World Para Snowboard – New world champions to be crowned

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Canada’s Alex Massie

A new snowboard-cross format and the long-awaited return of world champion Maxime Montaggioni will be among the many highlights at the 2019 World Para Snowboard Championships, which Pyha, Finland, will host from 26-31 March.

The bi-annual competition will see the expansion of snowboard-cross in the men’s SB-UL class from two-man to four-man heats. According to one of the medal favourites in the class, Patrick Mayrhofer, the expanded format is proof of how much the men’s SB-UL has grown in recent years.

“Riding four-way is the way we have to go,” the Austrian rider said. “If you just go one by one, it’s not thrilling action because we are already used to this and the four-way format is something that is much more interesting for the spectators.”

RETURN OF THE MAX

The men’s SB-UL class will also see the return of Maxime Montaggioni. The 2019 Worlds will be the biggest competition for the French rider since the 2017 edition of the championships where he won gold in banked slalom and a silver in border-cross.

Montaggioni injured himself during training at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games and was off the slopes for a year. He has looked sensational since coming back to the World Cup circuit in February, however, sweeping gold medals in snowboard-cross and banked slalom races.

“He is maybe number one in line for a medal,” Mayrhofer said. “He took some time off, didn’t go early on snow and he’s stronger than before. He can ride. He has no pressure.”

Paralympic silver medallist in banked slalom Mayrhofer is also among the favourites to take a medal in Pyha. He is in good form this season, already winning three banked slalom races at the World Cup stops.

“For the World Champs, it’s very good preparation,” Mayrhofer said of his World Cup medal haul. “I feel more comfortable on banked slalom due to my knee injury two years ago. The border-cross is more stressful.”

Aside from Montaggioni, Mayrhofer will need to resist the challenge from Australia’s Simon Patmore and the USA’s Mike Minor.

Both athletes are double threats in the Para snowboard disciplines. Patmore is the Paralympic champion in snowboard-cross and bronze medallist in banked slalom, while Minor is the Paralympic champion in banked slalom and defending champion in cross.

DUTCH TUG OF WAR

Following the retirement of Dutch legend Bibian Mentel-Spee last season, her proteges will be battling it out for top spot in the women’s SB-LL2 class in Pyha.

Lisa Bunschoten looks poised to take Mentel-Spee’s place as the next Dutch snowboard queen. She took two silvers, behind Mentel-Spee, at the 2017 Worlds, and has collected a handful of gold medals at this season’s World Cup.

“I’m really looking forward to the World Champs,” Bunschoten said. “I feel good winning all these World Cup races and hope to keep going forward this way.”

Bunschoten’s teammates, Anna Garttener and Renske van Beek, are also enjoying successful seasons and winning plenty of World Cup medals leading up to Pyha. They have the advantage of having trained with Bunschoten and could prove her toughest competition in Finland.

Cecile Hernandez is the clear favourite in the women’s SB-LL1 class with USA’s Brenna Huckaby and Amy Purdy both missing the competition through injury. The French rider got silvers in both events at the 2017 Worlds and will have a chance to improve on that in Pyha.

The women’s SB-UL was not featured in the 2017 edition and will be an exciting field to watch for the young talent it promises. This year the fight for medals will be between two 18-year-olds from China Lu Jiangli and Pang Qiaorong, against former Para rower from Poland, Monika Aleksandra Kotzian.

YOUNG FOLKS

With the double world champion from the 2017 Worlds Matti Suur-Hamari out of the men’s SB-LL2 competition due to injury, the field will be open for rising stars to make their mark.

Among them are Australia’s Ben Tudhope, Canada’s Alex Massie and USA’s Zach Miller who have been on a roll at this season’s World Cup, winning several medals each. All three missed the podium two years ago but now come in as the new generation to watch.

“It’s exciting to go into World Champs with a few medals behind me just knowing that I’m able to compete with the best guys out here,” Miller said. “That’s what the results say and it feels great.”

In the men’s SB-LL1, Chris Vos will be on a mission to continue his golden sweep into his third consecutive World Championships. The Dutch youth won the snowboard-cross and banked slalom golds in the 2015 and 2017 editions of the competition, and has looked solid all season, winning gold medals in both disciplines at the World Cup.

Two Paralympic champions stand in Vos’ path towards accomplishing this goal: banked slalom gold medallist Noah Elliott and snowboard-cross gold medallist Mike Schultz, both from the United States.