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At Aspen’s X Games, tensions stir over Lycra

Scott Willoughby
The Denver Post
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN, Colorado ” There was a time, not so long ago, when downhill ski racing reigned supreme as the edgy pinnacle of excitement and risk in the world of winter sports.

But along the way to the next millennium something changed. For much of the new generation, ski racing has lost its edge.

Perhaps it’s a rebellious backlash against tradition, or the age-old desire to establish one’s own identity. Whatever the cause, the modern pursuit of cutting-edge thrills for many has moved on to snowboarding and new-school freeskiing. Even the term “freestyle” has lost its luster.

And ski racing’s supposed new-school savior ” skicross ” is in danger of doing the same.

“Skiercross in general is in conflict with itself,” said Seth Wescott, the reigning Olympic gold medalist in the closely related snowboardcross discipline. “They haven’t grasped the concept that they need to establish themselves as a completely different identity and type of racing.”

Certainly this is not your father’s brand of ski racing. The differences separating skicross from traditional ski racing are many. For starters, there is no clock. Just a pack of four to six skiers standing side by side in the start house before simultaneously darting down the mountain. First one across the finish line wins.

“It goes back to pure skiing, like when I was a kid racing my buddies from the top of the mountain just trying to get to the bottom first,” said Daron Rahlves, a retired Olympic ski racer looking to make a return in the new Olympic discipline of skicross. “It connects more with a younger skier, and it is the most exciting thing out there.”

Rahlves finished fourth as the top American in Sunday’s skicross competition at the Winter X Games. He won the event a year ago.

In the brief span between those two X Games appearances, he has seen the sport turn away from its “pure” roots and move toward some of the outdated alpine racing traditions that made the fresh face of skicross so appealing.

Rahlves and U.S. skicross teammates Casey Puckett of Aspen and Jake Fiala of Breckenridge recently have been protesting the influence of ski racing’s old guard at the European-based International Ski Federation (FIS), guardians of the World Cup and Olympic skiing disciplines.

Recent World Cup skicross events have seen athletes from France and Austria compete in formerly banned Lycra “speed suits,” the tight-fitting alpine racing uniforms that shave nanoseconds off times and go against everything that freeride skiers stand for.

“The first competitors of skicross were anti-establishment, big mountain freeriders, that wouldn’t be caught dead in a race suit. For years there has been a ban on Lycra material,” Puckett recently posted on his blog at Universalsports.com. “It seems to me that the FIS is taking steps to ruin the sport, and lifting the ban on suits is just the beginning.”


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