The 2021 edition of the Freeride World Tour (FWT) didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts, when the first two events of the season – Hakuba, Japan in January and Kicking Horse, Canada in February – both had to be cancelled due to Covid-19 restrictions. Still, in spite of all the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, the remainder of the tour threw up some memorable moments, from number one men’s snowboarder Victor de le Rue’s death-defying gap jump at Fieberbrunn in Austria to men’s ski champ Kristofer Turdell’s monumental cliff drop at the Xtreme Verbier in Switzerland.
And of course, for the many thousands of skiers and snowboarders worldwide who were unable to get to the mountains themselves last winter due to the pandemic, footage from these events meant that they could at least get a second-hand adrenaline hit. Sure, living vicariously through the exploits of others is no substitute for the real thing, but it’s still a whole lot better than nothing.
Now the FWT has unveiled its calendar for the 2022 season, and while Hakuba is still off the menu for the time being, Kicking Horse is very much back on, scheduled for 12-17 February – a time of year when the famous champagne powder snow of British Columbia should be at its deepest and fluffiest.
The "Ozone" contest face at Kicking Horse is relatively easy-angled, averaging out at around 44 degrees (which, by the way, is still wickedly steep by mere-mortal standards), and it's also packed with potential launch pads – a good place, in other words, for competitors to get a little bit experimental before the steeper, craggier contest venues that dominate the back end of the season.
Importantly for the future prospects of the FWT, having a Canadian stop on the itinerary also helps it feel like a true world tour again. For all the spectacular moments last season's series provided, it was an exclusively European affair, with all the events taking place in the Alps. In order to appeal to its global target market, the FWT ideally needs to present a programme on a global scale, and North America, with its enormous snowsports industry, is where the biggest gains are to be made.
In an interview published a year before the pandemic hit, FWT founder Nicolas Hale-Woods said he hoped that by the late 2020s the tour would consist of “at least” eight events, with “three in North America two in Asia, and three in Europe, with maybe one in the Southern Hemisphere”. Tellingly, he also said he hoped the tour would be “less dependent on pure, hard sponsorship due to monetised content”.
It's no secret that recent years haven't been easy for the FWT, even if you discount the Covid-related disruption of the last two seasons. The tour suffered a major setback in 2017 when it lost its title sponsor, after Swatch decided not to renew a seven-figure deal. It still enjoys backing from Audi, along with various ski and snowboard industry brands, but (at time of writing) no big multinationals have taken the opportunity to pick up where Swatch left off.
That's a shame, because after many years of talk about how extreme sports contests could massively increase their audience if only they could get all the tech planets to align and create a compelling online offering, for freeride skiing and snowboarding, it feels like that time may finally have arrived.
The FWT digital experience is certainly a whole lot more sophisticated now than it was a decade-and-a-half ago, when the tour began. These days, helmet-mounted, high-definition GoPro cameras allow you to experience runs from a skier or boarder's point of view, and the footage is all packaged up in a slick, user-friendly way on the FWT website. Want to watch all the day's action from start to finish? Fine. Just want to watch the women's snowboarding? Also fine. At the click of a mouse or tap of a screen you can even choose to watch an individual run, if there's one rider you particularly want to see.
Having said that, it definitely feels as if more could still be done to optimise the viewer experience. One criticism sometimes levelled at the FWT is that its default use of footage shot from a helicopter hovering above the contest face tends to flatten out the action, and it’s true that this static, bird’s eye view can make things look less dramatic than they really are.
The FWT claim that they continue to rely on footage shot from helicopters both because it is higher quality than anything drones can manage, and because helicopters can be greener (the argument being that flying two drone operators and a technical assistant to a contest site uses more carbon than flying in a single camera operator and employing a local helicopter pilot). Given the speed at which drone technology is advancing, though, and the compelling nature of follow-me-down footage, it surely can’t be long before this decision is reversed – and FWT events get even more exciting.
For details of this year’s FWT, visit www.freerideworldtour.com
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.
If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription at https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions