Photo via Redbull Media House
Photo via Redbull Media House
On Sunday evening, Shaun White became the first person to score a perfect 100 in the X Games SuperPipe competition. The twenty-five-year-old threw seven tricks, completing the equivalent of 14.5 full revolutions and four flips. He wore skin-tight, black and white animal-print pants that flared a bit over his snowboard boots as he destroyed his previous high score of 97.66. The record-breaking run came on White's third of three runs, after he was already assured of a fifth straight Superpipe gold. (Switzerland's Iouri Podladtchikov finished a distant second with a score of 93.00.)
Even for the world's most famous snowboarder, the run was impressive. "To combo a double McTwist 1260, a trick that only two people on earth can do, into a trick, frontside, double cork 1260 that no one on earth can do?" ESPN's commentator said after the run before unnecessarily adding, "That's never happened before."
The Flying Tomato's heroics, however, pose a problem. Shaun White is better than everyone else in the world at SuperPipe—significantly so as he proved, yet again, on Sunday—but someone will catch him eventually. Yet White's 100 means they cannot exceed him. He holds a record than cannot be broken, only tied. Someone can go higher, bigger, faster, but they cannot score better. In a sport that defines itself by pushing the limits, what happens when those limits are reached? What comes next?
The "Red Bull Supernatural" is Travis Rice's vision for the future.
On the nicest day between February 3 and 8, eighteen of the world's best snowboarders—but not, notably, Shaun White (more on that later)—will ride down a 45-degree face at Baldface Lodge in Nelson, British Columbia. The 2,000-vertical-foot course includes more than 100 man-made features built by a logging crew over the summer. (Sans snow, the area looks like the world's most dangerous ropes course.) The event, sponsored by the energy drink and broadcast in a two-hour NBC special in March, is Rice's baby.
The twenty-nine-year old from Jackson Hole has spent his career in search of the next big thing. The so-called "Paul Revere" of the mountain riding (whatever that means) boasts the snowboarding cred to compete with the best, including X Games golds in Slopestyle and Big Air as well as the Transworld Rider of the Year crown for the 2008-2009 season. But he prefers the back country to the big money events. As the narrative goes, after releasing the influential film That's It, That's All in late 2008, Rice went searching for his next project.
The concept for the Supernatural is simple: instead of scouring the globe for the best features to hurl yourself off, why not just build them yourself and invite the greatest riders on the planet to test themselves on an all-around course? The plan is rather brilliant in its simplicity, actually; a perfect example of the insane creativity that bounces around Rice's brain. Course built, the visionary and seventeen others including Jake Blauvelt, John Jackson, and the legendary Terje Håkonsen scored all-expenses-paid trips to Baldface Lodge and at least two runs down the most aggressive hill around. (The top eight will get a bonus run. The best single high score wins. According to the rules, "riders will be judged on their use of the course and how they navigated its steep wooded sections, two cliffs, a 300ft-wide jump and a lower powder-park section." Victory, however, is not really the point.)
But wither Shaun White? There are a few explanations for his absence. First, the snowboard rock star made his epic SuperPipe run on a sprained left ankle that kept him out of the X Games Slopestyle competition. It is still bothering him and hurtling down the "Scary Cherry" run probably isn't what the doctor called for. Or, more cynically, what his sponsors ordered. Plenty of angry young conspiracy theorists on message boards around the internet blame these sponsors for keeping the sport's most valuable commodity out the Supernatural. The reasoning: White, despite his massive talent, now specializes in SuperPipe, which is the sport's moneyed discipline. He wouldn't win an event that focuses on another sub-genre of the snowboarding. Shaun White the brand could not take the chance that Shaun White the man would finish second, third, or, gasp, eighteenth in the Supernatural. (That White was disappointed he had to pull out of the X Games Slopestyle event is a fact lost in the vitriol that envelops him on the World Wide Web.)
The truth probably lies, as it frequently does, somewhere in the middle. White is good enough to compete, but not practiced enough to win. And frankly, that is better for everyone involved. His absence shifts the focus away from White vs. the World and on to Men vs. the Mountain.
And what a mountain it is, or rather, was, before the nine-man logging crew spent 7,500 man-hours cutting down five dozen spruce and fir trees, and turned the wood into platforms. The effort, of course, cost plenty of money, but Rice has a head for numbers, or at least the financial wherewithal to understand the economic realities of snowboarding. He co-owns and serves as a producer for Brain Farm productions, the company that created That's It, That's All. Having your talent and your owner be one in the same is a nice business model, but Rice required more for the Supernatural.
Enter Red Bull. The Austrian company has never seen an extreme sport they won't sponsor, and Rice is a perfect fit. Red Bull helped finance That's It, That's All and continued their support for their man's newest endeavor. They partnered with NBC as well, creating the Red Bull Signature Series that highlights "the most progressive snowboarding, mountain biking, freestyle motocross, skiing and BMX events" in two-hour blocks on Sunday afternoons. Rice isn't above convincing a couple corporate parents to make the magic happen in his outsider sport.
In truth, the Supernatural is about unity. "That's what I really envision this event being, a bridge to help bring all of snowboarding under one flag again," Rice says in a dramatic promo for the event. Of course, there will be no Shaun White and there will be no perfect scores. It's just a bunch of dudes in the Canadian backwoods launching themselves down a mountain fueled literally and figuratively by cans of sugar and synthetic taurine. If you build it, they will come.