What it takes to create, and conquer, the ice cross downhill world championship. This is Red Bull Crashed Ice 2013.
1. BUILD A TRACK OUT OF ICE
The world’s most spectacular temporary race spaces.
Racing down a 547-yard-long halfpipe of ice at 37 mph, rounding hairpin turns, jumping over obstacles, rushing past -- or through, if you have to -- three competitors built like tanks, then finally skating over the finish line.
“I was damn nervous,” says Kilian Braun, recalling his first Red Bull Crashed Ice competition, four years ago. His appearance lasted 10 seconds. “I collapsed at the first jump. Game over.”
Things are different now. The 25-year-old Swiss skater is tipped for the title at the Red Bull Crashed Ice World Championship 2013. “I like this kind of fighting, man against man,” he says, “and that you have to engage your brain on the track.”
The brain behind the track for the first Crashed Ice tour stop, in Niagara Falls in Canada, is Christian Papillon. The 35-year-old Canadian, the championship’s sports director, had 50 workers spend three weeks putting together 5,000 steel girders and panels to create a competition venue 131 feet high and 503 yards long with an area of 285,243 square feet (about four soccer fields), covered with ice five times thicker than you’ll find on rinks used by the NHL.
For 99.9 percent of the world’s population, simply staying upright on skates along the track would be impossible. Papillon wanted to challenge the best ice cross downhill athletes in the world, so he’s strewn the track with obstacles named with understatement: “Kicker” (“It hurls you up into the air,” says Papillon), “Float Jumps” (“The trajectory the athletes get here is nice”) and “Step Ups” (“Essentially, they’re walls that suddenly spring up in front of them”).
Above: The course at Niagara Falls (waterfall in the background).
Is track-building an art form? “No,” says Papillon, “because here we’re building strictly to make competition.” And some competition it is: Red Bull Crashed Ice features groups of four skaters, each man ranging along a charm spectrum from wildcat to anti-tank vehicle, fighting it out in sudden-death races in five championship locations (see “Track by Track,” below) until the finals in Canada’s Quebec City.
This year, however, there is more than just one night of racing. The athletes also fight it out in team competitions on the evenings leading up to the finals: two three-man teams facing off on the track. In other words, six ice cross downhillers clashing in an ice canal about 14.7 feet wide, the same space as a medium-sized car.
Track by Track: Five frozen venues on the tour.
Niagara Falls, Canada
December 1, 2012
Track length: 503 yards
Elevation: 131 feet
Highlight: “4 Hits Bridge” in the midsection
Podium: 1. Kyle Croxall; 2. Cameron Naasz; 3. Kilian Braun
Saint Paul, Minnesota
January 26, 2013
Track length: 437 yards
Elevation: 131 feet
Highlight: “Pete’s Corner” in the midsection
February 9, 2013
Track length: 361 yards
Elevation: 230 feet
Premiere: First indoor race in Red Bull Crashed Ice history
March 2, 2013
Track length: 480 yards
Elevation: 164 feet
Highlight: “Spine Start”on the opening ramp
Quebec City, Canada
March 16, 2013
Track length: 547 yards
Elevation: 197 feet
Highlight: “Rollercoaster”in the midsection
Above: Kyle “The Tank” Croxall leads on the icy battlefield of Niagara Falls.
2. USE YOUR BODY
In which manners are left at the starting gate. Or the hotel.
When Kyle Croxall folds his arms across his chest, it makes you wonder how much bicep a T-shirt can endure. The reigning Red Bull Crashed Ice world champion could pass as a bodybuilder: At 6 feet tall and 213 pounds, his physique is right out of an anatomy textbook.
“You can’t get past Kyle,” say his opponents. “Of course I use my body,” says Croxall. The Canadian isn’t a big one for chit-chat. In interviews he gives the impression that he’d rather be thundering a puck past a goalie or abusing a leg press in the gym. “Ice cross downhill isn’t a hobby,” he says. “I train all year round.”
Croxall is a fireman in Calgary. Every evening he sweats it out with his colleagues in the weight room, all the while getting inspiration from his iPod: country from Luke Bryan to relax, rap-metal from Rage Against the Machine to get worked up. And yet, he says, “Before the race I relax. Too much adrenaline is bad for performance.”
The Croxalls are a sporting family. Kyle and younger brother Scott were streaking across their ice hockey field in the family’s yard as kids. Both are excellent water-skiers, on skis or barefoot. This combination puts them in good stead in Red Bull Crashed Ice: Kyle was world champion last year; Scott was third in the overall rankings.
And Kyle goes into the current season as favorite. His formula for success is physical dominance, six years’ Crashed Ice experience, and cast-iron confidence on skates.
What makes him better than the rest? “I want to win.” But everyone wants to win. “Then you have to want it more than the others.” It’s as simple as that? Kyle grins.
3. THINK LIKE NAPOLEON
How to prepare for an event you can’t prepare for.
Anyone taking part in Red Bull Crashed Ice has to confront a basic problem: How do you train for a sport whose track only exists for the duration of the competition?
Top American racer Cameron Naasz relies on asphalt. “I run inline-skate races against my friends,” he says. “We reach up to 34 mph and practice competitive situations.”
Fabien Mels, Germany’s best competitor, has a different methodology. “When I’m ice-skating, I pull an SUV tire behind me on a rope. That builds up the legs.”
A third way is practiced by Adam Horst of Canada. “We look for frozen lakes where the ice is as fragile as the track toward the end of the meet.”
All of the leading Red Bull Crashed Ice competitors have several years’ experience in ice hockey, some of them at a professional level. And there’s one more thing that helps: being a little bit nuts. “All of us are crazy in our own way,” says Naasz, a public relations major at St. Cloud University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before his first Crashed Ice race, he marched into his professor’s office and said, “I want to race against three maniacs in front of 100,000 fans down an ice canal. I need three days off.” The professor said yes.
On January 26, Naasz will race on his home turf in front of the Renaissance-style cathedral of St. Paul. Before the start of the race, he’ll retreat somewhere quiet, get out his MP3 player, and listen to motivational speeches through the headphones. Naasz’s favorite text comes from YouTube: Enter “2nd place motivational” in the search bar, and play the NHL video that comes up in the top position of the results. It’s only two minutes long, and it will likely push anyone out of their comfort zone.
The core message: “If you think second place ain’t such a bad deal, why don’t you ask Napoleon how he felt about coming in second at Waterloo?”
4. FALL LIKE A CHAMPION
How to land on your face and still come out on top.
Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, early December, the premiere of the Red Bull Crashed Ice World Championship 2013. The ice cross downhill track is a third of a mile from the world-famous waterfalls. Fantastic views for the spectators.
Not that the athletes in the start house care. They lunge in groups of four from the foot of the Skylon Tower, through the ice canal and toward the scenic route of the Niagara Parkway road, which winds alongside the River Niagara. In total, the icy course stretches for about 500 yards. After a series of sudden-death races in the competition proper, only the first two athletes placing in each group go into the next round.
The crowd roars: Canadian Shane Nuttley, in third place, dips to get his head across the line to steal second place, but he is still eliminated because it’s not the first helmet to cross the finish line that counts, but the first skate, and so he stays in third. What applies on a regular sprint track does not apply here.
Shortly after 10 p.m., the best four meet in the final. Reigning champ Kyle Croxall maneuvers with the aggression of a tank to move from fourth to first. As early as the starting ramp, he swoops around his fallen countryman, Adam Horst. In the midsection Croxall also falls flat on his face but gets up and crawls over Kilian Braun, who is lying on the ice. The Swiss can only stare in bewilderment as Croxall sprints away again.
“That’s what it’s all about,” says sports director Papillon, before adding a tip for spectators. “Watch very closely what the competitors do when they fall. Winners pick themselves up straight away and hardly lose speed; others fall again immediately afterward because they’re so nervous.”
After his spill, Croxall has American ace Naasz in his sights. Croxall waits until a 90-degree right-hand bend, then strikes like lightning: fast switch to the inside, shoulder outward. Four seconds of power skating, and Naasz doesn’t stand a chance. Croxall crosses the line. Victory.
Check out the February 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands January 15) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.