|Claiming five back-to-back world titles and with a reputation for not giving up until he's reached his goals, whatever Aaron Hadlow chose to do in the sport after competing would end up being very significant. Still just 22, Aaron has the biggest name in kiteboarding, so starting up his own brand off the back of Flexifoil was a no-brainer for one with such a huge presence in the sport. Jim Gaunt sat down with 'Azza' recently to catch-up on the freestyle pioneer's year and vision for the future|
Words - Jim Gaunt. ( This feature was published in November 2010)
|Have you kept up with the World Tour since taking a break from competition a year ago? |
I keep up with the results, but I've been pretty out of it. I was actually in the Dominican visiting friends when the PKRA Cabarete tour stop was on. It hasn't changed much, but it was really weird to be watching and not feeling stressed about the event. Cabarete was always an especially stressful stop for me with the locals always jumping on top of me on the water. It seemed like there were always a lot of people with a point to prove. I've already been there twice this year and love it out there now, though.
What do riders tend to stress about at events?
When you're not doing well it's stressful, but it's mainly the schedule. You're hanging around the beach all day waiting for the wind to pick up. It's nice to be able to step back and look in from a different perspective. If I do go back to competition, I'll definitely look at it in a different way. I've seen there's a lot more to kiteboarding and the possibilities that are there for me personally. Competing is only a small part of the sport really. I used to be so into it, stressing out and being annoyed a lot of the time. It wasn't good for my health a lot of the time either, but I was lucky that I got into competition when I did and made my name in it.
Do you think the tour has lost a bit of momentum since you left?
They lost a lot of events this year and last, but because the points for each event vary depending on how much money goes into them, it's hard to see who's really winning. Obviously a lot of people may have lost interest when Kevin [Langeree] got injured, which is a shame, because it was good at the beginning of the season with Alex [Pastor], Andy [Yates], Youri [Zoon] and Kevin all going well. I've been to a lot of different spots this year and have noticed, especially in the States, that they don't have a clue who the top riders are or how they do on tour. Some people might follow the top few, but how little they follow it has been a big eye-opener.
When you dropped away from the tour you went back to South Africa, where you now have a house. You also seemed to really focus on one particular type of riding out there, in contrast to what was happening on the tour.
There's a big change happening in kitesurfing now with the wake-style really coming in. I'd got to a good level in freestyle but I wanted to add something else to it. It's hard to push flat water riding much further as there are only so many grabs and rotations you can do, so that progression has actually slowed down a lot. I was surprised how similar the riding on the tour was to last year when I watched in Cabarete. The top level riders can all more or less do the same stuff. I think it will get to a point like in wakeboarding, where it's more about how you construct your heat. I hope it won't come down to an extra 180 scoring more points. It's not that I found riding in boots was necessarily better, but it was a new challenge to master and the progression was all so new. I was also doing a lot of cable riding and wakeboarding as well as hitting rails, so it crossed over well. Bit by bit I started learning how to press properly on the rails and that really opened up the floodgates in terms of things I could try. Kids are more attracted to the sport more now because it looks like a sick sport.
So the kickers and sliders add a new, more interesting dimension then?
I've always been into pushing new stuff, so the rails have really opened that up for me. When you hit kickers you can really go off-axxis and do different spins, putting your body into different momentums as you're already going up. It's a lot of fun. I've done a lot of filming since being in the Dominican which I'm really looking forward to releasing. I've been really quiet online over the last few months, but the good thing is it's all stored up and ready to come out soon.
The last few episodes of season one of the Red Bull On The Loose TV that you do with Ruben Lenten are still to go out online. You mentioned in the Triple-S episode that Ruben is very relaxed on the water, whereas you still take your performances seriously. Do you feel a lot of pressure whenever you go out on the water?
When you get to a certain level in any sport, I think people expect something of you. Whether it's just random people on the beach, or my mates, I don't want to let them down. The Triple-S is such a laugh and we all have a wicked time. I'm not like, 'I have to win, I have to win', you can't really go to those sorts of events like that; they are social events and that attitude doesn't work. I probably take it more seriously than Ruben, but this sort of atmosphere is what I've been looking for for the last couple of years. I still have that drive as a rider, though. If there's someone riding past me, more often than not I'm like, 'I'm going to throw the sickest thing down right now' and try to leave an impression.
I think most kiteboarders can relate to that in the way they ride around their mates.
For sure. I still have that feeling from having to ride around in a box for eight minutes heats in competitions, but now I get it in all sorts of situations.
You took the 'Slick' event and got second in the 'Sliders' at the Triple-S. Didn't you fancy hitting the waves in the 'Surf' event to try and get the overall win?
I can wave ride and enjoy it, but I wasn't there for that. I was there to hit rails and to do the freestyle when they were running the Slicks event. To me that event is just a slider event, anything else is a bonus. If it was peeling, cross-off amazing conditions, then for sure I'd go out there, but it was sketchy and early morning when they ran it. I was still in bed!
I guess you can't ride that quality of sliders all the time?
Even if everyone else is at the Surf event, I'll just go out there and ride on the sliders or film with our guys. I really enjoy picking my spots on the different rails. I've helped on a few slider projects this year; in the Dominican with Susi and Dre and also, more recently, in Turkey, where I put some sketches together for an event organiser who said he'd build it for me.
Do you do come up with a lot of slider concepts?
I've been on a lot of rails. I wouldn't say I can design an amazing rail, but I put a lot of sketches together. Red Bull have got some projects coming up next year that Ruben and I are working on. It's exciting to be able to feel what you like personally and take that forward.
Who are the master rail builders at the moment?
The guys who are involved in wakeboarding; it all stems from there. The best guys at the moment are from 'The Projects' down in Florida. They built the big A-frame for the Triple-S, which is probably one of the best one I've ridden. Their stuff is all perfect because it floats and is built to spec.
Do you know what they think of kiting?
I think wakeboarders are starting to realise there's a lot of legit stuff in kiting now. I go to the cable a lot and ride behind boats and I'd say it's actually harder to hit rails etc. on a kite. When it's gusty the kite is always pulling you around and it's hard to get a direct line every time and get your angles right. There's some good stuff coming along and it's only going to get more creative. In a couple of years you won't believe it.
You're obviously hugely popular in Europe, but you've spent a lot of time in the US this last year. As they don't keep up with the tour so much over there, has it been a challenge for you to prove your riding?
The market seems to be influenced by a few people's opinion over there and riders are driven a lot by media incentives as they don't really have a competition circuit. Most pros are freeriders and I did feel like I had a point to prove, but the riders are really split over there. They have course racers and cruisers, but then there's not really anyone in between until you get to the hardcore guys in their boots, hitting rails. When I was doing the PKRA, I knew inside that I could do anything I wanted in kiting when I had the motivation to do it. If someone says I can't do something, I'll never answer back and talk shit, I'll just go and do it. A lot of the boots stuff did stem from that in the States, but as I said, most of it was from the new challenge. I'm almost fully converted to boots now with the right board, but it doesn't work in all conditions, which is why it's still 50/50 for me as to whether I'll ride boots or straps. But as with everything in kiteboarding now, including the PKRA, you have to be riding harder and more and more powered up. The one thing I suffered with was taking some of the landings in straps. You can take off as hard and fast as you want, but when you come in you can start exploding, which is really bad on your knees, especially when your feet slip out of the straps. I've designed a board around riding in bindings as well as one for strapped riding. The wake-specific model has lots of channels, is good for sliders and suits boots. I can take-off how I want and have more of a chance of landing because it's just really solid.
I think America has a lot more flat water riding areas than we do, and probably more 12 metre weather. In Europe we have smaller beaches, choppy waters and howling winds. That can contribute a lot to the different visions for riding can't it?
Exactly. If you look at Hatteras, the conditions there are so perfect for boots. You're on a bigger kite, the water's dead flat and The Gorge can be the same. The Gorge is a bit more hardcore in terms of conditions, but there are still so many flat areas. Sherman Island in California and then Florida are similar again. There's a really big divide in styles. I think the World Cup PKRA style stems from Europe as it suits the conditions we have a bit more.
You mentioned that stressing out on the PKRA tour wasn't good for your health. Are you feeling a lot more relaxed since you've had more time for your own projects?
I do. Sometimes you'd be stuck in a place on tour that you didn't want to be and it would be hard to eat well. It gets tiring. When you're doing your own thing, have your own place to stay and can organise your own schedule it's easier. The main reason I stepped back though was because I was getting burnt out doing the same thing and going to the same places. At the same time I had the opportunity to do something with Flexifoil as well as begin shooting On The Loose more professionally. It's going good, for sure.
You've also had to step-up your media presence, which must have involved opening up a lot more, personally. Have you found that easy? Even as a World Champion you didn't have to do that – you got coverage because you were World Champion.
I'm 22 now and starting to get different perspectives on things. I realised I had been narrow-minded and a bit arrogant at times, even though privately I've never been that sort of person. I can see how to some people I seemed unapproachable. Now I'm happy to hang out with whoever and just speak to people. I've learnt a lot from Ruben because he's so outgoing and just ways 'What's up?' to any random people. I like that about him. In terms of my presence as World Champion, I think there's always a delay in things. My name seems to have actually got bigger this year with Flexi and Red Bull being able to use me more than when I was on tour. Before I was always just really focussed on my own things. I spoke to people when they came up to me, but I also might have said I didn't really have time as I had to sort my kites out. Now I need to spend time with people, explaining my kit and how it works. This is all new to me and I guess the real test will be the first shop tour I'm doing in the UK with Flexi this week, but I think people are generally impressed when they realise how much the gear development means to me personally and how much I've put into it. I'm doing a lot more office work now, sat behind a computer, getting press releases ready, over-seeing designs and graphics and, at the same time, making changes to boards and kite prototypes. At the end of the day I want to sell my stuff and it comes down to good promotion.
The new Hadlow kite is the third generation in the Hadlow Pro line. When the first model was released it seemed a brave move by Flexifoil; releasing something that was so focussed and specialised that only a tiny corner of the market would be interested in buying. But it's obviously paid off - one look at any junior or amateur freestyle event where the riders competing aren't sponsored, many have gone out and got themselves a set of Hadlows. Can you take us through the evolution of the kite?
I've actually been developing C kites with Flexifoil since the Storm One around 2001. There came a time when the Storm was pretty much their only kite, but I was steering it towards what I needed for competition, although it never got to what I wanted. When I'd won three World Championships, they had also started to open up their range to include other kites. This was also the time everyone was getting rid of their C kites, but there was no way I could do that, which is why it turned into my kite, the Hadlow Pro. If you're going to market something like that, it might as well be as a high-end performance C kite, sat opposite the bows at the time. Big kite loops were starting to come in as well as powered wake-style and I thought I was going to die if I had to continue doing stuff like that on the Fusion kite, which was an absolute truck. We ended up with the first Hadlow Pro, which was pretty revolutionary for Flexi.
Can you define the major changes made to arrive at that kite?
The bows were so opposite in power to the Fusion. I said that we needed something that was going to be really quick turning, quite light in the hands, good for kite loops and still had loads of pop. Each year we've only had to refine the design since then because we actually hit the jackpot pretty well on that first model. The later models have been polished, with more performance and speed. This year we've actually made it a bit more user-friendly, but at the same time it's a more solid kite for top performance. The leading edge is thicker, so it relaunches more easily and that really solid feeling is good for wake-style, because that's where I'm going with my own riding. It'll sit there and truck you along, keeping the kite in the same sort of place. But then we've also managed to make it quicker for kite loops and to be able to handle really strong winds.
When you say it sits there a bit more, but at the same time is quicker for kite loops, do you mean that it can handle a few more accidental inputs on the bar, say when you're unhooked, before it starts to move? In other words you have to give it some proper input to get it to kite loop?
Yeah, it's still really direct, but because it feels so rigid and solid it sits in position much better. This year I tried to open it up to more people because I realised that not everyone could ride the last two. It was only because I'd been riding so long and knew the kites inside out that I never had a problem.
The relaunch was a bit tricky for more average riders wasn't it?
The relaunch was a major deal. This year we've opened it up. The kite depowers a lot more on its normal settings, but you can't really tell that all that much. We've got longer depower with adjustable balls and there's also a new depower setting on the actual kite. If you want to get into the Hadlow, but are a bit scared of the lack of depower, then you can put this really simple bridle on it. It's just an extra piece of rope that attaches a bit further up the leading edge, you then have a pulley on that which attaches to the line. It's a really simple cross-over and literally provides about 50% more depower. It's actually a funny story how that came about. My dad wanted to be able to ride my kites and we had this idea that might make it work for him. I gave him one of my kites and he got it modified. Obviously as it was the first design it was doing some weird stuff, but the actual concept worked. My dad was able to go out in Cape Town, strapless, on a seven metre in ridiculous winds and just deal with it, easy. Originally we were going to implement it for wave riders who would still be able to steer the kite unhooked without much line tension, but then we worked on it more and more and now it's marketed towards anyone who wants to push their levels in freestyle, waves, or on snow.
What else is in the Hadlow range?
The kites will come in sizes 13, 11, 9, 7 and 5.5 metres. The bar is all custom built for the Hadlow. We're also releasing a freestyle board in just one size: 138 x 40. It's exactly the same as my personal board and next year we'll release more sizes – a 135 and 132. We're also about to release the wake series board I mentioned, which will be a big limited edition at 138. There's also stuff coming up, like iPhone covers, laptop cases; things like that. I want to have a lot of input on anything that comes out with my name on because it reflects on me. It's personal and I think that's a good image to have.
You were really close to your old board designer, Colin McCulloch, who sadly died of a brain tumour in 2009. He was always very passionate about your career. Have you found it easy to move on and to develop a new line of boards?
Unfortunately I couldn't ride the boards I still had from him forever. I was really close to Colin and it was a real shock when it happened, but I've just tried to do things in a way he would have been proud of. He was always on about my own brand and, if he was still around, for sure we would have been working on our own deal together. I basically took his shape, his ideas and how the board worked and tried to replicate that as closely as possible, while making it work for the changes we made in construction, according to the way the new factory made boards. The way it rides is pretty similar, but if you grab the board, you'll notice there's a lot more rocker and a lot more flex. But the actual shape is the same because it's what I've wanted to, and have, ridden for the last five years. I've just been lucky in finding an amazing flex pattern. You'll see in the corner there's a little memory of Colin on the board and a certain percentage of all the proceeds from board sales go to the cancer foundation that helped him, as well as to certain things he wanted to raise money for. You've got to move on, but I'm sure he'd be stoked with what we're doing.
Do you think next year will be slightly easier as you'll have done it all once before?
This year was a real test for me. It was the first proper year on the road with On The Loose and then on top of that was all the work with getting the kites and boards into production. Next year will hopefully be a refined version of this year. On The Loose is all scheduled and in-between I'll be working with Flexi, touring shops and working on products. I've learnt so much about business; how everything works and about building something up from scratch. I've seen what goes into it; all the marketing and development and that it has to make money. It's been a cool year and I've loved it.
Over the years you must have been approached by other kite brands. Were you?
Yes, of course. You just can't go around as much as you want because you'll eventually burn all your bridges. I look around now and can't see another company that would have done something like this with me. A lot of other big companies revolve around other names, like Robby Naish and Pete Cabrinha. I always hoped that something like this might happen one day. My dad has a lot of experience in business and he guided me the right way. I'm very patriotic as well and respect my roots. I love coming back to the UK; it's where I'm from originally and where Flexi are based. It would be ridiculous for me not to have the biggest market at home.
What do you make of today's British kiteboarding scene?
It's so strong. If we put a team together to compete against the rest of the world, we'd clean up. I love going to the British events, hanging out and seeing the level improve. I'm so impressed with a lot of people. Obviously Sam Light is at a really good level and starting to impress internationally, but then there's the kids coming though, like little Tom Bridge. He's unbelievable. I'm amazed at how well he's riding and is definitely one for the future. But I actually think the average riding level is high in the UK. Even the guys down at my local beach in Goring are trying to throw kite loops. Okay, they aren't doing the latest handle-passes, but these guys have to turn up to work the next day and they're still going for it. We love the strong winds here. You can go to some countries and a lot of people will never have ridden a seven metre. I think that really says something for the kiting here and the conditions that people can handle.
Speaking of strong winds, Will Milne films all your Red Bull stuff and he told me that you guys went to Gran Canaria to shoot for one episode, specifically to try to shoot an S-loop. What the hell is that?
It was for the final show of the season. Ruben has this goal of basically doing a kite loop one way and then, as it goes round half its arc, he wants to spin it down and back the other way. Where it would usually come back up to complete the loop and save you, he wants to make an 'S' in the sky and send it down even more. I didn't think the vision in his head would ever come out and we argued about it a lot. I'm not going to say if we did it or not, but it's a funny story and the conditions out there were so nuts.
So is it all about getting the initial height? You must need some big winds for that!
We chose to go to the nearest and most windy place at the time. I'd seen windsurfing videos of Pozo on Gran Canaria with these huge waves, which is what you need along with strong winds to get the height. We got there totally blind; none of us had been there before and we found there was no beach to launch from. On the first day I literally ripped a new kite to bits on the rocks. The water conditions are gnarly-gnarly, but it was the right place to go at that time of summer for sure.
It sounds like you've really worked out how to keep kiteboarding fun. You've taken the work element out of riding and put it into the business side.
Definitely. I had to split it because I want to live my life to the max. You only get one chance. I have to do something to make money and if I can make it work even better, then why not? I got into kiting because I thought it was the best thing ever. It would be stupid to lose that. It was getting that way at one point and almost practising because in the back of my mind I thought I should be. Now I just want to go out riding with my mates whenever I can.