Though she doesn’t have a background in competition per se, it doesn’t mean that Pemberton snowboarder Robin Van Gyn lacks a competitive fire as she gets set for the inaugural season of the Natural Selection Tour.
The backcountry freestyle tour, launched in part by American legend Travis Rice, will kick off the three-stop tour at Jackson Hole, Wyo. next month, halving the field of 16 men and eight women each time out, so Van Gyn will need to be ready from the get-go.
“It will be more challenging for me because I’ve never really had that competitive mindset, even though I would like to say that I am competitive by nature. Most snowboarders who film or who are at a certain level, we use our competitiveness to get ahead,” she said. “For me, it now is about harnessing it in the right way to strategize.”
With half the riders still to be revealed, the roster already looks strong. With a field that includes two-time Olympic slopestyle gold medallist Jamie Anderson, as well as big mountain and Freeride World Tour veterans, the tour will be a mosaic of styles.
“My strengths will lie in hitting features and landing in pow,” Van Gyn said. “I may not have the technical tricks that a Jamie Anderson or an Anna Gasser would have, but I have had a pretty long career, 15 years, of backcountry filming and playing in the pow.
“I’m really looking forward to showcasing those skills in that competitive space.”
The tour is growing out of the ashes of Ultra Natural and Super Natural one-off events held in Jackson Hole in 2008 and at Baldface Lodge in 2012 and 2013. Those events invited only men, and Van Gyn is thrilled to show how women approach the contest.
“I don’t think we should think about being on a similar level to the men because we’re different. We snowboard like women. We don’t snowboard like men and it’s important to differentiate that,” she said. “We’re different beings and I think we bring something different to the table, whether it’s flow in our riding, or a beautiful turn or a more-simple trick with more style.
“This being the first time that we’re included in this type of event, I think it’s important to remember that.”
On the men’s side, Whistler’s Chris Rasman will be one of the initial 16.
Rasman has been a fan of Rice throughout his career and admired the previous incarnations of the events as someone who’s always been drawn to riding the backcountry more than the park.
“I want to paint my own canvasses in the mountains and use my own creativity,” he said. “To be part of this is very flattering and nerve-wracking.”
Rasman, who’s befriended Rice in recent years, dropped hints that he’d love to be part of a relaunched Natural Selection, but didn’t get a confirmation until recently.
“He’d never been like, ‘You’re going to be in it, 100 per cent,’” Rasman recalled. “He just smiled and said it would be epic.
“I knew I was in the group of riders they were talking about, but I definitely didn’t think for sure that I’d be selected.”
Like Van Gyn, Rasman has focused more on cameras than contests, as his last competition was Showcase Showdown more than a decade ago.
“My best riding comes with a small group of eyes on me in the mountains in the middle of nowhere with a couple of cameras,” he said. “That’s what’s making me most nervous right now, how I’m going to deal [with it] in a competition setting, but at the same time, the saving grace, because our community is so small, I know all the other riders in it.
“I hope it just feels like another day in the mountains.”
With the men’s field including Olympian Mark McMorris and Rice himself, Rasman knows he needs to focus on what got him invited.
“I don’t want to go into it thinking, ‘I need to try something I’ve never tried before’ or ‘I need to grab a different way to make it unique and fresh.’ I got selected to be in this event because of what I’ve done, not what I’m going to do, so I’m just going to go into it and do my strongest riding that I’m comfortable with,” he said.
Tour co-founder and COO Liam Griffin said plenty of hard work went in to launching the tour before the pandemic, which only complicated matters. He said Natural Selection has subsequently worked with authorities to make it a safe and feasible operation.
“Planning a three-stop tour in the backcountry at this level would have been a fairly Herculean task in a normal year. This year, there’s just an added layer of COVID planning and contingency planning over top of everything,” he said.
Griffin described Natural Selection as a hybrid of Freeride World Tour, taking natural terrain and riding it in its original state, with going out and building features that accentuate what’s already there.
“There’s a big difference between what we’re doing and what any other event is doing,” he said. “The optionality of the terrain, providing people with opportunities to really push the boundaries of what’s possible on a snowboard in the backcountry from a freestyle perspective, but not losing sight of the natural terrain and the freeriding ability that’s needed to make it in between all those features.”
The first stop is set for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort from Feb. 3 to 9, with the next stop at Baldface Lodge just outside Nelson in early March. The final, with the top four men and top two women, will go down from March 20 to 27 at Tordrillo Mountain Lodge in Alaska. All stops will be broadcast on redbull.tv.