February 21, 2010 in Sports

Not for the skittish

Unpredictable skicross offers more mature flavor than snowboardcross
Will Graves Associated Press
 
File Associated Press photo

Skicross, which tends to attract veteran skiers whose downhill days are waning, challenges its competitors with banked turns, blind jumps and little room to maneuver among rivals.
(Full-size photo)

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WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia – As a rule, Daron Rahlves likes to scare himself at least once a day.

No problem, dude, skicross has your back.

After he spent a decade blistering the slopes at 90 mph in the downhill, you’d think Rahlves wouldn’t be bothered by the relatively pedestrian speeds of skicross.

Wrong.

“I get more nervous in the start gate in skicross than Alpine skiing,” the American said.

Maybe it’s because in downhill, it’s just you and the mountain. In skicross it’s you, the mountain, a couple of dozen twists and turns and three other racers determined to beat you to the finish line.

“You never know what’s going to happen in front of you, and you need to be prepared for that and to adjust very quickly,” Rahlves said.

The sport was added to the games following the overwhelming popularity of snowboardcross, which made a splash in Turin four years ago. The men race today, with the women hitting Cypress Mountain on Tuesday.

Yet there is a decided difference between the two, from the age of the average competitors to the uniform.

Snowboardcross is populated by mostly 20ish riders who dash down the hill in baggy snowpants and are known to drop in a funky board-grab or two.

Not in skicross. Many of the top racers are like the 36-year-old Rahlves, former Alpiners who switched in part because they were on the back end of their Alpine careers or were simply lured by the new opportunity.

Including Rahlves and teammate Casey Puckett, six of the world’s top-12 ranked men in skicross are former downhill skiers in their 30s.

The women’s side is a little younger, but not much. Canadian Ashleigh McIvor, 26, teammate Kelsey Serwa, 20, and Ophelie David, 33, of France are considered the top contenders.

While Alpine success can certainly help in skicross, it doesn’t guarantee a thing. Skiing off a cliff is difficult, but skicross adds banked turns, blind jumps and racing within inches of a competitor.

“There’s not that many guys that are good at this,” said Canadian Stanley Hayer, who is 36. “It takes a totally different skill set. You can be a great giant slalom skier and totally (stink) at skicross.”

Maybe, but old habits tend to die hard for some racers who made the transition.

Though the sport is considered a freestyle event, some skicrossers have tried to turn it into Alpine with jumps, ditching the baggy pants that are de rigueur in snowboarding for the sleeker and more aerodynamic outfits preferred in events like downhill.

This season, the International Ski Federation had to strictly enforce rules about the design and makeup of uniforms.

Americans Rahlves and Puckett will sport outfits similar to those of the moguls team, not the red-hot snow jeans the snowboarders wore.

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