Sunday, December 21, 2014

‘Like the Wild West’: Breck celebrates 30 years of snowboarding

#Breckenridge, Colorado.

Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum

When Tricia Byrnes first came to Breckenridge as a young, bright-eyed kid from the icy East Coast, she was greeted by snowboarders barreling down the roof of an A-frame on Main Street.
Nearly 30 years later, the A-frames and rambunctiousness are fresh in Byrnes’ memory. It was late March 1987, just three years after Breckenridge first allowed snowboarders on the slopes. Her brother, then the family’s only professional snowboarder, was competing at the resort’s second World Snowboarding Championships.
In the ’80s, the “Worlds,” as it was known, was the crème de la crème of snowboard contests, built around the crème de la crème of ’80s features: a slushy, hand-dug halfpipe on Peak 9. The walls were barely 5 feet tall, with jagged lips and hardly any vertical.
Byrnes was blown away by it all.
“I thought it was totally wild and crazy and awesome,” Byrnes said of her first few days in Breck. “I was just blown away by everything that was happening.”
By March 1988, Byrnes returned to Breckenridge as a 13-year-old for her first taste of competition. She had traded her Burton Elite 150 for a competition-ready K2 Gyrator, then one of the fledgling industry’s most advanced boards, complete with a flat tail and sharply pointed nose. While she didn’t place at that first event — she was busy ogling Shaun Palmer in his trademark American flag bandana — it led to a pro career spanning more than 20 years, including wins at the Burton U.S. Open, the FIS Snowboarding World Cup and a spot on the second U.S. Olympic Snowboard Team in 2002.
It also led to Byrne’s lifelong love affair with Breckenridge.
“It was just radical, to pull out that old word,” she says. “It was a counterculture time in the sport, and it was cool to see a gigantic resort like Breckenridge embrace that.”
Breckenridge was the first major Colorado resort to adopt snowboarding, but it wasn’t the first ski area in the state to take a chance on something new and different and seemingly dangerous. It was beat to the punch by the now-defunct Berthoud Pass Ski Area, which is also in the running for Colorado’s first ski area, period, though the title is up for debate.
Still, Breckenridge was ahead of the curve from the beginning. Shortly after snowboarders were first allowed on the mountain, resort management wanted to attract the new sport’s best — and wildest — talent with the sort of large-scale events that are now part of the Breck brand.
It began with the World Snowboarding Championships, which led to Grand Prix qualifiers in the ’90s, and the Vans Triple Crown of Snowboarding in the late ’90s and early ’00s. The events drew dozens of now-legendary snowboarders: Palmer, Ross Powers, a young Shaun White and dozens more, along with longtime Breck residents JJ Thomas, Steve Fisher and Todd Richards. Those athletes have gone on to win dozens of medals at the X Games, Dew Tour, Grand Prix and Winter Olympics, thanks in large part to Breck’s claim to fame: the Peak 8 superpipe.
“The thing with Breckenridge is it’s always a reliable, great venue for competitions,” Byrnes says. “It still has one of the best halfpipes on the scene. You spend the first two weeks of December in Summit County, and it becomes just a special, nostalgic place with all the lights and decorations.”
For longtime locals like CJ Mueller, a record-setting speed skier and Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame inductee, snowboarding’s first years in Breckenridge weren’t entirely rose-colored. He’s lived in Summit County since 1970, and shortly after snowboarding arrived, the sport felt like more of a rebellious lifestyle than a serious discipline.
“When it first started, a lot of the kids who were coming up to do it were into the ‘rebel without a clue’ thing,” Mueller says. “They were just into being rebels more than they might’ve been into snowboarding itself. But that’s really changed over the years, and it’s changed for the better.”
Unlike Stratton Mountain, where Byrnes says she was familiar with backlash from skiers, Breckenridge seemed to fully embrace the sport — and the culture it spawned.
“It never felt like we were excluded or pushed to another part of the mountain or the town,” Byrnes says. “They just seemed incredibly open. I just still have that vision of driving to town with my brother, seeing the people jump off the buildings. It was like the Wild West.”
Breckenridge continues to be a major player in the snowboard world, even as the industry itself has started to slip. The sport enjoyed consistent growth until the last three or four seasons. Last season, a report from Snowsports Industries America found that roughly 30 percent of all snowsports participants are snowboarders, down from 32 percent during the 2012-13 season. Numbers have not yet been compiled for this season.
At the same time, skiing has blossomed, thanks in large part to technology and events pioneered by snowboarding. The SIA report shows that American boarders and skiers spent $2.8 billion on hard and soft goods last season — an industry record after two years of declining sales — led by Alpine touring equipment and bigger, fatter skis shaped curiously like snowboards.
“For a while, it seemed like all kids wanted to do was snowboard, just to do the opposite of what mom and dad were doing,” says Mueller, who wanted to try snowboarding after it first arrived in town and decided against it due to bad wrists. “Now, it seems like they’re more inclined to take it up on skis.”
Across Summit County, snowboarding remains big business. The Silverthorne-based company Unity Snowboards began officially pressing boards in 1995. When owner Pete Wurster first moved from Wisconsin to Colorado in 1995, it was known as Summit Snowboards, and he sold them from the trunk of a friend’s car at a rate of 50 per season.
Since then, the company has become one of the industry’s leading niche manufacturers, with a pro team that includes Breck’s Thomas and Taylor Gold, the 2014 Dew Tour superpipe champ.
“It’s been great in the sense that we’ve made boards for a lot of high-level athletes, like Taylor,” Wurster says. “Over the years I’ve had numerous riders who’ve come to me because they lost a sponsor or broke a board, so they come to the shop and we’ll get them one.”
For Byrnes, that kind of friendly, welcoming attitude is part of snowboarding’s DNA, just like halfpipes, powder turns and, of course, Breckenridge.
“At Breck, it just seems like they’re totally down for snowboarding and events and everything that comes with them,” Byrnes says. “The town still has the pulse of a quaint, small mountain town, but they’re open to everything snowboarding brings.”
Courtesy of the Summit Daily News.