Words & photos: Ethan Stone
The first day of fall, this Saturday, September 22, also marked the start of the first major urban big air event of the 2012-13 competition season, the Freestyle.ch in Zürich, Switzerland.
The view of the mountains across Lake Zürich.
Zürich is a bustling metropolis, the largest city in Switzerland, and close enough to the mountains that you can almost feel a cool breeze from the glaciered peaks, visible across the lake. Freestyle.ch, an event that started as a snowboard big air, has over the course of 18 years snowballed into a two-day festival including almost every sport or recreation that’s ever been used in the same sentence as the word “freestyle.”
FMX (freestyle motocross) and mountain bike dirt jumping events accompany the traditional snowboard and skiing big air events. In addition there’s a large festival ground covered with almost every diversion one could imagine. You can bring your device of choice to drop in on mini-ramps and bowls open to the public, play a game of S.K.A.T.E., take a paddleboard out on the lake, watch a breakdance battle, test snowskates and slacklines—even get a tattoo. The mainstage DJ keeps a steady stream of gangsta’ rap, dubstep and reggae booming, and beer is swilled in copious amounts.
The BMX street stylers and breakdancers have their own stage.
Taking in a game of S.K.A.T.E.
Naked dude with a man-beard takes a surfboard lap around the festival island to the cheers of the crowd.
The APO tent features an honest-to-god “air DJ” who is jamming hard while air-scratching and flipping through invisible record stacks.
The festival draws world-class athletes in all of its disciplines, and a significant number of freeskiing’s glitterati also make it their business to be here. This is one of the few jumps that Jon Olsson takes time off from racing to hit. Finnish superhero Pekka Hyysalo is here, as is Tanner Hall, who’s cheering on his Inspired Media cohorts Henrik Harlaut and Phil Casabon. B dog and E-Dollo will be competing this weekend along with sixteen of skiing’s best and brightest, including female competitors for the first time.
On Saturday morning, the day that qualifications are supposed to go down, the new fall makes its presence known in the form of a big wet cloud that blows in across the lake with a deluge of rain in tow. The shape crew, which has been toiling here since 4am, has covered the entire ramp with tarps to protect their precious work.
Jon Olsson comes up early to take a look at the jump in the rain. Inspecting the kicker, he tries to remember how many times he’s hit a jump in the past year (he comes up with five or six), and then wonders if he’ll try a switch double 900.
Fortuitously, the rain lets up right before training is supposed to start. After a brief scramble to remove all the tarps and give the kicker a final once-over, the jump is ready to go, and the show is about to begin.
The Schneestern crew puts final touches on the jump.
Jossi Wells warms up with a classy zero spin.
I don’t know what Andreas Hatveit calls his switch flippy trick, but it’s a real beauty with a tweaked safety grab.
After training, the qualifications get underway. A refreshing element of Freestyle.ch is its emphasis on style: each skier has to put down a style trick as well as a technical trick. In the qualification round each rider gets three jumps, leaving room to do a trick for each category, then to try and improve one score on the third jump. As the rain slowly lets off, the skiers give the gathering crowd, dampened in clothing but not in spirit, a good taste of what they’re to witness for the rest of the weekend.
B dog floats a huge rodeo 7 stale.
The B & E Show is in full effect: Casabon is on fire, stomping a rodeo 9 stalefish for his style trick and a switch double 1080 bow-and-arrow for tech, while Henrik is equally impressive with his trademark bio 900 safety tweak for style, and a nosebutter double cork 1080 safety that the judges award as the best tech trick of the day. Judge Lolo Favre calls the trick “the gnarliest shit ever—it’s like committing suicide.”
The style category brings out a whole new field of tricks that usually aren’t seen in big air competitions. Screamin’ seamen grab variations are a popular choice for style tricks, with Andreas Hatveit and Kai Mahler both crossing up in switch 5s, as well as Vincent Gagnier, who pretty much owns this category (he stomped a screamin’ seamen double-grab 720 that netted the highest style score). Meanwhile Jossi Wells boosts gorgeous zero spins, while Russ Henshaw keeps it clean with switch 3 blunts.
Jossi’s highly photogenic zero spin.
In the tech-trick department it’s a double-flip bonanza. The wide in-run is conducive to switch drops, so switch doubles are a popular choice alongside the ever-present forward double cork 10s and 12s.
At the conclusion of three runs, Henrik is in the pole position with a comfortable 10-point lead, while young Swiss star Kai Mahler, who’s coming off a phenomenal season, scoops up the second seed. Heavyweights Wallisch, Henshaw and Gus Kenworthy coast in at three, four and five, while Casabon, Hatveit and Italian ripper Markus Eder round out the Top 8 who will advance to the semis.
Of course, not everyone can make the cut. Sammy Carlson looks confident in his first competition after being sidelined by an MCL tear at last winter’s X Games, but the judges don’t think his rodeos and double corks are enough for the semis. Sammy, who’s been rehabbing hard all summer, shrugs it off, saying, “I’m just super pumped to be skiing again!”
The crowd gathers to watch the Crossover Session. Photo courtesy Freestyle.ch.
The day’s action concludes in the evening Crossover Session, another Freestyle.ch unconventionality that pits riders from all four disciplines (ski, snowboard, FMX and MTB) against each other to determine a “Crossover champ” judged only by the roar of the crowd. Unfortunately due to the wet weather, our two-wheeled brethren of both the motorized and non-motorized varieties are not able to jump today, reducing the Crossover Session to a ski-and snowboard-only spectacle.
The evening’s highlight is undoubtedly the debut of women in the competition, as four ladies (two ski, two snowboard) take to the jump alongside the men. Young talent Emilia Wint from Colorado is the first girl to drop in, and backflips her way into Freestyle.ch history, while Virginie Faivre puts down some nice 360s.
Ever-consistent Russ Henshaw drifts a cork 3 as Henrik comes in hot behind him.
Gus Kenworthy is still on point, even with a broken hand.
Henrik’s bio 10 blunt carries him into the Crossover Session finals.
Of the four riders chosen by the crowd for the Crossover Session final, three of them are Swiss, and one of them is Henrik Harlaut, whose popularity with the masses is almost at Tom Wallisch status. For a moment it appears as if Swiss snowboarder Sina Candrian is going to take home the Crossover Champ title for the women, but her countryman Elias Ambühl—perhaps trying to make up for not making it into the semis—pulls out all the stops in a podium bid based on a gaper outfit and a no-grab double cork 1440. The combination of ridiculous clothing and spin-to-win captures the crowd’s hearts, and Elias is crowned Crossover Champ, then carried about the grounds in a kingly sedan chair.
Elias enjoys the spotlight, while Tom gives us the classic derp face.
The gathered crowd then employs the always-useful cliché of “drinking the rain away,” either at parties on the festival grounds, or at the big official party in the city.
Jossi Wells, Ethan Morgan, Sage Kotsenberg and friends give a rousing rendition of the Beastie Boys’ “Fight for your Right” during the live-band Karoake from Hell.
To everyone’s surprise, drinking away the rain actually works, and Sunday dawns with clearer skies in store for the last two rounds of competition. The FMXers and mountain bikers waste no time catching up with their own competitions, and the crowd oohs and aahs as the motorcycles go flying directly over the landing of the ski jump.
The ski semi-finals consist of a 40-minute jam session. Again, skiers call their drop as either “tech” or “style” with the help of big yellow and red signs at the top of the drop-in. Competition is fierce, as it’s clear that a stock double cork with a stock grab will not be enough for the finals. Henrik stomps another trick never before seen in competition, a nosebutter double cork 12 safety, while Kai Mahler keeps up the pace with his impressive switch double misty 12 mute. Casabon’s layback 180, which is about as close to a cork 180 as anyone is ever going to get, scores high in the style category. When the dust clears, the riders left standing are Harlaut, Mahler, Casabon and Wallisch. Needless to say, it’s looking to be a one-of-a-kind final.
The final round is truly a wake-up call for anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to recent developments in skiing style. The “style” and “tech” categories have been dropped, and riders get two chances to capture the best of both in a single trick. The level is so high that X Games and Dew Tour champ Tom Wallisch can muster only fourth place with a near-flawless switch double cork 10 blunt.
Casabon’s trick is also a switch dub 10, but with his signature double grab, held long and stomped deep. It’s good enough for third place, leaving Henrik and Kai to duel it out for the top spot.
Kai Mahler tweaks the bejeezus out of a switch misty 12 mute.
Henrik Harlaut midway through his butter dub 12.
In the first round Kai’s switch double misty scores higher than Henrik’s butter, but on his final hit E-Dollo stomps such a ridiculously clean butter dub 12 that not even Kai’s equally perfect switch misty manuever, with an absurdly tweaked mute grab, can prevail upon the judges. For the second time in three years Henrik Harlaut is on top of the podium at Freestyle.ch.
Henrik on the podium along with snowboard, FMX and MTB champs Chas Guldemond, Danny Torres and Martin Söderström. Photo by Anja Reuter.
As the day winds to a close, the athletes gather near a small tent defended by tight-lipped security guards, where inside the prize purse, in stacks of U.S. dollars, is being handed out. The atmosphere is jubilant and everyone is full of praise for the weekend’s happenings.
Tom Wallisch and Gus Kenworthy conduct some post-event networking.
“This is definitely the best city big air,” says Wallisch. “It’s got the biggest, most fun crowd and a good jump. I try to make it every year. And this was my best-ever finish here, fourth place, woohoo!” he jokes.
“ I couldn’t be more stoked, of course about winning, but also about all of the riding,” Henrik says. “Everyone is bringing a different flavor to the game. The city big airs needed something besides double cork 10 and 12 mute.” Henrik and Phil are stoked to share a podium together for only the second time. The first one, Phil says, was a rail jam years ago, “when we were both tiny.”
“Everyone’s been doubting us, saying we’ve peaked, saying Phil’s not gonna learn any doubles,” says Henrik. “Today was to show that this is just the beginning.”
The man of the day.
Video: Freeski finals
For more on Henrik, check out our recent feature, “My Favorite… with Henrik Harlaut.”
To see how this affects the AFP standings, follow this link.
- 1. Henrik Harlaut
- 2. Kai Mahler
- 3. Phil Casabon
- 4. Tom Wallisch
- 5. Gus Kenworthy
- 6. Markus Eder
- 7. Andreas Hatveit
- 8. Russ Henshaw