When Red Bull built Shaun White his own superpipe in the Silverton, Colo., backcountry last winter, nobody was all that shocked. After all, neither White nor "Mr. Red" is known for half-stepping, especially when it comes to stepping up the game. But everyone was jealous. Here was the pre-eminent snowboarder in the world ditching his regular schedule to work on his run in private -- no flailing fools in the flat-bottom, a first-ever on-hill foam pit to chuck new tricks into and no fellow Olympic hopefuls to see what he was working on.
Red Bull will not disclose how much money it spent on Project X, but estimates are in the $500,000 range. Whatever the amount, it worked. Two months after the pipe was built, White came out of his hidey-hole with a double-back rodeo, a front double-cork 10, a switchback 9 and a Cab double-cork 10. Rumors of his new tricks made the rounds before he'd even left Silverton, and his competitors knew they were playing catch-up from that point on.
"I wasn't surprised," said Scotty Lago, winner of the 2009 U.S. Open top performer award. "Shaun is balling and next level for sure. I was just imagining all the [stuff] he was going to learn."
"It was something that you could only dream of," said Winter X Games 13 superpipe silver medalist Kevin Pearce. "The world's best pipe with a foam pit at the bottom in the middle of nowhere for a few months."
Word of the much-ballyhooed double corks spread so fast, they were already on display at the first event of the 2009-10 season: the New Zealand Open in August. Louie Vito was the first, landing a frontside double-cork 1080 and forcing White to let his cat out of the bag. Luke Mitrani also laid down a double, but it was White who won the event. Back in 2006, the golden ticket at both the Winter X Games and the Olympics was back-to-back (cork-free) 1080s. After New Zealand, it was clear that a double-cork (900 or 1080) would be the price of admission to those podiums in 2010. You can see where a private pipe might come in handy.
And that raises the question: Does a private training facility such as Project X run the risk of turning snowboarding into something like Formula One racing, where ability is important but only if it's backed by crazy cash?
Bud Keene, the U.S. national freestyle development coach and Shaun White's mano a mano coach, recently told ESPN.com: "People have been inspired by Shaun's private training ground last winter and so have been working to get their own special situations set up. We know about most of those situations and what was accomplished at each, but I can't help feeling that we don't know about all of them."
Among the known "situations" is a 22-foot pipe (regulation size for both Winter X Games and the Olympics) built in the summer at Cardrona in New Zealand. The resort kept its 22-footer operational for three weeks after the season, and it was largely paid for by the Canadian and Japanese national teams. The first 10-day session was for national teams to train in what was then the only 22-footer available in the world. The second session was pay-to-play for national teams, too, but included an air bag to up the acrobatic ante. According to Keene, two-time Olympic silver medalist Danny Kass was the only American who took full advantage of Cardrona with the air bag, but a few riders from France, Spain and Australia were also present on their respective nations' dimes.
The Swiss have had at least one private pipe mit air bag somewhere in Europe. The French have integrated an air bag into the pipe for their team, too. "And we haven't seen much of the Chinese in the last few months," Keene said. "They do have the Himalayas over there, so we're guessing that they're up to something as well that would probably encompass both a private training session and some sort of air bag or foam pit."
And it's not just the national teams. Pearce was lucky enough -- and good enough -- to have Nike fund a private superpipe with an air bag in Mammoth for two weeks in the spring. Pearce, along with his "Frends" -- a merry band of vowel-challenged co-conspirators who happen to include some of the heaviest pipe riders on the tour -- made the most of the opportunity. Their sessions resulted in several variations on the double cork.
"All of our best buds, hanging and shredding and pushing each other to learn new tricks in a nonpressure environment we just had a killer time and progressed our riding by a large margin," said Danny Davis, one of Pearce's friends who rode the Mammoth pipe.
Ever since its inclusion in the Olympics in 1998, snowboarding has suffered from a bit of an identity crisis, owing to its origins as a subculture anti-sport. Even if the countercultural embers have been dusted over by years of competition and corporate sponsorship, talk of things such as foam pits and air bags still can make the core cringe a little. But foam pits in particular have been responsible for enormous amounts of progression throughout action sports by enabling safer carcass-chucking. Bringing them to the mountains and integrating them into halfpipes the way White did with Project X didn't just make sense, it was practically inevitable.
"Foam pits will become more and more common, I think, but at the same time, I do not think it is a necessity," said Davis, who incidentally made Dew Tour history in Breck in December by scoring a double cork-enabled 96.50 in the pipe. "Foam pits mostly help with air awareness. You still don't know if you are going to land in the transition or on the deck, and even though we had an air bag, [Pearce] still busted an ankle on a hefty fall. So it is far from the real thing."
But just because such Project X-inspired padding might become more common doesn't necessarily mean it will become required -- an important distinction if you're worried about your sport being hijacked by the well-sponsored or, say, the Chinese. Luke Mitrani, who took second behind White in New Zealand, didn't need one to learn his double corks, and neither did Lago.
"I've never used a foam pit or an air bag before. I learned my tricks over time, and double corks have been a slow transition in my pipe riding," said Lago, who feels that the Formula One comparison has some merit. "That's where it becomes a little weird, because it can definitely become that way. That's one of the reasons I'm not a huge fan of them. Not taking anything away for the riders who took the opportunity to hit one, though."
Pearce, however, disagrees. "It's nothing like F1 racing," he says. "Any kid who has the drive can go up to a public pipe and learn the tricks we're doing. We were just lucky enough to have two weeks to ourselves, and we took advantage of that the best we could."
Davis agrees with Pearce to a point: "In my opinion, snowboarding will never be like [F1]. But it does force kids who do not have the opportunity to use these training devices and that want to keep up with trends of tricks to risk their backs, necks, legs, arms and any other other limb."
Even without Project X or the Frends pipe in Mammoth or any of the team-based islands of training, we'd be sensing a serious competitive frenzy in the pipe just because it's an Olympic year. What the private facilities have done is raise the stakes -- something tragically illustrated by a traumatic head injury that Pearce suffered while practicing a double cork on Dec. 31. (For more information about Pearce, visit the Facebook page his friends have established for him.)
"Shaun has been the pusher in this latest Olympic cycle, and Project X was the instrument of that push," Keene said. "That not only blew people's minds but, in some ways, changed the sport. People that had back-to-back 10s and 9s on lock realized: That didn't mean s--- anymore. And I'm talking about some of the best riders in the world. [They] not only had to learn new tricks and radically different tricks, but they had to do it in a hurry. It really put a fire under people."
Ultimately, access to these facilities gave some of the best riders in the world an opportunity more often afforded to athletes in more traditional sports: the ability to focus on nothing but training and breaking new ground. They served to make snowboarding's best even better, which is to say they did exactly what they were supposed to do.
But does that make it Formula One? Not really -- this is snowboarding, after all. And in snowboarding, for every Shaun White, there always will be a Scotty Lago. Asked whether he thought some of his competitors had an unfair advantage because of their training, he said, "I don't know. You guys make the call. I'm just going to have to take my bed apart and throw in the halfpipe."