It's the day after the Red Bull Crashed Ice Finals, and lordy, are we beat. In what has amounted to one of the coldest weekends of this winter, we got to witness some of the most daring/insane athletes in extreme sports, and we were not disappointed.
But let's backtrack a bit, to Friday night. As The Meat Beast noted, during the early afternoon on Friday, we were able to see the International Shootout, which whittled the international field from 75 down to 64. At night, came our first head-to-head competitions, the elimination round. Skating four at a time, with the top two skaters from each heat moving on, we'd see the number of skaters drop from 128 (64 Americans and 64 International skaters) down to 64 total.
From the very first race, it became obvious that the last two days of Shootouts had eliminated many of the underskilled and inexperienced skaters. While the Shootouts were filled with skaters unable to make it over Pete's Corner and the You Betcha Bump as well as wipeouts on the double bumps, the races had very little of this. We were now dealing with the cream of the crop, and it showed.
This is not to say that the Elimination Round was filled with perfect runs. About midway through the 32 Elimination heats, Jordan Miller, skating for USA, somehow managed to put half of his body through the wall near Pete's Corner. In fact of the 64 Americans going into the Elimination round, only 19 made it past the International field and into the Finals on Saturday night. One would guess that it's mainly due to the relative obscurity of ice cross downhill in the United States (however, now that these races will be televised on NBC, that will probably change).
Going back to the races, Red Bull made a very wise move when putting together this event. Seedings, on a per-race basis are very easy to understand, and make it particularly helpful when determining whether we, as inexperienced ice cross downhill spectators, just saw an upset or not. Each player gets a sleeveless "vest" (similar to what you might see a softball player wear, with a long-sleeve shirt (with your number) exposed underneath) that is color coded, with red being the highest seeded of the heat, blue being second highest seeded, yellow is third and silver is fourth. Not surprisingly, no silver jerseys passed the finish line first, and only three silver jerseyed players managed to finish in second and move on to Saturday night. Reds and Blues were able to win all but three races.
While Friday night saw a large attendance bump over Thursday and Friday afternoons (an estimated 10,000 people were on-hand for Friday night's "unadvertised" Elimination round), Saturday night was absolutely insane. An estimated 80,000 people were on-hand, and it felt like it. Event grounds that were relatively easy to navigate the previous two days had officially become a circus. The human density was on par with previous Red Bull Events in Saint Paul, such as the Flugtag, which I had the pleasure of attending back in 2010.
With the increased attendance came a glossier presentation. Friday had limited play-by-play from Rusty Kath, while Saturday had full play by play and included a live DJ as well as improved lighting (can you say "Cathedral Rave"?). Many portions of the viewing area became "off-limits" as the pre-game wore on, due to there being just too many people in any given section.
The racing also changed. The time between heats shrunk drastically, as once the last skater made it to the bottom of the track, almost immediately, they began the next heat. Predictably, the talent pool increased as well. The pack stayed together further into the course, and the spills weren't as devastating. It was fast, tight and ultra competitive. One equipment change did happen. Arttu Pihlainen, of Finland and the reigning Crashed Ice champ, was given a metallic gold jersey with the words "catch me if you can" printed on it. Apparently the reigning champ gets to wear this jersey all season (provided he's racing).
While Arttu blended in as one of the hundreds of runs we had seen over the past two days, it was obvious from the get go (he was in heat #1 on Saturday night) that he was going to be the man to beat. He easily won his first heat, and every heat after that, cruising to a spot in the finals.
Team USA had a tougher time, as only five Americans made it to the second round, and none of them were able to finish in the top two of the "Round of 32" to make it into the Quarterfinals. Hopefully they can do better at the next event in Valkenburg, Netherlands.
Much like the Elimination round on Friday, no Silver took first place in any heat, until the semi-finals, when Canadian Kyle Croxall skated to an upset win, to move into the finals with Paavo Klintrup of Finland. Clearly at this point, a silver jersey didn't mean you were some shlub coming off the streets of Minnetonka. This was was not Croxall's first dance, having won two events previously (Munich in 2011 and Quebec City in 2010) as well as finishing in second to Pihlainen in the 2011 overall standings. Rounding out the top four for the final race was Kyle's brother Scott Croxall, making for a Canada versus Finland matchup.
Straight out of the gates, Pihlainen looked like a man on a mission. He had a slight lead on the group after the Stair Turn and the Bridge Jump, when he came into the Single Bump and lost his balance. He tried to recover, but his skate caught a groove, and he tumbled headfirst into the boards, allowing then-secondplace Kyle Croxall to move into first and Scott Croxall into second. Arttu didn't give up though, as he set the throttle to full-blast, eventually catching up to Scott, and by the edge of a blade, managed to cross the line in second place.
And so it seemed that that was it. Kyle Croxall wins. But hold the phone, the officials needed to review the race, as there might have been some pushing. So we get to review the race, in it's entirety. Every cornering is slowed down. Then we come to the corner where Arttu goes into the boards, and it looks like Croxall may have pushed him. It's super close, and at full speed, doesn't look dirty. It's not even clear if there is any contact at all. Since there is nothing conclusive, Kyle Croxall is confirmed the winner, and Arttu Pihlainen second place. Later on, in interviews, Pihlainen confirms that he just had a rough landing after the Single Bump. An unfortunate turn of events that can easily happen in any of these ice cross downhill races.
All in all, this was a wonderful event, and I'm sure anyone who attended would confirm that we would love to see another Red Bull Crashed Ice race come to Minnesota in the future. While this was a first taste of the sport for many of us, it was entertaining and action packed, and did not fail to deliver a spectacle.