I was watching the Quiksilver Cup, an exotic event that runs together snowboarding and surfing into a wraparound audio-visual experience. Such contests can be held in very few places in the world: California, New South Wales, and - all last week - in France, first in the snows of La Mongie, the highest resort in the Pyrnes, then trucking down a mountain to Biarritz.
The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze has written that the 20th century is characterised by the rise of "indeterminate" and "subjective" sports (such as surfing) in opposition to more traditional "objective" and quantifiable disciplines (like, say, football). The Quiksilver Cup is a Deleuzian dream.
The snowboarding contest was taking place right alongside the French junior slalom championships but they seem to belong to antithetical worlds and different eras. While the tightly suited slalomists took off one at a time, arcing in and out of the tight gates with military tightness, fighting against the clock, the "boardercross" unloosed four baggy-trousered, long-haired, stubbly snowboarder dudes on the mountain, jockeying for the best line on banks, jumps, and a "gap" (a two-humped camel of a jump), with the fastest two going through to the next round. Boardercross has thrown away the stop-watch. The rules are looser. But if you are caught shaving you are out.
"For the slalom, you must be sober," Vincent Bruel, an ace French skier, said. In snowboarding, almost the opposite is true: you don't have to be drunk, but it helps, swaying and reeling round the course. Suddenly mountain sports aren't austere and rigorous anymore, they are extravagant, passionate, delirious. The Old Newtonian chronometric universe of the Alpine disciplines has given way to the more relativistic, Dionysian realm of board riding.
Eric Labarthe, one of the outstanding French snowboarders, carving up his homeground at La Mongie, reckons skiing was "dead" and summed up the differences as: "Basic sensation, simplicity (no poles, one edge), facility (what takes 10 years in skiing you learn in one in snowboard), accessibility - and attitude." He objected to the "tyranny" of the state-sponsored red- suited Ecole Franaise du Ski. "They slide like us, they use the mountain, but we have nothing in common. It's just that they were here before us."
The names on the equipment advertise the shift in mentality: no more "Rossignol SR7s", thank you, only "Hooger Booger", "Rebel, Free Rider", and "Hot Sex". Alongside the changes in what the French call "Le Look" and "Le Feeling", a new discourse, derived from surfing, has appeared: radical is good, fou (insane) is better. There is even a new French verb - "Rider". The simultaneous loudspeaker commentary from a man named Roland joyfully mixed up French and English - "Fucking good jump, man!" was his highest compliment, and he carried on crying out "Magnifique!" and "Fabuleux!" even when a fog briefly set in and he couldn't see a thing.
It took a while to adapt to the spirit of the Quiksilver. When I innocently asked for a list of competitors, I was told (in a strong French accent), "Be cool, man!" and was offered instead some leaflets about the new Quiksilver snowboard jeans (model 007) and the Gore-Tex "Windstopper". Winning is less important than out-styling the opposition. And throwing away the clock means that events don't always start on time.
On Monday, the first round of the boardercross started about two hours late. On Tuesday the quarter-finals were scheduled for midday, after a heavy night-before of aprs-snowboard bopping to a funky band at the Salle des Ftes. So I cunningly arrived on site for two - unshaven - and didn't miss a thing. Really getting into the swing, I turned up a whole day late for the second half of the contest in Biarritz, and found that it hadn't even started yet. But that was on account of the waves which, out-cooling everyone, turned up a whole two days late.
One of the attractions of the Quiksilver "crossover" format is that it brings together under the general rubric of "boarders" living legends - such as the Australian surfer Gary Elkerton, who won the combined title last year, and Robbie Naish from Hawaii, supreme among windsurfers, and relative unknowns, such as Laurent Descaves, who runs a board shop called "No Limits" in Cauterets across the mountain from La Mongie. It was as if you could hop into your car and go and race against Alain Prost or put your boots on and play against Manchester United. Maybe I'll take a shot at the title myself next year.
The Quiksilver Cup is a sportier Woodstock for the 90s Generation X: less an event than a happening, a scene. Robbie Naish, who has sun and salt water etched into his face, described it as a "feeling, groove, mood thing". "Snowboarding has brought guys to the snow who wouldn't have gone near a mountain. It's opened up a whole new level of participation. You don't have to dye your hair - even my dad is a fanatic. But a lot of snowboarders won't compete. They make a thing out of being "free-riders" - but they'll come to this one because it's almost a non-competitive sort of competition."
It came as a shock to find someone at the Quiksilver who admitted to wanting to win. Perhaps that was why he was winning. It was almost like cheating. Shannon Haymes, 26, from El Torro in California, is sponsored literally from head to toe: Quiksilver (clothes), Morrow (boards), Black Flys (shades), Air Walk (boots), pay him just to look good and get photographs. But as if that weren't enough the guy likes to win, too. He saw it as "an honour to be the only American in the top 10. Contests are good - there's money to be won and it improves your ability level."
Coming out of surfing and skateboarding into snowboarding, he also specialises in motocross (like boardercross on motorbikes) and reckons this gave him an edge: "It's pretty psycho, and anything can happen, but at least I don't have to worry about a 250lb motorcycle landing on my head."
Haymes was so competitive he even won the 1,000 franc "burger cross" (run down the beach, stuff in a Big Mac, paddle around the island and back again, sink a Corona, all without throwing up) that temporarily replaced surfing.
Everyone was stoked when the truant waves finally put in an appearance, and the second half of the contest was played out to give the Australian Rob Page the surfing title. But the combined winner of the Quiksilver Boardathon was the relentless all-rounder Haymes, with Selena Webber from Australia leading the women. The prize for maximum decibels went to the Burning Heads band.
Even when flat, Biarritz was still a great post-modern party. If the Quiksilver Cup, more like a video than a conventional competition, more a pretext for hedonism than a race, is the future of sport, then the back pages are soon going to end up under "Style" or "Rock Music".