By mid-morning on Tuesday, the entry way to the Hotel Diva -- base of operations for Winter X Games Europe -- looked like a disheveled demo rack for next year's hottest ski and snowboard hardgoods. Both of the slate-covered walls were lined with stickered boards and skis belonging to some of the top winter sport athletes on the planet, all of whom were doing their best to avoid the winter on the other side of the sliding glass doors.
Tignes sits at just under 7,000 feet, surrounded by peaks that top out around 12,000 feet. There's 190 square miles of terrain here, and all but about two of them are above treeline. And for most of this morning, winds of close to 30 miles per hour poured over the rolling terrain, closing lifts and freezing skin within minutes of exposure. Fortunately for the athletes, it was plenty warm in the video game-enabled athlete lounge, where most of the field posted up for the three hours that slopestyle practice was postponed.
After lunch, the winds eased up and course officials announced that skiers and snowboarders would share a three-hour session. They arrived to find a course that had been substantially altered while they slept, with considerable pop added to every feature. T.J. Schiller, for one, liked the results. "It was super sketchy yesterday, trying to figure out the trannies," he said. "It's really been fixed up." Schiller's been fixed up himself, having broken his wrist several weeks ago and only recently lost the cast.
Chas Guldemond who, despite the name, has never been to France, was also enthusiastic. He was one of the few snowboarders throwing more than straight airs and mellow spins, notching things up with a few rodeos and 9s. But count Eero Ettala and Travis Rice amongst those who were still trying to get the course sorted -- and they had the scowls to prove it. Or maybe that was just because the cold and wind packed the landings so hard, they could cut glass.
There were plenty of crashes throughout the session, leading to holds on-course that created a huge crush of riders in the start area. Basically, it looked like a spring session at Mammoth, only without the spring.
The winds continued to die through the afternoon, and a light snow began to fall as a small but enthusiastic crowd gathered for the women's Snowboard SuperPipe elimination. With the top six moving on to Friday's final, Ellery Hollingsworth's back-to-back 7s set the bar in the first run -- at least until Torah Bright dropped in. The reigning Olympic champion, who arrived in Tignes admittedly exhausted, didn't need her big guns -- just consistently huge air and clean style -- to post a score 12 points higher than the rest of the field. France's Sophie Rodriguez boasted a cheering section consisting 50 or 60 kids from a sports academy that she represents, and her third-place finish gave them plenty to scream about. Kjersti Oestgaard Buaas, Mercedes Nicoll, and Kaitlyn Farrington round out Friday's field of six women who will advance to Wednesday's final.
By the time Men's Ski SuperPipe eliminations began, the sun was down and the crowd at the base of the pipe more than three-quarters full. It looked and felt like a real Winter X Games, minus the venue announcer who pronounced it "Ween-tair X Gaymeens!," and screamed that each skier was dropping in to the "Pie-eep!" That was all Le Buzz could hear, because for the rest of the night the announcer was drowned out by a crowd that was here to see Xavier Bertoni and Kevin Rolland -- both of whom have status in France that might exceed Simon Dumont's status in the U.S.
Despite a conservative, double-less first run, Bertoni didn't disappoint. His 87.33 had him in first until mid-way through the second run, when Justin Dorey uncorked arguably the best run of his career: double to left cork 540 to alley-oop flatspin 3 to 9 to switch rightside 7 to alley-oop flatspin 5. It rocketed him from fourteenth to first and took the energy in the ensuing runs up a notch.
Dumont tried to rise to the moment. Sitting below the eight-man cutoff on his second run, he powered through a stock but typically huge run of 9s and 7s. He landed low on one hit, which perhaps convinced him he needed something special to finish. Torquing into a switch 9, Dumont ran out of pipe and impacted violently on the last remaining feet of lip, snapping a pole in the process. As the realization that he'd miss yet another Winter X podium this winter, he snapped the other one across his helmet in frustration. With Peter Olenick failing to advance as well, the biggest names in U.S. pipe skiing will not be represented here in Tignes.
Rolland might be the biggest name in French pipe skiing, but as the final skier of the night, he was sitting in ninth. The run he put together wasn't as impressive as the one that won Winter X Games a month and a half ago, but it included a double and a 12 and everyone, including the venue announcer who sounded more and more like Borat as the night went on, audibly exhaled when he finished in third.
"I'm going to switch it up," said Dorey when asked if he thought his qualifying run could win Wednesday's Final. "It's not enough, because everyone will be stepping it up." Considering that Bertoni and Rolland both have more doubles in their bags, he's probably right.
Then again, considering the forecast calls for up to a foot of snow and howling winds, there's no telling they'll get the chance to prove it as scheduled. Check back with the Le Buzz to hear how it shakes out.