Before rummaging through my backpack at the security checkpoint on
Jan. 30, the first morning of the Winter X Games, a cop posed
this question: "Alcoholic beverages?" I told him thanks but no
thanks, I'd wait till lunchtime.
The truth was, you didn't need beers to catch a buzz at these,
the seventh Winter X Games, held at Aspen's Buttermilk Mountain.
All you had to do was head over to the SnoCross venue and breathe
SnoCross--not to be confused with UltraCross, HillCross or Irv
Cross--is a race of modified snowmobiles over a course featuring
numerous bumps and jumps. I'll admit, on that first morning my
initial attitude toward this "sport" was in need of substantial
modification. What, I wondered, could be enjoyable about watching
a bunch of cacophonous contraptions put enough exhaust in the air
to stupefy a fair-sized reggae festival?
That was before I saw any of the guys come hurtling off the
monster jump at the end of the first lap--the one that threw them
125 feet out and three stories high. It was before the kids'
race, when seven-year-old Cody Hoffman of Basalt, Colo., went
over a berm and scattered a row of metal jack stands before
righting his sled and finishing his heat. It was before the
SnoCross final, which saw Blair Morgan roar from the back of the
10-snowmobile pack, trade paint with archrival Tucker Hibbert and
dramatically take the gold.
It was loud, it was noxious, it could not have been more
anomalous at this once-tranquil resort, renowned for its elevated
environmental consciousness. It was also pretty freakin' cool.
The suits at ABC agree. Wide World of Sports kicked off its Feb.
2 telecast not with snowboarding but with Moto X Big
Air--half-sane gents on spiked-tire motorcycles doing backflips
in the snow. Truth is, these machines and the characters clinging
to them have stolen the thunder from the Games' more
"traditional" sports. While snowboarder and hometown favorite
Gretchen Bleiler warmed hearts by winning the women's SuperPipe
and 16-year-old freckle-faced wunderkind Shaun White foretold his
brilliant future by taking gold in SuperPipe and Slopestyle, the
largest, loudest crowds at Buttermilk--this convert
included--gathered around events involving combustion engines.
Sledheads thronged to Buttermilk by the thousands, transforming
this sedate ski resort into NASCAR-by-the-chair-lift. They were
easily distinguishable by their mullets and Day-Glo jackets
featuring, for instance, checkered flags in a field of
smacked-ass red (Polaris), or tongues of flame in a sea of vomit
green (Arctic Cat).
Of course, the jackets are loud for safety reasons. "When you're
riding one of those machines," says Danny Kass, the 2002 Olympic
snowboarding silver medalist in the halfpipe, who took second in
the SuperPipe in Aspen, "it's not like you want to blend in with
the scenery." Kass should know. He's one of a host of
snowboarders who use snowmobiles to seek out untracked powder and
promising cliffs in the backcountry. "It's fun," says Kass of
snowmobiling, "but I wouldn't want to be going over those jumps
with [nine] guys around me."
Thus did the king of the Kasserole (a 720-degree spin while
grabbing the board) put his finger on the appeal of
engine-powered X Games sports. While Kass and his ilk risk injury
in the pipe, the guys sailing 40 feet in the air astride growling
machines are taking risks far graver. "We're flirting with
death," says Brian Deegan, the frontman for the Metal Mulisha, a
group of hard-core freestyle motorcycle riders.
With roguish charm Deegan recalled his days as a "privateer" in
supercross, the more buttoned-down brand of motorbike racing from
which freestyle splintered. Six years ago, on a motorcycle he had
bought off a showroom floor, Deegan won a supercross event at the
L.A. Coliseum. As he reached the finish line, he recalls, "I just
threw my bike and flipped everyone off." Not long after, he got
into freestyle full time. "Me and Metzger started the sport," he
Mike Metzger, a.k.a. the Godfather, made history last year by
landing consecutive backflips in a freestyle routine. "Now," he
says, "old ladies ask for my autograph in grocery stores." When
the Godfather stuck a no-footed backflip to nail down the gold in
the Big Air final, the most boisterous crowd of the weekend went
off. Yeah, those fans could've been up the hill, watching
something called Ski SuperPipe. But at these Games, Big Air was
where the buzz was. In spite of myself, I caught it.
The next SI Adventure will appear in the March 17 issue.
COLOR PHOTO: MARKUS PAULSEN/SHAZAAM/ESPN FLIGHT RISK Metzger, who has stuck backflips in competition, struck gold at Buttermilk.
"Now," says X Games rider Metzger, "OLD LADIES ASK FOR MY
AUTOGRAPH in grocery stores."