Volume 76, Number 38 | February 14 -20, 2007

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

A snowboarder descended a short snow-covered ramp before hopping up on stair rails to do tricks at Union Square last week.

Elite snowboarders ride the rails at Union Square

By Brooke Edwards

The northeast corner of Union Square’s northern plaza was transformed last Thursday from barren concrete to a two-story, snow-covered platform, with a 40-foot rail with a Jeep Wrangler built into it. Around it were gathered hundreds of freezing spectators, who came to see Union Square Street Sessions, the first professional snowboarding event ever to be held in New York City.

During the rail-jam competition, 24 men, including some of the top names in snowboarding, competed for a prize purse of $30,000.

Most of the competitors at the six-hour event were professionals who were invited to attend. Three competitors were amateur snowboarders who had won events held across the country in the past two months and automatically qualified to be in the rail jam.

Before the preliminaries began, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe welcomed spectators to the event.

“When the idea of this competition first came up, they said we were crazy,” Benepe said. “But here you can get on a subway and you can see the best athletes in the world. Just pretend you’re in the mountains. You’ve got those big tall peaks up there,” Benepe joked, pointing at the buildings surrounding the square.

The snowboarders launched themselves off a platform and onto a drop-in slope of only about 7 snow-covered feet before they had to choose from five features to hit, including the Jeep rail, three down rails and one battleship rail on the landing.

For any riders who slipped off the rails, there was no forgiving snow to break their fall, as the rails were attached to steep metal stairs.

The first rider of the day was Olympic silver medalist Danny Kass, who was then followed by an hour of nonstop action.

Kass declared the setup “awesome” and his parents agreed. They said that they go to all of his events and said, “We’ve never seen anything like this before. The venue is amazing.”

When asked how he was handling the cold weather, Kass said, “We just came from a competition in Duluth, Minn., where it was 40 below, so this is nothing.”

During the preliminaries, the athletes could make as many runs as they could get in, trying to land a trick that would impress the judges and get them promoted to the next round.

After an hour of impressive moves, the field was cut from 24 riders to 12, and the athletes took a short break.

As the evening went on the crowd grew, filling the entire north side of Union Square.

Dave Patel, 31, couldn’t help but notice the event. Patel lives at the corner of Union Square E. and 17th St. and could see the back of the platform from his window. He came to watch the competition with his friend Adrian Pertierra, 35. Both were still dressed in their work clothes.

“We’ve never snowboarded in our lives,” Pertierra said. “But this promotes snowboarding, so that’s cool.” After watching a few rounds, though, Pertierra decided, “They’re out of their minds.”

Others passing by agreed, commenting, “It’s completely idiotic,” though many of them would stop to watch, cringing and joining the crowd’s “Oh!” each time a rider fell.

There were solid lines of faces looking out the windows from every floor of the 17th St. Barnes & Noble bookstore.

“There’s a lot of foot traffic, but I wouldn’t exactly call it business,” the bookstore’s manager said. He could easily tell the difference between customers and those who had come in to warm up and get a better view of the snowboard extravaganza. He said, “They come in freezing cold and all bundled up and some of them are carrying skateboards.” But he was quick to add, “We don’t mind. We’re a community bookstore.”

Spectators could visit any of nearly 20 vendors’ booths set up along the north end of the plaza. There were booths by event sponsors Fuse T.V., Burton, Lat34.com (a new action sports Web site), Red Bull, Snowboarder magazine, Plantronics and the Mountain Creek, N.J., and Killington, Vt., resorts.

There was also music by DJ Steve Aoke, and the event staff threw snowboarding DVDs, T-shirts, jackets and bindings out to the crowd.

“We’re having fun, but it’s getting serious now,” Kass said, as the second round of the competition started.

The tricks got more intense during the second round, with riders landing 360s on the 1-inch-thick rail.

There were Fire Department paramedics on hand throughout the competition, though they looked more like fans than men at work. One was snapping pictures with his camera phone.

Kass surprised spectators by not making it into the final round. “I’m ready to watch Eddie Wall bust some tricks now,” he said.

With the field narrowed to six riders for the final round, Wall established himself with a consistent performance, landing backside 270s off every rail in sight.

Wall took home first place and $15,000.

Lucas Magoon won second place and the prize for trick of the day with a huge front-side 270, taking home a total of $10,000. Yale Cousino took third, and Charles Reid won the title of Most Valuable Rider for fearlessly tackling some of the toughest tricks of the night.

Kenneth Podziba, New York City Sports Commissioner, spoke at the awards ceremony.

“In recognition of this event, Mayor Bloomberg has proclaimed today, Feb. 8, Union Square Street Sessions day,” he declared, and assured the crowd, “We’ll be here next year.”

In a phone interview on Monday, Podziba said the event came about because, “We like to shake things up.”

“We had been working with the event organizers since 2003 to bring this event to New York City and it finally came together,” he said. They did consider Central Park and other sites for the competition, but the Parks Department eventually steered them toward Union Square, Podziba added.

There was some slight opposition to the rail jam being held in Union Square.

Robert Lederman, president of the street vendors’ group ARTIST, actively opposes any private or commercial use of public parks. He was concerned that the event would squeeze out the Greenmarket and artist vendors who earn their livings selling in the park.

“I don’t understand their choice to use Union Square, which is less than 8 acres, instead of Central Park and its over 800 acres,” Lederman said.

Central Park did see some action this past weekend, as the winter festivities continued on Saturday with the Second Annual Winter Jam. This event included a professional and amateur rail jam and a winter carnival, with snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. The Central Park Winter Jam is also scheduled to return next year.

As Podziba put it, “People usually think of Colorado or Utah as being the place for elite, world-class snowboarding events, and now they can add New York City to that list.”

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