The inaugural Natural Selection Tour, the snowboarding competition brainchild of snowboarders Travis Rice and Liam Griffin, officially wrapped this week with the third of the tour’s three stops in the books. And with that, snowboarding’s male and female champions have been crowned.
Norway’s Mikkel Bang and Canada’s Robin Van Gyn emerged victorious in the men’s and women’s competitions, respectively, both of which went down at Alaska’s Tordrillo Mountain Lodge a couple weeks ago, with the finale airing Friday at 3 p.m. EDT. It can be replayed in its entirety on Red Bull TV, along with the first stop at Jackson Hole in February and the second stop at Baldface Valhalla in British Columbia in March.
On the men’s side, the United States’ Ben Ferguson and Canada’s Mark McMorris came in second and third, respectively, and on the women’s side New Zealand’s Zoi Sadowski-Synnott was the runner-up to Gyn.
After getting his start in the contest scene in slopestyle, winning the 2010 Burton U.S. Open, Bang, 31, shifted his focus to filming and riding powder. The Natural Selection Tour marked his first competition in eight years.
“Just being invited to this contest was an honor, and ending up in first place is just unreal,” Bang said. In Jackson Hole, Bang also stomped what has become one of the most-watched highlights from the entire Tour: a stylish frontside 360 rock tap.
MORE FOR YOU
“Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined myself here,” said Van Gyn, 38, a prolific filmer and backcountry veteran who doesn’t have much competition experience under her belt.
“I was really excited to try to compete in a backcountry arena, knowing I had experience there, but not really in competition. Like every athlete, we keep challenging ourselves and this was part of that personal evolution for me: learning to film, learning to do tricks in the backcountry, learning to ride in Alaska. I had been building on that for a long time.”
The third and final Tordrillo Mountain Lodge stop was a two-day event featuring four men and three women competing in a head-to-head format. Each rider took three total runs, and the highest-scored run won the heat. In real time, judges evaluated the difficulty of a rider’s chosen line, the size of the features they hit and the variety and execution of tricks in the line.
Van Gyn, who is from the Vancouver area and works as a backcountry tail guide outside Baldface Nelson, won the second event on her home turf at Baldface Valhalla, impressing the judges with her straight airs off cliffs and a frontside 360 in her second run.
In Alaska, Van Gyn upped the ante yet again in the final against Sadowski-Synnott. Using her first run to find the good snow and feel out where the best hits were going to be, she looked to ride her line with confidence and flow in her second run.
“I ended up doing more of a safety run at the top,” Van Gyn said of her second (and winning) run, which she opened with a half-Cab cornice drop in.
“I pulled the backflip I was doing in my run out and just started fresh. I hit I think four airs, and at the very end I did a bigger cliff I was hoping to do in my final, which I did in my safety run, which makes it not that safe at all,” she said, laughing. “That’s the run I ended up winning with.”
Bang beat out Mark McMorris in the semifinals and went up against Ben Ferguson in the final.
The judges were impressed by both the technical and the stylish nature of Bang’s riding, as well as his fearlessness in taking risks. He anchored his boned out frontside 360 and backside 540 off a blind takeoff with precise landings and smooth transitions.
“My dream growing up watching snowboarding was to film video parts and ride big mountain and powder, so I competed in the first part of my career to be able to do so,” Bang said.
“And then it came to a point where I transitioned to and dedicated all my time for filming, and I think both having competed and having spent so much time in the backcountry really helped me for this event.”
The Natural Selection Tour is not Rice’s first foray into backcountry competition, but it is arguably already his most successful, with a new sensibility.
The idea is that the Tour is a perfect combination of big-mountain riding and park riding, forcing riders to be skilled not only at executing those spins and flips off natural and man-made features, but also in reading the snow, selecting their lines and managing their landings in heavy powder.
When he announced the Natural Selection Tour, Rice said the event would crown the world’s best all-around snowboarders, given the myriad skills required to succeed.
“The beauty of this event is riders will inevitably face a multitude of riding conditions where a lifetime of skill sets and experience is the basis for one’s decision on when to go for it and when to play it safe,” Rice said.
While the competitors came from every type of snowboarding background—halfpipe and slopestyle, filming, and urban and backcountry riding—Bang’s and Van Gyn’s skill and experience in the backcountry ultimately helped them claim the throne.
“It takes years to learn how to read the mountain and pick lines and be creative. It has taken all my life to figure it out,” Bang said.
“Robin and Mikkel both proved today that there is indisputable reason they both were crowned champions of the Natural Selection Tour,” Rice said. “Battling it out against the world’s best with over 14 head-to-head competition runs throughout the season and they came out victorious on the runs that mattered the most.”
So do Bang and Van Gyn accept the titles of world’s best all-around snowboarders, then?
“It is pretty cool how this event brings together so many different riders; you have people with halfpipe backgrounds, slopestyle, freestyle world tour background, filming background, and we all get matched into this event,” Bang said. “I mean, I’ll take it for now,” he added with a laugh.
Back home in Norway now, Bang is quarantining after his travels and beginning to think about planning his annual Bang Slalom event, which was canceled in both 2020 and 2021 due to Covid-19. He founded the event, which is open to everyone, “ just to give something back to the snowboard community.” He hopes to have the chance to defend his title at next year’s Natural Selection Tour.
So does Van Gyn—and she knows the competition will be fierce.
“In action sports and snowboarding we tend to be incredibly humble to the point it takes away from our achievements, and I want to sit somewhere in the middle where I still get to own my value and accomplishments but still realize there are so many good snowboarders out there,” Van Gyn said. “I may have had my day this year, but that doesn’t mean I’m the best snowboarder on the planet, and next year I’m gonna have to work extra hard.”
Both Bang and Van Gyn applauded Rice’s vision for the event and expressed excitement about what it means for the future of snowboarding.
The prize purse is equal for men and women, which, coupled with the exposure, can help progress the sport overall but especially for women. And it’s a venue for snowboarders who don’t want to go the traditional contest route (slopestyle, halfpipe, big air) to show off their skills, earn some new sponsors and make some money to boot.
The Tour attracted big-name sponsors and partners, including Quiksilver, BOA, Union Binding Company, Mervin Manufacturing, Oakley, VANS, Salomon, K2, The North Face, Jones Snowboards, Picture Organic Clothing, Salomon and Spot Insurance. Van Gyn’s own sister, Jill, founded a healthy peanut butter brand called Fatso Peanut Butter, which fueled Robin’s performance during the Tour.
YETI entitled the Jackson Hole event and leads the Tour’s sustainability strategy alongside Conservation International. Ford Bronco entitled the Baldface Valhalla stop, and HempFusion entitled the final at Tordrillo Mountain Lodge.
“I know Travis shares a really deep desire to have equity and equality for women and men in snowboarding. Women aren’t snowboarding for men to watch and judge us; we’re snowboarding for other women to be inspired and go their own route,” Van Gyn said. “Having wins in this event—if you weren’t already known, people are gonna know, which is amazing, and it can increase your ability to have partnerships.”
“I got to give Travis a shoutout for having the vision. I know he’s been wanting to do this for years, and he pulled it off—during Covid, which is amazing,” Bang said. “It’s so nice to show this side of snowboarding versus what people are used to seeing, and then also women being equal, same prize money…it’s a really good look for the sport.”
Ultimately, Rice’s dream was to gather the world’s top snowboarders to showcase the most advanced and creative riding on the planet. The overwhelming consensus is that in its first year, the Tour did that.
“The application of freestyle and creativity on the canvas of natural terrain provides some of the most dynamic snowboarding we will see,” Rice said. “This is why the Natural Selection Tour, with mother nature as the main character, has no ceiling. This is only the beginning.”