Winter X hasn’t seen anything yet
Vail, CO Colorado
At the far-out reaches of Tiger Road on Summit County’s eastern edge, you come to a snowbank and a crudely constructed sign that signals a dead end. “Turn around,” the sign seems to say. “Your journey is over.”
For freestyle snowmobilers Jay Quinlan and Heath Frisby, however, this site is just the beginning.
Fifty yards away, in the middle of an open swath that offers little more than dirt and rocks when the snow has departed, Quinlan, a Blue River resident, and Frisby, a native of Caldwell, Idaho, who has come to Summit to ride with Jay, are doing what they always do: boggling minds.
Frisby pins his machine from the dead-end sign and zooms toward a wooden ramp adorned with a strip of Astroturf leading up to it and black rubber grip on the incline. He arcs a backflip, floating through the air in what appears to be slow motion, then lands with a thud on the 15-foot-tall mound of snow that Quinlan constructed for their training.
A pair of tourists on the back of a dog sled, who happened to be passing just as Frisby launched, gawk at the sight they just witnessed, for the moment forgetting about their team of dogs.
Their looks say, What the hell was that?
Which is precisely the thought Quinlan and Frisby and eight other freestylers hope to introduce to the minds of millions this week, as the renegade sport makes its long-awaited Winter X Games debut in Aspen.
After spending so many years on the outside looking in, the freestylers will be featured prominently in two of ESPN’s live broadcasts, tonight with the 10-rider elimination round (6:30-8) and Sunday with the four-man, head-to-head finals (6:30-7:30).
Quinlan, 27, plays a role in the debut that is half-star, half-visionary. No rider had more to do with getting the freestylers included in Winter X, first of all. And while the blond model of modesty from Valdez, Alaska, no longer is the top ramp rider on the planet, neither is he about to leave Aspen without emptying his arsenal of tricks ” many of which he invented, including the competition backflip ” on the six-jump course.
“I hope that people watching TV are just like, ‘Holy cow, man, that thing should not be that high in the air, it should not be upside down with that much weight,'” Quinlan said. “So I think it’s gonna be sweet … because it is. I mean, these things are made for snow. It’s a snow sport. And the moto guys on snow, it was cool but you could tell they were out of their realm and they weren’t happy.”
Ah yes, the moto guys on snow ” that’d be the fearless dirtbike riders who pulled massive tricks on ice for years at Winter X, while the snowmobilers sat wondering why a summer sport was being included ahead of theirs. (Moto X is not on this year’s docket.)
Quinlan and a group of other freestylers were invited to show their skills at an X Games exhibition event in 2004, with the possibility of being invited back as a medaled event the following year. When they were not invited back, he recalled, “We thought they were done with us.”
However, word circulated this year that X Games officials were interested in having the freestylers return as a medaled event, and “everyone got pretty fired up,” Quinlan said during a break in training. “Then of course the ramps started coming back out, and so here I am.”
What will it take to win?
Until a month and a half ago, Quinlan hadn’t flipped his sled since a gust of wind nearly crippled him during an exhibition event at Copper Mountain for the 2005 Winter Gravity Games. The wind stopped his rotation mid-backflip and he crashed on the knuckle of the hardpacked landing, upside down, the weight of his 500-pound sled breaking his collarbone but sparing him any life-threatening injuries.
With the X Games approaching, however, he overcame whatever fears lingered and began going inverted again. Both he and Frisby agree: a backflip alone won’t win the $15,000 first prize ” the biggest in the sport’s history ” but you won’t be able to triumph without one.
“To win X Games,” said Frisby, 22, a 5-foot-8, 154-pounder in his first year as a Red Bull athlete, “you need to put a big trick on every jump and you need to do flip variations.”
In Frisby’s case, “variations” will likely include a one-handed, perhaps even no-handed backflip, as well as his patented “side show,” a one-handed seat grab. Those tricks should put him right in the mix along with, among others, Kremmling’s Chris Burandt, Wisconsin rider Justin Hoyer and Quinlan.
Quinlan, also a Red Bull-sponsored athlete, said he constructed the training grounds at the end of Tiger Road ” by borrowing a dumptruck (Aichholz Excavation), front-end loader (Stan Miller Construction) and grooming cat (Good Times Adventures) from friends in the county ” primarily because he wanted Frisby, with whom he has been friends since Heath was 13, to have a secluded place to train.
“There’s no way I can beat him,” Quinlan said of the popular gold medal pick, laughing at the very prospect. “This has never been my forte, but that’s all he does, it’s all he wants to do.”
Winter X director of sports and competition Tim Reed, who played an integral role in getting the freestyle snowmobilers included, believes that regardless of who wins, the riders will wow ESPN audiences like few events in the 10-year history of Winter X.
“We’re going to show people and viewers something they’ve never seen before,” he said.
Crazy, mesmerizing, almost unbelievable. The freestylers are a spectacle to behold, indeed. Perhaps the only thing this X Games exposure won’t do is legitimize the sport ” a battle they’ve fought for more than a decade.
“We’ve already proven ourselves,” Frisby said, “and that’s why we’re there, ya know?”
Devon O’Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-4633, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.