CARRABASSETT VALLEY – Each time a different snowboard rider would screech down the mountain at breakneck speed, it was a chance to wow his fellow competitors.

Those who had already finished their respective turns on the Lower Competition Hill and Lower Narrow Gauge Trail would watch others come down the hill and whoop it up with each aerial trick or speedy finish.

With the Champion’s Cross Sugarloaf Open scheduled for today, Friday’s time trials were also an opportunity for the course to deliver a wow factor of its own.

“I loved the course, lots of air,” said veteran snowboarder Rick Bower of Park City, Utah. “It was a lot of fun. I haven’t raced in a while. So it can be an intimidating course to come back to.”

That’s exactly what today’s event at Sugarloaf is meant to do. With some of the world’s top snowboardcross racers competing, the inaugural race is an opportunity to take the sport to new heights, not only in popularity, but also in the difficulty of the courses.

“An event like this allows the riders to have a rider-driven course and event,” said Nate Holland, a member of the 2006 Olympic team. “Everybody has an input on the course. If something needs to be changed, as riders, we can change it. Having that freedom is definitely nice, and it allows us to kind of lead the progress of the sport.”

The event was the brainchild of Farmington native Seth Wescott, the 2006 Olympic gold medalist. He designed the course that features a 60-foot step-down from the start, followed by another 50-foot drop. The rest of the course features ample twists and turns, and ends with a series of double jumps and a 45-foot jump at the finish.

The hope is that this event can launch a series of races that would help promote and develop snowboardcross. Another date in British Columbia is currently under consideration for later this spring. There hasn’t been a tour of any kind since 2002.

“I think there’s a need for a whole series of these types of events,” said Holland, who won the 2006 X Games and placed third in the 2006 U.S. Championships.

Snowboarding has already gone from the extreme to the mainstream. Once a niche sport, it has developed a following with exposure in the X Games and the Olympics. Now, it is a matter of building on that momentum.

“Since I started in the mid-1980s, it’s amazing to see it accepted in so many ski areas,” said Bower, who was the 1999 World Champion and was an assistant coach with the Olympic Team in 2006. “It has become something everybody can do. Families are going out snowboarding together. As far as competitors, snowboarding getting into the Olympics helped push the sport into a popular place. There are so many options now to try new ways to promote the sport.”

Built for speed, distance and air time, snowboardcross is like combining surfing, motocross and skiing all into one fast-paced package. The first-one-down-the-mountain thrill has begun to catch on, and Wescott’s Olympic triumph helped draw attention.

“I think due to the television coverage, it’s going to continue gaining popularity,” said Graham Watanabe, a member of the 2006 Olympic team. “I think the existing TV spots will be watched more, and, in a few years, we’ll really see a difference.”

There were 43 participants listed for Friday’s time trials, but only about two dozen raced. Jonathan Cheever had the day’s best time with a 53.78-second clocking.

There will be 32 racers today, beginning at noon, with four riders competing at a time. The top two in each heat advance through qualifying rounds. Race officials are estimating that the event should attract thousands, similar to what the U.S. Alpine Ski Championship drew a year ago at Sugarloaf/USA.

“A lot more people are definitely into it, and it allows for big events to happen,” said Holland. “It’s the crowd and the viewing public that drives the sport. By progressing, it makes the courses harder, and riding better and faster and makes for more action-packed events.”

At stake is $50,000 in cash and prizes. The winner gets at least $10,000, plus a Suzuki Motocross motorcycle.

By making the courses harder and more exciting, the top athletes believe snowboarding is bound to gain even more momentum.

“I think these events are just going to help the sport,” Bower said. “A lot of the race courses at the World Cup level are not the most challenging courses. So when you have events like this that are pushing for more jumps and a more progressive style of riding, it embraces the actual sport of snowboarding. It’s a mix of speed and freestyle. It’s a great opportunity to come up with something that’s very snowboarding and very fun.”

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