Champions reunite at season opener in Saint Paul

Martin Niefnecker, Kyle Croxall, Jasper Felder, Derek Wedge and Marco Dallago in Saint Paul
Ice cross downhill royalty takes centre stage in Saint Paul, USA, this week, as four of history's five world champions get together to renew their friendships - and rivalries.

Ice cross downhill royalty takes centre stage in Saint Paul, USA, this week, as four of history's five world champions get together to renew their friendships - and rivalries.

As the 15th ice cross downhill season opens in Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA, this week, one fact stands out as a testament to the challenges and changes in this booming sport: since Red Bull Crashed Ice first grew to a world championship in 2010, not a single title-holder has managed to capture a second overall victory. On Friday, four of history's five champions, plus one of the sport's famed pioneers, showed up with bold dreams of finally changing that statistic.

In 2010, Martin Niefnecker, of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, claimed the first world title with fearless runs - and, despite a late-season injury in 2014, at only 24 years of age he's still got plenty to give. Kyle Croxall, a powerful 26-year-old from Calgary, Canada, battled to the crown in 2012, and he's always a force to be reckoned with in Saint Paul, having won two previous stops here.

At age 32, 2013 champion Derek Wedge, of Crans, Valais, Switzerland, is a seasoned, all-around athlete with the focused mindset of a man who is himself a professional trainer. And the defending champion, 24-year-old Marco Dallago, of Austria, is renowned as one of the sport's innovators, excelling with inventive training practices and pushing his rivals to new levels of performance.

Another stellar name taking the ice in the Twin Cities is Jasper Felder, history's most decorated ice cross downhill athlete. In 2001, before the fastest sport on skates ever grew to a world championship, the Swede won the very first Red Bull Crashed Ice contest, and he continued to dominate through to 2005. Felder has missed ice cross downhill so much since his retirement in 2011 that, among a field of nearly 200 athletes including 27 hard-charging rookies, the 44-year-old hopes to defy the odds and stage a comeback in Saint Paul. "One of the new things that has come into Red Bull Crashed Ice is the team competition, so I'm looking forward to that most of all. My team includes friends that I met 10 years ago and new friends as well, so it'll be a blast," Felder explains.

And Saint Paul's individual competition, with its finals on Saturday night? Acknowledging that the 460-metre track - the longest of the season - will require exceptional endurance, Felder states, "This type of track is something new to experience too, and I know that some of these guys are just half my age. But I've got my skills and I know how fast I can skate. I'm going to give them a run for the title."

The only former champion missing from the scene was Finland's Arttu Pihlainen, who claimed the title in 2011. But competitors who remember his furious speed can't rest easy - Pihlainen has declared his intent to join the fray this February when Red Bull Crashed Ice returns to his home turf at its second stop in Helsinki. In Jyväskylä the week prior, he'll be hosting the second race of the Riders Cup, a new ice cross downhill competition "by riders for riders," where competitors can earn points toward the world championship.

So what keeps these champions coming back, even after they've written their names in the history books? "It's the passion, the love of this really unique sport," declares Wedge. Glancing over the sea of athletes in the huge tent that serves as their lockerroom, he says, "Look at all these guys. They're my best friends. We've waited for 10 months to see each other, and now we're here, the championship is even bigger, and for the next couple of months we'll be travelling, competing and having fun together. It's the best life ever."

For more details on the event, including how to watch Saturday's race live, visit redbullcrashedice.com/saint-paul. You can also follow all of the action via our Live Results. Get all the shootout times and heats in real time at redbullcrashedice.com/results.