It may look like reckless, high-speed mayhem as four daredevils throw themselves down the jumps, drops, berms and turns, but snowboard cross is far more of a mind game than that, according to two-time Olympic champion Pierre Vaultier.
The 32-year-old Frenchman spends a lot of time analysing the course and his opponents to draw up a race plan.
“But prior to the run, it’s very important to know the opponents and know how they’re used to acting, what their profile and skills are, and to take advantage of that kind of information.”
At the start of a boardercross race, the four riders use handlebars to plunge themselves into the course. A strong upper body and fast reactions are key. However, although it is ultimately all about crossing the finish line first, an early lead is not always the aim. Drafting – going closely behind another rider to avoid the wind and save energy – can be equally productive.
“Being at the front usually helps because you can really choose your line and go as you want, but I’d say that I’ve been winning some races starting behind the guys on purpose,” Vaultier said.
“Drafting is very important, so if you are in the front and work for the others you may get overtaken quickly, and that’s never good.”
“Patience mostly pays off. It doesn’t make sense to hurry to overtake someone. It makes sense to set a strategy before racing, have this strategy well thought-out, and then act with patience and certainty. It’s not worth it to hurry. Everything goes quickly, but you have to be patient.”
Growing up in Briançon, a mountainous region in eastern France, Vaultier started snowboarding as a six-year-old in the nearby resort of Serre Chevalier, and realised early that boardercross was his sport.
“Since I was little I’ve loved that you face the opponents,” he said.
You are not allowed to pull, push or hold another racer, or block them from trying to get past, but riders certainly get up close and personal.
“Direct contact with the opponents is always what’s pushing me in this sport. I couldn’t have been a downhill skier or even a racing skier because I don’t like to race against the timer; I really like facing the opponents.
“That’s what pushes me and that’s what I can see changes me between qualifications and the final. I’ve never been very successful in the qualification, but in the final I always pull myself together and do the best I can do.”
When the sport made its Olympic debut at Turin 2006, Vaultier made his. Although he was among the favourites both then and at Vancouver 2010, he had to wait until 2014 to earn a spot on the top of the Olympic podium, despite tearing his anterior cruciate ligament only two months earlier.
To defend his title at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, he will have to overcome another injury after he hurt his knee badly in a biking accident in July 2019. But he has plenty of time to recover to race for a third consecutive Olympic gold medal in the Chinese capital.
“It would be the best gold ever,” he said. “Whether I’m going to be able to succeed is another question, but it’s of course what I’m aiming for. It would just be crazy. Right now though, I’m only focusing on the work that I have to do, and if the work is well done I have a chance.”
If he is in good shape in two years’ time, Vaultier could have the chance to double his Olympic gold medal tally in Beijing, where a mixed team snowboard cross event will be added to the programme.
“I think it definitely makes sense that we’re training and working and preparing for more than one event at the Olympics. We used to fight for only one medal, and it’s a really great change that we now can fight for two,” he said.
In the new event, each team consists of a male and a female competitor who race in a relay format, where the second rider starts as soon as the first has crossed the finish line.
“The team event has brought a bigger strategy vision to the sport, and I think that it’s from this point (the inclusion of a team event) that people started to think more about strategy, also in the individual events,” Vaultier said.
Most of all, though, he thinks competing in a mixed event can add to unity across the whole team.
“We have more and more of the equality between women and men that we need to have, and when you come in with a mixed team this is a great way to answer such a movement,” he said.
“Even though we train together, as soon as we compete we turn into individuals. Working as a team in the relay competition we can really strengthen team spirit within the squads too, now also uniting the women and the men.”