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The Craziest Sport on Ice

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— 2 weeks ago

The Craziest Sport on Ice

By Christine Yu
  • In ice cross downhill, speed skating goes vertical—and hits the big time.
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Standing at the start line of her first ice cross downhill race in Quebec City, Amanda Trunzo felt intimidated. She was 60 feet off the ground and about to hurl herself down a narrow, winding ribbon of ice.

“Looking down on the track definitely gave me feelings I had never experienced before,” recalls the 30-year-old from Blaine, Minnesota (instagram.com/amandatrunzo), about that 2015 race. Who wouldn’t be shaking in their skates?

But once Trunzo got a taste of the sheer rush ice cross offers, she hasn’t looked back, winning World Championships in 2018 and 2019.

That rush comes from whipping down a vertical ice track filled with high jumps, bumps and hairpin turns at speeds up to 50 MPH—with no snowbanks to break falls.

Once considered a renegade sport, ice cross downhill has gone legit, complete with global rankings and a World Championship circuit. And it continues to grow quickly, attracting more and more athletes and spectators alike. 

>> Watch this Ice Cross Video! <<

 

Skating on the Edge

The first ice cross downhill event was held in 2001 in Sweden. Staged on a 300-meter track in Stockholm’s fish market, it served as a proof-of-concept experiment: Could a new sport based on downhill inline skating but with more action prove its worth?

Red Bull began sponsoring races under the banner Red Bull Crashed Ice and the sport grew slowly over the next few years. Races were held once, then twice, then three times annually. In 2010, the first Ice Cross Downhill World Championship was introduced.

Now the sport draws athletes from 50 countries around the world and large, enthusiastic crowds to the race circuit.

And it’s no surprise that the sport has taken off with spectators.

The course looks like a bobsled or luge course, ranging up to 700 meters in length and snaking through historic city centers, ski resorts and even stadiums like Boston’s Fenway Park. (Tracks are built of steel scaffolding and wood; a sheet of ice is then layered on top.) Four athletes soar over jumps and ramps at breakneck speeds, tuck into 180-degree turns, jostle for position and make a mad sprint dash for the finish line. 

“It’s action from start to finish. Races, depending on length, can take between 35 and 50 seconds,” says Christian Papillon, sport director for Red Bull Ice Cross World Championship.

It’s simple, too. “You’re not judged by your performance. You just have to get down the track. The first one down is the winner,” says Papillon. “When you race with good timing and technique, you produce a lot of speed. If the timing isn’t right, catastrophe is coming.” And the wipeouts can be spectacular. 

Unlike other sports in which athletes race the same course year after year, ice cross tracks constantly change and athletes must learn new lines and features.

The design and shape of the course depends on the landscape of the location where the event is held so it can harness the soul and feel of a location, says Papillon. For example, the track in Fenway Park started in the grandstand in right field, racing down the stands and between the bases before finishing at home plate. 

The kicker? Race organizers don’t release details of the track until a few weeks before the event. That’s when athletes can begin to get a feel for the course and start to visualize the best line down; they don’t see the track for real until two training sessions on race weekend.

Different tracks suit different athletes and skating styles. Some tracks are shorter and more technical, favoring sharp skating skills and agility, while others are longer and require better flow and timing to generate speed. 

Skills and Drills

Ice cross is a sport that Johanny “JoJo” Velasquez, 19, was born to do.

His parents, both professional rollerbladers, were determined to get Velasquez up on skates as soon as he could walk. At the age of 10, he began playing hockey.

“It takes two things I’ve been doing my whole life, my two biggest passions, and combines them into one sport,” says Velasquez, the 2019 Junior World Champion. “I was training for a sport my whole life that I never even knew existed.” 

Ice cross requires a combination of speed, agility, strength and power, so it makes sense that the sport draws athletes from hockey, inline skating and speed skating. Downhill racing skills help, too.

Skiers, snowboarders and mountain bikers all know how to race a fast line and can transfer those skills (and nerves of steel) to ice cross. “Even if you have good skating skills on flat ice, the first time you go downhill, your brain doesn’t quite understand what’s going on,” says Papillon. 

Velasquez trains for 12 hours a week. He skates as much as possible, between time on the ice and rollerblading at Camp Woodward, the action sports facility his parents run in Woodward, Pennsylvania. He skates up ramps to work on his explosive power, a critical factor for getting out of the starting gates fast.

 

Velasquez also practices skating on each leg to improve his balance so he can stay upright while maneuvering through the course and over jumps on race day. “During a race, if you fall, you take yourself out of the race,” says Velasquez. 

But it’s not just about skating. Velasquez incorporates strength-training moves like box jumps, squats and exercises using a Swiss Ball, including “lots of standing on exercise balls.” And he uses a trampoline to work on body awareness in the air. 

Trunzo also capitalizes on her hockey background; she started skating at four years old and played Division I hockey at Dartmouth College.

“Hockey has helped my comfort level of being on the ice from such a young age and allows me to do well in the skating sections of a track,” she says. “You need to be comfortable on your skates and quick coming out of the gates, and have good air control and power in your stride, plus endurance for long tracks and, when you are racing multiple times in a night, the ability to transition well.”

Skating in skate parks, on treadmills and on the ice are staples in Trunzo’s workout routine. She also is a devotee of CrossFit, visiting her local box five to six days a week, and practices yoga once a week.

“This variety of training always keeps my body guessing just like the tracks, as each one is different,” Trunzo says. “I try not to focus on one area specifically but on being a well-rounded athlete, as I believe that gives me the best chance to be successful.”

But the sport isn’t just about winning and massive crashes. For the racers, there’s belonging to a tremendous community of incredible athletes. Trunzo says that, besides the adrenaline, it is the friendships that keep her coming back to the track.

“There’s a cool camaraderie. We’re all there to experience this one-of-a-kind sport,” says Velasquez. Even though we all want to cross the finish line first, there’s a respect factor.”

 

Becoming a Champ

Ice cross races are governed by the All Terrain Skate Cross (ATSX) Federation.

There are three categories of race—ATSX 250, ATSX 500 and ATSX 1000—which make up the Red Bull Ice Cross World Championship circuit; the numbers represent track difficulty and the amount of World Championship points up for grabs at each race. In addition, there are three divisions—Men’s, Women’s, and Juniors.

The 2019–20 series of 12 races includes stops in Japan, Canada, France, Finland, Austria, Kazakhstan and Russia. At the end of the circuit, three world champions will be crowned—one in each division—based on total points earned during the season. 

Races take place over the course of two days. On Day 1, athletes take part in time trials: Each gets two runs and the fastest time counts. Those with the top times advance to elimination heats on Day 2. For those who don’t qualify from the time trials, there’s a last chance qualifier race—one final run to make it through to the elimination heats.

On Day 2, heats of four athletes race head-to-head. The fastest two athletes advance to the next round, culminating in a four-rider final. 

For those just dipping their skates into ice cross, there are ATSX 100 events, featuring smaller, less-steep courses. It’s a good opportunity to get the hang of skating downhill. Just register with ATSX and sign up for a race.

Helmet certified for sports like BMX, motocross, downhill mountain bike or hockey are required. Athletes also need to wear protective pads for the shoulders, elbows, hips and knees, plus a chest guard, shinbone protection and gloves. (Many athletes wear hockey or motocross pads.) Neck protectors and a mouthguard are also recommended. 

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