Snowsports have always been about the newest and the coolest.
These days a new question has proponents on both sides in the following argument: Are snowboards or free riding on twin tips the coolest way to hit the slopes?
Conventional thinking has it that snowboarding went from establishing a beachhead in the stronghold of skiing to dominating the slopes.
Compared with skiing, snowboarding was hipper, mellower, newer, younger, more rebellious, more fun (certainly the boots were more comfortable).
That stance was pretty standard from the mid-1990s until fairly recently. Then the Olympics adopted snowboarding as a full medal sport for the 1998 Games, a development that put off some of the early practitioners of competitive boarding, Norway's high-flying Terje Haakonsen , most prominently. The best rider in the world boycotted Nagano.
But by the time the 2002 Salt Lake Games came on, the US riders were dominating world competition and the sport was dominating the TV ratings.
In America, that translates to mainstream.
In fact, as some projected, looking at the aging population of ski boomers and the growing ranks of young boarders, it would just be a matter of time until snowboarding led skiing in the marketplace.
But then something else started to develop, subtly at first: The advent of free ride skiing on twin-tip skis.
Free riders cruise the same terrain as boarders, but coming off a ramp or pipe wall, fly higher and do tricks with more variety, owing to the fact that they can move their skis independently.
A free skier might hit the ramp moving forward, sometimes skiing backward and looking back over his shoulder. The freedom of free riding begins with the fact twin tips can ski backward and forward equally well, setting up a variety of trick possibilities.
The appearance of free riding may be interesting in itself. But then consider a National Sporting Goods Association survey showing the trends in snowboarding, and skiing might have taken a counterintuitive turn. To wit: from 2004 to 2005, the number of skiers rose nationally nearly 17 percent, from 5.9 million to 6.9 million. During the same period, snowboard participation fell 10 percent, from 6.6 million to 6 million.
Perhaps more significant is that this constitutes the first drop in snowboarding since there was snowboarding.
Nor are the numbers, by themselves, positively convincing that some megatrend is under way. Since 2001, skiing numbers dropped from 7.7 million to 6.9 million in 2005, after an all-time low of 5.9 million the year before. During the same period, snowboarding grew from 5.3 million to its height of 6.6 million in 2004, before falling to 6 million the next year.
At bottom, we don't really know what numbers in such a short window really show. "Every year is so specific," said NSGA spokesman Larry Weindruch, "because you have some areas -- say Vail, Colo. -- which may have a good snow year or a bad one. Things like this also get reflected in the numbers."
Still, it's clear what some people would like them to mean. To practitioners of twin tips -- free riding in a pipe or terrain park -- it's the growth of the next cool thing. As Olympic gold medalist Ross Powers (now married with kids) puts it, "Since snowboarding became a family sport, and mainstream, it was bound to be uncool."
Or is it that, by an entirely measurable standard, twin-tip skiing is cool. In the words of Carrie Sheinberg, an Olympic ski racer from 1994 who now reports for ESPN and WCSN: "The best snowboarders [such as Andy Finch] end up at least 5-6 feet below the best pipe skiers [such as Simon Dumont or Tanner Hall] . . . and the tricks you can pull off when your feet are independently articulated are spectacular and varied. On the other hand, snowboarders' tricks have all the surprise factor of a jack-in-the-box, as in, if you turn that crank will that little clown really pop up again?"
Sheinberg, who was on scene at these events at the Aspen X Games recently, ascribes the difference to "simple physics. Skiers move faster across the snow and therefore up the wall of the superpipe more quickly because there is less friction holding them back," she said. "Also, their weight is situated fore and aft, which allows them to maximize their spring out of the superpipe transitions. Snowboarders can't do this."
Another journalist at Aspen reported a conversation with 12-year-old Bryce Quigley, whose age qualifies him as a cutting-edge trender. Said Quigley, a native of Gilford, N.H., who skis Gunstock and converted from boarding to skis at age 9: "There's a lot more options with the tricks. For every trick for snowboarding, you've got two tricks for skiing because you've got two skis."
Call this math-based logic. And wherever the trends may lead, when a boarder sees Hall on skis getting 5 more feet of air out of the pipe than Fitch on a board, he may drop the boarders' old insult: "Skiing isn't a sport," they jeered. "It was how Norwegians got to the grocery store."
Free-ride skiing will make its Olympic debut at Vancouver in 2010, as will skiercross, which is held on the same venue as snowboardcross. These follow the wildly popular snowboardcross, which first appeared last year at Turin.
"No matter whether you're on one or two blades," says William Parker, who was riding at Stratton last week, and who also uses twin-tipped skies, "when you're coming up a pipe wall, it's all the same rush. But I do think free riding, by tradition, is a form of boarding. But you know what? It doesn't matter. It's all fantastic."