Cool runnings and heated competition

“Riders ready! Five-second warning… Go!” A group of skaters are standing ready in the gates at the top of an icy slope. When the starting gun is fired, they storm down the frozen track. Elbow to elbow, they jostle with each other down the hill. The first rider enters turn one of the course. For a few seconds he glides on the glassy ice then, lightning quick as he exits the apex, his limbs begin pumping and off he roars. The high-octane sport of ice cross downhill is about speed, but it’s also about tactics. You have to be prepared for a crashes at speed and battle to the finish in order to get across the line first. This extreme winter sport, in which speeds of up to 60km/h have been recorded, is not for shrinking violets.   

Ice athletes sat on benches in the changing room
No fear: the ice cross racers of Rautalampi, Finland

Ready for the next kick

Jarkka, Erkki, Elli and Elias are four ice cross racing friends from Rautalampi in Finland who are genuinely having fun out on the track. They that they love the kick you get from pitting yourself against others – and, above all, pushing it to the limit. They may be mates away from the track but when helmets are on and visors are down, they become merciless competitors. They fight hard until a winner emerges.  

Young woman in protective sports gear
The ice cross competitors of Rautalampi – both men and women like Elli here – race fiercely with each other but still hang out afterwards

It’s beautiful up here in the winter. But when ice and snow are flying through the air and elbows are stuck ruthlessly in your back from being body checked, you don’t have time to look around and enjoy the views of the Finnish forest landscape. “If you decelerate too hard, you’ve already lost,” explains Erkki. “And yet for our sport you also need to be tactical and know your own limits.” And, like any sport, this also requires a lot of practice to be good at it. 

Skateron start line of an ice cross competition
Ice cross requires dogged determination, sharp blades on your skates and even sharper elbows
There are rules for this competition. Otherwise we would chase down like hell
Erkki JamalanenIce cross downhill competitor
Two ice cross skaters jump across an icy bump
Ice cross downhill skaters reach speeds of up to 60km/h as they navigate humps, steep jumps and tight hairpins

On a triumphal tour through the icy world

Ice cross is still a young sport. A mix of skating, boardercross and downhill skiing, it was only invented in 2000. Typically four racers start each race, and together they skate downhill along an ice track measuring a few hundred metres long in an event that demands courage, strength and conditioning. Competitions are based on a knockout system – the best two of three or four racers always compete against one another. By the end, the winner will have sprinted through the ice course multiple times. Such is the spectacular racing and even more spectacular crashes, it’s become increasingly popular as a spectator sport, with temporary ice cross arenas created in downtown locations from Minnesota to Moscow. It makes the permanent natural ice track in this forest of Rautalampi an exception. But it’s from here that some of the future stars of ice cross will emerge, sliding and elbowing their way to the front of one of the most exciting sports events you will ever witness. 

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