The Natural Selection Tour is an event that professional snowboarder Travis Rice has been manifesting (his words) since the first iteration of the big-mountain freestyle event in 2008 at his home resort of Jackson Hole. Over the last decade-plus, Rice has continued to evolve the contest format, reimagining it in 2012 and 2013 at a backcountry cat-skiing destination deep in the backcountry of British Columbia.
Rice saw these past contests as “beta events” which led to a realization of his ultimate vision which we finally got to see yesterday (Tuesday, Feb. 9). What that looked like, when the powder cleared, was the winningest Winter X Games medalist of all time, Canadian rider Mark McMorris, slashing and burning through four feet of fresh powder at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, battling through head-to-head brackets to advance past the best riders in the world to earn the win.
McMorris was joined on the podium by the winner of the women’s field, 19-year-old Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, a rider better known for her podium performances in Olympic Big Air and X Games Slopestyle. But at the Tuesday finals, the Kiwi showed that she has what it takes to put it down in powder.
While some readers might think of snowboarders as a homogenous bunch, those of us who spend admittedly too much time in the weeds of the sport know that, due to the high level of contests and the increasingly technical courses, riders have been forced to hyper-specialize in their fields. Travis Rice’s intention for the Natural Selection Tour is to bring riders together in a venue that challenges the very foundation of their skills.
When this event kicked off with the qualifiers last Thursday, nobody could have predicted who would win. The field of 24 men and eight women was packed with snowboarders who’ve medaled in Olympic slopestyle and big air on perfectly-groomed courses with meticulously considered takeoffs and landings, going against halfpipe specialists who spend years learning the edge control and power needed to expertly throw down tricks in a transition, and Freeride World Tour competitors—riders whose skillset is picking their way down the sheer faces of the European Alps.
Rice himself, going big at the Natural Selection Finals. Rice had this to say ahead of the event, “The Natural Selection Tour will reward the riders who are able to utilize the most lifetime experience on a snowboard. And all of these different backgrounds offer different advantages,” he said. “It takes a lifetime of experience to do well at this contest with the variability of terrain, variability of conditions, to both plan a run down this course and to be able to on-sight when things don’t go according to plan on the way down.” He added, “The riders who are able to make quick decisions and react without having to think it through, are the ones who are going to do really well.”
The competition venue ridden was a steep pitch inbounds at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, encompassing 16 acres of big-mountain terrain, complete with over 50 natural jumps and enhanced natural features. These enhanced natural features included transitions, takeoffs and landings to challenge every riding style. Did we mention it had snowed four feet in as many days, making for a blank slate down the course?
The day kicked off with eight men going head-to-head. Mark McMorris had the unenviable matchup against the GOAT, Travis Rice if he was to advance out of quarterfinals. This was one of the most watched matchups of the day.
Rice channeled power, speed and strength and, impressively threw down a run that included a massive double backflip, but it wasn’t enough to beat “the kid.” McMorris said, “The stress peaked when I had to drop after Travis. It disintegrated afterwards and it just became really fun. Throughout the day I just started to build and have more and more fun.”
Next stop for McMorris was against his Burton teammate, Mikkel Bang. Bang gave McMorris a run for his money, the Norwegian rider almost destroying himself attempting a technical board tap on a cliff face, which he perfectly nailed on his second run, but it wasn’t enough. Finally, McMorris came head-to-head against halfpipe specialist, Ben Ferguson.
Ferguson had been fighting his own battles throughout the day. The stylish rider from Bend, Oregon first teed up against fan-favorite and 2014 Olympic Gold Medalist Sage Kotsenburg in quarterfinals. Kotsenburg came in hot with a Cab 900, potentially the trick of the day, but Ferguson’s run against Sage earned one of the highest scores of the entire day—incorporating technical switch (riding backwards) tricks through the powdery course. Ferguson then had to take out hometown hero Blake Paul. Ferguson once again leaned heavily on riding switch and, threw down a Cab 540 and a huge backside 700, in a run peppered with powder turns, slashers and a backflip or two.
The sun came out as McMorris and Ferguson finally battled in finals—the former a slopestyle champion, the latter halfpipe, both established backcountry riders and Burton teammates, who incidentally spent the past year filming together for the Burton One World Movie. McMorris took the lead in the first round and held onto it despite an incredible showing from Ferguson. McMorris flowed through his finals runs linking up a Double Wildcat, Cab 900, enviable powder turns, and, of course, a method salute.
Ferguson answered back with runs heavy on switch riding including a Cab Underflip and a backside 900 off a massive feature dubbed the Great Wall, nailing a heavy switch landing.
But it was McMorris who took the win. [Watch the replay of the RedBull livecast.]
McMorris said, “This win is the biggest that I’ve had in years—when all your peers care about an event, you know it means something. This is the true essence of snowboarding—freeriding with freestyle components.” In a touching moment that followed, McMorris called out a thank you to JBC, the late Jake Burton Carpenter, the Burton founder, who sadly passed away in 2019 and was a close friend of McMorris’.
Rice, the visionary behind the event says it “was everything that we envisioned—there was definitely just an extra level of joy in being able to have the conditions that we did, the rider field that we did, and, honestly pulling this event off in the current climate, that alone was a feat.” But, in true Rice fashion, he’s already looking ahead, “I really think this is just the beginning. I’m just really excited for the future.”
The Natural Selection Tour advances on from Jackson Hole to the Bronco Sport Natural Selection at Baldface Lodge, Feb. 28–March 7, 2021 deep in the interior of B.C., Canada. The Tour will culminate at the HempFusion Natural Selection at Tordrillo Mountain Lodge in Alaska, March 20–27, 2021. There, the best snowboarders in the world will be crowned.
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