In 2007, Bend pro snowboarder Josh Dirksen was simply trying to raise some money for a fellow snowboarder who was paralyzed in a snowboarding accident.
Since then, the Dirksen Derby rally race has evolved into the unofficial kickoff to the ski and snowboard season in Central Oregon. The 11th edition of the Derby (it was not held in 2016), set for Friday through Sunday at Mt. Bachelor ski area, is capped at 425 competitors.
“I wasn’t really thinking that far in the future,” Dirksen says while recalling the 2007 event, which included 58 riders. “If you asked me then I wouldn’t have imagined it would go this long, or have this much popularity I guess. But I’m happy that it did.”
The race this year will feature two banked slalom-style courses that include berms and jumps, located near the Sunrise chairlift and the Lower Avalanche run. Various age groups and divisions of snowboarders, and a few sit-skiers, are timed on their runs along the course. Friday includes an organized practice, Saturday a qualifier for the amateurs, and Sunday the finals for the pros, amateurs and sit-skiers.
The event was originally intended as a fundraiser and a way to support Tyler Eklund, a Bend snowboarder who was paralyzed as a teenager after a fall at a competition in California in April 2007. Eklund, now 26, has taken part in the Dirksen Derby on a sit-ski in many of the years since, and he is often joined by a number of other sit-ski competitors.
“I try to make a cool course that he can ride and try to make the experience special for him every year,” says Dirksen, 42. “We raise money for him, but the memories are what will last a lifetime.”
Over the last few years the Dirksen Derby has expanded to raise funds for many other causes and nonprofits, including Oregon Adaptive Sports, which enables Eklund and others with disabilities to ride the mountain.
The Derby also raises funds for Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit led by winter sports athletes that seeks solutions to climate change.
“We’re trying to give our snow sports community more of a voice,” Dirksen says.
Dirksen and other organizers and snowboarders have been digging and shaping the courses by hand since Saturday. More than a foot of snow has fallen at Bachelor this week, and more is in the forecast for this weekend.
“There’s more to come, which is always a good thing, especially this early in the season,” Dirksen says. “I’m really happy with the snowpack. That new snow will just soften it up and make it more friendly. We won’t complain about too much snow. A couple of years ago we had 4 feet of snow over the three days of the event. That was a super challenge. But we can handle 1 to 2 feet.”
The field for the Derby is a mix of local riders and snowboarders who travel from afar. Lately the event has had some international flavor as Phil Jacques of Quebec City won the pro division last year and is back this weekend to defend his title.
Other big-name pros competing at Bachelor this weekend include Vermont’s Nils Mindnich, who has won the prestigious Baker Banked Slalom race in Washington, and Sage Kotsenburg, the 2014 Olympic gold medalist in snowboard slopestyle from Park City, Utah.
While the Dirksen Derby is mostly intended as a fun get-together for the local snowboarding community, pros and amateurs alike take it quite seriously, according to Dirksen.
“There’s a lot of side bets in there between friends, like who’s gonna get the fastest time,” Dirksen says. “It’s not just competitive to get first (place), but kind of competitive to win amongst their group of friends. That’s the enjoyable part, is seeing all my friends get nervous. For my pro friends, it can get them motivated for a successful season. For the amateurs, it might be the one time they compete during the year.”