The Red Bull Crashed Ice Ice Cross Downhill World Championship has been thrilling crowds in snow-filled countries since 2001, enticing tens of thousands to brave freezing weather in cities from Moscow to Munich to get close to the action. The event pits four athletes at a time against each other on a steep, obstacle-laden ice track at speeds of up to 70kph in a chaotic fight to the finish, and this month, for the first time, the competition is coming to the Northern Ireland.
Belfast is being transformed to hold the third of four world series stops, with a vast, snaking, 450m track running down from the front steps of the iconic Stormont Estate parliament buildings. Creating this sporting spectacle is no mean feat in any country, and in Northern Ireland, the first non-winter sports destination to hold a Red Bull Crashed Ice event, it’s an epic undertaking.
A 100-strong team started an intensive three-week build on February 1, beginning with the 40m-high start gates and working their way to the finish line. The crew come from all over the world, with expert course builders from Canada, technical know-how from Europe and local tradesmen, from scaffolding crews to carpenters, working to turn hundreds of steel bars, tons of dirt and over 2,000m2 of wood into a raceable track.
Each Red Bull Crashed Ice track is unique, a bespoke solution to hundreds of site-specific considerations, and in Belfast there are plenty. Underpasses have to be built under the track to allow around 1,600 cars a day to access the Stormont Estate, and all crew working on the main steps of the government building have to go through airport-style security every time they enter. Over 1,000m of Perspex boards are needed to line the course, to keep racers on track and the crowd safe from skate blades, which had to be ordered in from Europe.
They’re stored in a makeshift construction yard near the site, also home to hundreds of tools and heavy machinery including cranes, Bobcat loaders and quad bikes. And it wouldn’t be Red Bull Crashed Ice without, well, ice. As the extreme sub-zero temperatures of traditional locations are absent, this has to be painstakingly made on site. Once the track is finished, it will take 15 trucks to transport all the equipment needed to create a race-worthy ice layer.
A specialist team from Austria use a mix of crushed ice, six chiller machines, and hundreds of small tubes cooled down to -10°C that sit over the track. The result isn’t ice rink-smooth, it’s coarse and rough, an extra element competitors need to battle.
It has to be solid, which means using a time-consuming process of trickling water down the cooled surface, building the ice track depth up millimetre by millimetre. It can take seven days to create just 10cm of properly packed ice. But when the work is done, thoughts will switch to the action, as three weeks of effort end in three intense nights of racing.
National qualifiers in Dublin and Belfast select the top 50 local riders, who compete in a National Shootout of timed runs against 10 British qualifiers and 10 wildcard entrants. The top 32 progress to take on international competitors.
An international shootout, sends the top 32 international competitors directly to the final. The international riders ranked 33-64 take on the 32 top national riders. Half of those 64 also join the Red Bull Crashed Ice final.
In each heat, four riders take to the track and the first two competitors to reach the finish line advance to the next round, the others are out. The final race of the contest decides who is placed first, second, third and fourth.
Since Red Bull Crashed Ice took over a city fish market in Stockholm, Sweden, back in 2001, the rapidly growing sport of ice cross downhill has expanded into a world series, and set up everywhere from Helsinki to Prague. Turning urban locations into Red Bull Crashed Ice arenas has become something of a tradition.