SnoCross returns with tougher competition

X Games is the highlght of Tucker Hibbert's season and he comes prepared to win.

Nothing has changed; Tucker Hibbert is the favorite to win gold and become the first six-peat in an X Games winter event.

Everything has changed; a kid from Quebec named Tim Tremblay is the reigning Amsoil Championship Snocross Pro Open champion even though he didn't start racing sleds until he was 18.

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"I've been racing X Games for so many years and I've learned how to deal with the pressure," Tucker Hibbert says.

After one year off the schedule, SnoCross, the oldest motorized sport in all of X Games is back with storylines new and old. Although Hibbert didn't dominate the national series last year, his resume of 10 overall medals in X Games SnoCross gives him a clear edge in Aspen.

In the two years since Hibbert last competed on Buttermilk Mountain he's won two more national ISOC-sanctioned titles, another FIM World Snowcross championship, suffered a major internal injury and made a single race return to professional motocross. Although he missed only the final national snocross race of the season in 2012 with a grade four kidney laceration, 2012-13 is sort of a comeback year.

Last year he only won three of the 15 finals, struggled with the machine, and felt slightly empty without having to prepare for what has been the single biggest race in the history of snowmobiling since 1998 -- X Games, an event that has been Hibbert's priority since 2000.

"I think it affects it a lot more than people realize or want to admit," said Hibbert of the sport of snocross with no X Games. There's no way to deny that it definitely hurt our sport last year and hurt snowmobiling in general, to lose that excitement and exposure. It was a weird feeling to not have that carrot and goal to work for it all year. It definitely set a different tone for our race team all season."

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Ross Martin takes the lead early in the 2011 SnoCross final before Tucker Hibbert overtook him for his fifth consecutive X Games gold medal.

SnoCross ran uninterrupted for 14 years and was left out in 2012. "As we laid out the schedules and sports mix for 2013, the right opportunity to include SnoCross and Snowmobile Speed & Style presented itself," said Tim Reed, senior director of content development for X Games.

Joe Duncan, the sport organizer for snowmobiling at X Games Aspen and other national snowmobiling events said it was the youth who were affected the most by the absence of X Games.

"It's what these kids knew they wanted to get to," Duncan said. "When it went it away it hurt the sport from the bottom up. The top guys were already there but the bottom guys, they wanted to get there and it was gone."

Duncan said with racing back in X Games a burst of excitement can be seen throughout the industry that was missing in 2012. Using Hibbert as an example, it was a very un-Tucker-like year. He was on a new model sled, didn't get enough testing and parts development done and struggled to find momentum. By March he was starting to feel good and then he was hit with the devastating injury that left him in the hospital for two weeks. Even before the injury his hope for a seventh national title was lost and it was Tremblay who earned the crown, his second as a full professional.

"Tucker Hibbert's not No. 1 anymore and they can beat him. You can see it when they're racing," Duncan said. "As we all know in the racing world, a good portion of whether you can win or lose is in your mind. Before it was no matter how bad of a start, no matter what happened, Tucker would find a way to win. He's that good. But now there's the crack in the field. There's a door open and the guys have been taking advantage of it, which makes for great racing."

Tremblay has two X Games appearances, a seventh and 11th in 2010 and 2011 and those finishes represent the last piece of what's left to be done in his short professional career. He's been waiting two years for another opportunity.

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Tim Tremblay, right, won last season's Amsoil Snocross championship but has finished seventh (2010) and 11th (2011) in his only X Games Aspen appearances.

"My snocross career has been really good so far," said Tremblay, 26. "I wish I could have started earlier but with all those years I got I think I've done pretty good. It would be good to win at X Games so I can say I won at all the events that I could."

First, Tremblay and other co-favorites such as Robbie Malinoski, Ross Martin and Darrin Mees have to find a way to strike quickly in Aspen. In three of the past five SnoCross finals, Hibbert has led every single lap and in the two where he didn't lead flag to flag, he wasted little time getting to the front.

Martin is often considered to have the best shot at beating Hibbert but bad luck and mental miscues have kept him from being a more serious threat. In 2010 he had last gate pick in the final because of a qualifying crash. By the time he'd worked into silver medal position the leader was out of reach. In 2011 Martin jumped the start. He finished the first lap side by side with Hibbert but received the meatball flag and was forced to pull to the side for a time pause. Again, by the time he found second place, his chance to win was gone.

Explaining why Hibbert is so dominant in Aspen is tough. Or maybe it's not. With X Games on the calendar Hibbert said he trains and prepares differently. As of Jan. 14 he was already in Colorado training, testing and acclimating. In addition to the physical preparations taken for body and machine, Hibbert has developed a mental edge that's been unmatched in the sport. Unfortunately for his competition, that edge gets sharper as the stakes rise.

"I feel like it definitely is a situation that I don't struggle with. It definitely doesn't affect me," Hibbert said of the pressure of big events. "I've been racing X Games for so many years and I've learned how to deal with the pressure and the whole situation but there are athletes out there that kind of struggle with the pressure and all the media and hype."

Hibbert started the new Amsoil Snocross season off with a disappointing first round in Duluth, Minn., where he failed to make the podium in either final. He's been flawless since then and comes into Aspen with a four-race win streak. He said not winning at Round 1 helped and gave him motivation to try harder. Now he's back to making winning seem easy again.

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Robbie Malinoski, front, won the first two rounds of the Amsoil Snocross season and is second in the overall standings heading into X Games Aspen.

"It's never easy," Hibbert said. "I don't want to say that. I would say it's getting harder. With the competition stepping up and getting better every year it forces us to do the same and we've got to find new ways to get better. I enjoy that challenge for sure."

The course at Aspen has always been different because of the man-made snow, the length, big Supercross-like jumps and because it's built exclusively for professional riders it gets only about 10 percent of the use that a national track gets with amateur, youth and semi-pro classes. Duncan said the 2013 course will be around a half-mile, three-tenths of a mile shorter than it was in 2011. That should cut lap times down by 20 seconds. It will also feature a crossover jump where competitors ride between the takeoff and landing. When asked if he purposely builds courses to stop runaway wins Duncan says, "We try! Tucker has proved us wrong many a time. It's really hard to do but we do try."

The athlete list for the 15th running of X Games SnoCross is filled with veterans, rookies, semi-pros, a former motocross racer and even freestyle riders. To win, Tucker has to beat them all and no matter how heavy the medals hanging from his neck get he's always humble enough to remember that.

"That's something I've learned from my first X Games," Hibbert said. "I won in 2000 as a semi-pro and I don't think there's a single person on the starting line that even thought I was going to be a threat. I try not to rule anybody out."

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