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Alpine rider or freestyler: Differences are obvious across the board

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Competitive snowboarding has a sort of split personality.

Alpine riders ? the ones who hurtle down slalom courses at breakneck speed ? come off serious, intense, almost ultracompetitive. Freestylers ? the ones who launch themselves in the halfpipe to perform twisting, spinning tricks ? come across as free and easy, almost laissez faire.

Racers tend to be a little older, perhaps even more mature than halfpipe riders, many of whom are teenagers or in their early 20s.

Freestylers, too, are some of the wackier characters in the sport. Most of the colorful terms in snowboarding like wet cat or stalefish are on the freestyle side, having drifted over from skateboarding where many "shredders" got their start.

"It's like figure skating and hockey, you know. I say the hockey side is freestyle, not calling racing figure skating. But, you know, it's like two different sides to the sport," said Olympic halfpipe team member Danny Kass.

Says 1998 Olympic bronze medalist Shannon Dunn, "Alpine riders are very much more disciplined. As far as partying, it's probably comparable. But they're willing to get up so early in the morning and train on bullet-proof ice, and freestylers aren't."

The two disciplines also require different equipment.

Alpiners wear hard boots, like ski boots, and ride long, rigid flat snowboards. They're constantly sharpening edges and waxing their boards to keep them in peak shape for racing conditions.

Freestylers wear soft boots and ride more flexible boards with the nose and tail turned slightly upward. They're less concerned about waxing and edges.

Dunn admits she's not a fan of snowboard racing, saying it's too close to skiing.

The similarities ? body mechanics, training, line for the course ? between snowboard and ski racing are great, says Sondra Van Ert, a former ski racer who turned to snowboarding.

Though racing doesn't have the "wow" appeal of a soaring, spinning run through the halfpipe, the head-to-head Olympic format makes for thrilling finishes.

"The adrenaline really gets you pumping. Heat after heat you get really pumped up, so it's really exciting quite honestly," Van Ert said.

Few snowboarders these days cross over between slalom races and halfpipe. But there are a couple of places where the soft booters and hard booters blend.

Both freestyle and halfpipe riders compete in snowboardcross, a sort of motocross on snowboards where four to six riders simultaneously race through a downhill course filled with banked turns, rollers and jumps. Some compete on alpine boards; others on freestyle boards.

"I love boardercross and honestly wish I was 15 to 20 years younger," said Van Ert, who at 37 is the oldest U.S. racer.

The other place where snowboarders share common ground is freeriding mountain terrain or back-country powder, the thing that made the sport enticing in the first place.

French racer Mathieu Bozzetto says he likes snowboarding "everywhere except for pipes, boardercross and alpine courses," leaving only one thing.

"I feel free and comfortable when I'm freeriding," he said. "That's what snowboarding is all about."

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com