PHOTO: Jeremy Bernard/FWT
The Freeride World Tour is, by definition, free. Free of traditional teams, coaches, and practices. It's up to the individual athletes how they prepare and compete. Some, like Jeremie Heitz (whom I would bet heavily on as the overall winner), take a more traditional approach. The Swiss steep skier trains in the gym, sleeps well, and studies his line choice like a hopeful Ivy league applicant.
Others, like Drew Tabke, are more likely to be found surfing breaks outside of Seattle and reading Thomas Pynchon in order to prepare. Some riders choose to take advantage of hotel saunas and quiet restaurants the day before, while others lap the Aguille and savor the European nightlife. There are no constraints on how riders prepare, which leaves rookies and hopefuls without a guidebook. It levels the playing field, and puts the podium within anyone's reach.
It's this variability that keeps each competition stop exciting. Each venue holds potential for any of the 34 skiers--and each rider will win or lose in their own way: spinning down the Mount Blanc valley a la Fabio Studer, or like Jaclyn Paaso will most likely do, spending most of their run airborne over the largest feature on the Clocher Clocheton face.
But in the spirit of subjectivity, for big mountain competitions are just that--subjective--these are the riders who we will be keeping an eye on this season, beginning at the first stop in Chamonix on January 27.
The Katniss and Peeta: (The ones you would vote into the arena)
Jeremie Heitz and Logan Pehota. Heitz has been close to the top for the past few years, and his hunger is evident. His runs will be quick and bold. His downfall being that he can be underscored due to the quickness of his runs distracting the viewer and judges from the actual difficulty of his line choice.
Coming off a successful rookie year, Pehota displays his comfort skiing big mountains with perfect technical skills. He placed second last year, and was mere points from the overall win. What he lacks in competition experience, he makes up for in mountain experience, growing up chasing his family around the high peaks of Canada.
Anytime I'm unmotivated to ski, I'll put on Drew Tabke's underscored Haines 2016 run. He has the experience to win and always finds his own creative way down the mountain. If the Flyin' Hawaiian takes the podium, it'll be because of unique lines and a graceful style. You can't discount veteran riders like Reine Barkered and Nadine Wallner either. While they had mixed results last season, they have the experience and skill level to be at the top of the podium at every event. They are two riders who you can never count out of contention.
What's a competition without a dark horse or two? Conor Pelton, now injury free, will have some show-stopping runs. He blurs the line between freestyle and race technique better than most. He might also be the happiest kid on the tour, which counts for something.
I'm also excited to see three athletes who will bring more of a park style into the backcountry. Arianna Tricomi, Kylie Sivell, and Elizabeth Gerritzen are capable of spins and grabs that are often absent in a typical run. They have less experience than many of the other women, but like Gerritzen displayed in winning the first FWQ of the season in Japan, they see the potential for more progressive and creative runs.
Most likely this will all be proved wrong as it's nearly impossible to postulate the results of a freeride competition. These guesses are based off the supposition that the riders will perform how they have in the past--and on the tour, anything can happen.