Reine Barkered from Sweden, who placed second overall in the Freeride World Tour last year, at Courmayeur. PHOTO:  P. Field

Reine Barkered from Sweden, who placed second overall in the Freeride World Tour last year, at Courmayeur. PHOTO: P. Field

Watch the livestream of the Freeride World Tour’s first stop at Courmayeur Mont Blanc, Italy at The event is scheduled for Friday, January 17 at 10:30 a.m. CET (1:30 a.m. PST).

The big tour returns. Back for year two, the Swatch Freeride World Tour presented by The North Face is coming off its first year merger with the Freeskiing World Tour with a ton of momentum. The first event for 2014, originally scheduled for Revelstoke, but was rescheduled due to snow conditions, will take place on the Courmayeur side of Mont Blanc in Italy on January 17. Only the men will be competing. The women will begin their season January 25 on the other side of Mont Blanc in Chamonix, France. According to a statement released by MSI, the venue at Courmayeur is "too small to sustain a large number of riders. As a result, only men compete in Courmayeur."

But before we know where we're going, we need to know where we've been. World Champion Drew Tabke, who took home sixth in the 14th annual Powder Awards Reader Poll, will be ready to defend his crown from the likes of Reine Barkered of Sweden, who finished only 40 points behind Tabke last season and took second place overall. Julien Lopez of France took third. In fourth place was one of the standouts of last year's tour, Jeremie Heitz of Switzerland. Last summer Heitz trekked across the pond and spent months training at Woodward at Tahoe, working on his air awareness and tricks into the facility's foam pit.

On the women's side, Austria's Nadine Wallner handedly took the title in 2013 after podiuming in four out of five of the events. She took fifth at Kirkwood. Hot on her tails were Norway's Pia Nic Gunderson, the second place finisher, and Americans Jackie Paaso and Ashley Maxfield, who took third and fourth respectively.

The FWT will see eight men and six women join the tour this year. Among those joining in 2014 are Ian Borgeson of Dillion, Colorado, and Hadley Hammer of Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Charlie Lyons of New Zealand at last year's Courmayeur FWT comp. PHOTO:  D. Carlier

Charlie Lyons of New Zealand at last year’s Courmayeur FWT comp. PHOTO: D. Carlier

"I'm excited to do something that big and that different," says Hammer, who finished third overall in the qualifying tour last year. Hammer’s journey to the FWT has not come without challenge. In her first year of competing, the winter of 2011/2012, she broke her back. She’s since healed and she says last year was a big learning year, but everything came together. Now she’ll test herself against the same tour veterans that have inspired her. "Jackie Paaso…I envy how big she goes. The Euro girl scene has it on lockdown like Christine Hargin. I think she's going to be some of the biggest competition for everybody."

"There's a higher level," says Tabke about the 2014 tour. reached Tabke via Skype while the champ was in Zermatt, Switzerland, helping produce the annual Swatch Skier's Cup.

"In a way it makes it harder to win, because there's so many riders in one place that are just crazy, crazy good. Anybody from a bunch of different countries could take it so it pushes the level up higher overall."

Tabke will be on the lookout for some of the Europeans this year.

"Kevin Guri won Verbier last year and he finished pretty well in the rankings. He's an amazing skier," says Tabke. "Fabio Studer is an Austrian kid that skis really well. Reine could easily win again. I feel like I should name some Americans [laughs]. I'm excited to see the new guys, see what the qualified Americans are capable of."

Tabke, who recently signed an outerwear deal with Eddie Bauer after leaving longtime sponsor The North Face, agreed he has seen more recognition in his career since winning the over title last year.

"The numbers speak for themselves. There were 100,000 people watching every webcast. It's noticeable, for sure, the results of that exposure."

Tabke's game plan for this season is the same as it's always been. "My chief motivation is to do a run that I'm proud of and a lot of times that results in a good ranking. I want that personal satisfaction of skiing a run that I'd want to watch on video instead of one that I'm embarrassed to watch [laughs]."