Ready, set, boom: Silver Belt Banzai returning to Sugar Bowl | SierraSun.com
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Ready, set, boom: Silver Belt Banzai returning to Sugar Bowl

Sylas Wright
Sierra Sun
Sun File Photo/Court LeveRacers take to the historic Silver Belt Downhill course during the 2004 Silver Belt Banzai. After a four-year hiatus, the race will return to Sugar Bowl on Feb. 14-15.
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SUGAR BOWL ” Visualize the following scenario, and then consider whether you have the mettle to ski Sugar Bowl’s Silver Belt Banzai.

Clear for miles in every direction, the panoramic view atop Mount Lincoln is a striking sight to see. But you’re oblivious to all but the moment.

Honed in on the course below, replete with 1,300 vertical feet of steep, skinny gulches, volcanic rock bands, cliff-drops, moguls and other natural features, your already tense muscles jerk at the percussion of the avalanche bomb.

Wits return after the initial shock to the brain, body and ears. You quickly quell your fight-or-flight instinct. The mountain is not under attack. It was simply the most unsettling starting gun you’ve ever heard, despite the warning.

With a forward thrust of the poles you’re off, zipping down the historic Silver Belt course like the racers of old ” they are the ones who put the race on the map, after all, competing annually from 1940 until the final race in 1975.

There are significant differences between then and now, however, namely the five other guys jockeying with you for position. That’s because Sugar Bowl and Red Bull, the main race sponsor, added a hair-raising element when they brought back the event in 2004 ” a skiercross-style format that pits six racers against each other.

After the start, no one gives an inch as the pack rips into the first banked turn and into the Silver Belt gully. Pinched by the natural funnel of the ravine, skis clatter and snow flies as inherently competitive racers bang for space.

Four skiers tangle up in a heap as you and one other emerge, unscathed for the time being. With only 1,000 vertical feet to go before reaching the mid-mountain finish, you imagine the cash prize in hand, a fat wad before part of it is invested in cold beverages at the post-race party.

But after shooting off a small cliff and absorbing the bumpy landing, your legs begin to rebel; they’re clearly not on the same page as your mind. Yet you’re just entering the flat stretch on which the quads are needed most.

Can you hang on for victory?

In 2004, the first and last time the new-era Silver Belt Banzai was held, former U.S. Ski Team racer Brett Fischer did just that, holding off a talented field of skiers ” about 60 total ” for the win.

“People were jacking with each other pretty good in the (Silver Belt) gully, but I was in front, so I didn’t get caught up in that,” Fischer said from his Winter Park, Colo., home on Thursday, reliving the race when prodded to dig up the memories.

“I liked the bottom section where you could take a big shortcut down a mogul field, basically right after a 10-foot cliff,” Fischer continued. “You could go around it or through it. I pretty much went straight through it every time.”

Cliff Bennett, then a skiercross racer who is now ranked fourth on the Subaru Freeskiing World Tour, captured second place behind Fischer in that race.

“The 2004 Banzai was super fun,” Bennett said, talking from his Snowbird, Utah, residence Thursday. “It was pretty cool being able to compete with all different caliber skiers and see Red Bull and Sugar Bowl bring it back. The race was pretty intense, for sure, especially with the avalanche charge going off to start the race. But it was a good race.”

The avalanche bomb, which signaled the start of the final heat after two days of racing, caught the skiers by surprise, even though they knew it was coming, Fischer said.

“They lit the fuse and said to go at the sound of the blast. When the explosion went off, all of us jumped at the same time and looked at each other. There was about a full half-second before anyone took off,” Fischer said, laughing at the thought.

Both top finishers said they’d love to compete again when the race goes down on Feb. 14-15 ” Presidents Day weekend.

“I definitely want to do the Banzai again,” Bennett said. “Hopefully I can make it out there.”

The race was put on hold after being unarchived and tweaked to its current format in 2004.

Former Olympian and Sugar Bowl-sponsored athlete Daron Rahlves of Truckee helped revive it.

“I’ve been fired up for this all summer. I’ve been talking to Sugar Bowl about this since last March,” said Rahlves, who missed the 2004 race because of his World Cup schedule. “I want to see it happen every year. If it goes off this year, it could be a yearly event. It’s certainly one of a kind.”

John Monson, Sugar Bowl’s director of marketing and sales, said he’s hoping to get 100 racers to compete. So far registration is on pace to meet that number, he said, adding that he’s still waiting for confirmation from the invited skiers.

Rahlves encourages anyone with above-average skills to give it a try.

“If you can ski top to bottom at a good pace and feel confident, I think that’s all you need,” Rahlves said after scouting the course on Thursday. “If you’re a solid skier, you should have the skills to compete. People shouldn’t be scared of doing it.”

But they had better be prepared.

Sugar Bowl’s Silver Belt Banzai is scheduled for Feb. 14 and 15. Qualifying and invited skiers, both men and women, will race for a piece of the $10,000 prize purse, with qualifying skiers competing in heats on Saturday to earn a spot in Sunday’s finals. Entry fee is $100 per qualifying racer, and free for invited racers. Red Bull Energy Drink will be on hand, fueling the on-mountain action and live music after-event parties. To register visit http://www.sugarbowl.com/sbbanzai.


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