Sebastian Marko/Red Bull Content Pool

Crashed Ice: The Most Vicious Winter Sport You’ve Never Heard Of

The Croxall Brothers, Kyle and Scott, stand side-by-side at the top of the world — or at least Minnesota. The two broad-shouldered Canadians, who are packed in muscle and hockey pads, stand well over 6-feet tall on skates, but they’re nonetheless dwarfed by the scale of the scene. Behind them towers the hilltop Cathedral of St. Paul, the fourth largest church in the U.S., with its copper dome and granite neoclassical facade spotlit from below on this black January night. Beneath them is three stories of barebones scaffolding that rattles with every thump of the hip-hop blasting over the PA.

Red Bull Crashed Ice St. Paul starts with a 6-foot cliff that, if landed, throws four skaters beyond 30 miles per hour, over a motocross jump and into a tight hairpin turn where the streaking riders bottleneck in a gauntlet of sharp blades and elbows. After fighting through the melee, skaters continue through another series of steep drops, rapid rollers that bring their knees banging into their chests, and at the end, a ski-jump ramp into a 90-degree corner jump that either hurls survivors into the boards or spits them out onto the finish line some 12 stories (and 115 feet) below where they started.

Crashed Ice then might best be described as a cross between speed skating and roller derby juiced with Red Bull. It also could be characterized as fucking nuts.

But if the participants in this extreme winter sport are temporarily insane, then the Croxalls are certifiable. Both Kyle and Scott have been competitors for more than a decade, dating back almost to 2001, the year Red Bull invented the sport. Back then, there was only one or two races a year, and no championship or points standings. Kyle, the eldest, actually won the third-ever Crashed Ice title in 2012; Scott had to wait for his crown until 2015.

Though only two years apart in age, the Croxalls represent the spectrum of Crashed Ice riders. Twenty-nine-year-old Kyle, a brawny 6-foot-1, 210-pounds, is the template of the hockey toughs that were first attracted to the brutality and physicality of the nascent sport, where intentional contact is technically illegal, but incidental contact is inevitable. Scott, though also a hockey veteran, is a more compact 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, and thus, resembles the faster, more agile skaters that have taken over Crashed Ice as it’s grown into to a four-race world-tour championship season that regularly draws upward of 30,000 spectators. It’s also why Scott enters this St. Paul race, the first of the 2018 season, ranked №2 in the world, while Kyle has fallen back to №8.

The increase in participants is among the reasons why the Croxalls find themselves tonight facing off in the Round of 32 instead of the semifinals as they did here last year.

“RIDERS READY!” calls the referee over the booming PA, bringing the skaters into a crouch behind the starting gates. “FIVE-SECOND WARNING!”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1RlK85CT58

Breath rising from beneath their hockey facemasks, the brothers grab the starting blocks — grips at the sides of each gate — with gloved hands and lean back as if drawing back a slingshot.

The air horn sounds, springing all four riders through the unlocked gates. A chant of “Wit-ty, Wit-ty” rises from the crowd of around 38,000 — more than half of a Vikings game — who are rooting for Dan Witty, the bearded and blue-eyed Minnesotan underdog in stall one. But Kyle and Scott don’t hear any of it. Wearing nearly matching black “Team LTD” jerseys (for Living the Dream — the name of Scott’s sports apparel company), their focus is squarely on the ice ahead. Besides, the Croxalls’ fast start silences that hometown upswell almost immediately.

The brothers seem to erupt from the middle two chutes, down the initial 6-foot drop and slamming onto the ice already a second ahead. They give each other plenty of room until the hairpin, where Kyle nudges his way into the lead. But little brother Scott, smaller and faster, promptly overtakes him in the ensuing straightaway.

By the final stretch, the two have left their competition out of the camera frame. Knowing that the top two advance to the quarterfinals, the Croxalls ease up in the final jump and coast down the last hill, side-by-side once again.

The whole thing is over in 30 seconds — three full seconds ahead of the other two riders, now eliminated.

The brothers fist bump as they approach the finish together. Ever so subtly, however, Kyle sticks out his left skate, where the electronic timing indicator at the finish line is located. Officially then, he finishes a fraction of a second ahead of his little brother.

Scott and Kyle are somewhat polarizing figures in the insular traveling icecapade that is Crashed Ice — the closest thing the sport has to antiheroes, akin to the NBA’s J.R. Smith, the NFL’s Richard Sherman, or perhaps more aptly, the roughneck Hanson brothers in the classic hockey movie Slapshot.

While most of their fellow riders (the people who actually know the Croxalls) consider them overall nice guys (if fierce competitors and a bit introverted), some correspondents in the puddle-sized international media pool that tours with the league whisper that Kyle and Scott can come off as poor sports and even crybabies. And to the vast remainder of the people who know Crashed Ice exists — the fans and parachute reporters who follow occasionally from afar, who are drawn mostly to the spectacle rather than who wins or loses — the Brothers Croxall might be outright heels.

In fact, Kyle is notorious for being involved in the sport’s first-ever fight, a hockey-style jersey-grabbing go-around with 6-foot-3 German Fabian Mels, who felt Kyle illegally took him out of the 2016 Finland race with a body check. (For the record, Kyle thought better than to throw a punch, instead letting Mels’ gloved fists slam harmlessly four or five times against his helmet and facemask before the scuffle was broken up by another rider, Kyle smiling as he turned away.)

Even more infamous was last year’s semi-final in St. Paul, a family affair between Scott and Kyle and the Dallago brothers of Austria. During the tight race, Luca Dallago appeared to first grab Scott’s facemask battling through the hairpin, and then later, put his mitts in Kyle’s face as the Austrian rammed him into the wall. Due partially to the contact, Scott lost momentum and was unable to make it up the final ramp, resulting in an automatic DNF.

The Dallagos cruised across the finish line, and presumably, into the final, while third-place Kyle made a beeline for the official to file a protest of the heat. Meanwhile, Scott had made his way to the finish, got in Luca’s face, and eventually, shoved the Austrian to the ground. Marco Dallago skated to his brother’s aid but was blindsided by a body check from Kyle, who threw down his gloves, practically daring the diminutive Marco to engage. The two circled for a moment, while Scott hurled his gloves into the crowd in disgust. Fans booed, even as Luca was disqualified, sending Kyle on to the finals.

“I’ve seen it in Kyle many times in many many situations over the years where he freaks out and does stuff that’s super unsportsmanlike,” says Marco. “I can understand if someone wants to win really bad, getting upset when things don’t go their way. But you don’t push people around or foul people.”

“[The Croxalls] are badasses, but they’re not dicks,” says defending men’s champ Cameron Naasz, who is close friends with the brothers and is sponsored in part by LTD. “Everybody pointed out [the Croxalls] to be villains, because ‘Who does that? This is supposed to be a friendly sport.’ Well yeah, it’s friendly, but there’s an unwritten rule where you don’t race like that. I respect the way the Dallagos raced aggressively, because they knew that they had to race like it in order to compete with the Croxalls. Kyle saw what happened and knew he had to have his brother’s back.”

“If somebody disqualifies us, we’re going to be really pissed off,” says Scott. “We’ll show it, especially if it takes us out of the competition. We can both handle ourselves; it doesn’t matter who we’re racing against. We’re here to protect ourselves and each other, and when guys get in our way and do something they’re not supposed to, that’s when the emotions come through and we have no problem showing it.”

Scott Croxall with Kyle Croxall ( Joerg Mitter / Red Bull Content Pool )

“There are different characters,” says Christian Christian Papillon, Red Bull Crashed Ice sport director and a former rider who once skated with the Croxalls. “There are some with natural charisma, and there are people you always see as the bad guys, like the Patriots.” Papillon acknowledges that bad guys are just as good for ratings as the heroes — e.g., Kyle’s fight on YouTube has three times as many views (1.8 million) as the incident-free St. Paul final. “But people wouldn’t care about either if they didn’t win,” Papillon adds. “[The Croxalls] are winning. There are people who don’t like their style or their personality. Fair enough. We don’t all have to love each other. They don’t make trouble on purpose. They don’t ask to be in this position. They’re just racing to win.”

The starting line of a Crashed Ice event resembles that of a horse race, with the four riders in separate stalls, penned in by electronic gates. The difference is that these gates don’t automatically open by themselves, but rather, they’re unlocked at the sound of the horn, allowing the skaters to push through. Riders get to select their gates based on their time trials. The Croxalls consider gaming the gates as strategy, and since there are no teams or coaches, they take advantage of their built-in affiliation. And so, this year in St. Paul, Scott suspects that Gate 3 was a little slow. As such, for the quarterfinal, Kyle has given his brother Gate 2, which he used in the last round, while Kyle slides over to try Gate 4.

When the air horn sounds on the quarterfinal, the gates click open, Scott’s seemingly a split-second slower. He recovers quickly, leaping out to a sizeable lead off the first jump. Stuck in the remaining pack of three going into the hairpin, Kyle exchanges a couple of hand-checks with Pacome Schmitt, a Frenchman. Both skaters clearly initiate contact. But the smaller Schmitt somehow manages to squeeze in front of the elder Croxall on the inside of the turn. “You never see somebody wheel around Kyle like that,” says the TV announcer on the live feed. “That was a greasy pass by Pacome.”

Kyle Croxall of Canada and Scott Croxall of Canada compete during the finals at the third stage of the ATSX Ice Cross Downhill World Championship (Balazs Gardi/Red Bull Content Pool)

As Scott sails to an easy win, his big brother struggles to catch Pacome. Kyle comes off the bridge jump fast and out-of-control, and his right skate loses traction on the final straightaway. He falls to his knees. He tries to get up mid-slide, but instead spins backwards into the last ramp. Hemorrhaging momentum, he reaches back for the ledge at the top of the ramp, but his gloved fingers can’t find a grip.

He slips back down the ramp, a DNF.

His night is over.

Within minutes, UNDER REVIEW: PROTEST BY ATHLETE flashes on the jumbo screens. A reporter in the press room snidely guesses at the identity of the “athlete”: “Kyle Croxall, for sure. One-hundred percent.”

The reporter is correct. But Kyle’s plea to judges about Pacome’s contact is futile. Seconds later the screen broadcasts an update: PROTEST DENIED.

Scott hops onto the golf cart that will take him back up the hill, to the Cathedral, where he will prepare for the semifinals. Kyle tells his brother to try Gate 4 and “win this thing,” before storming off on his skate guards to the locker room.

Kyle has been watching Scott’s back since they were boys, playing on the same rec-league hockey teams and in the same street or frozen pond pick-up games in and around Mississauga, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto. “That just goes to show his personality,” says Karen Croxall, Kyle and Scott’s mom. “Kyle is the more serious one who worries about looking after and helping people.”

The older Croxall brother also was always more obsessed with the rules and the idea of fair play. In particular, his father remembers a playoff game during which a six-year-old Kyle had scored numerous goals. The opposing coach protested and demanded to inspect Kyle’s store-bought stick, which turned out to be 1/18 of an inch shy of the regulations. Refs put Kyle in the penalty box and confiscated his favorite stick. “He was devastated,” says Brad Croxall. “He was crying and upset even when we got home. Other kids wouldn’t have cared.” Brad also remembers coming home one day to see an older Kyle facing off with a neighborhood boy who was jealous that Kyle had been hanging around with his girlfriend. The smaller kid wanted to fight, but Kyle, while not backing down, refused to throw a punch, even as a group of other kids egged him on. “He didn’t want to get in trouble,” says Brad.

Growing up in Kyle’s protective shadow, Scott was always more outgoing and prone to taking risks. “Scotty likes living on the edge, by the seat of his pants,” Brad says. That includes an early teenage episode when Scott decided to “borrow” Kyle’s new BMX bike for a trip to the store. Scott emerged from the store to find the bike missing. “‘Kyle’s going to kill me,’” Karen remembers Scott saying on the car ride home. But Kyle wasn’t angry. “He said ‘Don’t worry about it,’” Brad says. “‘But I’m going to be riding your bike until we get mine back.’”

That’s not to say that Kyle never did anything crazy, like the time he called home from college in Ottawa and told his family that he had seen TV ads for this new extreme sport called Crashed Ice and that he had to try it. This didn’t bother his parents — until his mother actually saw a track. “I was having an anxiety attack,” says Karen. “I thought, What has he gotten himself into? He’s going to kill himself.” Meanwhile, inspired, Scott tried out the following year.

This was in 2008. At the time, the sport attracted mainly hockey players, so size and strength were often the key to winning. Kyle rarely missed a podium in those early years, and in 2012, he won two races and the world championship. “He was a fucking beast,” says Derek Wedge, a veteran rider who came into the sport around that time. “Racing him wasn’t easy. And he was pretty pissed when I beat him in 2013. It took him a year to speak to me [again].”

Over the years, though, speed, agility and balance have become increasingly important, and the new, more elaborate tracks tend to favor smaller, more versatile skaters like Scott. In 2015, Scott’s sixth year, he finally broke through, winning his first major race en route to his first world championship. In the two seasons since, Scott has never finished worse than second in total points. Meanwhile, Kyle has slipped from fourth in 2015 to ninth and eighth in 2016 and 2017, respectively. When asked who is the better Croxall rider, Kyle is diplomatic, explaining that each has his strengths. Asked the same question, Scott is less equivocal. “Look at the standings,” he says.

Despite the separation in the points standings, though, the Croxall brothers are as close as ever. Both live in and around Toronto. Kyle, ever the protector, draws a steady and stable income as a firefighter, while Scott leads the more free-wheeling lifestyle as a water-ski instructor and founder and CEO of LTD, his line of athleticwear that’s gradually breaking into stores across Canada and starting to appear in the northern U.S. They train year-round together at the rink, on rollerblades and atop treadmills. On the road, they share the expenses not covered by sponsors. They don’t share a hotel room, however: Kyle’s a light sleeper and Scott snores.

About an hour after the first heat, it’s time for the men’s final. Scott selects Gate 4, the inside line, per Kyle’s suggestion. He will be competing against the defending champ and hometown hero Naasz and Croxall nemesis Marco Dallago. During the introductions, Scott holds up his jersey, flashing the Team LTD logo for the cameras and he pumps himself up, bobbing and stretching his neck in the starting stall. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the hill, Kyle stands, still in his jersey, pads and skates, watching the monitor at the finish line, clapping for his brother.

“RIDERS READY!”

“FIVE-SECOND WARNING!”

The air horn sounds. Naasz sprints out to the early lead, Scott bursts into second, with Dallago falling into a close third coming out of the front stretch and into the hairpin. Scott slows slightly to turn the corner, and Dallago runs up on him aggressively. The two make contact, their legs tangle as both fall onto the ice. Kyle assumes the worst, shaking his head angrily at the monitor.

Scott pops back up, continuing his push downhill and into the final stretch, gliding back into second.

Kyle yells at the monitor: “Go! Go! Go!”

Approaching the final ramp, Naasz catches the front of his skate on a ledge and falls. Scott surges into first, picking up speed as he hits the ramp — too much speed. He sails over the corner jump and into the wall, banging his head against the boards and falling face first onto the ice. He struggles back to his feet, his face a blend of bewilderment and concern as he tries to push on. But he’s holding his right rib and can’t seem to muster the momentum.

Dallago streaks past to cross the finish line with the win.

Kyle has already made his way to the ice, parting the mass of spectators, riders and officials with his long arms. He doesn’t need to ask Scott what happened; he’s sure Dallago’s takedown of Scott in the hairpin is worth protesting. Scott shakes his head. Wind knocked out of him, but otherwise fine, Scott accepts his third-place finish as Dallago celebrates. (For his trouble, Scott will net $1,700; Kyle will make about half that for placing 15th.)

While Scott collects his trophy on the podium, half-heartedly spraying his champagne bottle on Dallago, Kyle heads back to the locker room. There, a text from dad awaits: Is Scotty okay? Kyle responds that everything is alright. Then he plops down on the bench, shedding his jersey and pads. He pops the top on a can of Labatt and takes a sip. He’s happy for Scott, but he’s also trying to assess his own night, attempting to figure out what went wrong and how to climb back onto the podium he once dominated — the competitor never far from the older brother.