With apologies to Michael Jordan; get ready to jam.
The third Downtown Showdown, an annual “rail jam” competition in Portland’s Monument Square, will go down at 5 p.m. Friday. The event kicks off with an hour-long open rail jam, and then the six best competitors move onto the finals from 6 to 7 p.m.
What’s a rail jam? Basically, it’s skiers and snowboarders performing tricks on a number of man-made features. In its simplest form, a jam involves a series of rails, but bigger competitions include boxes, pipes, wall rides, staircases and other detritus.
These constructed features and the relatively small competition area mean that jams can take place in areas far from ski resorts. Rail jams can also be held with relatively little snow.
The Downtown Showdown has been organized by Sugarloaf, Sunday River and the city of Portland.
According to event director Jay Scambio, selecting Portland as the host of the yearly event was a no-brainer. “We thought it would make a great fit — Maine ski resorts bringing some cool entertainment to Maine’s biggest city.”
For the past two years, the Downtown Showdown has drawn crowds numbering in the thousands. It’s always a kick to attend the event and play “spot the spectators.” Along with the crowd in Monument Square, you’ll find people watching from restaurants, apartments, office buildings and every level of the adjacent parking garage.
For Curtis Bolduc, a competitor in the last two Showdowns, the crowds are exhilarating.
“Riding in the streets of Portland is great,” said Bolduc. “The crowd really gets you excited and makes you want to put on a show. Unlike at regular rail jams, the prizes are luxurious and there are thousands of people watching. The feeling of landing a good trick is amplified a lot.”
Bolduc, a 19-year-old from the town of Mexico, has been skiing for 15 years — and skiing on park features like the ones at the Downtown Showdown for five. He was a finalist in the last two Showdowns, and is coming into this year’s event fresh off multiple competition wins and success at Bethel’s second annual Maine Street Rail Jam.
Bolduc has high hopes for the event, but also stressed that a big draw is “proving to the crowd that our sport is a lot of fun to watch and do.”
The crowds aren’t the only big thing about Portland’s annual rail jam. Every year, the structure built for the competition by Sugarloaf and Sunday River crews has gotten more impressive. Rising over two stories high in Monument Square, the snow-and-scaffolding structure provides about 70 feet of slope for skiers and snowboarders to showboat on.
Two of the rail features at this year’s event will be shorter than last year’s, which should make them a bit easier for athletes to utilize. In addition to the rails, a new “wall ride” feature will replace the “cannon jib” (a rail that shot riders into midair) from last year.
So, big crowds? Check. Big features? Check. What about the competitors and prizes?
The field of athletes who throw down for the Showdown is relatively small — about 30 people and an even mix of skiers and snowboarders. There’s a mix of amateur and semi-professional competitors, and they’re drawn from industry teams, shops, academies and Sugarloaf’s and Sunday River’s on-hill crews.
After the open rail jam that kicks off the Showdown, the six skiers and snowboarders picked as the best by the judges move on to the finals — and the prizes.
The kitty has some $5,000 in cash and prizes for the best of the best at the event. In past years, prizes have included brand new equipment and $900 Oakley watches. These are accompanied, of course, by some serious bragging rights.
Speaking of bragging rights, Sugarloaf skiers swept the ski arm of the event in 2010. Jeremy Veillieux, Max Twaddel and Tyler Shores snagged the top three spots.
Along with being a corporate-sponsored rail jam, the Downtown Showdown is the kickoff to WinteRush, Portland’s yearly winter carnival. More WinteRush festivities will be held in Deering Oaks on the following day.
Josh Christie is a freelance writer and lifetime ski enthusiast. He writes this column every other week, sharing the space with his father, John Christie. Josh can be reached at: