Ten seconds. You rock back and forth, hands on the starting posts. Nine. Hop and slap your board on the snow, clearing it of ice and jolting your body into awareness. Eight. A glance left, one right. Seven. Deep breath. Six. A nervous cough. At five, you stop thinking, you’re eyes pinned on the gate. You listen. You’ll hear it before you see it. It could drop at any moment.

Metal on metal, the weighted pin is pulled, releasing the start gate. It’s slow motion now. The gate falls. Cocked bodies explode from the blocks like a fuse just ran out–one big, fast-twitch muscle. You either have it or you don’t.

It’s a hell-bent straight-shot to the first turn; suck up the jumps and hope your knees don’t blow up on the flat landings. Set yourself apart here or forever hold your peace.

After the first turn, where the red triangular banner forces you onto the bank–in high, out low–the race will be largely decided. Not over, but a lot harder to win for those trailing behind.

There are no judges. No timing, either. Just the course ahead–a good or bad one, but the same one for everybody–and the riders around you, five of them. The first one down wins.

The first one down wins. It may seem overly simple, but this maxim singularly defines boardercross, and redefines snowboard racing altogether. Boardercross is snowboarding’s only racing discipline that truly pits riders head to head, against each other instead of the clock. In most events, it’s six racers on what’s basically a motocross track of snow, complete with jumps (tables, gaps, triples, etc.), berms, and whoop-dee-doos. It’s not so different from freeriding with friends, racing down the mountain–if only your friends were the best all-around riders in the world.

The framework for boardercross was raised back in 1991. Oddly enough, the format was conceptualized by a skier, noted filmmaker Greg Stump, who shot the first formal go at it for a U.S. television show. Boardercross has since evolved from a few bros havin’ it out, barely surviving what would now be considered a cakewalk of a course, to a legitimate sport awarded world-championship status by the International Snowboard Federation (ISF) in 1999 and likely to be the next Olympic snowboarding discipline added.

Though the acceptance curve has been sharp, boardercross suffered predictable blows. Unsafe tracks and injuries were the bane of mid-90s events. And traditional racers–the Alpine set–wrote this red-headed stepchild off as a game of chance, all luck.

But the momentum of boardercross comes from those who compete in it, riders from every background–hard booters, soft booters, amateurs, and pros–who finally have an outlet for their competitive energy that oozes freeriding. They line up at race-day registration like teenage girls at a model search, many of them unqualified, but with a dream just the same.

The fact that boardercross isn’t a judged event adds to the appeal for many. Riders like ISF World Boardercross Champion Shaun Palmer have found a home where raw talent prevails over “who may or may not like me,” as he puts it. It’s true the Alpine disciplines of slalom, giant slalom, and Super-G also eliminate subjective bias (“You can’t sleep with the clock,” the racers say), but Alpine racing is more ski-like than most snowboarders can swallow; it doesn’t represent the feeling of snowboarding like the raucous surge of boardercross.

This new discipline has single-handedly revitalized interest in snowboard competition worldwide. A freeriding derivative, most any rider can build boardercross skills and probably has the equipment to compete. On top of everything else there’s the unbeatable excitement created when riders compete he to head. Few seem able to resist the temptation of a mano a mano matchup. Don’t you want to find out how good you really are? Who you might beat? We all do. And as much as we want to prove we’re the best, there are tons more out there who want to watch us try.

Boardercross is about as perfectly made-for-TV as a wintertime Baywatch. Big jumps, crashes, racers in helmets lined up ready to start–it’s easy to understand, something even non-snowboarders can relate to. It’s motocross, NASCAR, and, uh, horseracing in one. A familiar format, and snowboarding’s best bet to bridge the gap between subculture sideshow and mass-media meat and potatoes.

Through an accelerated program of trial and error in course design, and by improving the way contests are run, the luck factor that obscured the early glow of boardercross has disappeared. Long-running contest series like Canada’s Kokanee Kross and the Swatch Boardercross World Tour have led the way in creating organized, professional contests. They’ve introduced rules about blatant contact and course specifications to ensure that tracks at the top venues showcase riders’ skills instead of encouraging gratuitous TV wrecks. There’s still luck involved–both good and bad–like in any racing. But over the course of the year it’s the same riders in the finals time after time. For example, France’s Philippe Conte, the world’s top-ranked boardercrosser, was on the podium with a top-three finish nine times last season.

Don’t be mistaken, there are still serious risks involved (including those inherent to snowboarding at top speed, in a tight pack, over triples and around tight banks). Unfortunately, some risks are still related to course design; it’s not easy to build a track that challenges both pro men and women riders and still accommodates less-experienced amateurs. Flat landings are the main complaint–they’ve been the demise of many an ACL.

But racers can adjust to poorly designed jumps by controlling their speed at takeoff. The bigger risk stems from the human element.

Even in pro events, “the only problems come from unusual participants,” says Conte. Inexperienced or out-of-control riders can cause dangerous situations. To minimize their impact, the major tours employ an initial day or two of timed qualifications. This preliminary timed format, in which racers are alone on the track, weeds out all but the fastest, the ones who make it into the head-to-head main event. On the Swatch tour, that’s 48 men and 24 women.

From the timed qualifier, it’s a long way (and a long day) to the podium and the ten-grand first-place prize money (half that for women). Riders compete in a series of six-person heats, and the first three to cross the finish line advance. Fourth, fifth, and sixth place go home (or to a last-chance qualifying round, if there is one).

A rider could have to race up to seven times to make it into the final, or they could be packing it up after one quick humility lesson. There may be an occasional oddball in the scheme, a racer sneaking through on a lucky break, but the final heat is typically filled with the fastest qualifiers from timed qualifier, their bibs showing the lowest numbers.

Those who routinely advance through the rounds guard their energy reserves over the course of a multi-day event. Only a few hard-charging runs can tap even the beefiest quads. But, for most racers, preparation isn’t so much physical as it is mental. One of the reasons Shaun Palmer competes in boardercross is because he doesn’t have to practice all the time.

“Actually, I just freeride once or twice, and I’m good to go,” he says.

Pisses you off, doesn’t it? But it’s not much different for Philippe Conte, who trains “as little as possible.”

Aside from being largely a mental game for those who already possess the physical and technical elements, there are few places where a rider can practice the boardercross craft–balls to the wall, bowling down pins along the way. That’s changing this season as resorts catch on to what Palmer and his namesake snowboard company pegged as the future way before it was current fare. All of the American Skiing Company resorts (The Canyons, Killington, Mount Snow, Steamboat, Sugarloaf, and Sunday River) feature “Palmer” boardercross tracks for 1999/00. Now everyone can step into the starting blocks with a few friends, all juiced up on endorphins, and let it fly. If your home mountain isn’t home to a track, practice by freeriding–that’s what boardercross is.

So, what does it take to win? Quick reflexes, a strong upper body, and the ability to adjust to whatever comes your way–whether it’s a rider buckling in the whoops at arm’s length or the violent whip of a Wu-Tang kicker at speed. On top of that, if you aspire to do anything more than whup ass on the local-yokel circuit, you’ll need to have some seriously refined technique. And that’s not as easy to come by. Most of the best boardercross riders in the world have been snowboarding, in one form or another, for a long time. They have coaches, sponsors (an average season of competition costs in the realm of fifteen- to twenty-thousand dollars), and most importantly, experience.

But all that aside, the main difference between riders who win and those who don’t is simple: a gnawing hunger. You’re either a fighter or you’re not–it comes down to that. Competition is a reflection of personality. Boardercross is a reflection of snowboarding’s personality. It’s rounded the first berm intact, eyes focused on the track ahead. Have you?

For more tips and complete interviews with the top six boardercrossers in the world, go to www.snowboardlife.com

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Aside from being largely a mental game for those who already possess the physical and technical elements, there are few places where a rider can practice the boardercross craft–balls to the wall, bowling down pins along the way. That’s changing this season as resorts catch on to what Palmer and his namesake snowboard company pegged as the future way before it was current fare. All of the American Skiing Company resorts (The Canyons, Killington, Mount Snow, Steamboat, Sugarloaf, and Sunday River) feature “Palmer” boardercross tracks for 1999/00. Now everyone can step into the starting blocks with a few friends, all juiced up on endorphins, and let it fly. If your home mountain isn’t home to a track, practice by freeriding–that’s what boardercross is.

So, what does it take to win? Quick reflexes, a strong upper body, and the ability to adjust to whatever comes your way–whether it’s a rider buckling in the whoops at arm’s length or the violent whip of a Wu-Tang kicker at speed. On top of that, if you aspire to do anything more than whup ass on the local-yokel circuit, you’ll need to have some seriously refined technique. And that’s not as easy to come by. Most of the best boardercross riders in the world have been snowboarding, in one form or another, for a long time. They have coaches, sponsors (an average season of competition costs in the realm of fifteen- to twenty-thousand dollars), and most importantly, experience.

But all that aside, the main difference between riders who win and those who don’t is simple: a gnawing hunger. You’re either a fighter or you’re not–it comes down to that. Competition is a reflection of personality. Boardercross is a reflection of snowboarding’s personality. It’s rounded the first berm intact, eyes focused on the track ahead. Have you?

For more tips and complete interviews with the top six boardercrossers in the world, go to www.snowboardlife.com