riders, other competitors do disagree with the judging. But among the top places, no one really debates. They’re all really good, but even the crowd can generally tell who’s killing it. The judging format at the Vans events is much different than that used at the Olympics, which makes it even cooler that Ross Powers and Gian Simmen (bronze and gold medalists respectively at the Nagano Olympics) were on top throughout the men’s final.

That’s the difference between good pros and truly top-level riders, they perform at the most crux time. After the first run, it was Gian in the lead with a score of 46.1, while Ross had a tough go of it at 25.55. But Ross progressively raised the bar and came through when he needed to most, putting together a second run that could’ve won any contest. He scored a 49.6.

Gian rallied to the beat of huge air, especially on his second hit–an air to fakie about ten or eleven feet out. He went straight from that into a switch inverted flip, so big that he’d already brought it around while still way over the lip. But neither he nor any other rider could touch Ross’ near 50.

The places behind Ross and Gian switched hands over the course of the three runs as riders bettered themselves each time. Xaver Hoffman, Therry Brunner, and Jussi Oksanen backed up Gian on the Euro side of things, while guys like Tommy Czeschin and John Sommers made sure the home team wasn’t overlooked. Tommy ended up nabbing the last podium spot next to first place (ten grand) Ross and third place (sixty five hundred bucks) Gian Simmen of Switzerland.

When it was all said and done, the sun was inching behind those same trees to the west and everybody and their brother dropped into the pipe, doing their best the live up to what they’d seen (most sucked of course).

Ross told me afterward that it was one of the funnest pipes he’s ridden, with the new big trannys and everything. He was stoked on the level of the competition with many of the big Euro riders showing up. And, as we speak (as I write) Gian is headed to Denver–first stop, the record store. To pick up some new CDs? Gian wouldn’t think about it; he’s all about spinnin’ vinyl.

Final Results

1. Ross Powers USA
2. Gian Simmen SUI
3. Tommy Czeschin USA
4. John Sommers USA
5. Therry Brunner SUI
6. Xaver Hoffman GER
7. Jussi Oksanen FIN
8. Jeff Anderson USA
9. Ricky Bower USA
10. Shaun White USA
11. Justin Lamoureux CAN
12. Etienne Tremblay CAN
13. Zach Horowitz USA
14. Lane Knaack USA
15. Sylvain Rheault CAN
16. Takaru Nakai JPN
17. Max Ploetzenedir GER
18. Chris Nelson USA
19. Chauncey Tantan USA
20. David Porcheron CAN

Women

1. Nicola Thost GER
2. Cara-beth Burnside USA
3. Catherine Nieves USA
4. Minna Hesso FIN
5. Ayrelie Sayers USA
6. Leslee Olson USA
7. Lori Glazier CAN
8. Gretchen Bleiler USA
9. Tricia Byrnes USA
10. Kim Stacey USA