Over the last two winters, Gabriel Renaud ’16 has made a flawless transition from ice hockey to ice cross downhill, a winter extreme sport that consists of high speed downhill skating on a course similar to the luge, but with obstacles. Renaud has raced in nine different countries in front of crowds that often reach 50,000 people.

The objective of the sport is simple: make it to the finish line the fastest. However, unlike many winter sports, the riders do not race individually in an attempt to record the fastest time. Instead, they are released simultaneously in typically heats of four, and have to jockey for position at 40 mph over jumps, waves, sharp turns, and vertical drops. To make matters worse, the ice is often patchy at the later stages of many multi-race events.

“What makes the sport really challenging for me is the ice conditions,” Renaud said. “It’s not like skating on a rink. A lot of people will see us on TV and they think we can’t really skate because we’re off balance, but this isn’t like anything else. You only have 10 centimeters of steel touching the ice and one small move can throw everything off.”

Sixty-four riders compete in each event, and the top two riders in each heat make it to the next round until the final round, where the top rider wins the title. Skaters have been clocked at a top speed of  51 mph, and the longest recorded jump was an estimated 27 meters long. Courses are anywhere between 300 to 600 meters long, and each race is over in a thirty to sixty second long blur in which riders can wipe out in any number of wild ways.

“I was racing in Munich and the course was so fast I ended up doing a totally out of control 720 without even trying,” Renaud said. Other times, though, he hasn’t been so lucky.

“My hardest wipeout was probably in Finland this year. I came into a turn at 35 mph and the ice was so chewed up I just lost an edge and went straight into the boards.”

Still, Renaud has caught on quickly to the new sport, and currently ranks 43rd in the world. Part of his rapid rise has been his strong background in different styles of skating. Renaud began playing ice hockey when he was four, and he and most of the other top riders in the world can attribute their success, in part, to a background in hockey.

“Almost everyone in this sport has a hockey base, because you need to know how to skate,” Renaud said. Red Bull created the sport only a little over fifteen years ago, which makes everyone on tour older than the sport itself.

Since the top riders compete in and travel to so many events together, the group has developed strong ties despite fierce competition on the course.

“There are like 10 races over the year and they’re pretty much all with the same guys. Most of those races take place in a six week period in Europe in the middle of the season, and in between those races I’m just hanging out with them so we’ve  become really good friends and there is a good camaraderie off the track,” he said.

Red Bull sponsors each large event, builds each track and pays the athletes after the races. According to Renaud, each track alone costs between $750,000 and two million dollars. Each Red Bull event—the entirety of Red Bull events are known as the Crashed Ice World Championship Series, Crashed Ice for short—usually requires the closure of city streets for a few weeks.

“All the courses are built of scaffolding, and then they put down these freezing tubes which are filled with glycol,” Renaud said. “When this freezes, it creates cooling mats and they just hose it down with water on top, which forms the ice. It’s a huge marketing expense for Red Bull, and all tickets are free.”

These events, which all take place in urban settings and feature the 64 best riders in the world, routinely draw crowds of up to 50,000 people. Even in Belfast last year, when Red Bull charged 11 Euros per ticket, over 40,000 people attended the event.  

One of the frequent locations for Crashed Ice is Renaud’s hometown of Quebec City. The city has hosted an event almost every year since 2006, and Renaud frequently attended and marveled at the spectacle when he was younger.

“I always knew I wanted to try it out,” he said. “It was one of my dreams.”

When Renaud arrived at Bowdoin, he enjoyed a successful first season on the ice hockey team, and played in 28 of 29 games. However, by the end of the season he had started to become disenchanted with the sport he had played for so long, and felt a pull to branch out into unfamiliar territory.

“Sophomore year I tried to qualify for Crashed Ice and didn’t make it so I trained like crazy over that summer and won the Chicago qualifier. Then I went to St. Paul, MN and went on to do well at the World Championship,” he said. 

St. Paul is also where Renaud travelled this past weekend for the last event of the season. He came into the weekend ranked 36th in the world, but unfortunately tripped over the waves and was eliminated in the round of 64, which bumped him down to 43rd in the world.

On his public Facebook page, Renaud explained that rollers (waves) were his weakness this season, and laid out his goals to practice waves over the summer and work on improving his balance in the air.

One of the toughest elements for Renaud has been balancing the travel schedule with being a full time student.

“I almost took this semester off—I was really close,” he said. “However, when my schedule came out I was so glad because I knew that I would be able to graduate on time.

Renaud’s first race this year was over Thanksgiving Break, and though he was still traveling across Europe for a week after the current semester began, he was able to arrange with his professors a way to get caught up with classes.

In terms of the future of ice cross downhill, there is a chance that it may become an Olympic spectator sport by 2018, and Renaud hopes to still be racing when it happens.  

“I’ve been doing the sport for two years, and I’m still young compared to most riders,” he said. “The average age is like 25 or 26. I know that I can still improve a lot more.

“I think one of my favorite parts about these events is when you’re up at the top of a track, about to start a race, and you see so many people cheering, the music is so loud and the lights are all around you. Just an awesome feeling."

In addition to working tirelessly to improve his own skills on the track, Renaud has also spent recent summers bringing the sport to young kids back home. He is also working to bring an event to New England, which he hopes will materialize in the coming years.