Steamboat Springs The sun was setting, the temperatures were dropping and the cameras had stopped rolling. But Chris Burandt had to get just one more jump session in before hitting the road to Aspen.
Widely considered one of the world's best all-around snowmobile riders, the 28-year-old Colorado native and Kremmling resident has his chance to prove that title to the world tonight, in the snowmobile freestyle finals at the Winter X Games.
Ten of the top freestyle riders were either invited or qualified to participate in the inaugural run of the sport at Winter X. Of those 10 riders on the cutting edge of a sport progressing rapidly into the national spotlight, seven of them headed to one place to push one another in new directions: "The Compound."
Chris Brown's 128-acre ranch just west of Steamboat provides the perfect breeding ground for the evolution of freestyle riding. Brown and Clayton Stassart base their video production company, Compound Films, at the property and invited the athletes to train at the private facility.
On Monday, three of the Winter X athletes - Burandt, Ryan Britt and Kyle Armbrust - were hitting a 10-foot steel ramp, launching over a gap onto a 14-foot-high landing made of snow. Steamboat Aerials' Cedar Beauregard was capturing the action on film from a remote-controlled helicopter, hovering over the take-off. Brown was running the Prinoth snowcat to plow the landing between laps to make sure it was "flip-fluffy" for the riders.
After landing a sprawling backflip, Burandt explained the finer points of nailing a "cliffhanger" to Armbrust.
"You have to push the sled away from your body and then pull it back with your feet," Burandt said.
After a few practice jumps, Armbrust was trying out the trick, which has the rider jump off the seat, hook his feet under the handlebars and sail momentarily through the air.
"That's about as perfect as a ramp and landing set-up as you're going to get," said Armbrust, a 21-year-old from Anchorage, Alaska.
Burandt has taken equal advantage of the ideal conditions and innovative group atmosphere. He tried - and landed - his first backflip on the jump last week.
"It was intimidating," Burandt said of flying underneath a 500-pound machine. "There's a lot of technique. Everyone thinks you just get in there and pin it. And the mental side, if you do not commit, you will get hurt," he said.
But with the risk comes a rush.
"The landing was awesome, I haven't gotten that kind of rush out of snowmobiling for a long time," Burandt said
Burandt knows that a backflip alone isn't going to win him Winter X gold in an event that times the riders on a circular course with three jumps and three ramps similar to The Compound's. A full bag of tricks is a necessity.
"I'm getting all my tricks dialed so they're smooth looking," Armbrust said. "You need a good variety of good-looking extended tricks. It needs to look like you're showing off. If the judges are having fun watching, that's the main thing."
Armbrust takes his riding seriously, spending his days working on tricks and maintenance on his snowmobile to tune it for high altitude conditions and spending nights poring over the footage of the day.
"It's all about the experience and learning from your mistakes," Armbrust said.
The riders also know the importance of making a lasting impression on the massive international audience that Winter X draws.
Ryan Britt qualified for the Winter X Games with Armbrust and three other riders at the early December Park X freestyle competition in Hill City, Minn. The Valdez, Alaska, resident thinks the sport has been marginalized in the past and now has a vital chance to break through to new attention levels.
"That's how it's been for the last decade, we've had competitions here and there," Britt said. "But I think this is going to be what really makes or breaks freestyle snowmobiling. It's going to be the turning point, I think, because it will be the first time it'll be recognized as a gold-medal sport rather than being just a demo sport or sideshow."
One thing was certain for each of the riders - a top Winter X performance is the No. 1 priority. The primetime exposure only has the potential to result in more competitors at next year's qualifier and to push the sport in more progressive directions.
"It's going to grow," Britt said. "It's going to be where a flip one-hander this year might be one of the tricks to help win it. But next year, a flip one-hander is just a normal trick."