VAIL - Hundreds of fans gathered at the base of the Vail halfpipe Thursday for the Burton U.S. Open men's halfpipe finals, waiting to catch an up-close glimpse of the best male halfpipe riders in the world.
These guys turned it on, too - throwing tricks so huge that it's hard to imagine how this sport could possibly progress beyond the level these athletes already ride.
American Scotty Lago put up the biggest score of the day with an 85.15 out of a possible 100. He competed in heat one knew his first run score would be enough to qualify for the final and chose to sit out the second run.
He later Tweeted that the run was the only run he has landed all week, and it "happened to be in the contest."
The second-best score came from Shaun White, who picked up his sixth Winter X Games halfpipe gold medal this year and attracts the kind of crowd you might see surrounding a major rock band. When White is riding, there's practically silence because everyone watching wants to see what White does.
Everything about White is big - his tricks, his style, his amplitude - perhaps even a little too big, even for White. After putting up a great score of 83.8 in his first run, White came into his second run looking to put on a show. He dropped in and flew into the sky for a backside air so massive that he lost control. It was obvious while he was in the air that landing this trick would be difficult.
He came down hard and washed out, falling on his backside. At the finish area, White was touching his left buttock and tailbone area. He was visibly in pain, but didn't appear to be seriously hurt, and quickly rode down toward the Golden Peak base area with a mob of fans following him like the paparazzi.
The top three finishers from each of the two heats automatically qualified for the final, and then the top six scores across both heats rounded out the 12 athletes would move on to the final. After the top three in the first heat - Lago, Stale Sandbech and Taylor Gold - there was just one rider who made the cut for the final: Ayumu Hirano, the 14-year-old sensation from Japan who won Winter X Games silver this year.
Sandbech loves the pipe, but said he almost thinks it's too fast. He hasn't been riding much halfpipe in recent years and has been more focused on slopestyle, so the qualification for the final was a bit of a shock.
"I still do pipe contests. You know, I want to keep my tricks in there. I'm scared when I'm in the pipe, and that's a good feeling to be scared," Sandbech said. "It's a good feeling when you come down alive."
Gold knew the riders in heat two would be hard to beat and wasn't sure he'd make it until he had solidified the third position from his heat. His best run included tricks like a frontside 1080, cab 1080, a "Michael Chuck," and a frontside double cork 1080.
"I didn't know that it was enough. It's almost everything I can do," Gold said. "It's pretty hard to qualify - this is a huge event. ... I'm gonna hope, but I'm not sure. There's so many good riders - it would be an amazing opportunity if I could (qualify), though."
Hirano had to wait until the end of heat two before he knew if he made the cut. He sat in fourth place with a 78.65 score, waiting and hoping that it would be enough. It just barely was.
Finnish rider Peetu Piiroinen and American Louie Vito picked up the second and third spots, respectively, in heat two. They didn't hold much back, knowing that competition would be stiff.
"That was one of my better runs I've done today and I had to do some cold turkey tricks - last minute, I changed it up - and so I was just happy to put one on my feet and see how the next run goes," Vito said after his first run, which was his higher of his two scores.
Piiroinen was surprised he had such a strong performance Thursday because he said he hasn't been training in the pipe at all. His only practice has been during contests, he said.
"This pipe, for me, it's perfect because it's a good shape - maybe not the biggest pipe I've ridden but it's good size for me and fast," Piiroinen said.
Most riders, male and female, said this halfpipe is one of the best they've ridden all season. With 22-foot walls, 600-feet long, these riders are able to get in a lot of tricks and keep their speed, which makes it a bit easier to recover from mistakes, too.
Sandbech said the pipe is so fast that he predicts big tricks on Saturday for the final. He said the crowd might even see Shaun White go bigger than ever, but that depends on how White is feeling after his hard landing Thursday.
"I think this is the fastest pipe I've ever ridden," Sandbech said.
So what will it take to win? Piiroinen thinks it will take a lot.
"Now days, I think if you want to win here, you've got to probably do at least three doubles," Piiroinen said. "Because of that flow score, maybe do some different tricks, too, like ally-oops - I think that makes your flow score better. And then just go as big as you can."
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.