When Richard “Crusher” Wilkinson began working at Sugarloaf 28 years ago, there were few outlets for thrill-seekers, and some serious consequences for those who pushed the boundaries of what mountain managers deemed appropriate.
“If the ski patrol saw you get any air, they pulled your ticket,” said Wilkinson, who now serves as Sugarloaf’s mountain operations manager. “That’s where we came from.”
And this is where we are: A week ago, Sugarloaf unveiled its latest attraction for those who love to careen down mountains, jump … and sometimes crash.
They call it “Sidewinder,” and it’s a permanent snowboard cross course full of jumps, banked corners and other features that have helped make the event popular, both for snowboarders and skiers.
Snowboard cross will be joined in the Olympics by skier cross at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
The sports borrow elements from the hectic nature of roller derby and the high-speed thrills of motocross, as four competitors hurtle down a banked course, making their way over jumps and obstacles (including each other) on their way to the finish.
Seth Wescott of Farmington, a Sugarloafer who is best known for winning the first Olympic gold medal in snowboard cross, or SBX, helped develop and design the course and is proud of the steps his home mountain has taken to build a permanent SBX course.
“When I got involved in SBX there were no ways to train except at the events on tour,” Wescott explained via e-mail from Bad Gastein, Austria, where he is preparing for today’s FIS World Cup event.
“The building of a cross course is so time- and resource-intensive that it really takes a massive commitment from a ski area to get one going, and back in the day that never happened except at the areas that were hosting pro or amateur events,” Wescott wrote. “Usually the courses would be taken down shortly after the events, leaving no real chance for locals to ever get involved.”
For an athlete looking to advance in his chosen sport, that was frustrating for Wescott.
“The real motivation for creating this at Sugarloaf is just part of my long-term plan of creating better park and pipe facilities for future generations,” Wescott wrote. “This was one of three major projects at The ’Loaf this year: The re-excavation of the super pipe site we created in ’05, the expansion of the Haywire trail into the existing park, and the SBX course.”
Wilkinson said when he began working at the resort, the focus was on providing a smooth, predicable surface for visitors.
“I spent a lot of my early career grooming [trails], and we wouldn’t open a trail unless it was flat,” he said. “Now we’re out there grooming features.”
Not only grooming them but creating them, from the ground up.
Ethan Austin, Sugarloaf’s communications manager, said work on the Sidewinder course actually began during the summer.
“We took a bulldozer in and built some banked turns so that it would take less snow to build them [during the winter],” Austin said. “And it will be an ongoing project next year.”
Sidewinder isn’t just a snowboard cross course, Austin pointed out: Skiers are also welcome.
“It’s too much of a mouthful to say ‘the Sidewinder snowboard cross and skier cross course,’” Austin said. “But it’s definitely for skiers and riders.”
Austin said the course is a few hundred yards long, and takes a minute and a half or two minutes to complete … if you’re up to completing it.
For now, he terms it a “very intermediate-level course,” as SBX courses go. That still means, however, that people who venture into Sidewinder should know what they’re in for.
“We want the general public — people with advanced skills as skiers or riders — to use it,” he said.
Wescott spent part of his holiday break riding with groomers as they finished up the course and has been involved with the process from the beginning. He also led riders down the course during last week’s grand opening. Austin said Wescott’s expertise was essential.
“Him being a professional athlete in the sport, he has a really good idea what size the features should be and how much speed you should carry into each,” Austin said.
Wilkinson said Sugarloaf’s attitude toward terrain parks and features changed in large part to the efforts of people like Wescott, who were attending Carrabassett Valley Academy.
“It started evolving in the early ’90s, when these kids like Wescott that were down at CVA were being exposed to the new venues in different competitions and some of the bigger areas out west, or even internationally,” Wilkinson said. “They started coming back here and asking for the same things.”
And Sugarloaf’s managers listened.
“I think our first half pipe was a 10-foot-high half pipe out on The Landing that we cut with a John Deere excavator, some time in ’91 or ’92,” Wilkinson said. “We just added more every year.”
Wescott said the fact that the course is permanent — and not just set up before a competition, then torn down after athletes leave town — is important.
“I believe we are one of four [resorts] in the nation [with a permanent SBX course], so it is a great step forward for Sugarloaf,” he wrote.
CVA athletes and others will be able to train on the course, and future competitions will be staged on the existing Sidewinder footprint, with some tinkering done to beef it up a bit, Austin said. The U.S. Skiing and Snowboarding Association’s Revolution Tour will hit Sidewinder on March 9-11.
Sidewinder — by no accident — is located under the resort’s most heavily used lift, the SuperQuad. Wilkinson said he’s hearing plenty of positive feedback from Sugarloaf visitors, whether they’ve tried the course or not.
“I’ve heard nothing but positive reactions to it,” Wilkinson said. “Any of these venues [including half pipes and terrain parks], if you can put ’em near a lift, it helps. People like to watch ’em, and people who use ’em can scope out the park a little better.”
Wescott said he’s satisfied with Sidewinder … for now … but said the course is a work in progress.
“This year we are finding out how the trail space works for the overall flow,” Wescott wrote. “Corner placement is huge in courses and we have done a good job, I feel, with sketching out the general line down the trail. Next comes feature construction. At the moment we have one really nice set of doubles, a great hip jump and a hip jump straight into a bank turn.”
Wescott said continued snowmaking will continue to improve the course and said future work will be done on building up the sections between the jumps.
Wescott also said the addition of skier cross to the Vancouver Olympics is exciting, and he’s looking forward to seeing the role Sugarloaf can play in developing new snowboard and skier cross talent.
“It is really a great venue for future generations of Mainers to be able to aspire toward two new sports, whether they are skiers or riders,” wrote Wescott, who credited new resort owners Boyne USA for making a commitment to revamping terrain parks and pipes at the mountain.