Better training + more top athletes + more experience + tougher competition = more close calls than ever before.
That's the formula for what happened in the 2016/17 Ice Cross Downhill World Championship season with more tight judging decisions, controversial calls, and challenged results in any season since the sport was created in 2001. But Red Bull Crashed Ice Sport Director Christian Papillon said he isn't surprised by the ever-increasing intensity because, quite simply, more athletes are making giant leaps forward in their training and abilities. And they're taking the world's fastest sport on skates to the next level, making it more exciting than ever before.
"There are a lot of emotions coming out at the finish line now," said Papillon, who reckons the sport will become even more competitive and intense in the 2017/18 season with more top athletes jousting against each other in pitched battles to make the final. "That shows the athletes are getting better every year because of their passion and dedication. They're developing new and better ways to train and race. The off-season training has made many of them world-class athletes."
All that speed and talent on the ice tracks, where four athletes at a time race down the narrow obstacle-filled tracks in successive knock-out rounds, means more close calls than ever before – and sometimes incredibly difficult decisions for the judges on whether fouls were committed or whether the contact was only incidental. It wasn't always easy to tell, even on replays, when that fine line was crossed.
"The athletes are stronger, fitter, faster, more confident and more determined to fight to achieve their goals," said Papillon, who as Sport Director was called upon to approve or overrule more challenged referee calls than ever last season. "They've also got different strengths so that means there was more overtaking and more really tough position battles. When they get to the finish line, some riders feel like they were fouled so that's where it gets emotional at times."
It's inevitable that there were more tight decisions and the occasional shoving incident at the finish line: "It's not easy," he said. "You need to keep an eye on every action of four riders on the track at the same time. You need experience, intimate knowledge of the sport and the rider's capacity to be able to understand what really happened before, during and after a move under investigation."
In Ice Cross Downhill, athletes race down the obstacle-filled track four-at-a-time at speeds of up to 80 km/h. The first two racers to cross the finish line advance to the next round as the field is gradually whittled down through the preliminary rounds leading up to a final 4.
There were six different winners in the eight Ice Cross Downhill Chamiponship races, its 17th season. Cameron Naasz (USA), Scott Croxall (CAN), Maxwell Dunne (USA), Dean Moriarity (CAN), Marco Dallago, Jim De Paoli (SUI) and German Titov (RUS) all won races. But there were other racers such as Tristan Dugerdil (FRA), Pacome Schmitt (FRA), Dylan Moriarity (CAN) and Luca Dallago (AUT) who were hot on their heels throughout the season. There are many up-and-coming racers such as Mirko Lahti (FIN) and Martin Barrau (FRA) who also figure to win races or be on the podium soon. The women's competition grew even more intense with Canada's Jacqueline Legere coming from behind Amanda Trunzo (USA) to win her second straight title.
Papillon sees the sport growing next season and beyond. "It's expanding and will keep growing," he said. "In the years to come there will be more races in the world championship, more national federations and more training facilities around the world. There was a lot of enthusiasm last season to develop new talent with the Junior World Championship and the potential in the men and women categories is also enormous. They'll all help make the sport even more competitive."
Now that Naasz has become the first racer to ever win back-to-back world championships following Croxall's title in 2014/15, North American racers have claimed three straight titles and left the once-dominant Europeans to wonder what hit them. Papillon said there are a lot of top European riders capable of winning the title as well. North Americans won all four major races last season, the Red Bull Crashed Ice stops.
"I can't tell you why the North Americans have won the last three championships," said Papillon, who is Canadian. "There are a lot of good European riders. They just weren't able to get to the very top. The Dallago brothers, Marco and Luca, as well as Pacome Schmitt and Tristan Dugerdil as well as De Paoli did well last season at times. But to win the title, the riders need to be strong mentally and confident of their abilities. A lot of riders have the physical skill to win races but at the starting gates it seems like only a small handful feel they are truly unbeatable. Naasz and Croxall seem to act like no one can beat them. The Europeans might just need to believe in themselves a bit more next season, believe that they're invincible."
Some followers of the sport believe the top Americans and Canadians have an edge right now because they're training harder or more effectively in the off-season. "They do train hard in the summer and with professional trainers," Papillon said. "That can definitely help to work not only hard but smart. The sport is still relatively young but the ways to train are getting more specific to the sport and more focused each year. It makes a difference."
Looking back at the 2016/17 season, Papillon is not only pleased about the rapid growth – more than 1,000 athletes from 22 countries and five continents took part in races. He's also pleased that the first race staged in a warm-weather city – Marseille, France on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea – went off without a hitch, thanks to technology advances and a powerful cooling system.
"Pulling off a race in Marseille showed what we can do and opened up a lot of potential locations for the sport around the world," he said. "Before we were limited to cold-weather venues. But now we've opened the door to a lot of new possibilities that could help the sport grow even more."
On a personal note, Papillon was also pleased to see Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau not only coming to watch the season-finale in Ottawa in person but outing himself as an ardent fan of Ice Cross Downhill who follows the races on TV all winter long. Trudeau and his children could hardly contain their excitement when meeting Canada's top racer, Scott Croxall, before the last race.
"It was definitely an honor to have the Prime Minister at the race," said Papillon. "It shows the sport has touched everyone in Canada, even the prime minister and his family. I was surprised how much he knew about the sport but on the other hand he stays plugged into what people in Canada are up to. There have been 13 Red Bull Crashed Ice races in Canada over the years so I guess it's logic that he knew all about it."