Crashed Ice: Fast and furious

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 10, 2012 - 11:58 AM

The ice cross downhill race will send daring skaters down a steeply winding chute of ice in a test of their ability and nerve.

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At 40, Joe Schaffer is twice the age of some of the competitors he'll be facing in the Red Bull Crashed Ice World Championships this week in St. Paul. But that doesn't worry him. "I'm time-tested," the Monticello, Minn., resident said.

Nor does it concern him that he's going to be skating downhill in a chute of ice that has been twisted into hairpin turns and outfitted with jumps. The quarter-mile track drops so precipitously that the skaters are expected to reach 40 miles per hour -- if they can remain on their feet.

"I am generally crazy and think of things that most people would consider insane as being perfectly normal," he wrote in his race bio. "When I was younger, I used to ride my bike off the ski jump at Hyland Hills in Bloomington."

The races, which start Thursday and continue through Saturday, will begin from a two-story-tall starting gate erected next to the St. Paul Cathedral, zip across the cathedral's front steps, over a bridge that crosses John Ireland Boulevard and down a steep hill to the finish line near Interstate 35E.

Individual time-trial runs will cut the field from 128 competitors to 64. Then the finalists will race down the 16-foot-wide chute four at a time in a mad scramble that looks like Roller Derby on a cliff.

The sport has existed for only about a dozen years. It was born when an adventurous -- and probably somewhat inebriated -- Austrian hockey player snuck onto a bobsled run to see if he could skate down it. As if that weren't enough of a challenge, the sport's founders decided to throw in jumps, bumps and steep banked turns.

The generic name for this mayhem is ice cross downhill, a label that reflects its blending of elements from skating, skiing and boardercross (snowboard racing). Crashed Ice, the title of this series of races, offers an additional nod to what happens to many of the racers. Falls are such a part of the race that competitors are required to wear full hockey or motocross protective gear.

The sport is big in Europe -- the only permanent track is in Austria -- and, for some reason, Quebec, which extreme-sports magazines like to call "the Mecca of ice cross downhill."

The racers will include both international and domestic competitors, with the latter also competing for a spot on the U.S. national team. The top four American finishers will compete in upcoming races in the Netherlands, Sweden and Canada (Quebec, of course).

All of the races are held in urban settings, and each track is different, partly to add to the challenge but mainly because of the need to weave them among buildings, trees and roads that are unique to each location.

This track includes a hairpin turn that consists of a steeply banked, 16-foot-tall wall, the highest wall ever constructed on one of these tracks. The skaters come out of the turn to face a double jump in which the fastest competitors will try to get enough altitude coming off the first jump to clear the gap between the two hurdles.

The track's designer, Joachim Poelzl of Austria, said through an interpreter that he wanted to ensure that Minnesotans who have spent their lives on skates wouldn't find it too easy.

"We needed to design a course that would challenge 'the hockey state,'" he said.

With the exception of Schaffer, the sport tends to draw young, male hockey players. Schaffer does fit the latter part of that description; he played hockey at Iowa State University, albeit before some of his fellow competitors were born.

One reason the sport draws hockey players is that it puts a premium on a skater's ability to jump back on his feet after falling, something hockey teams regularly practice.

But not everyone is fresh off a hockey rink. Jessica Sawicki, 25, one of a few women who will be tackling the course, is a member of the Minnesota RollerGirls, a Roller Derby team.

"I grew up playing hockey," she said. "I played hockey all the way through high school [in Orono], so getting back on hockey skates has been a trip down memory lane. Still, going from roller skates to ice skates is an adjustment, so we're going to have to see how this goes."

Because the sport is so new to this country, nearly all of the U.S. racers will be getting their first look at it when they make their initial practice run down the course Thursday morning.

"I've seen a lot of videos, but nothing in person." said Jon Keseley, 27, who played hockey for St. Louis Park High School and Gustavus Adolphus College and now plays bandy for Team USA. "That means that we're going to have to wait to see the course to decide on a strategy."

So far, he has one part of his plan firmed up. "I'm going to try to not fall over," he said. "That's the same strategy I use when I go skiing."

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