To a celebrated snowboarder such as Seth Wescott, the race is a throwback to the most elementary of times.
“There is something wonderful about the simplicity of a course and clock,” he said. “No judges, no one else on the course, just a test of you and your snowboard riding ability.”
The two-time Olympic gold medaling boardercross rider is used to barreling down a feature-laden course in a pack of snowboarders at breakneck speeds.
It’s a race where snowboarders familiar with doing tricks in the parks and pipes don’t have to do any of that. Soft boots and flexible boards are preferred over the hard boots and long thin boards favored in parallel slalom and giant slalom.
During the old-school revival of the banked slalom, it’s just the rider, the course with banked turns and gates, and the clock.
Echoing a grassroots vibe found during the salad days of snowboarding, riders raced through gates in a more Alpine discipline, there’s a surge of upcoming regional banked slalom races at Stratton, Sugarloaf, Ragged, and Killington.
The Mt. Baker Legendary Banked Slalom in Washington State, held for the 29th time this season, is the grandfather of the race. Speed is king on the wavy course with its who’s who element too. Esteemed riders such as Shaun Palmer, Craig Kelly, Norway’s Terje Haakonsen, Canada’s Maelle Ricker, Nate Holland, Barrett Christy, and Wescott all have won.
Wescott, 37, first raced there as an up-and-comer in 1996, not doing all that well, he remembered. But he enjoys the low-key atmosphere and racing against his childhood idols.
“To race against Terje Haakonsen is such an honor,” said the 2013 winner. “What’s also interesting is that I see this as a reflection of how far I’ve been able to come in my career, to sit around and swap stories with my hero as a kid.”
Ross Powers is another legend showing up at regional banked slaloms. The 2002 Olympic halfpipe gold medalist won the first Sugarloaf Banked Slalom and took second in last year’s inaugural Vermont Open.
Now the Stratton Mountain School snowboard program director with World Cup boardercross experience, the native Vermonter plans to compete in the Open March 7-9 also featuring a rail jam, big air, halfpipe and some $20,000 in prize money. The event benefits the Ross Powers Foundation and Level Field Fund.
“I think all kinds of racers can do well in them — freestyle, boardercross, backcountry,” he said. “This shows you’re an all around snowboarder.”
Banked slalom (BSL) is an exhibition event this year for snowboarders in the United States of America Snowboard and Freeski Association, the organization that fosters the development of riding and freeskiing.
Both Stratton and Waterville Valley hosted USASA races last weekend.
“Nowadays the kids just want to start out in slopestyle and not do the kind of racing we did when we were younger,” said Powers, 35. “A banked slalom is a good way for them to learn about using their edges, and generate speed and pump that go hand in hand with competing. Get to the bottom the fastest and pick the right line.
This is a good way for them to get a lot of basic skills for whatever discipline they choose.”
Vermont Open co-organizer Scott Palmer, a former US Open competitor, says the event is more about fun and camaraderie. There’s even a class for “washed up” racers.
“I think these types of races have been well received because they combine all the components of what snowboarding is about. You see amateurs and pros compete and are also seeing families and friends,” he said.
Wescott, still about six months away from full recovery from an April knee injury that dashed his Sochi hopes , would like to see banked slaloms rise higher.
“Lately, we’ve been talking about seeing banked slaloms come to the World Cup level,” he said. “I think a few of us will be working behind the scenes to get it there.’’
But first there’s the course for the Sugarloaf Banked Slalom March 15-16. Wescott designs it, even riding shotgun in a snowcat for the few days leading to the race on Sidewinder, the same trail as the ‘cross course.
X Games silver boardercross finisher Alex Tuttle, a Carrabassett Valley Academy alum like Wescott, plans to be there. Powers has registered for the friendly rivalry.
The top notch riders like the mellow vibe, a far cry from the World Cup pressure cooker they live in. Amateurs rub elbows with them. For Wescott, it’s a chance to grow the sport, give back and allow for all levels of riders to participate together.
“There’s this really young brother and sister who come do it,” Wescott said. “I think she’s around 11 and he’s maybe seven. Watching this little guy ride is phenomenal. If he weighed more he could probably beat a whole lot of people in the age groups above him. There really is some amazing young talent.”
Organizers are expecting more than the 92 riders who showed up for the first Mike Baker Banked Slalom at Ragged Mountain in Danbury, N.H. last year. The grassroots March 14 event is named after the Bristol snowboarder who’s been competing for more than 20 years and has a prize purse that’s grown to $1,500 from $500.
“Mike is a staple in New Hampshire snowboarding,” said Ragged’s communications and events manager Jamie Cobbett. “He still rides as hard as kids a third his age.”
Killington’s Slash and Berm debuts March 15-16. A tad different, the race takes place in the Stash, a woodsy terrain park, and incorporates some of the features found there like the deck of a sugar shack. Plus, the event also has a four-person team race and benefits the Molly Fund, founded to help families with a child battling cancer and created in memory of Hampton, N.H. snowboarder Buck Rowlee’s daughter Molly lost to the disease.
Mike Garceau, the youth and actions sports marketing manager, calls it a “heritage event.”
He expects to see racers from Burton Snowboards, Darkside Snowboard Shop, and local youth.
“This puts banked slalom on a lot of kids’ radar,” he said. “The event is a way to give back to snowboarding and bring together the core of East Coast snowboarding without the stress of competition.”
And fastest time wins bragging rights.
Bank on it.