Posted: Feb 15, 2:59a ET | Updated: Feb 15, 3:37a ET

Snowboard cross ready to soar again

WEST VANCOUVER (AP) -- If snowboard cross is the Olympic version of NASCAR, then Curtis Bacca is crew chief to the stars.

The wax technician for defending Olympic champion Seth Wescott and 2006 silver medalist Lindsey Jacobellis is considered one of the best in the business, a mad scientist whose ability to turn snowboards into glistening missiles that glide over the frantic series of twists and turns has made him a Svengali in snow pants.

"It's almost like a language," said Bacca.

Consider Bacca a snow whisperer.

Bacca has kept a detailed journal for the last 20 years chronicling conditions on mountains across the world, measuring everything from the temperature to the snow's water content and crystal size.

He spent this weekend experimenting with Wescott's and Jacobellis' boards, lugging equipment bags full of wax -- including some that fetch $350 a bar -- to the top of the snowboard cross course on Cypress Mountain trying to find the right combination.

Although Bacca allows he's only one part of the equation considering the chaotic nature of snowboard cross -- where racers run pell mell in groups of four down the mountain -- he knows all the riding talent in the world won't matter if the board is stuck in neutral.

"If your guy is going to win, you have to have a fast board and they have to ride extremely well," he said. "They can still ride extremely well and have a slow board and they will not win. You have to give them that opportunity."

Few do it better than Bacca and Andy Buckley, who provide the boards for the majority of the U.S. snowboard cross team, which is favored to reach the top of the podium when competition begins on Monday.

A good board can make the difference between winning gold and failing to get out of qualifying. American Graham Watanabe -- who went to Turin as a wax technician four years ago only to be added to the team at the last minute due to an injury -- estimates a solid wax job can save up to 5 seconds in a given race.

That's a lifetime in snowboard cross, where the best way to avoid the trouble that comes with riding in a pack is to be so fast nobody can catch you.

Even then, nothing is certain.

Jacobellis was yards away from gold in Italy when she decided to grab her board in celebration while going over a jump. She caught an edge on the landing and crashed. While she was able to scramble into second, the shadow of those Olympics has followed her to Cypress Mountain.

Although Jacobellis says she's over it, she knows the best way to remove the stigma is to win gold. She's won just about everything there is to win the last four years, including three straight X Games titles.

Asked last week if she'd tempt fate again if she's all alone as she reaches the finish line in the finals, Jacobellis played coy.

"I don't know, (it'll be a) surprise, let's see how the jumps are," she said with a laugh.

Aside from the Americans, Pierre Vaultier of France and Robert Fagan of Canada are expected to contend on the men's side. In the women's race, Canada's Maelle Ricker and Dominique Maltais both seek a better ending than they got in the 2006 final, where both crashed long before Jacobellis went down. Maltais got back up and won bronze; Ricker ended up in the hospital.

If practice this week is any indication, there could be more of the same come Monday and Tuesday.

Holland edged Wescott for gold in the X Games last month, called it "challenging" and said the unpredictable nature of the weather on Cypress Mountain will make for an interesting ride.

"You're going to have to make a lot of last-second decisions," Holland said.

Bacca's job is to help eliminate some of the guessing, a task made more difficult at Cypress Mountain because of the rapidly changing conditions -- rain, slush, ice and, on Sunday, the week's first rays of sunshine. That's where his experience comes in. He estimates he's only seen conditions similar to what riders will find on Cypress maybe three times in his career. He's hoping that knowledge will help him find the proper formula.

"Guys call us scientists; I'd say it's a little bit of science and a lot of art maybe," he said. "I'm like a chef in a kitchen. It's almost like intuitive."

And for the riders, it's dangerous.

Races sometimes resemble rugby scrums at 30 mph, with riders jockeying for position at breakneck speeds. Injuries are common and sometimes serious.

Wescott calls it simply part of the game, though not everyone is a fan of how violent the sport has become. Former world champion Jasey-Jay Anderson isn't competing in snowboard cross in part because of the toll it has taken on his body.

"We want people to kill themselves and break themselves a part to entertain us," said the Canadian, who will compete in the tamer parallel giant slalom.

Holland understands the concern, but the last thing he wants to do is slow down. He's gotten to the point where he doesn't even talk much to Buckley or Bacca before he steps into the starting gate. He knows it's fast, and that's all that matters.

"You never want to take away any gas pedals," Holland said. "You don't want a governor on your board."

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