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Olympics

Men's snowboardcross preview

CYPRESS MOUNTAIN, British Columbia -- The U.S. riders were just leaving for this snow-starved, star-crossed minor mountain when the call came. With two days to go before Monday's qualifiers and finals in men's snowboardcross, Saturday's training session had been cancelled, "to allow course work and preservation," said the official release.

The host country's riders already know the course well, having run it frequently over the past year. This led cynics to suggest that the decision to scratch Saturday's practice may have been influenced by Own-the-Podium elements, looking to maintain Team Canada's home-field advantage.

"That could be," laughed Team USA rider Seth Wescott. On the other hand, he pointed out, in their video review of Friday's training session, the Americans noticed that "the Canadians who aren't in the Games looked like they were riding better than the four guys who are. So, if that's their strategy, I guess we're okay with it."

Make no mistake, this show will go on, even if the rain in Sunday's forecast rinses away so much snow that course designer Jeff Ihaksi's hay bales are showing. Atrocious conditions will inject further unpredictability into an event that borders on anarchy to begin with.

With its banks, berms and bottlenecks, its whoop sections and Wu-Tang jumps, this sport is already an exercise in downhill Darwinism: four riders choking a course comfortably designed for (maybe) one. Think demolition derby, minus the decorum. And that's under bluebird skies. Throw in Cypress conditions: gusting winds, rain, a dash of wet snow and some fog for good measure, and we're looking at carnage squared.

One of the many things I love about this event is that the competitors are all copacetic with that.

"You hope things go your way on that day, but if they don't, it's not the end of anything," says Wescott, 32, the dashing, unpretentious Mainer who won the first gold medal awarded in this event four years ago in Torino. "I'm already planning on going to Sochi -- the Russian resort city that will host the 2014 Games -- "so hopefully, I'll be doing this four more years."

"Boardercross can be very unpredictable," says Lindsey Jacobellis, whose silver medal from Torino has doubled, at times, as a millstone. "You could have someone come out of nowhere and land on you, or you can just be having one of those days, you're out in front you're getting the hole shot and everything looks great."

Getting the hole shot, much coveted in boardercross, means grabbing a quick lead out of the gate, avoiding the inevitable jockeying and elbow-throwing going on behind you. And then there are those days, as Jacobellis knows, that everything looks great, and you still find a way to lose the race.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Women's snowboard qualifiers and finals are Tuesday, and I'll write about Lindsey tomorrow.

There are so many strong riders now, says American Nate Holland, a strong medal contender, "there's no one that dominates the sport." It was Holland, on a roll following his fifth boardercross victory in the Winter X Games, who fired a playful shot across Team Canada's bow, assuring them that it was no problem for them to own the podium -- "We're just gonna rent it for the month."

On the subject of dominance, Holland might get an argument from Frenchman Pierre Vaultier, who won four of the five World Cup races this year, with Holland claiming the other.

Another French rider to keep an eye on is Xavier Delerue, 30, who has won three World Cup Championships since '03. A broken ankle three weeks before the Torino Games put a damper on his performance -- he was 18th -- but he's healthy and riding fast. Nor is Delerue likely to be intimidated by the competition or the conditions, having cheated death two years ago.

After taking the bronze at a test event on this mountain a year ago, Wescott is pleased with the tweaks Ihaksi has made to his creation. The "halfpipey-type features" in the start sequence were too small to suit Wescott a year ago. "They're big enough now," he says, "so you're not going to overshoot 'em."

Wescott sees the fifth turn as a potential high-accident area. It's a right-hander, non-banked -- kind of a flat turn. That one's going to be problematic. As soft and saturated as the snow is, you're going to have some super-gnarly ruts there."

While Wescott devoured the new-and-improved start sequence in practice, one of his teammates struggled with it.

"I seemed to dumping a lot of speed in those first Wu-Tang features," said 5' 6", 150-pound Graham Watanabe, citing his stature as one possible reason for his struggles getting over those "transitions."

If only a winged horse could bear him over those features, a reporter mused, and Watanabe smiled. It was Watanabe, in response to a question about how it felt to compete in the Olympics, who had riffed at a press conference: "Imagine Pegasus, mating with a unicorn, and the creature that they birth, I somehow tame it and ride it into the sky and the clouds and sky and sunshine and rainbows ..."

It was mildly surprising, at these stridently anti-doping Olympics, that the 27-year-old from Sun Valley was not seized immediately by testers seeking evidence of hallucinogens in his bloodstream. There he was, instead, wiping the sleet from his goggles at the bottom of the course last Friday, explaining how the steady rains effect the snow VANOC continues to heroically transport to this venue, by truck and by a gigantic Erickson AirCrane, a vast, orange heavy-lift helicopter. The wet snow compacts under the weight of the riders, forming "ripples ... especially in the turny sections."

That's not necessarily bad news for Watanabe. He and teammate Nick Baumgartner, the pride of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, are longer shots for medals than Holland and Wescott. But they could be the beneficiary of crashes caused by such ripples and ruts. That's just how it goes in this most capricious of Olympic events. Some days you get the unicorn, and some days the unicorn gets you.

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