By David MacKinnon
On March 11th, the Freeride World Qualifier Wrangle the Chute went off at Kicking Horse, BC. Along with qualifying events at Revelstoke, Red Mountain, and Crystal Mountain in Washington, Wrangle the Chute is among the best opportunities for riders in Canada to compete in a big mountain contest, and earn points towards a spot on the Freeride World Tour.
Wrangle the Chute has drawn the participation of interior BC riders for years, with the top names in the rankings often including powder highway locals like Chris Shook and Ave Perry, and past winners such as Jonathan Penfield going on to compete in the Freeride World Tour. This year’s Wrangle, though marred by inconsistent weather, saw the same excitement, fun, and raucous riding we’ve come to expect from the event.
In the 2-star contest, Mathieu Martineau and Anne-Fred Grenier took the top spots. Martineau, originally from Lyster, QC now lives in Golden BC, and calls Kicking Horse his home mountain. Grenier, also from Quebec, currently lives in Whistler. In the 4-star, the winners were Michelle Locke of St. John’s, NF and Rimouski, QC’s Mikael Houde-Poirer.
“To be honest, I had no idea where I stood, so I was really surprised,” said Grenier of her win, “I’m still learning how things are judged and from the top I couldn’t really see the other girls’ runs. I was the last to drop, I knew a couple girls had falls but that was it.”
2-star winners earned starts in the 4-star event. On competing in the advanced category, Grenier said, “I took a bit more risk and it definitely didn’t work out in my favour. I learned that in a two-day contest, I better keep it on the conservative side for qualifications.” 4-star winner Michelle Locke, who has competed on the World Tour in the past, has nine years experience riding in freeride competitions. She is trying to re-qualify for the World Tour; tomorrow the last event of her season, the Crystal FWQ 4-star in Washington, begins. “I’m currently first on the overall FWQ ranking for the Americas,” she said, “… they only take one female from Region 1 [Europe Oceania] and one from the rest of the world.”
This season, Snowboard Canada has been interested in the relevance of competitive freeriding to Canadian snowboarders. With the long-term success of Wrangle the Chute (annual since 2009), we looked at the event as the height of amateur freeriding competition in Canada. Wrangle was well-attended, with locals and visiting friends and family coming out to watch their favourite riders despite less-than-ideal weather. Martineau’s brother was in the crowd, as were friends of Grenier’s from Whistler. The event after-party, featuring stoke-folk heroes Shred Kelly, went off, giving the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort Lodge a regular small-town festival vibe.
We asked the winners about their goals on the FWQ circuit, curious how high the aspirations of our grassroots competitors reach. For some, motivation was tied to continued personal progression. “I think it’s just a reason to keep on pushing in my sport and compare myself to other riders around the world. It’s also a good way to travel and meet other passionate snowboarders,” said Houde-Poirer. Locke was focused on a more definitive goal. “My goal is to ride the World’s biggest faces with the best freeriders on the planet… And, do well on the tour and hopefully win the title.” She added, “I look up to freeriders who can push each other in a safe and friendly manner.” Grenier, new to freeriding, had a 10-year competitive streak in halfpipe and slopestyle. She wasn’t sure where competing in the new discipline might take her, saying “Freeriding has always been what I look up to… moving to Whistler, I thought maybe I should give it a shot.” She went on, “I don’t have much experience in big mountains as I was always hitting the park [when I travelled]. With the turn of this season, I really feel like committing next year to enter more events.”
To further gauge the temperature on freeride competition in Canada, we spoke to Snowboard Canada contributor and big mountain guru Joe Lax. Though he never competed as a freerider, he has considered the idea. “Back in the early 2000s there was a World Tour stop on Blackcomb, but it was a ski only event. At the time I would have like to have competed. A lot of the lines I still hit today on the hill are the ones I saw skied in those events. Lots of my skier buddies were competing, and were some of the best on the tour at the time. A friend of mine won the Tour a couple times and is now one of the FWT head judges (Hugo Harrison).” When asked if he considers competing today, Lax said, “I’m not really motivated to travel somewhere for an event. If there were a local event again I’d consider it. That said– if the conditions are bad or it’s in a tracked out venue, I would have no interest. The skiers have the advantage when conditions aren’t great– they can still ski fast and hit large airs to hard pack. Snowboarding is different– it doesn’t look good when the conditions are bad, lots of butt-checks and sliding out, and generally not riding as fast. Add good snow and vis, the snowboarding events can be pretty cool. It’s at those times the sport gets pushed.”
On general Freeride World Tour spectatorship, Lax continued, “I don’t think the average snowboarder understands what goes into it, especially when the riders are putting together super tech runs where they need to memorize exactly where they are on the face. I think a lot of people think they could do the same thing, but have no idea what goes into putting together a fluid line. Lining up blind rollovers and airs while maintaining speed takes skill. But if you like snowboarding on mountains, I think it can be pretty cool to watch for anyone.”
Lax added, “In Canada, most of our best big mountain riders are content just doing their own thing. But it would be cool to see more representation from Canada on the World Tour. I feel it brings an awareness to this aspect of the sport to a larger audience.”
The competitive freeride season continues today with the Crystal FWQ and the Haines FWT stops. Visit www.freerideworldtour.com for a live stream of the Haines competition, aimed to start today at 9:45 PT conditions allowing. In Haines, the final cut will be made for the Tour finals at the Verbier Extreme in Switzerland.