If you've heard anything about the freewheeling spectacle called Red Bull Playstreets before, I'm sure you'll know that it's a completely unique contest. In a competitive atmosphere that's almost entirely saturated by FIS and its world of regulations and national teams, Playstreets is a throwback to the reason anyone even gets started with freeskiing in the first place. It's fun, it's exhilarating, and it's more than a little loose.
The setting is one of a kind for this in-city slopestyle event. You might think all Alpine towns are hilly, but the streets of the Austrian town of Bad Gastein are ludicrously steep, which makes it the ideal spot for an urban slopestyle course! The defending Playstreets champion from 2019 Nick Goepper told me that Bad Gastein is where “kings and queens came back in the day, to bathe in the hot pools of the saunas." In other words, it's an old spa town that once welcomed Europe's royalty to its thermal waters. Nowadays it's welcoming a different kind of royalty—the freeski kind.
The 2023 Playstreets crew. Photo: Alex Papis/Red Bull Content Pool
I arrived a few days early, so I got the chance to scope the course and had a walkthrough with head shaper Ben Teunesen from Schneestern. He has experience building parks for competitions all over the world, but Playstreets presented a unique challenge for him and his team. “Here we have to do a lot of coordinating stuff like trucks, where to put the snow and when it should arrive," he said. "Also what the woodworkers need to do, adjusting little angles and details. It's just a lot more coordinating.”
Ben explained that the general layout of the course was already designed, but a lot of the final decisions had to be made onsite once. “There weren’t any technical drawings, so we had to make a lot of adjustments when the woodworkers got here," he said. "They needed to know the angles to keep the riders safe and how it would be with snow on it. There were no measurements, so it was all on-the-spot decision-making.”
Work in progress on the Playstreets course. It´s no small feat to thread a complete slopestyle course through the middle of a town in the Austrian Alps.
Bad Gastein was first settled in the ninth century—long before the first twin tip—so it’s hardly surprising that Ben and the crew had to improvise on occasion. The in-run for the quarterpipe at the top of the course wasn’t actually fast enough, so a winch was used to pull the riders in. The one feature that’s brand new, even to slopestyle, was an actual trampoline installed above the final rail section.
Nick Goepper tests out the trampoline. This unorthodox feature might have presented the course´s biggest challenge. Photo: Lukas Pilz/Red Bull Content Pool
After my course walkthrough with Ben I caught up with Paddy Graham, Playstreets' Sports Director. I had to ask how he got such a swanky title. Paddy’s a real veteran of Playstreets, participating as a skier since the first event in 2007 until 2013, so he was able to give guidance to both the riders and the organisers. He also got “roped in” to do all the media stuff, including taking to TikTok for the first time as a commentator during Thursday's livestream.
The first skier I saw on the course was Playstreets 2017 winner Jesper Tjäder. If you’ve seen Jesper’s Unrailistic videos, you might think that Playstreets is basically designed for him—even down to the trampoline. Paddy had mentioned to me that the person you think will win, never does. We’ll see Paddy, we’ll see.
You couldn’t move last week in Bad Gastein without stumbling across a freeski legend. I was innocently lining up for my lunch when I ran into none other than Markus Eder. He wasn’t skiing this year, but he couldn’t turn down the opportunity to be part of this special event.
Yours truly catching up with the legend, Mr. Markus Eder!
Before the main contest on Friday night, there was a Best Trick contest on Thursday that included a prize for Big Air on the kicker and Best Trick on the Oakley Wallride. I’d been warned that the town gets filled to bursting at Playstreets, but I couldn’t believe the number of people that turned out, even on Thursday night. The streets were packed!
One major highlight of Playstreets 2023 is that it was the first year that women were invited to take part, if only for the session on Thursday and not the main event. There were four of them: Anastasia Tatalina, Kirsty Muir, Lara Wolf and Sarah Hoefflin. With two chances to put their stamp on Red Bull Playstreets forever, Sarah won both the Big Air and wallride with a switch 720 mute on the kicker and a super stylish handplant on the wall.
On the men's side, Matej Svancer won the Big Air with a flawless nose butter double cork 1260 safety. He did say he was surprised to take the top spot, because "there were some really insane tricks on display!" Jesper Tjäder scooped the prize on the wall with a spectacular stall and backflip from the top coping, some 6 meters down to the transition!
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After the event, I grabbed a word with Sarah. The Swiss medal collector told me how sick it is to be the first woman to win not one, but two medals at Red Bull Playstreets. She then explained what it meant to women’s freeskiing. “It's such an honor to be invited to this event," she told me. "I feel like we are a part of history being the first girls to be invited to this event. We are showing the world that we are capable of doing great things and that we have our place in skiing.”
"Playstreets was even better than I expected," she added. "It seemed like the locals were so hyped on the event, so many people turned up to watch, the course design seemed like we weren't obstructing the town too much and that's what a freeski event should be like."
Most of the skiers I talked to felt the same way. While it’s got the financial juggernaut of Red Bull behind it and it did take over the town a bit, it still felt positively core, almost old school.
Thursday night´s winners: Matej Švancer, Jesper Tjäder and Sarah Hoefflin. Photo: Miriam Lottes/Red Bull Content Pool
Now a little bit of mild controversy. After the Best Trick Session, we all settled down to grab a bite to eat; the riders to refuel, and for me to try and regain sensation in my fingers and toes from the bitter Austrian winter temperatures. I spoke to a skier whose identity I’ll keep secret, but he had a slightly different view of the course. Playstreets is famous for its tight icy course, but there were elements our secret skier did find a bit over the top.
“It’s maybe a little bit unnecessarily sketchy, for example," he told me. "The last rail is quite tight, and I’m not sure why there have to be stairs, but it’s still a fun course. It’s definitely harder than before and they seem to want to up the difficulty at every edition.”
He pointed out that it might be nice to go in the other direction and have smoother and nicer features, pushing the level of the skiing and not the obstacles. Maybe that’s why they only invite the best. He assured me that it’s still a fun course. It’s just a hard one to ride. But that seems, at least partially, to be the point here.
Some big names are on those stars. Will we get a new name alongside these legends?
Friday rolled around and I went to watch the guys’ practice and qualifications. The full contest was just for the men again this year. After one of his runs, I walked with Finn Bilous from the end of the course to meet the quad bike that took the riders back to the top. The Kiwi is in the middle of a Freeride World Tour season. From untouched faces to artificial tracks through a town, I had to know how easy it is to just switch contests. He said adapting has always been part of his skiing.
“I think growing up in a place like Wanaka, I’ve been fortunate to ride a lot of terrain growing up and to me, it’s always just been skiing, no matter what discipline it is," Finn told me. "I think riding one complements the other, in different ways. I enjoy it all, so it’s good to get such a variety this season. This one feels like a real show, the atmosphere was just buzzing, everyone’s stoked and I think both contests have very different types of fear. On one side, slopestyle has so much technical difficulty. Then on the Freeride World Tour, you’ve never [ridden the face] before dropping in, so there’s the whole other side of unknown. That’s a different type of danger!”
Finn Bilous gets down during qualis on Friday. Photo: Alex Papis/Red Bull Content Pool
But this isn’t just any slopestyle course. Everyone said how challenging and occasionally sketchy the conditions are at Playstreets. Finn told me how the course is so narrow that you’ve really got to be on it with your landings and be super aware of the next feature. “Flat landings, icy turns, plus you’ve got a bunch of screaming fans on the side, which I really enjoy," he said. "I haven’t even really worn my park skis this season, so it’s good to change.”
I watched the end of the qualification on the big screen in the middle of town with Lukas Müllauer and Ralph Welponer. They were still in their boots and bibs, and kids were coming up and asking for selfies. The guys told me that is a cool aspect—here there are no real barriers and they’re happy to interact with the fans.
The final was a blur of creativity in head-to-head battles between some of the very best freeskiers around. Everyone that drops in at Playstreets is a winner, but the final four was about as strong a line-up as you could pick: Kim Gubser versus Andri Ragettli and Matej Svancer versus Jesper Tjäder. So, the final would be Swiss style and efficiency versus "rewind-that-4-times-to-figure-out-what-that-was" creativity. Andri and Jesper came out on top to battle it out for the crown. Before that, Kim and Matej had to decide who took the last spot on the podium, in the small final. A fierce battle was eventually won by Kim, whose run was just a little bit tidier.
Jesper tweaks out a bio 7 mute on the run that led him to victory. Sequence: Simon Rainer
I’ve heard the Red Bull athletes conspiracy theories (that is, that the RB-sponsored athletes got a bump in the scoring) but I’m not convinced. To me, this contest was perfect for Jesper. Everyone who qualified for the knockouts absolutely threw down, and almost anyone could have won. Andri and Jesper are two of the best skiers in the world, but they have very different approaches. As I said, the concept of Playstreets is almost tailor-made for Jesper, and he certainly made the most of that bottom section with the trampoline and rails. In the end, the Swede edged Andri out by a score of 285 to 283, even though the latter had a double cork 10 in his run. But after all, what would a contest be without a bit of controversy?
Red Bull Playstreets 2023 podium: Jesper Tjäder (1st), Andri Ragettli (2nd), Kim Gubser (3rd). Photo: Miriam Lottes/Red Bull Content Pool
It may sound cliché, but Playstreets really isn’t about winners and losers. As Finn said, it’s a show, and what a show it was. The level of skiing to showcase freeskiing to the thousands lining the streets and who knows how many more online, can only be a good thing.
I tried to escape before the afterparty, I had an 11-hour train journey with 5 changes to get back home, to Chamonix. I got dragged back by Markus Eder. One Red Bull Ginger Beer turned into two Red Bull Ginger Beers and the rest, as they say, is history!
Red Bull Playstreets 2023 Full Event Replay (YouTube)