Mother Nature was gracious, registration filled out to a respectable number and the Rahlves Banzai Tour kicked off with its defining spills and thrills on an alternate venue at Kirkwood this past weekend.
“It was awesome,” said Daron Rahlves, organizer and promoter of the four-stop Rahlves Banzai Tour, which he touts as the world's premier big-mountain skicross- and boardercross-style race series.
“We found really good snow and probably the best track we've had. It was long, it was demanding and it had all the elements, with big turns and super tight slalom-style turns. There was even this cat road that was sending skiers over 100 feet in the air. It made for some good excitement, and we got lucky with the weather too.”
Due to low snow conditions, the original course down the steeps of Eagle Bowl was moved to the Snow Snake Gully, which, coupled with bluebird skies for Sunday's final day, proved ideal for racing, Rahlves said. The gully was backlit Sunday, providing clear visibility over the assortment of rollers, bumps and banks that littered the challenging course.
“I think it was the toughest track physically that we've had. It was pretty demanding,” said Rahlves, a Truckee resident and former Olympic alpine ski racer who now serves as Sugar Bowl's ski ambassador. “It was so long, and the terrain was relentless. It just kept coming at these guys.”
A total of 75 athletes raced, which was down from last year but still plenty to make for a competitive atmosphere, Rahlves said. Many of the top finishers from last year's inaugural tour returned — including overall men's ski champion Marcus Caston, women's ski champ Shannon Rahlves and men's snowboard champ Sylvain Duclos — all hungry to take home a piece of the lucrative prize purse.
John Bochenek of Squaw Valley, who posted the eighth-fastest time in Saturday's solo qualifying run, advanced through all three heats before he swept past George Rodney of Colorado with a deft move in the final en route to the win. The victory earned him $3,000 and a starting slot in the Banzai Super Final on the last tour stop — a one-run, winner-takes-all heat among all the ski division winners, plus Rahlves himself, worth $10,000.
Lucas Matelich of Salt Lake City was second behind Bochenek, followed by Caston and Rodney. Greg Lindsey of Tahoe City, who won the Sugar Bowl stop last year, and George Hjelte, another top contender from Tahoe, took each other out in the semifinal round. Toby LaMar of Colorado recorded the fastest qualifying time Saturday, but he crashed one of the Sunday heats.
“All the athletes who competed were fired up. It was tough, though. There were a lot of DQs,” Rahlves said. “A lot of guys were coming in hot to certain sections and not shutting it down for whatever reason — maybe they were side-by-side or whatever. I was a little bummed to see that happen, just because we had some big names go out.”
One of the biggest names in the industry, snowboarding icon Shaun Palmer from South Lake Tahoe, proved that he is still as fast and competitive as ever. Palmer advanced past the first two men's snowboard heats and into the final, where he placed runner-up to speedy Frenchman Sylvain Duclos, who now rides out of Tahoe City, in a photo finish.
“It was pretty cool that we had Shaun Palmer come out,” Rahlves said. “He's still fast. And Sylvain, he's like a cat. That guy is so smooth. He's fun to watch. When it gets rough, he just butters everything.”
Dave Trout and Jason Kosich were third and fourth, respectively, in the men's snowboard final.
In the women's ski division, former U.S. Ski Team member Keely Kelleher of Utah raced to the win ahead of Reno's Shelly Robertson, a former member of the U.S. Freestyle Team, and Shannon Rahlves of Truckee. Tara Hines was fourth. Mallory Olney captured the win in the women's snowboard division, beating Rose Marie Daiek, Christy Deysher and Brithany Thomson in the final heat.
“The word is out now. Everybody had a blast, everybody was fired up, and I think the energy is going to continue to build,” said Rahlves, who's now switched his focus to creating an alternate course for the next stop, Alpine Meadows on Feb. 23-24.
Find complete results from the Kirkwood stop, as well as 2011 results, at www.rahlvesbanzai.com.