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Sizing Up the Competition

Action-sports stars descend upon Aspen for the X Games, which serve as a dress rehearsal for the Turin Olympics.

January 27, 2006|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

ASPEN, Colo. — The winds of change swirling through this posh mountain retreat have delivered a hint of impetuousness: attitude to be complemented, over the next five days, by amplitude.

The Flying Tomato, Big Dan, Lucky Lindsey and other young athletes have arrived, along with their families, friends and thousands of fans, for the Winter X Games. Remarkably, the upscale populace has embraced this brief transformation from haughty to hip.

Lights will illuminate Buttermilk Mountain, music will blare into the night, and the world's most popular action-sports stars will provide thrills and spills on snowboards, skis, snowmobiles and motorcycles.

Blood will be shed, ligaments torn and bones broken: These are the pitfalls. But records will be broken and tricks unveiled as athletes accept inherent risk in the name of progress.

This is what the X Games are about, but this year they're about even more, at least as far as the marquee sport of snowboarding is concerned. The Olympics are two weeks away, and the X Games will offer previews of the Winter Games in Turin, Italy.

"We offer a phenomenal training ground for those who will head" to Turin, said Chris Stiepock, X Games general manager. "To stand in the start ramp of our event with such a massive [number] of spectators watching will provide them with a greater sense of calm, knowing that if they can perform on our stage they can perform in Italy."

The U.S. halfpipe stars of the 2002 Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City -- Ross Powers (gold), Danny "Big Dan" Kass (silver), J.J. Thomas (bronze), and Kelly Clark (women's gold) -- were X Games champions.

And the one who attains the highest Olympic glory at the Turin Games probably will have achieved success at Aspen.

This year a prominent story line -- here and in Italy -- is Shaun "the Flying Tomato" White versus Antti "the Flying Finn" Autti.

Autti upstaged White and two other Turin-bound U.S. halfpipe riders, Kass and Andy Finch, at last year's X Games, with a dramatic final run.

It marked Autti's arrival into the sport's upper echelon. His performance this year may determine how big a threat he is to the powerful U.S. team.

"I don't know if X Games is more important or less important this year because of the Olympics," said the red-haired White, who at Aspen will also try to win his fourth consecutive slopestyle championship. "All I know is that I can't wait. It's going to be awesome."

Mason Aguirre, also a member of the Olympic halfpipe team, called the X Games "a cool experience for the whole family." His girlfriend, parents, aunts and uncles have accompanied him here. "Even my dog," he said.

Lucky Lindsey Jacobellis, the reigning queen of snowboard cross, will be trying to win a fourth X Games title.

Seth Wescott and Nate Holland will gauge their Olympic snowboarder cross chances when they blaze tracks alongside cagy French rider Xavier de le Rue, last year's X Games champion and a favorite to strike gold in Turin.

Then there's hometown favorite Gretchen Bleiler, who won gold in the halfpipe last year at Winter X, then at the Gravity Games, the U.S. Open and a World Cup competition at Bardonecchia, site of the Olympic snowboarding events.

At 24, this may be her last Olympic hurrah -- she barely missed making the team in 2002 -- and the X Games will serve as a final Olympic barometer.

Speaking of barometers, the pressure here has dropped and snow is expected over the next two days. But the long-range forecast calls for decreasing cloudiness and, as the X Games crowd clears out, a slight increase in snootiness.

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