Three years after the 2006 Olympics, snowboarding found itself in a bit of a rut. The daredevils of the halfpipe seemed fresh out of good ideas for new tricks. Halfpipers had gone from 720-degree spins to 900s to 1080s, the holy grail of the Turin Games, but rotating like the propeller on a beanie had reached a point of diminishing returns. That reality was clear last January when Olympic champion Shaun White won the superpipe event at the Winter X Games in Aspen with the same tricks he'd been trotting out since '06. He edged runner-up Kevin Pearce with a spin-intensive run that broke zero new ground.
"Pearce got robbed.... His second run was redonk, way cooler than robot spins," opined one commenter on transworldsnowboarding.com. Wrote another, "White threw a stock run that shouldn't have even gotten eighth place." With the Vancouver Olympics a year away and even the sport's biggest star looking a tad stale, snowboarding was in need of a jolt: the Next Big Thing.
Ten months later that breakthrough is upon us. To oversimplify: The guys who will win medals in 2010 are now concentrating on off-axis spins—diagonal flips, if you will—called corks. Double-corks, and a host of variations on them, will be all the rage at the Olympic halfpipe at Cypress Mountain near Vancouver. Since the end of the'09 season, White and Pearce (and a few other international stars) have found a way to make those new tricks their own. The divergent paths by which they reached that goal are a story unto itself.
Residents of the remote mountain town of Silverton, Colo., thought nothing of the distant booms echoing off the 14,000-foot peaks of the San Juan Mountains last winter. Explosives are routinely used for avalanche control. The locals might have been surprised to learn, however, that many of those 25-pound charges were being detonated to drive massive amounts of snow into a backcountry bowl, where it would be bulldozed, shaped and cut into a 540-foot-long halfpipe for the private use of White, who had come to Silverton to escape his rut. There to assist him was his sponsor Red Bull, which picked up the tab for this top-secret training session, dubbed, without irony, Project X.
By jumping first into a foam pit that had been schlepped up the mountain, White was able to get the hang of those tricks before trying to land them in the pipe. Over six weeks last February and March he mastered, or came close to mastering, the front double cork ten, the switch back 900, the double back rodeo and the cab double cork ten. If he throws three of those in his final run at Vancouver, it's likely that he'll defend his gold medal.
Pearce also rated his own private halfpipe. It was built in June by Nike, one of his sponsors, which had asked how it could help him prepare for Vancouver. Just because Pearce's pipe was considerably shorter than White's, and he had to access it by Sno-Cat rather than by a helicopter emblazoned with the Red Bull logo, doesn't mean it was any less appreciated. The biggest difference between White's pipe in Silverton and Pearce's at Mammoth Mountain in California? Rather than keep it to himself, Pearce, a 22-year-old Vermonter, got on the phone and invited a bunch of friends—Frends, actually—to come on up and bring their boards.
About 2½ years ago Pearce and six of his boarding buddies dubbed themselves the Frends—the missing i denoting selflessness and sublimation of ego. They see themselves as an antidote to the cutthroat, corporate vibe creeping into their sport. In this way, and despite the youth of most of the Frends—Mason Aguirre is 22; Danny Davis, 21; Keir Dillon, 30; Scotty Lago, 22; Jack Mitrani, 20; and Luke Mitrani 19—they're old-school: living together on the road, supporting each other at contests, listening to bands whose heydays, for the most part, preceded the riders' dates of birth.
In truth they are a confederacy of cutups whose motto might as well be Boom, Roasted (borrowed from The Office), a crew bound together by a determination to make each other laugh as often as possible. The Frends like to say they came together "organically," rather than in direct response to, say, a dominant, ginger-haired multimillionaire rider with a tendency to Bogart media attention and sponsorship dollars. In a moment of candor last March, Pearce told The New York Times, "I feel the last couple years, Shaun has kind of dominated snowboarding. I think that people are getting sick of it, and they're getting sick of seeing him."
After recently admitting that he regretted the harshness of those comments—"That definitely came out the wrong way," says Pearce—he made the point more softly. "People love watching Shaun, and I think what he's done for our sport is amazing, but I also know that we're up there at the same level, doing the same s---, and we're not really seen for it."
The best way to be seen, he knows, will be to knock off the champ next February. Thus the private pipe.