Riders Cup 2018 at Hyland Hills
Photo by Craig Madsen
As is par for the course, the Olympics have shone the spotlight on some of our ski hills thanks to star athletes like Lindsay Vonn, but this Saturday at Hyland Hills in Bloomington, a different downhill sport will be taking over a slope: ice cross. You probably know it best from the Red Bull Crashed Ice international annual tours, but another part of the season are the Riders Cups, which are skater-run and skater-made, right down to icing the track.
A core group of about six athletes, with the help of about 20 volunteers, are putting on the Riders Cup 2018 at Hyland Hills, including Cameron Naasz. Naasz, the only ice cross athlete to win back-to-back championships, grew up in Lakeville, Minnesota, and I won’t lie: The Minnesota-proud side of me wants to say that growing up in the state of hockey didn’t hurt his skills going into the sport.
Naasz been helping plan Minnesota’s Riders Cups since 2015, and while he hasn’t been able to see the track yet—going on a three-week Eurotrip to race is a pretty good excuse—he knows this year is going to be a great one. Here’s a snippet of our conversation:
We have the annual Red Bull Crashed Ice in St. Paul—what’s the difference at the Riders Cup?
This will be different because it will be natural ice. We call Red Bull Crashed ice artificial because it's made on a coolant system just like how a hockey rink is, whereas the track at Hyland Hills is all snow and all natural terrain. The weather definitely plays a part in it. If it's too warm, obviously the track is going to get soft; it's going to melt. Too cold, the ice is going to be brittle, and the ice chips away faster, and it’s rougher and harder to ride as well. Also, there aren’t full boards down the Riders Cup track. The courses are built more on a budget because it’s us putting these on for our riders, not some big extravagant project like you see in St. Paul.
It's open to anyone to come and participate and earn their way onto the Red Bull Crashed Ice circuit, where years ago, you would just go to a flat ice hockey rink and Red Bull would put on qualifiers where they would just time all the athletes on a flat ice course. Now you have to show up to these rider cups and earn enough points to get into the tour.
Is that how you got into the sport? At one of the flat-rink, timed qualifiers?
I actually had a very weird entry into the sport. I had a friend, and he and I grew up playing hockey and all sorts of other sports. He and I were going to college in St. Cloud, where he became a student brand manager for Red Bull. At the same time, this was the first time that Red Bull Crashed Ice came to St. Paul in 2012, and so student brand managers were given golden tickets they could give to two people thought they would be decent at the sport. I ended up being the top-ranked American at that event, and I’ve just done it ever since.
I was looking at the Riders Cup information and saw that you have a Kids Cross event Sunday where kids can try their hand at ice cross. Is that a new feature?
We've done it in the past. The kids haven't raced on the track; it’d be a pretty crazy track to be on. When I saw it in the past, the kids get to skate on the track and a few of the top guys are out there, teaching them. I think most adults would think, “Oh, they’re going to die; there’s no way they could to this.” Two runs and they’re just going down the track full speed. It’s incredible.
Since all of the tracks are rider-designed and -created, how do they vary?
They're all unique. It depends on who the athlete is creating the course. I was just in Saariselkӓ, in Finland—it’s the absolute North Pole, it's crazy up there—and Arttu Pihlainen built the track. He was the world champion a few years ago, and his skating style, it shows in the track. It had a skating start and then you didn't take another stride. It was almost like skiing. If I designed a track, I would have put a lot of jumps. For the Riders Cup at Hyland, Eli Krieter has put in a lot of skating, a lot of turns, tricky turns in it.
So we’ve been talking all about the logistics of ice cross, but what do you love about it? What do you think about as you’re going down the track?
Obviously the adrenaline of it. I did sports, and this one incorporates a little bit of everything I enjoyed growing up—hockey, rollerblading, I was a huge snowboarder, this puts all those things together. And in 2012, it gave me a chance to be competitive again when I was only going to school with recreational sports. I’ve met incredible friends all over the world, and I’ve had travel experience that I never would have been able to have.
(When you’re on the track,) you have to try to have a plan, so when you're training (on the practice runs beforehand), the main goal is to remember where every bump, every crack in the ice, every feature is, so when you're racing, you let your body take over, that muscle memory, that instinct take over, so all you have to think about is, “Where are the other guys on the track?”