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The world’s biggest hip session starts today

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Nico Zacek wants you to know: Size matters.


The 2016 edition of Suzuki Nine Knights starts today in Watles, Italy and Nico Zacek wants you to know one thing: Size matters.

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Okay, maybe he wants you to know a bit more than that. He wants you to know that this year’s Suzuki Nine Knights is different than in years past. As you might have noticed, the event has evolved from a single castle-themed feature, with nine invited riders, into a full-fledged ski and snowboard superpark with who-knows-how-many riders (a lot more than nine, that’s for sure). Last year’s extravaganza, for example, included four wildly different terrain features and a grand total of 150,000 cubic meters of snow. (That’s enough snow to fill 60 Olympic-sized swimming pools, in case you were wondering.)

For 2016, Zacek and team decided to strike out in a new direction with the event—aiming for something new in the creativity department, without always striving for “bigger, faster, higher.” (Okay, yes, this is potentially the world’s biggest hip that we’re talking about, but bear with me.) The point, Zacek says, is that nobody has focused this much energy on a hip in a long time, and he thought it was past time for this classic terrain park feature to receive a modern remake.

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So without further ado, let’s meet this year’s Suzuki Nine Knights feature: The Perfect Hip. Sixteen meters tall, 25 meters long, around 35,000 cubic meters of snow; the product of three weeks of snow collection and a ten-day build with three snowcats and ten hand shapers. This one hip is serviced by no fewer than five separate takeoffs: a central, standard hip take off flanked by two additional booters offering carve-into-the-wall redirect options; and those two takeoffs flanked in turn by two more takeoffs—one to the back of the hip (aka the mega gap) and one aimed straight at the left hip wall for a 90-degree redirect.

“Over the weeks we added some additional takeoffs, tunnels, battlements, rails, balconies, et cetera,” says Dirk Scheumann of Schneestern, whose team built the hip in collaboration with Italian snowpark company F-TECH. “Otherwise, it would have been boring,” he adds with a wink.

DSC_0402Here’s a Q&A with Nico to get you fully up to speed on the happenings at the 2016 Suzuki Nine Knights. Stay tuned this week for some high-flying shenanigans!

Downdays: Nico, how and why is this Suzuki Nine Knights different than in years before?
Nico Zacek: We’re calling this year’s Suzuki Nine Knights a “Mission: The Perfect Hip.” After doing it for eight years and getting bigger every year, a crazier park involved, more riders involved, adding snowboarding, more people on-site, more snow required every year, we decided to do something different. We’re not a sport where only “bigger, faster, higher” is cool—with a smart idea, you can do something just as cool. You can “scale down” without scaling down. We wanted to build the smartest feature possible, and in that case we wanted to build something that hasn’t been done properly, in our eyes, for many, many, many years.

When I was an athlete, hips were a big story: I remember Hemsedal, June Mountain, Jon Olsson… Ever since then, hips have happened, but none of them have really impacted. There’s been a great hip at Kitzsteinhorn for the past two years, for example. It was good! But it wasn’t as impactful as when Tanner [Hall] and Jon and Jakob [Wester] and Andreas [Hatveit] threw down in slushy Mammoth and June Mountain kind of conditions.

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The branding team at work. Photo: Matthias “Vitus” Veit

We built the hip last year and really enjoyed it—it was crazy to see how high the guys went. But we couldn’t go any higher because the jump was in the way. So we said, let’s see what it takes to build the perfect hip. Obviously it’s Suzuki Nine Knights, so it’s going to look like a castle; and it’s not going to have one take-off, it’s going to have five. That’s the way we are. But that’s how we came up with the idea.

Now we’re here, and I feel so relieved and happy that we’ve gotten back to the exclusivity that we had in the beginning. It’s actually just nine skiers and nine snowboarders who will be here. That’s Nine Knights—that’s what we were for the first year, but ever since then it’s been many more. It’s more like an 80-person crew instead of 200. It’s one inrun.

The reaction that I’ve gotten from a lot of people is, “It’s so cool that someone is looking at building a proper hip again.” We want to give the boys some room for progression on that kind of feature. Jump progression has been skyrocketing, but what if I were to ask you who the top nine hip riders on the planet are? I had to research, I had to think so hard about who that would be. We don’t know any more, because people don’t ride hips. Back in the day it would have been Andreas, Jakob, Tanner, Jon. Those are the ones that come to mind. And Grete [Eliassen] on the girls’ side, she killed it. Jakob was supposed to be here, but unfortunately he’s a little injured and he just canceled a few days ago. I was on the phone with him a couple times and he helped us with the theory, but now last minute he had to drop out. Same with Jon, actually. He has a back injury and it’s not healed yet. Now we’ll see—we’ve still got a pretty good field of people.

Looking at this hip, I don’t think anyone could say that you’ve “taken a step back.” Actually I heard that this is the tallest Suzuki Nine Knights feature yet. Is that true?
Yes. It’s a 20-meter landing, which on a hip is ridiculous: a ten-meter bank to a ten-meter transition. Purely a ten-meter bank, I don’t think that’s ever been done on the planet. I think it’s the longest landing that a hip has ever had, which is safe and good. When you walk up there, you’ll probably think, “There’s no way I’m ever going to hit any of those.” But if you take a closer look, you realize it’s not supposed to be the scariest feature of all time—it’s supposed to be very fun and rideable, but also giving you the potential to go crazy high.

DSC_0403You saw the designs before, but were you still surprised when you saw the feature standing?
I drew the designs, so I obviously knew what to expect. I already had them one week after the last year. I had a vision—it popped into my head exactly the way it is right now. But the magnitude has gotten bigger than in my plans. Usually it’s the other way around: you design something and then you have to scale it back. But here we didn’t have to compromise. That’s a really great side note: they had a World Cup skicross here in January, so we recycled the snow, and only had to produce a little more. So we used the snow twice.

Size matters, I would say. You don’t want to build the takeoff too big, that doesn’t make any sense. But you want to give them the best possible landing, and that only works if you have a crazy wall of snow. When you stand there and look up, you’re going to be freaking out. I only skied down the landing, which is the easiest thing, but it was still scary.

What are your expectations for this week?
I like the feeling of the riders here. It’s a mix between pipe guys and slope guys. We’ve never really had that many pipe guys at Suzuki Nine Knights, but this year we’ve got Taylor Seaton, Alex Ferreira, David Wise, Joffrey [Pollet-Villard] — all full-time pipe experts. And then we’ve got the slope guys like Christof Schenk, Felix Usterud, ABM, Nicky Keefer, Bene Mayr and Jules Bonnaire.

And I wonder, who are the better hip riders—is it the pipe guys or the slope guys? That’s my expectation: to find that out. I wouldn’t be disappointed if there’s no world record happening. It’s nice to have a theme, but as always the theme of Suzuki Nine Knights is to have fun for a week and progress the sport, and progression doesn’t always happen with the highest air ever done. With the jumps that are angled toward the landing, any trick that’s going to happen is basically going to be new—they aren’t normal redirects. I don’t know if someone’s going to do a side-way transfer, double cork into a hip landing that comes in at a 45-degree angle… so that’s what I’m wondering, if something like that is going to happen.

DSC_0388So it’s not all about the world record hip air.
Not at all—but we did bring some guys who are interested in doing it. So it’s on the table, but I don’t want to make it the most important topic. The mainstream media can do that, but not Downdays.

Is this the biggest hip that’s ever been built?
I think so. It’s definitely the longest landing. I would love to have people comment on this interview and show us anything that’s bigger. It’s nothing I want to claim, but I think it’s true.

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hip, Nico Zacek, Nine Knights