After two years watching in frustration as Swiss and Austrian racers won at the world's fastest sport on skates, Canadian ice cross downhill racers worked hard in the off-season to win back the crown of the sport that is so close to their national identity.
Canada's national pride took a major beating in the last two years when athletes from Europe won the Ice Cross Downhill World Championship. In a sport on skates and ice that Canadians feel they should dominate every year, in 2014 they failed to win a single Red Bull Crashed Ice race and there was just one Canadian in the top eight overall – Scott Croxall.
What a difference a year makes. Canadians have dominated the sport in 2015 with four of the top-five spots held by Canucks who have won all three races. The chances are good that there will be an all-Canada sweep of the podium for the first time ever after Saturday's season finale in – where else? – Canada. There were three Canadians on the podiums in the last two races, in Belfast, Northern Ireland and a Riders Cup race in Sherbrooke, Canada.
"Canadians are proud people and they feel this is a sport with a deep connection to their country and national pride," said Red Bull Crashed Ice sporting director Christian Papillon. "It's a patriotic thing. They feel it's their sport. So after last year they trained really hard over the summer and went all out to win that trophy back."
After watching Switzerland's Derek Wedge lift the trophy in 2013 and Austria's Marco Dallago take first overall in 2014 on increasingly difficult race tracks with a greater emphasis on downhill skills, the top Canadian racers – who all came from hockey – spent last summer training for the 2015 season, and in particular focusing on adapting better to different kinds of downhill-style tracks.
"They tried to switch the tracks up on us a few years ago and make the races more skier-style tracks, so even with our hockey background we might not have been as used to those kind of tracks as much," said Kyle Croxall, the last Canadian to win it all back in 2012. He's in second place now with his brother, Scott, in the overall lead. Compatriots Dean and Dylan Moriarity are in third and fifth place, respectively. "We were able to adapt better to those different kinds of tracks this year. We worked hard."
Adam Horst, another Canadian who is in 12th place overall this year, said the competition in Canada for spots in the world championship is intense. There are 14 Canadians in the top-ranked 64 who take part in the Ice Cross Downhill World Championship this year – more than from any other nation. The sport is followed closely from coast to coast and each year new stars emerge from the vast pool of national talent – as the Moriarity brothers did in 2014.
"There are so many guys in Canada who want to be a part of this sport," said Horst, who won the 2012 race in Are, Sweden. "It's harder in Canada to get on the tour or stay in it because there is so much competition out there. The guys are pushing so hard, so you have to keep pushing to be better."
That deep pool of Canadian talent was on abundant display in the National Shootout on Thursday when 78 Canadians raced down the 415-metre Edmonton track in time-trial style to try to qualify for a spot in Friday's Elimination Round and a possible berth in Saturday's 64-man finals. Canada's Steven Cox (pictured, above) posted the fastest time of 46.84 seconds and, reflecting the level of excellence in Canada, the top-28 racers were within three seconds of his time. "The ice was a bit soft from the sun, but fortunately I was able to stay on my feet all the way down. My goal is to do as many races as I can, so people will know my name as a top Red Bull Crashed Ice athlete."
Ice cross downhill expert Claudio Caluori, who knows the racers well, said the Canadians were embarrassed after being beaten by Wedge and Dallago in the last two seasons. "This is a sport really close to hockey and they couldn't stand seeing a Swiss guy and then an Austrian guy win," he said. "They saw how serious the other guys like Marco were taking the sport by training so hard in the off season and they went the same route. It's paid off for them."
Dallago also agrees that the Canadians seemed to have been shocked into taking action after seeing Europeans win the last two world championships. "There have always been a lot of Canadians near the top," said Dallago. "I think that after last season they were just a lot more motivated than before. It was like 'damn'. You could see it right away at the start of this season that they were far more motivated and in much better shape than before."
American Cameron Naasz, who finished third overall last year and is sixth this year, has also been trying to figure out why the Canadians made such a big leap forward – and ahead of him – this year.
"Maybe it's something in the water," Naasz said, with a smile. "I think it boils down to training, tracks and luck. They trained hard, they've adapted better to the different tracks and they've had good luck this year. Last year the tracks were more gliding than striding, and that didn't favour them. They figured that out. They did their homework."
For more information about the event, including how to watch the final race of 2015 live, visit redbullcrashedice.com/edmonton
For all the times from Thursday's National Shootout, head to redbullcrashedice.com/results