‘The black sheep’ of Winter X
Aspen Times staff writer
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Knees bent, chin tucked, arms locked out in front, the racer sailed over the 85-foot gap jump in a blink, landed smoothly, then continued pressing for more speed. After he blew through the finish line, he glanced back at the scoreboard to see his name move into first place in the standings.
It was a familiar position for Daron Rahlves, though it came in the most unfamiliar of settings. A year ago at this time, America’s most successful World Cup speed skier was in Europe gearing up for the Turin Winter Olympics in search of an elusive medal.
On Friday, Rahlves, 33, found himself flying over jumps and taming speed at Buttermilk – reborn as a skiercross racer close to nine months after walking away from the U.S. Ski Team.
He was surrounded by old friends. After qualifying first for Sunday’s heats, he watched Aspen local Casey Puckett – a four-time Olympian, and former teammate – qualify second behind him.
Friscos’s Jake Fiala – who retired from the U.S. Ski Team after the 2005 season – was fifth, while Zach Christ, one of his former roommates years ago on the World Cup circuit, swooped into the finish corral in eighth.
Christ, his brother, Reggie, and Rahlves used to refer to themselves as “the three amigos” back when they were on the U.S. Ski Team together.
On Friday, Rahlves referred to the whole crew of former World Cup racers at Buttermilk as the “black sheep of the Winter X Games.”
“We’re all late 20s and early 30s and you have all these kids who are 16, 17 years old who are out here, too,” he said. “I like seeing the young generation and how much they push it. [Skiercross] is all about a racing background. You don’t see many guys out of the racing scene step into this, but I like kind of translating the contrast.”
He then added: “I respect all these guys.”
Three years ago, Rahlves called out freeskier Tanner Hall – one of the Winter X Games’ established stars – after Hall incited that World Cup skiers didn’t deserve the prestige they enjoy in Europe for only skiing down “one icy-ass run.”
He laughed about the quarrel when asked about it Friday.
“It’s all cool between us,” said Rahlves, who once told the media he’d provide Hall with some downhill skis if he wanted to come to Europe and try and race down one of those icy World Cup tracks. “I saw him the other day in the athletes’ lounge and said hello and just talked real quick. [In the interview] he had a few words to say, and I was just kind of saying, ‘Hey, don’t say a word about racing, because you don’t really know what it’s like.'”
Rahlves wasn’t as complimentary when asked what he thought of the Winter X Games course.
He compared his qualifying run down the 3,600-foot course, which has just 675 feet of vertical drop, to running a NASTAR track.
“Downhill racing, you experience the ultimate in terms of fun factor because the speeds are a lot higher and big jumps and all that stuff,” he said. “You’re just pretty much hanging on. Here, it’s really smooth and you’ve got to make the right moves on the jumps, but in downhill, you fear for your health a little bit. You’re just trying to hang it out there and you’re going 70-80 mph. It can be really bad to make a mistake.”
The true appeal of skiercross is being on the course with three to five other racers at the same time – although, even then, Rahlves wishes the courses were more challenging.
He earned a spot in the four-man final at the Honda Ski Tour’s opening skiercross two weeks ago in Sun Valley, Idaho, but crashed into Puckett while trying to pass.
Puckett, who won the race and hasn’t lost a skiercross event since he finished sixth at last year’s Winter X Games, said his former teammate still has a few things to learn.
“This is a big, wide-open race hill,” he said. “The qualifying times, you can’t take too much stock in them. It’s gonna be different when you’ve got six guys out on the course. Daron’s start is going to come into play. I don’t know if his start is money yet, so he’s going to have to make some passes.”
Rahlves concurred with Puckett’s analysis, but noted it shouldn’t be long before he gets up to speed – literally – at the start.
He’s raced motocross for years during his summers, and just this past summer began competing seriously in the amateur ranks.
“I’m used to being around guys,” he said. “… in motocross you’re there with 40 guys in the gate. It’s crazy. It’s chaos out there. I stepped up to another level this year, and if you’re not comfortable with it, you hold back. If you’re not comfortable with these guys cutting you off coming in, you’re not going to do well. It’s the attitude. You’ve got to do the same thing in skiercross. You’ve got to get after it if there’s a foot or two open, and just go and take it.”
Let’s make some skiing predictions. I made my X Games snowboarding predictions a day earlier and remain only mildly lukewarm in terms of confidence, but maybe I’ll feel better about the skiers.