ASPEN — Nothing comes easily in the double pipe.
Riders had to bury survival instincts as they floated from pipe to pipe. New skills were developed as they spun between the parallel ditches. Fear had to be shirked. The unknown was delved, one trick at a time.
"I've never done anything like it. It was hard to adjust," said Steamboat Springs' Taylor Gold, the 20-year-old Olympian who won the Burton U.S. Open this month and Sunday took home the $25,000 first prize at the first-ever Red Bull Double Pipe contest at Aspen's X Games venue.
Gold struggled through three days of practice. It just wasn't clicking. Saturday night — after the semifinals were pushed to Sunday because of heavy snow — he figured out a potential run that merged his frenzied double corks and technical grabs with floating transitions over the 4-foot spine down the middle of the pair of pipes.
Overcoming the fear was the biggest challenge, said Gold, who doubted he would even make the eight-rider finals.
"A regular halfpipe is already terrifying, so this was just next level," he said, gripping his trophy: a vintage suitcase artistically converted into a big speaker.
The 18 Olympic-caliber riders competing over the weekend at Aspen's Buttermilk ski area have built careers based on precision. Athletes who float off the vertical axis once they leave the lip of a 22-foot halfpipe wall do not thrive. That lateral drift precedes nasty crashes. In the double pipe, athletes had to quash that inches-matter, straight-up, straight-down instinct as they floated over the spine.
"It's not natural," said 18-year-old Chase Josey, the Idaho rider whose consistent transfers between the pipes earned him second place Sunday. "It took a little bit of channeling the fear and a little bit of ignoring it to launch your body across that gap."
Gapping a transfer is a skateboarding skill and something largely foreign to even the world's best halfpipe riders. Missteps were ugly, with Olympians such as Scotty Lago and Christian Haller crashing spectacularly when their transfers between pipes came up short.
The practice runs Wednesday and Thursday were tentative tests as the riders struggled against instinct to float between the pipes. Veteran Greg Bretz said he just turned his brain off.
"You don't think when you guinea pig. Ever," Bretz said of those first runs. "I tried not to think too much."
Bretz held third place briefly during the best-of-three-runs finals Sunday, earned with a thrilling backside 900 spin on the sloping transition at the very end of the 580-foot-long double pipe. But Frenchman Arthur Longo bumped Bretz with a final run that featured stylish transitions between the pipes.
"Snowboarding is about progression and pushing yourself to the next level," said Bretz, noting that the event Sunday was not like anything he'd done before. "This isn't a halfpipe contest. Halfpipe riding is halfpipe riding. Double halfpipe riding is double halfpipe riding."
Don't expect double pipe to suddenly sweep the transition riding scene. It's more of an end-of-season novelty; a party for riders to flex their creativity and test their skills in new ways.
"That was my biggest challenge, just getting a line through the whole pipe," said Josey, who won the rider's choice award: a new Polaris snowmobile, which he promptly roosted through the gut of the pipe Sunday.
Judges — who ranked each athlete's top ride based on overall impression — rewarded riders who used the rails and walls on the side of the pipes and playfully bounded through both pipes.
"There was so much potential creativity. Finding a way to harness that and use it and put a run down, that was probably the hardest part. But it made it the most fun part too," Josey said.
Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, email@example.com or twitter.com/jasontblevins