WORDS - Mark Shinn
INTRO ? Mark Shinn tries the appliance of science approach to testing
I've ridden a few kiteboards in my time. I've never actually kept count but I suspect I must have ridden more than 500 by now, but probably many more. Some stand out in my memory for various reasons (good and bad) while others are half-forgotten. Having said that it always surprises when I go to my garage and sort through old prototypes. I can remember the ride characteristics of nearly every board there as soon as I see it: too slow, too soft, too hard, made too much spray etc. etc. It's almost like every board has an in-built personality. Ironically enough, sometimes the boards I like the most are the ones that are tested the least and the boards I don't like might be used over and over again.
It's the first two minutes of riding any board that interests me the most; the sensations and feelings from those first few metres on the water are rarely wrong and never did I test a board that I disliked on the first ride and changed my mind to like it later. I ride the boards I don't like very much in an effort to understand why, or to find out what precisely isn't working for me. The system has generated good results and I'm not about to change it, but recently I was thinking about developing a more clear cut method. I've read plenty of tests in magazines and online that confidently state, 'such and such a board is faster' or 'such and such a board felt slower than the rest'. So putting numbers to this should be easy.
Armed with a GPS unit I took what I considered to be my fastest and slowest boards to the beach and rode them for an hour, uploaded the results and confidently ticked the box of board parameters labelled 'Speed' as done. In my dreams anyway!
The reality was the results were somewhat less clear than I expected and the real difference in speed between the boards was negligible to say the least. So small in fact that even though I reset the GPS between sessions so that I could tell which results came from which board, the tracked speeds were pretty much identical. Now, if you bear in mind that this is two boards, one of which I would have said is probably the fastest twin I ever rode, and the other notable for how slow it felt, it's a slightly curious result. My faith in the numbers was already being shaken at the first and supposedly easiest stage!
To confirm my suspicions I opted for a arbitrary test. I went to the beach with the GPS again and rode a random sample of boards from various brands and styles. I didn't reset the GPS between boards, but set it to stop recording when the speed was less than 15 kph (to avoid being able to see the speed drop when changing boards). The result: impossible to tell from the speed graph when I changed boards! The whole graph looked like one track with no notable increases or decreases in speed. The differences in feeling were, to say the least, HUGE.
A this point I abandoned all thoughts of making a set of numbers to judge a board; clearly it's not that simple. Like so many things in kiteboarding the sensations of the rider seem to be more important than the theory and, the more I think about it, the more I realise it doesn't matter. If you ride a board and it feels fast, it's exciting to ride and you're having fun, does the actual speed in numbers matter? Most of us aren't in a race, so a small improvement in board speed at the cost of comfort and handling is clearly not worth it.
Had the speed thing offered some kind of reasonable outcome, my next task was to try to find a way to measure pop. If ever there was a word in kiteboarding that needs explanation, it has to be this one. What is pop? How do you make pop and why do we use this word to describe a variety of things leaving 90% people seemingly not knowing what we mean most of the time!
Let's just make one thing clear: edge pop is a completely different thing from wake-style pop. If you're in the game for big air then you edge the board as hard as possible whilst you send the kite backwards through the window. At one point the upwards lift from the kite overcomes your ability to edge the board and you will be pulled upwards out of the water. The harder you can edge and the longer you can stay on the rail while the kite turns, the higher you're going to jump. Is this what people mean by pop? I can jump higher on board X, so that board must have good pop, right? On the other hand a wake-style rider doesn't move the kite at all when performing a trick. They set the kite and then make a progressive carve away from the kite until the tension in the lines is so high that they can release the edge from the water and be (basically) catapulted into the air. I would have thought that means that a wake-style board should be biased towards carving to enable a better pop and a big air freestyle board should be a grip and edging machine to ensure more height. Or did I miss something? What happens when you add rider ability into the mix? Is the skill of an expert rider high enough to overcome the differences between these two seemingly contradictory forms of riding style? Conversely, will a less talented rider have the skill set needed to know any difference in the way the board is working? Or will making a really easy board to handle improve their performance simply because they can control things better right up to the moment that they leave the water, resulting in at least some kind of jump, if not a spectacular one.
If I can't even decide what it is we are talking about then how am I supposed to measure it? My head hurts, so I'm going to stop. I can't measure kiteboard performance, and I don't think I want to any more. I think I'll stick to my time honoured tradition of riding them and analysing how much fun they are.
By the way, last week I entered my first kite race event. I didn't win, in fact I wasn't even close, but I did notice that the first guys seemed to be pointing a lot higher upwind and travelling a lot faster than I was. I wonder if there is a way to measure that and record it in numbers...
Find more on Mark and his boards at: www.shinnworld.com
This column is in issue #52
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