Seeing as I was in the neighbourhood...
But seriously - given that the 2009 World Cup Skicross Final was being held in La Plagne and I had just returned to the Tarentaise Valley after an action-packed stint down south in La Grave, it seemed fitting that I drop in to this monster French resort to cheer on the Sea-to-Sky athletes in their last big event of the season. And I'm happy I did.
There's no doubt about it anymore: skicross has come of age. Once the bastard child of skiing, this rock 'em, sock 'em snowsport event has become a definite crowd pleaser. Fast, technical, strategic - and hugely entertaining even to the uninitiated - skicross is to alpine skiing what stock car racing is to Formula One. And the steep, demanding slope of La Plagne's Jean Luc Cretier Slalom Stadium provided just the right venue to thoroughly test the mettle of the world's best skicrossers last Friday.
"There's so much going on in this kind of racing," says rookie national team coach Willy Raine. The former technical director at the Whistler Mountain Ski Club, Raine made the jump from alpine to skicross earlier this year. "So much of this sport is new to me," he explains. "I mean, I can teach racers how to make a better turn and stuff. But knowing when to pass, or how to protect a lead or even how to manage a triple jump when there are three other guys breathing down your neck - a lot of that is instinctual. I mean, these guys and gals are hugely talented. I shake my head in wonder all the time..."
I caught up to Raine just before the start of the race. One of the calmest, most down-to-earth people I know in the ski business, this second generation coach (his dad Al virtually launched professional ski coaching in Canada back in the 1960s) is being hailed as a great addition to what was already a very powerful skicross squad.
"Willy and I ski raced together in college in Colorado," explains head coach Eric Archer. "So we already knew each other pretty well." A tough-talking, highly competitive former skicross champion from Vail, Archer doesn't suffer fools. And he admits to getting hot under the collar from time-to-time. "That's why it's so nice to have Willy around. Whereas I can get a little angry when things go sideways, he just stays smooth. I think that combo is really good for our athletes."
It's a sentiment shared by the racers too. "He's one of the best things that's happened to our team yet," asserts veteran Davey Barr of Squamish. "It was really good to get someone working with us that we could trust from the get-go. Willy has everybody's respect. We know he's there for the right reasons."
Whatever it is - however the combination works - it's amply evident that the Canadian skicross team has thrived this year. "We've got so many top-rated skiers right now," that our training sessions are often just as intense as an actual race," says Raine. "Think about it: we have seven guys in the finals today, by far the biggest team representation. And there's a lot of experience there too. Whether it's Davey Barr or Stan Hayer or Chris Del Bosco, these guys know what it feels like to be on the top step of the podium." He pauses for a second. "The great thing about it right now is the atmosphere on the team. We're here for one thing, and that's to win races. But that doesn't mean we can't have fun winning together."
Because men and women race on the same course (that may sound trite at first glance, but it's a hugely demanding commitment on the part of the women), Raine explains that the Canadian men often lead their female counterparts down the course in training. "You have no idea how fast you can go until you follow someone else going faster," he says. "For Julia Murray or Ashleigh McIvor to follow Barr or Hayer down the hill, it's a valuable way to train. A lot of it is subliminal, of course. But I know that experience pays big dividends on race day."
No question. Just ask newly crowned World Champion McIvor. Coming off knee surgery last season, the long-legged Whistlerite stormed back onto the circuit this year and hit her form just in time to win the biggest race of her career. "We've got a great vibe going on right now," she tells me in La Plagne. And though she isn't at her best there - the long racing season has finally gotten to her knees, "With the adrenaline of being in the start gate I can usually forget the pain," she says, "but today they just wouldn't stop hurting." - McIvor knows just how much of a team effort is required to be successful in this sport. "It's all about working together," she explains. "You can't just go out and win a skicross race on your own anymore. It's gotten way too competitive for that. There's so much going on - I'm learning all the time: from my teammates, from my coaches. That's why I think we've done so well this year."
And that tight team spirit is becoming apparent to onlookers as well. Brent McIvor, who is on hand in La Plagne to cheer on his daughter, is all smiles. "Aren't these kids great," he tells me. "I mean, I've been watching how they interact together all week. Sure, they're serious about racing and stuff, but they're also having a lot of fun together. I just think it's marvellous." Proud dad of course, but his comments are bang on. This is a team on a mission...
The race in La Plagne, however, turns out to be a tough one. The course is long, steep and fast and the light turns so flat that "you don't see the ruts until you're right on top of them," says Barr. And it shows. Crashes are numerous - and spectacular. No one is assured of a spot in the finals.
One of the more harrowing collisions happens in the women's semi-final heats. Squamish resident and multi X-Games champion, Aleisha Cline, has never been one to back down from a challenge. On the comeback trail after a five-year hiatus from skicross to start a family, Aleisha already served notice of her Olympic intentions last month when she won the pre-Games test event in Cypress. "It's been quite a year," she tells me before the La Plagne race. "I really didn't know how things would go. Didn't know if I still had that racer instinct in me anymore." She pauses. Laughs. "I guess I know now..."
On this day, her challenger is Austria's Katharina Gutensohn, a former alpine World Cup star and one of the more prickly riders on the circuit. Tangled together on a very technical section of the course and battling for that coveted final spot, neither woman gives way to the other. The outcome is obvious. Both go tumbling head over heels into the nets in a very nasty fall. "Gutensohn's notorious for her aggressive tactics," says Cline when she finally makes it to the bottom of the course. "There's no way I was going to let her get by me." Another burst of laughter. "After we fell, she started screaming at me. I just looked at her and said: 'I don't understand a word you're saying,' and skied away."
Vintage Cline. As is her next move.
Somehow (I really don't know how she manages), the X-Games veteran goes back up the hill nursing a bruised shoulder, sore arm and questionable thumb - and wins the consolation finals! Now coming fifth at the World Cup Finals might not sound like that big a deal as you sit in your comfy sofa reading this missive back in Whistler, but being there on the hill watching these warriors go at it, I can tell you: Cline's performance is mighty impressive. "I'm happy with my season," she tells me later as she tries to figure out which part of her body needs ice the most. "It's been a long, gruelling campaign. I'm totally beat and really looking forward to getting home. But I think I made my point."
As has Davey Barr of course. Definitely not one of the bigger guys on the circuit, Barr makes up for it with near-perfect technique and a surprisingly high degree of intensity. But the 2008-09 campaign isn't at all what he expected. Injured earlier in the season, Barr has had to fight his way back into the top group hampered by a weakened shoulder that won't let him get out of the start gate with the power he needs. "I've had to learn how to come from behind and pass better this year," he says with that self-deprecating grin of his. He pauses. "So I guess my injury has turned out to a good thing..."
While a disappointing semi-final heat sees him relegated to the consolation final as well, Barr refuses to let up. He comes charging back in the final race and like teammate Cline, finishes the World Cup season on a high. "Coming fifth isn't like winning," he says. "But it's a lot better than coming in sixth or seventh." Another ear-to-ear grin. "But really, I'm happy with the way I'm skiing. It's been a tough year - this is a nice way to end it..."
Although none of the Whistler contingent will reach the podium this time, teammates Stanley Hayer of Kimberley and rookie-of-the-year Kelsey Serwa of Calgary will both keep the team spirit alive with inspiring second place finishes. Combined with the double fifths, it's good enough to put the Canucks over the top and into first place overall for freestyle's Nations Cup. As the whole crew - coaches, techs, racers and physios - poses for pictures atop the podium, Brent McIvor, beer in hand, slips over to my side. "What a great sight," he drawls. "I'm so proud of those kids. They've all worked so hard this season. And you know, they've done so much with so little."
I couldn't have put it any better myself...