Grand Prix set to launch Tuesday | AspenTimes.com

Grand Prix set to launch Tuesday

Devon O'NeilSummit County correspondent

Summit Daily File Photo

BRECKENRIDGE – Go ahead. Try to find a snowboarding superpipe field that trumps the list of riders who will compete at Breckenridge next week. P.S. – good luck.The U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix stop at Breck annually attracts some of the best pipe specialists in the world, but this year is different. In the words of Grand Prix tour director Eric Webster, it is “one of the most impressive halfpipe fields ever assembled.”The reason behind this is simple. It’s an Olympic year; the Breck Grand Prix helps qualify riders from at least four nations to compete in the 2006 Winter Games; and everyone wants to go to Italy for those Olympics.So they’ve come here to prove they’re worthy. Shaun White, Danny Kass, Steve Fisher, Ross Powers, J.J. Thomas, Hannah Teter, Gretchen Bleiler, Kelly Clark – they, along with too many other elite riders to list, will turn Breck’s renowned pipe into the ultimate proving ground beginning Tuesday. It won’t end until Saturday.The Breck Grand Prix stop includes two pipe competitions, which heightens the stakes even more than the field does. And as the opening events on the Grand Prix tour, they should give a good indication of whom to watch as the season wears on and the athletes near the end of their pressure-packed Olympic-qualifying process. Each U.S. rider’s two best Grand Prix results will determine his or her Olympic standing.Defending Breck Grand Prix pipe champ Tommy Czeschin, for one, is feeling good going into next week’s events.”I think there’s a lot of pressure, there’s a lot of good riders here, a lot of people going for the Olympics,” he said. “But I do like the pipe here and it’s been good to me in the past.”You definitely have to be on it for the week,” he added. “You have to be riding really well. So if you’re riding really well, you’re stoked.”The week begins with men’s qualifying heats on Tuesday, and continues with a whirlwind day on Wednesday, when women’s qualifying heats will precede both women’s and men’s finals, thus crowning the first of the week’s two winners in each gender.After a training day on Thursday, the week resumes with men’s qualifying on Friday and another pair of finals on Saturday. In addition, for the second straight year, there will be a downtown freestyle exhibition under the lights Saturday night. A rail jam drew thousands last year; this year’s event will be a quarterpipe showcase. The back-to-back pipe competitions, with the stakes as high as they are, has been a topic on every rider’s mind going into the event. “Kinda crazy,” said Teter, a five-time Grand Prix winner. “It’s not usually like that, but I think it’ll be fun – just bang it out all in one day.”White, who didn’t compete at last year’s Breck stop but is one of the favorites this year, offered a different perspective.”After the first contest we’re all gonna be really aware of what everyone’s doing,” he said. “I think that by the second contest we’re all gonna be so fired up from that first one that there’ll really be a big difference between the two.”It’s no secret that the pro circuit’s riders adore the Breck pipe. And in that regard, Czeschin said, “I’d rather have it be back-to-back at Breck than two contests somewhere else.”Four years ago, Breckenridge hosted the final two of the Grand Prix Olympic-qualifying events. This year the resort’s role is reversed, as it opens the tour that includes three subsequent competitions after next week’s pair.Breck events manager Pete Isert said he initially thought the earlier date would diminish the event’s allure – compared to being the ultimate stop on the tour – but now he’s not so sure. “There seems to be a lot more Olympic buzz than I anticipated,” he said, then noted the television slot NBC has given the event helps, too. “It’s airing on Christmas day. Can’t really beat that.”Unlike last year, this year’s Breck Grand Prix stop will not include any race events. Instead, America’s gate-crashers qualify for the Olympics through their World Cup results, Webster said. Racers in boardercross – which will make its Olympic debut in 2006 – do the same.It all leads to the pipe competitions operating under a big, bright spotlight.”I think everyone’s gonna be going for it,” Teter said. “It’s pretty much whoever lands and can stick it clean.”