Life on the Edge: Freeride World Tour – Andorra

The Ski Club’s Ski+Board Deputy Editor Harriet Johnston travels to Andorra to meet the riders on the Freeride World Tour. Join her as she explores the crazy world that is competitive backcountry riding.

After a three hour transfer from Barcelona, the beautiful villages of Vallnord-Arcalis were a stark contrast to the mind numbing motorways I had been staring at through the window. I was stunned by how beautiful the villages were. Ordino, where I would be staying for the duration of the Freeride World Tour, is a blend of traditional stone and modern glass buildings, with very few bars and even fewer English speaking locals. It’s a sleepy rural heaven…that is, until the tour arrives.

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I had arrived on Thursday hoping to get ahead of the first day of competition which was due for Saturday, I was gutted when an email had flown into my inbox late on Wednesday night to announce the tour for the following day. I shouldn’t have been surprised – the first leg of the tour had been postponed from Chamonix due to bad weather, and rescheduled to happen on Friday 20th February in Andorra.

After exploring the village a little, I caught up on the results of the first day before heading to the Hotel Coma, where the riders were staying. The atmosphere was chilled, with people wandering through to the riders lounge carrying tablets and laptops. There, most sat on beanie bags, studying photographs of the venues for the next day.

Early the next morning, as I made my way up to the slopes,  I heard the news that guides had ruled the conditions unsafe and rescheduled the day of competition for the following week. I took the chance to explore the area and, though it’s a small resort space with slow chairlifts, freeride opportunities are almost limitless. Later, the winner of the first male ski leg, Drew Tabke, told me my experience of trying to cover the tour wasn’t uncommon.

‘We speak to so many journalists who come to the tour and just miss it.’ Drew told me, ‘We have pretty mixed feelings about having to wait ourselves.’

It’s not just a disappointment for the athletes who may have spent weeks building up to the event. For the team setting up the tour, it’s an enormous workload, organising alternate faces as well as assessing weather and snow conditions. The organisers said they had to work almost 12 hours a day, 7 days a week and that these two days of skiing had been their first of the season – for some, it may be the only time they get to ski while they are on the tour.

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The opening ceremony took place that night in the centre of the tiny town. The buzz around the event seemed to be less for the prize giving for the winners of the Vallnord-Arcalis leg, or the autograph signing, but the whispered discussions about the unofficial party. The tour group swarmed the narrow streets, with riders drinking and hollering at one another from skateboards. I asked Arianna Tricomi, who had placed third in the women’s ski competition if she was disappointed that they hadn’t been able to compete today, and she just laughed.

‘I just wanna ski good snow in the mountains with my friends.’

‘I’m glad,’ a voice said behind me, as second place Freeride World Tour rookie Kylie Sivell emerged.  ‘I literally couldn’t stay awake today after yesterday.’

The exhaustion the riders felt didn’t reflect in the events of the evening. After dinner, the rider’s lounge, which had seen such concentration and serious discussion the day before, became a space of dancing and drinks. The party started off with casual drinks in the bar and ping-pong, and escalated as the music swelled to louder volumes.Someone must have had face paint, because it seemed that suddenly everyone’s face was covered in doodles. Things descended in to madness, as did the quality of face painting and music. I have a vague recollection of cutting shapes to the Spice Girls and Rage Against The Machine.

What is clear from the party is the bond between those on the tour – there is a real sense of comradery. Every journalist seemed to know the competitors, while the complexity of planning such an intense event pulls together the organising team. Athletes invited me to stay at their homes and ride with them, while the owner of the hotel spun a snowboarder in the centre of the room in a keg trolley. Taisuke Kusunoki, who doesn’t speak any English, danced in the crowd with self-proclaimed life of the party Logan Pehota. It’s wild – but those riding in this way have to be. Having had such an adrenaline fuelled yet exhausting few days, the riders need to blow off steam and this is it. I’m one of the first to head to bed but heard the party settled down just before dawn.

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The next morning I checked out the junior competition, where over sixty 14-18-year-olds hang out on the hill before dropping in. The whole resort is exceptionally easy to navigate, with a freeride area clearly marked off the Creussans chairlift for those who may be looking for an introduction to the sport. The official party that night takes in a huge conference centre. It seems slightly bewildering to have such a space in such a tiny place, but it’s a real reminder of how much the tour means to the locals, who intermingle with the athletes. Watching the Andorran rock band entertain the crowds, I chatted to Davey Baird, another rookie to the tour who came sixth in the first snowboarding leg. It was clear he was gutted.

‘If I hadn’t butt checked, I know I could have got on that podium’, he shook his head disappointed. The 23-year-old, who worked on a fishing ship in Alaska during the summer in order to fund his place in the competition isn’t bragging. In the rescheduled Chamonix leg, he finishes third.

The tour officially comes to a close that evening, with everyone once again partying late into the night before the waiting game continues, with skating trips to Barcelona and days on the snow planned for each of the athletes.

What is clear from the few days I spend with them is that the tour is a whirlwind – it’s chaotic to organise, with wild parties and riding to match. But it is this unpredictability which only adds to the beauty of the event. It’s unlike anything I’ve experienced, and that really is what makes the tour so free. 

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Categories: Athletes, Competitions, Travel

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