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Ice Cross Downhill

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The ghosts of Ted Williams and Babe Ruth must have been scratching their heads in bewilderment. Four at a time, competitors raced down the icy Fenway Park track, reaching speeds in excess of 80 kph, making hairpin turns, flying off jumps and ultimately sliding past the finish line at home plate. By quarter past nine, the original field of 64 racers had been mercilessly and methodically stripped down as the slowest two racers in each heat were eliminated until only four remained. These four had to, once again, climb the seven stories of stairs built into the scaffolding. Their already tired legs from the previous four heats must have been burning before they took their marks. As they did, they gazed out at the historic Fenway bleachers and visualized their route down the track.

Since its opening, four days after the sinking of HMS Titanic in April of 1912, Fenway Park, the legendary home of the Red Sox, has played host to presidential speeches, rock concerts, a hockey game and the breaking of Babe's curse—but it had never seen anything like this. On the night of Saturday, February 8, from atop the right-field grandstand, athletes on skates hurled themselves down a monstrous ice track that dwarfed that other resident monster in left field. The track stood seven stories high at the starting gate—almost twice the height of the 11.3-meter Green Monster—and stretched 350 meters from starting gate to finish line. Fifty-four workers took six weeks to complete the construction, only slightly shorter than the time took it to construct the entire ballpark back in 1912. A massive scaffolding frame using 9,000 steel poles supported 640 sheets of plywood making up the base of the track, which was lined with 18 kilometres of 15-centimetre wide cooling mats used to chill the racing surface. Water was then layered on to achieve a 15-centimetre thick sheet of ice. Chest high plexiglass boards ran along the length of both sides of the track adorned with sponsorship signs and neon lights that alternated colours and glistened off the ice. The track itself was a spectacle to behold for the 15,000 fans in attendance that night. Its size, along with its modernity and transience, made it feel like an imposing intruder within the classic and timeless charm that radiates out of every red brick in Fenway.

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In the far-left hand start gate, Frenchman Tristan Dugerdil was a bit of a surprise presence to the other finalists—having only occasionally made it through to a final since he began competing back in 2013—but he had earned his spot this night. He wore a white motocross helmet with sponsorship decals and ski goggles, blue socks, red hockey pants and a primarily white jersey with bits of blue and red resembling a reconstructed French flag—also speckled with French company sponsor names. An odd look to those not familiar with the sport but actually rather typical attire. In the far right-hand gate Luca Dallago wore ski goggles under a regular hockey helmet. He was black from the waist down with a yellow and baby blue jersey that matched that of his older brother, Marcos. Dallago was a familiar name in the finals. His older brother had amassed the highest ranking points to capture the overall world championship back in 2014, and both of the Austrian brothers had won races and been contenders for the world championship title for several years. This year was no different. Next to him was Minnesota native Cameron Naasz, all in black with thick red stripes. His motocross helmet was wrapped in a sticker of the American flag, and his face guard and mirrored goggles completely obstructed any sight of his face. He looks fast, and he is. Nassz won back-to-back world championships in 2016 and 2017, but his run was interrupted in 2018 by his good friend and top rival Scott Croxall, who took his mark in the gate next to him. The defending world champion was also in black with a large white crest on his chest that read Team LTD, the clothing brand he had started back home in Port Credit, Ontario. Croxall wore a hockey helmet with a cage, his face exposed. When the camera focused in on him in the starting gate, the nerves slowly began to overcome his typically stoic demeanor, transforming his face until his teeth were so tightly clenched, and brow pulled so far down that it looked as if his skeleton was going to jump out of his body. Dugerdil, Dallago, Naasz, and Croxall shake out their legs as they are announced.

"Riders ready," the announcer boomed over the loudspeakers. The four racers dig their skates into the ice to ensure a seamless transfer of power. They reach forward and grab the handles to either side of their start gate.

 

The sport of ice cross downhill has steadily grown in popularity since 2001, when the inaugural Red Bull sponsored event was held in Stockholm's fish market. This extreme sport—a hybrid of hockey, ski cross, and speed skating—is aptly, given its propensity for hard falls, called Crashed Ice. Few people, except for close friends and families, realize the length Crashed Ice competitors go to best their rivals. The sport now has hundreds of participants worldwide, yet it is dominated by just a few athletes. The reason why one small group has been able to separate itself from the pack is difficult to pinpoint. In such a young game, a proven blueprint for success does not exist; victory depends on athletes' ability to forge their own. 

 

Jasper Felder, a Swedish downhill skier and ice ball player— a hockey-type sport played with a ball—won the first Crashed Ice race in 2001. He also won the next event later that winter in Klagenfurt, Austria, and followed that up by winning the first North American races in Duluth, Minnesota during the winters of 2003 and 2004. This tradition of one-off races continued for the next few years in Moscow, Prague, Quebec City, and Davos, Switzerland—most of them won by Felder, the first athlete to dominate the sport.

Ice cross downhill transformed into its current form in the 2010–2011 season, when the World Championships began. Athletes were awarded ranking points at each race, which were tallied through the season. Finland's Arttu Pihlainen became the sport's first world champion, while Scott's older brother Kyle Croxall took the runner-up spot. This also marked the first of the sport's compelling rivalries. The following year it was Kyle that took the top spot with Pihlained finishing runner-up. The two combined to win seven of eight races over those two years. Pihlained retired the following year, and the Dallago brothers, Croxall brothers and Cameron Naasz would go on to collectively dominate the sport, trading race wins and world champion titles. This oligopoly produced strong rivalries, some brotherly, some friendly and others ugly and bitter.

Top athletes in most sports are products of a development system that has been tried, tested and improved upon for decades, even centuries. It is rare and often frowned upon to break these molds and upset paradigms in established major sports. Traditions run deep, and it takes audacity to try to up-end the status quo as Jacques Plante did with his goalie mask, Billy Beane did with baseball analytics, and Steph Curry did by emphasizing the three-point shot. This is not the case with ice cross downhill. It is a sport full of would-be Plantes, Beanes and Currys; indeed, innovation is the only way to compete. It is this creative spirit, along with adopting strategies from other sports and athletes, that makes it so exciting, yet few are aware of the race to innovate that happens well before the race itself.        

The Fenway race is the sixth of nine races in seven different countries during the 2018–19 season. It is exciting not only as a spectacle, as the first of its kind to take place inside a stadium, but also in terms of the world rankings. Luca Dallago was in seventh place before the Fenway race, having won a smaller event in Judenburg, Austria and made it on the podium with a third-place finish in Jyväskylä, Finland. Cameron Naasz sat in fourth after winning the first race of the season in Yokohama, Japan but then dropping back after falling in Jyväskylä. The defending World Champion Scott Croxall was in third place after posting a series of top-ten finishes and a second-place finish in St. Petersburg, Russia. Kyle Croxall sat in first place, having posted consistent results all season which included a second-place finish in Yokohama and a win in the Jyväskylä race. Earlier in the night at Fenway, in the round of 32, it appeared that Kyle Croxall had managed to get the lead off the start and would use his six-foot-two, 220-pound frame to block anyone from passing him, as he had done so many times in his career. However, his plan was spoiled when his skates got tangled up with Tristan Dugerdil's, sending them both sprawling to the ice surface. By the time the two had regained their feet, the gap between them and the two racers who avoided the crash was too great. Croxall's early elimination meant the opportunity for the Fenway finalist to take the lead in World Championship points.

"Five-second warning," the announcer says. Fifteen thousand people fall silent listening in anticipation for the starting horn. The four racers crouch down into a loaded position readying themselves to spring forward out of the gate in front of them.

"The race is often won and lost with the start," says Croxall. Races are short and offer few opportunities to pass and just one mishap can end your night. The best way to avoid falls is to get out in front where you can play it safe and avoid collations with the other racers. "But when you're behind you need to play catch up, you need to pick your spots on where to play it safe and where to give it all you've got and make your move." Miss the right spot and you will never catch up - pick the wrong spot, and you will crash.

The 350-metre Fenway track is traversed by the fastest skaters in 32 seconds flat, and the start takes only one. One second for the racers to take four quick strides. By second number two, the track drops to a steep dive, and the racers must glide to maintain balance. Those four strides generate all the power and speed needed to propel themselves to the front of the pack and gain a huge advantage. As the final four racers listen for the starting horn, all they can do is trust that they have trained hard enough and that their legs are ready to give them those four quick strides.

The horn sounds. The gates swing open. The crowd roars.

The World Tour

On a sunny February day in Burlington, Ontario, Kyle Croxall enters Wave Twin Rinks hockey arena with his Australian Shepard puppy Hunter and a gym bag slung over his shoulder. He walks past the hockey rink and upstairs to a small room called the Skating Lab. Inside is a bizarre apparatus—a skating treadmill. This state-of-the-art training tool is one of a handful in the world. It is the brainchild of Brock University professor Dr. Kelly L. Lockwood, who specializes in high-performance sport-training adaptations and the biomechanics of skating. Her treadmill is specially equipped with synthetic ice and is programmable to simulate different skating intensities and intervals. "It allows us to adapt Kyle's and Scott's training for the demands of any given track they are racing on," says Rodney Winchester, who has trained the Croxall brothers since the beginning. The longer, flatter track, which the tour sometimes features, requires longer intervals of skating and more endurance. The steeper track requires a quick burst of power in short intervals. "We try to match our training plan with the demands of whatever the next race track requires," says Winchester. Initially, the training was slow and methodical. A camera on a delay focuses in on the treadmill, allowing Winchester to analyze the mechanics of the skating stride and make corrections to optimize efficiency. "Once we have the stride perfect, we can focus on conditioning."

Winchester turns his attention to the computer next to the treadmill. He cranks up the speed and shouts over the sound of the treadmill, which has amplified aggressively as the speed has increased to 18 miles per hour with a 10 per cent incline. "Are you ready?" he asks Croxall. Croxall, who knows the routine, nods. He is outfitted with a safety harness attached to the ceiling in case he is unable to keep up with the treadmill's frantic pace. He steps on and grasps the front bar, which allows him to coast along. His task is simple: to skate as hard as he can for as long as he can at this pace without breaking perfect skating form. Croxall lets go of the bar and breaks into powerful, quick strides, grimacing as he tries to keep up with the torrid pace for a few seconds. He grabs the bar to rest and coast. Then he lets go again, and again, and again. By the fifth go, his form is deteriorating from fatigue. Winchester waves him off the treadmill, saying, "That's all for today."           

As the horn sounds, Dugerdil, Dallago, Naasz and Scott Croxall explode out of the gates with four quick strides. When the track drops from underneath their skates, they leave the ice surface while leaning forward to match the descending pitch of the track. As their blades gain contact with the surface, they sneak in another quick couple of strides as the track abruptly flattens out, then drops even more steeply. Once again, they are airborne. They land, crouch low and glide to steady themselves for the first of several sharp 180-degree turns. The racers form up in single file to take the optimal tight line around the turn. Naasz's explosive start has pulled him slightly in front of Croxall in second, Dellago in third and Dugerdil in fourth. As they round the turn, they bank over, their skates digging deep into the ice. A cloud of snow lifts into the air.

The planning for this first turn—a pivotal feature of the track, where the order of the athletes following the start is first established—began many days earlier with athletes scouting the track. The Croxall brothers share scouting reports, brainstorming best lines to take, where to play it safe and where to look to pass. For Naasz, the scouting means picking out which custom skate blades to use for the race. He brings four sets of interchangeable custom-made titanium skate blades to every race. When Cameron first began racing in 2012, after receiving a wildcard pass from a friend who worked for Red Bull, he used regular hockey skates and equipment. The rounded profile of hockey skate blades is ideal for pivoting back to front and making sharp turns, but a flatter blade is much faster when gliding. These blades have a long flat side, allowing a greater surface area for the athlete to push with and keeps the blade from digging too deep into the ice and producing more friction. "You have to be innovative," says Nassz "We're setting the standard for what's to come. Athletes in the future who will use our techniques."

The downside of these blades is that they cannot be sharpened at just any hockey store. They require a diamond edged grinding wheel to cut and re-sharpen the titanium blades. Before race day, Naasz will inspect the track and look at the weather report to gauge how soft or how hard the ice is likely to be and then select one of his four sets of blades. Each is sharpened to a different degree and selected depending on the track conditions. At Fenway, the warm conditions during qualifiers meant softer ice and a duller blade that would not dig deep into the ice. The following night, race night, the temperature was minus four and required sharper blades that would cut deep enough into the ice surface and not skitter out on the sharp turns. "With experience," says Nassz, "you learn what blades are perfect for every ice condition."

The Dallago brothers did not have the same wealth of experience to draw on, so they got creative. In the forest of Weinetzen, Austria near their home they built a roller-skate track; first with by shaping the earth then adding wooden structures. It took almost an entire summer to construct the first track, and they would update it every off-season in an attempt to duplicate any new features they encountered the previous winter. "It feels almost exactly like being on the ice," says Luca Dallago. "It was on this practice track where I figured out how to be quick." 

As the finalists round the first turn, the track levels off for the next 20 meters, setting up a leg race as the athletes sprint towards the next set of features. Overtaking anyone at this stage is hard. Everyone is fast, and passing requires a longer route to get around the man ahead of you. After rounding the turn, the four racers confront the next feature—bends, bumps, jumps and upward ramps—each testing the racers’ skill. At this point, even a small mistake provides enough space for a pass. A fall will certainly knock you out of contention. The four racers maintain position as they streak down the track. They do not waver or stumble. Each finds his own way to propel momentum. 

   

The best athletes do not just maintain their balance on the challenging obstacles that upend many less experienced racers; they actually generate speed. This is one of the critical differences between the best in the word and the rest. In the right mental state, the obstacles are not pitfalls but opportunities. There is precious little practice time on Crashed Ice tracks. The tracks are temporary, constructed just for the events. Racers usually are only given a handful of runs in advance of the time trials to get used to the track and its features. Without much direct experience, the racers must try to recreate the experience in other ways. Hockey is the obvious one. Skating speed and balance is a necessity, but to be one of the fastest in the world requires more. Naasz grew up playing hockey but also racing BMX bikes, snowboarding, rollerblading and doing gymnastics. The other racers remember Naasz for his uncanny confidence even before he began winning races. He just knew he could be good at this sport that seemed tailor-made for his diverse skill set: racing savvy, air awareness and fluidity traversing the features - many of which mimicked the ones that he had ridden countless times at the skate park which  his mother owned when he was young. 

The greatest opportunity at Fenway presents itself as a dare to the racer who attempts to make a risky final effort to pass just before the finish line. As the track drops down onto Fenway's infield the athletes ride over a tall bump, constructed at second base, which then banks left past the pitcher's mound. Here the racers are confronted with a steep wedge at the final turn, before two smaller bumps and the final slide into the finish line at home plate. The wedge runs perpendicular to the track, starting low and ramping up high along the inside of the turn. A frontrunner can avoid the wedge all together by taking a wide route around this turn, but this leaves the shorter route over the high part of the wedge open for a last-second pass by someone behind. The wedge is so steep that to skate straight over it would buck a racer high into the air and cause him to lose speed. The only way to overcome this obstacle—and have a chance to pass—is it to leap over it, landing on the other side without touching it.

Apart from four strides that propelled each racer into place at the first turn, the racers have not changed position—until now, with the finish line in sight. Naasz, appreciating the speed of the three men close on his tail, does not play it safe. He cuts the corner and leaps over the low portion of the wedge landing flawlessly of the far side. Croxall eyes a line just inside that of Naasz's, hoping he can beat him to the line. The young Dellago eyes an even more ambitious line inside both the frontrunners, hugging the inside of the turn and attempting to leap over the highest part of the wedge.

The number-one rule for success in this sport is to stay on your feet. There are no second chances—one fall and it’s all over. All the fundraising, all the travel, all the training on that damn treadmill and those fancy titanium blades do not matter one bit if you cannot say on your feet. However, with one turn left and the world championship on the line, the time for playing it safe is over.

The risk of crashing naturally comes with a greater risk of injury. To shave seconds, the athletes have adapted their bulky hockey equipment to make it lighter, more streamlined and mobile. This comes at a price. The top athletes do not crash often, but when they do, it hurts. "If I wore more padding, I wouldn't be so sore after the falls, but I was pretty fucking fast before then, so that's more important" says Naasz. "It's part of our sport, you're going to fall, you're going to get banged up a little bit." However, the additional speed is not worth the risk if it opens you up to a race-ending or season-ending injury. "If you do crash you don't want to be injured for the weekend. That would take you out of the world championship in points," says Scott Croxall. "It's a fine line and I'm on the edge of it."

 

The fear of injury must be pushed into the cellar of the racers' minds as they hurdle the wedge and sprint to the finish line. Dallago's tight line around the inside of the corner and over the high part of the spine allows him to inch in front of Croxall, but it’s close. The leader, Naasz, was able to play it safer and smoothly hurdle the final features. As he slides by the finish line he drops down to a knee and drags his hand along the ice in celebration. Behind him, Dallago and Croxall also drop down to one knee but not in celebration, as they extend an outstretched skate to break the finish line before the man beside them. Dallago skate breaks it first stealing second place with Croxall now in third. Several of the other racers jump onto the ice at the finish line to join into Naasz's celebration. The Fenway race had an American champion and a new leader in the World Championship points race.

Athlete Profiles

Kyle Croxall

Nationality: Canadian

Age: 30

Wins: 9

Podiums: 36

World Champion: 2012

Scott Croxall

Nationality: Canadian

Age: 28

Wins: 7

Podiums: 32

World Champion: 2015, 2018

Cameron Naasz

Nationality: American

Age: 29

Wins: 17

Podiums: 28

World Champion: 2017, 2019

Luca Dallago

Nationality: Austrian

Age: 27

Wins: 4

Podiums: 7

Marco Dallago

Nationality: Austrian

Age: 28

Wins: 7

Podiums: 13

World Champion: 2014

Tristan Dugerdil

Nationality: French

Age: 26

Wins: 0

Podiums: 6

Naasz would go onto capture his third World Championship title after the last couple of smaller races in Minnesota and Quebec. However, the highlight of the year was the Fenway race. "It was epic, we have raced in some crazy places but that 100 per cent tops it all," says Croxall. "It's an unbelievable building with so much history. It was an unbelievable experience." The experience is what makes all the fundraising and training worth it for these athletes.  "We don't get paid much as athletes, says Naasz."So when we go on these trips, we like to enjoy it and view it as a travel experience and life experience as much as a sporting experience. Even though we want to do well and compete, we want to make sure it’s something we will remember when we're fifty years old, something we can tell our kids about how we had a kick-ass time ‘oh and by the way, I won the race too.'"

The success of the Fenway race may be a glimpse into the future of the sport as it proves the viability for stadiums to host races in front of thousands of spectators. Will this be the start of wide-spread appeal and legitimacy, taking the sport to new heights? Will it lead to more money and fame for racers? As the organizers continue to plan more races every year and grow the sport, it just might happen, but that day will come long after this generation of athletes. However, perhaps one-day fans of the sport will look back and marvel with wistful affection on this era, as baseball fans do the early years of Fenway. Perhaps the 2019 Fenway race will be seen to hold the same innocent, endless potential and nostalgic charm. Perhaps the names Croxall, Dallago, and Nassz will be heralded as the pioneers of the sport. Their influence, like apparitions, forever present... Or perhaps it will just be a good story.   

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