INTRO - Kiteworld editor Jim Gaunt was fortunate enough to be invited as a committee member and to be a judge for the return of the incredible Red Bull King of the Air event which saw 24 of the world's top big air specialists take to the skies over Big Bay, Cape Town in early February 2013. After an eight year hiatus, the event returned to wow spectators and demonstrate just how far the extreme side of big air kitesurfing has progressed. Here is Jim's inside track on events as they went down, starting at the end
This feature is taken from Issue #62 - CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE TO KITEWORLD MAG
At the end of the event, just before the winning riders were announced on the podium, Robby Naish addressed the huge crowd that had gathered around the presentation area, claiming that this was the biggest and best event he'd seen in 25 years. Looking down over the scene as hundreds (if not, thousands) of people tried to manoeuvre for position and point their camera phones at him, it was a spine tingling moment to start the celebrations for what had been a landmark day in kitesurfing history.
CAPTION | Podium thrills / PHOTO | Ydwer.com / Red Bull Content Pool
Red Bull last ran their King of the Air contest eight years ago, but gave it a break as there hadn't been much change seen in the progression of tricks in the last couple of events. Riders were of course boosting huge, but Red Bull like to keep things moving forward. Kitesurfing at the time was about to go through a huge series of changes in styles and image. Starting to find its feet in the waves, world tour freestyle competitions were meanwhile shifting their focus towards a more low and technical wake-style of riding and, quite frankly, big air was becoming a little old hat. It needed refreshing.
A teenaged rider called Ruben Lenten from Holland had just dared to beat the master, Robby Naish himself, to the last King of the Air in Hawaii by bringing a verve and intensity to big air that was quite unusual. The young Dutch pioneer continued to develop moves along that track, finding ways to inject more and more intensity and became recognised as 'the most extreme kiteboarder in the world' over the next few years. As his moves got bigger and he challenged himself in stronger and stronger winds he also carried massive amounts of risk and consequence. He took the powered, unhooked F-16 kite loops that riders like Bertrand Fleury had begun to experiment with, but took them higher. The mega loop became his signature trick; boosting huge and then sending the kite on a loop beneath him through the most powerful part of the window, catapulting him through the sky at serious altitude before carefully piloting the kite back above his head to catch him before he landed. He spearheaded a movement, inspiring riders to no longer just dangle under their kite while flying high, but to actually use the kite in a way that multiplied the power and risk.
Red Bull continued to monitor kitesurfing and never ruled out bringing the King of the Air back, often consulting with their team riders, like Robby Naish, on what might be the best way to do it, or whether they should look at waves for example. However, Ruben and the growing pack of riders with the same vision for big air as the best future of the sport inspired the energy drinks giant to announce the King of the Air's return to be staged at Big Bay, Cape Town with a holding period for the first two weeks in February 2013.
The committee members discussed their wish list of competitors, local and international wildcards and the invites were sent.
ROUSING THE TROOPS
We gathered on the Mystic House lawn at 5pm on the opening Thursday and there was a real sense of excitement as this was the first time the 24 riders were all gathered in one place. Many had been in Cape Town for a while, several were of course locals and the rest had arrived over the last few days. Some, like Marek Zach from the Czech Republic had only been given their wildcard days before and had scrambled their way there. He literally rolled out of bed in the Mystic House and stumbled out to the party. Susi Mai had arrived that day and got stuck in customs for having travelled too much! She didn't have a spare page in her passport and the South African authorities were up in arms, adamant that she would have to go back from where she came. Red Bull event manager Sergio Cantagalli rushed to the airport and rapidly burned through cell phone credits trying to sort the mess out. Susi's phone holds some very important high society members and wielders of power in its contact folder these days, and there was one name in particular she scrolled to; a man who said that when she really needed help on a special occasion, he might be able to help. It turned out that Richard Branson did know someone in the South African government that might be able to help. And so Susi would join the Red Bull party boat.
CAPTION | The Mystic House, Table View beachfront, home to some of the riders for the waiting period / PHOTO | Ydwer.com
A bus took us all to Quay Four at the V&A Waterfront where the Red Bull camera crew were waiting to shoot the riders for their profile videos, the intro for which involved them staring straight down the lens for 60 seconds. Some looked very at home, like boxers at the weigh-in. Could this be where the big players made their intentions known and were any battles won right there on the dock-side?
Ruben switched into character and stepped in front of the lens. He was really looking forward to this event, in which he'd played a large hand in bringing it back to life and helped assemble the committee and push forward the guidelines. Robby Naish highlighted Ruben's efforts in his rousing speech to come later on, thanking the Dutch rider for having the vision and passion for continuing to push things forward. As Ruben snapped from his stare, throwing his tongue out like a mad man at the camera, the atmosphere lifted and the remaining few party goers climbed onboard the 60 foot catamaran.
The Red Bull, beers and wine flowed freely at the bar and the buzz continued to grow as we cruised towards sunset opposite Sea Point on the west side of the city. This event was already feeling special. The forecast for the coming Sunday hadn't faultered at all for the last few days. Red Bull event operations manager Martin Van Staden welcomed everyone aboard once we were a couple of drinks in, explaining what a 'shit hot event' was about to go down. Contest director Sergio Cantagalli further built the hype, notifying riders to stand by for his multiple weather reports giving notice of further developments as to the promise of Sunday being the day the event would run. Run like a military operation, it would soon be time for the soldiers of big air fortune to meet their fate, and write the next chapter in kiteboarding's history.
Martin introduced and thanked Robby Naish for having made it over to the event, all the way from Hawaii along with his team rider Jesse Richman, on a journey which took three overnight flights to see them land on South African soil.
This was Robby's first time in South Africa. Quite unbelievable for a man who has travelled so much. A man so well travelled that Jesse Richman claims has his own lane at Virgin check-in. Robby's speech was inspiring, full of motivation for the riders as he genuinely seems stoked to be there, he said he was really looking forward to seeing everyone ride and then gave a nod to the history of the event; to when it started with 20 guys who could barely control their jumps. He explained why Red Bull decided to can the event for a while before thanking Ruben and the riders for their passion and for having the vision to carry the sport forward. He wished them good luck and the boat load of contestants roared their approval.
Speaking with Robby and Shawn Richman later, it became even more clear how important this event would be if we got lucky enough with conditions. Robby is a big believer that kitesurfing isn't wakeboarding, windsurfing or surfing and that it should be about going huge. His team riders all have an appreciation of the wonders of big air too, none more so than Sean and Jesse Richman who were drawn against each other in a mouthwatering heat one.
CAPTION | Ruben could have stared down that lens all day / PHOTO | Jim Gaunt
The assembled list of characters was insane. As Sam Light and Sam Medysky pointed out, literally any one of the riders was capable of pulling out an incredible heat and knocking you out at any point. I just hope it's 40 knots and too windy for guys to unhook. said Canadian Medysky. Sam Light agreed, - Yeah I just want it to be as windy as possible, for it to be a really powered aerial battle.
We left the boat and headed to Dock 4 restaurant in the V&A Waterfront for dinner. As we all filed in, a German customer reached over and grabbed my arm as we passed, asking what sport we all did. His tone of recognition evidence that he was disappointed for not having guessed. After all, he was in the windiest city in the world in February.
The atmosphere at dinner intensified, the room filled with the buzz of excited conversation and speculation as the desserts were cleared away. Six draw sheets for round one were stuck up on a window in the centre of the room and cheers and jeers rang out as the names of the six top seeded riders sat at the foot of six first round heat lists, which were: Lewis Crathern, Sam Light, Billy Parker, Kevin Langeree, Nick Jacobsen and Ruben Lenten.
Martin, Sergio and a brace of Red Bull girls completed the first round draws and some very interesting line ups came out, but with the 24 riders in this event, there were never going to be any dull rounds. Scripts were already being written, but how much would the plots change and thicken?
The forecast remained strong and Sunday 3rd February was looking like it really would be the Super Sunday that everyone hoped for.
CAPTION | Sam Light must have been aching after the amount of mega loops he pulled that Sunday / PHOTO | Craig Kolesky / Nikon / Red Bull Content Pool
The 24 selected riders came from a wealth of backgrounds, but all carried heritage in their own right. Some were multiple world champions, others had achieved great feats of bravery and some were local riders who regularly tear Cape Town's spots to bits and could be as dangerous as the biggest names in the sport when it comes to having huge amounts of bottle in super strong strong winds.
- I think the assembled 24 riders are the best in the world at this discipline and it's going to be sick to have everyone together, putting on a show and taking it to the next level. - YOURI ZOON
- I absolutely cannot wait for a hardcore windy day and all these riders throwing the biggest tricks that kiteboarding has ever seen. Limits will be pushed and any rider that hasn't trained or isn't fit enough is going to suffer for sure. - RUBEN LENTEN
- This type of extreme big air riding is what we do all year here and it's going to be amazing having the world's best freeriders together on the water for two weeks, not just for the actual competition day. It will be unmatched. - GRAHAM HOWES
TOP 16 INVITED RIDERS
|Kevin de Smidt||(NED)|
THE NEW FORMAT
As well as the judging criteria changing to promote more extreme, radical manoeuvres, the new King of the Air also saw the introduction of a new innovative flag out system, thought to be better for both the rider and spectators. Heats consisted of four riders (apart from round two which featured three riders per heat, giving the two losers from each heat in round one another chance to progress), each running for twenty minutes in total. The difference wasn't only an increase in average heat length, allowing riders more flexibility to pick their moments, ramps and gusts to execute their biggest moves, but after ten minutes the lowest scoring rider in the judges' eyes would be flagged out. Scores for the remaining three riders would then be wiped to zero, leaving them all equal and having to do it all again. A second rider would be flagged out at the end of the heat leaving two to advance to the next round. The semi final varied slightly with the flag out system continuing until there was just one rider left to advance to the final.
This format proved a huge success as, not only was it very easy to understand for the spectators - something that has largely been missing from kiteboarding competition - but it also massively fuelled the excitement and tension. As riders got more used to the format and the tactics required, the stories of each heat began to get more and more interesting and spectators simply tightened their hoods to escape the increasing winds; none were about to leave.
CAPTION | Graham Howes had hearts in mouths every time he pulled the trigger / PHOTO | Rick Pryce
HEAT NITTY GRITTY
Heat one of the day just happened to be the most intriguing of round one, with the current and two-time PKRA freestyle World Champion pitted against the wild and courageous Richman brothers and the Len10 Mega Loop Challenge winner and jumper of Brighton pier, Lewis Crathern from the UK.
The first three heats in round one were cagey and tense as the wind was still increasing and competitors seemed hesitant to launch their most powerful moves too early. Competitors back on the beach watched the different moves and styles to see what would score and help them to progress. The old King of the Air lived on in spirit during the first few rounds with lots of old school moves being thrown, but scores racked up as the transition to the more modern, extreme style that was hoped for started to emerge as more and more huge mega loops were unleashed.
The sparks really started to fly in the second half of the first round draw with heat four and five. In heat four Danish exhibitionist Nick Jacobsen unleashed his first mega loop one footer, a move totally unique to him that got cleaner, more powerful and more consistent as the competition progressed. Right at the point of pulling the massively powerful mega loop, he would take his foot out of his foot straps and tweak his leg to the side at the critical moment, showing huge amounts of poise and confidence. His loops were as big as any straight loops thrown by any other rider and they certainly helped him land a spot in the final.
Heat five in round one saw 2009 PKRA World Champion, Kevin Langeree, hit the water, sending the crowd wild with the biggest airs we saw all day, clearing nearly three quarters of the bay. It wasn't only the height and the immense time in the air Kevin managed, it was the cool and stylish manner that he performed his spins, grabs and board-offs in that time, always landing with such panache and exquisite control. The new King of the Air may have demanded extreme, but the biggest air of the day simply commanded respect from the judges. It was beautiful to watch. Kevin progressed, barely getting his hair wet and always with huge applause to the semi finals in which he had a stop-start heat and couldn't quite find the same rhythm or as much risk as the judges wanted at that stage.
Huge performances of note went down throughout the day and special mention should go to all six local riders who made the cut for the main event and proudly represented at their home spot, but there were two who really reflected the new spirit of the Red Bull King of the Air. Graham Howes had the judges out of his chair with some of his moves. Loading up his kite for some incredible airs he sent it looping further and further beneath him, almost to the point of stalling before it clicked into gear again and made it's way back up to the top of the window to catch him. Hearts were in mouths during his moments of free-fall, although he'd still find the calm somewhere within to tweak his board out.
CAPTION | Nick Jacobsen. He was so clean throughout the day, just running a little short on steam when it came down to the final two, but he'd been riding for over 80 minutes by then. Harsh! / PHOTO | Ydwer.com / Red Bull Content Pool
Where Graham was the wild man on the water, Andries Fourie, a South African of huge, powerful, physical stature carried more grace but was equally radical in his loops. Kevin Langeree winning the quarter final left one space open for one more rider from that heat to progress and up in the judging tower we agonised over whether to send the big South African or American Billy Parker through. Billy's riding resembled that of an American muscle car - super powerful, torquey, robust and a lot of fun and he constructed an immensely technical heat, featuring huge mega loop grabs, high handle-passes and unhooked kung fus all over the competition area, but in the end, although Billy may have gone through if we were ruling with their hearts, Andries' two enourmous mega loops were the biggest of the heat and again proved that this event was about going huge, and that it was possible to go through by just biding your time and waiting to pull your biggest trick perfectly.
Ruben Lenten also went out in the quarter finals having cruised through his first round almost on autopilot, making his massive signature mega loops with a stalled front roll look too easy. After ditching his kite downwind in the competition area, he seemed to let his head drop and couldn't quite find his feet again in an immensely tough heat against PKRA World Champion Youri Zoon, Nick Jacobsen and Luke McGillewie, who had already been flagged out.
And so to the final. Neither Nick or Jesse had finished in any position other than first in their preceding heats and attacked the final in the same way. Jesse booked his spot in the showdown for the last two riders with a massive kite loop and huge unhooked back loop kite loop in quick succession. The three other riders must have been reeling seeing such big tricks go down after riding for so many long heats in the day. Youri, having shown an increase in his trick variation as the rounds progressed, also demonstrated the heat timing tactics and guile of a World Champion, often landing sucker punches at the right moment but in the end just lacked the height in his tricks of the others. He was the first rider flagged out after ten minutes and finished the event in fourth.
British wake-styler Sam Light had just snuck into the final ahead of fellow Brit and last year's Len10 Mega Loop Champion, Lewis Crathern; the decision from the tower being that, although this wasn't solely a mega loop competition, his massively drawn out loops carried just that bit more power and substance to Lewis's stylish late rolls and grabs. Throughout the competition Sam had appreciated what the new format wanted to allow for and waited for the right sets to boost huge off. Unfortunately a bad decision off a smaller wave in the first half of the final left him making ground upwind and expending valuable energy.
Meanwhile Nick launched a volley of one footed and tweaked out mega loops with his body fully inverted to seal his position in the last two alongside Jesse.
The final, like so many international events, was outshone by the zip and fervour of both semis, and both riders were completely spent, having pulled so many extreme manoeuvres in such ballistic winds for 80 minutes that afternoon. A five minute heat extension from the judges and one final dig into his immense bag of will power saw Jesse muster two late hooked in and unhooked loop variations, including an insane kite loop 5 that gave him the 2013 Red Bull King of the Air crown.
CAPTION | No one could have predicted the outcome, but at the same time, no one could have argued with it. Sam Light, Jesse Richman and Nick Jacobsen rode their hearts out and lasted longest / PHOTO | Craig Kolesky / Nikon / Red Bull Content Pool
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This feature is taken from Issue #62 - CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE TO KITEWORLD MAG