Aussie Alex Pullin earns top seed in boardercross qualifying |

Aussie Alex Pullin earns top seed in boardercross qualifying

Eddie Pells
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
Alex Pullin of Australia reacts after the first snowboard cross qualifying run at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Monday, Feb. 15, 2010. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia – If qualifying was supposed to be the gentle part of boardercross, these guys could be in for quite a day.

Alex Pullin of Australia earned himself the surprising top seed Monday for one of the wildest events at the Olympics, navigating his way through the choppy snow and bad lighting to finish in 1 minute, 20.15 seconds and edge out American Graham Watanabe.

Later Monday, the real fun begins: A series of four-man races down a mountain full of bumps, sharp curves and a few ledges where, often, a sharp elbow or two is as valuable as the most finely tuned snowboard.

It is NASCAR on snow, with a touch of March Madness thrown in. The top 32 qualifiers are put into brackets. They race four at a time, with the top two finishers in each race advancing until only the final four are left to vie for the gold, silver and bronze.

Qualifying is a series of one-man runs down the mountain, which wasn’t nearly as boring as it should be at weather-plagued Cypress Mountain, where rain has been falling much of the week.

Defending champion Seth Wescott qualified 17th and didn’t get down cleanly on either of the two runs. He was one of many.

Wescott said the flat light, combined with the wet snow, described by Olympic organizers as “fine grained,” made it feel like spring skiing – not ultimate racing conditions.

“You’re pretty much riding blind in there,” he said. “Feeling your way along. It’s firmed up a little bit. There’s a somewhat consistent texture. But you really can’t see what’s going on under your feet.”

Pullin was one of the few who figured it out.

He was the first rider to go off in qualifying and laid down a time that nobody in the first round could beat.

Midway through the second round, Watanabe – the wax technician who wound up in the 2006 Olympics after a teammate got injured – clocked a time that beat him.

Pullin wasn’t planning on taking a second run.

“But as soon as I saw the No. 1 come off, I wanted to try it again,” he said.

The plan worked, which means the 22-year-old with only one podium finish in 27 World Cup starts will get to choose his starting position in every race as long as he remains in the four rounds of heats. It’s the most significant advantage of having a good seed in an event where picking the right line down the hill can mean everything.

Defending Winter X Games champion Nate Holland qualified at No. 8, and the world’s top-ranked rider this year, Pierre Vaultier of France, is No. 6.

Sandwiched between them at No. 7 is American Nick Baumgartner, a former wrestler – the kind of guy you wouldn’t want to tangle with while sliding 30 mph down a hill. Baumgartner was one of a handful of riders who had miniature cameras strapped to their helmets to give viewers a cool look at the trip down the hill.

Who knows what they’ll see when the real racing starts?

“Anything to get the fans, the crowd a little closer to the action,” he said. “We want to help everyone see exactly what this sport is. It’s amazing to watch and we want everyone to notice that.”

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