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From the Beginning: The Franz Olry Interview
By Paul Lang
There is a good chance that you have no idea who Franz Olry is. If you have heard about him, you probably just know that he currently rides and works for Wainman Hawaii, but Franz’s history in kiteboarding goes all the way back to the beginning. Franz was one of kiteboarding’s first pro riders and he worked closely with Bruno Legaignoux on the development of products at Wipika, kiteboarding’s first inflatable kite brand. At a time when everyone was riding large and unwieldy directional boards, Franz shaped Wipika’s first production twin tip, a board with soft rails and a kicked-up nose and tail that people continued to ride for years.
After working for Wipika and later Takoon, Franz disappeared from kiteboarding for a few years before reappearing with Wainman Hawaii, a brand founded by his good friend Lou Wainman. Franz also still shapes boards under his brand name of Alkita that continues to be based on his original Wipika board concept. Now back on the kiteboarding scene, we wanted to talk with Franz about his history in the sport. Not only was Franz an early rider, but he was also an early character in Cabarete and has been traveling to and kiteboarding in Cuba since 2000.
How did you get your start in kiteboarding? What was the sport like when you started compared to now?
I started at the beginning of the sport in Montpellier, France, after seeing Raphael Salles (from F-One) out kiting one day. I had been windsurfing with my friends Abre and Marc and we went straight to the shop and I bought my first 5m Wipika. Abre and Marc wanted to start kiting too, but they had to wait since I bought the only kite in the shop. I had been shaping windsurf boards since I was 15, so I made myself a kiteboard and learned to ride on it.
I already knew Mat Pendle (from Globe Kites) and he was starting to help Bruno Legaignoux develop the Wipika brand. He asked me to shape a board for Wipika, because they didn’t have any at the time. Bruno sent me a 3.5m and later an 8.5m so I would have a full quiver of kites to use to better test the board. I will never forget how happy I was when I received those kites. Immediately, I started kiting full time and quit windsurfing. At first, the sport looked like a good joke. People didn’t know what they were doing, and we didn’t know much either. Nobody had any style at first, but everyone still had a big smile.
What was it like being a professional kiteboarder in the very early days of the sport? Do pros today get more or less support from the brands compared to back then?
For me it was a surprise in the beginning. I never expected to be a pro or to get any money for riding. When it happened I was stoked. The first competitions were really just meetings for international riders because back then there were so few of us. The goal of the early contests was just to discover and promote the sport. Flash Austin was a hero back then. He could jump so much higher and was so much better than any of us Europeans. In the end he just had control of the kite and we did not. It’s funny to think back on that time and remember how little we really knew. As the sport progressed, so did the amount of money that we were paid, but I think we were getting almost nothing compared to some of today’s top riders.
Tell us about the original Olry board. Many people rode that board for years. Are you still designing boards, and are they similar to that original concept?
Very early when I was learning to kite, I quickly felt that a directional board, which most people were riding, was not the right thing for jumping. I was sure we need something like a snowboard or wakeboard. I made a few different prototypes and even tried to patent a system for fins that would help to go in both directions. I ended up shaping the original Olry board. It was huge compared to modern boards, but that allowed people to learn more easily and to get upwind without needing too much power in the kite. I remember that board was 186 cm long by a good 45 cm wide! It had round rails, as I tried thin ones but never liked them. My current boards, which are sold under my company name Alkita, still use the same concept, but the dimensions have definitely changed. The flipped nose and tail are still there and the rails look more like surf rails than twin tip rails. The boards don’t have much flex but they are very smooth on the water. In southern France the water is really choppy, and I struggle to ride boards other than my own there.
Do you work with Wainman on their board designs? How do you keep your board ideas and the Wainman ones separate?
Until now, I didn’t really work with Wainman on their boards. The surfboard shapes came from Jimmy Lewis and the twins were Lou’s ideas. I have always ridden my own boards, even when I worked with other companies. I don’t want to keep my ideas separate, and hopefully we will do a production version of my boards soon. With Alkita, I only make hand shaped boards for myself and my clients, but if I do a production board it will naturally be with Wainman Hawaii.
Not only were you an early pro rider, but you were doing R&D very early on. What were some of the new products and innovations that you’ve been involved with?
Because I started with Bruno in the very beginning, I have been involved a lot with R&D over the years. Bruno and I are both French, so it was easy to work together. I shaped that first twin tip for Wipika, but also worked on the kites. We developed the first 4-line kites together, and that’s when I first realized we could ride without a board leash. This was a huge improvement and we gained so much freedom by being free from the dangerous nightmare of using board leashes. I met my wife in the Dominican Republic, and that’s a reason why I spent so much time there working with Bruno. We were focused on making the sport easier and finding ways to be able to ride anywhere. At that time I was always inventing equipment. I made a harness to do hooked-in 360s, shoes for strapless boards, a safety leash for 2-line wakestyle tricks, etc. We thought up a lot of stupid stuff and sometimes came up with good ideas.
With Wainman Hawaii, it’s easy to come up with innovations. We all work together to see what is good and what is wrong, and we can act quickly. For me, the Rabbits are the perfect kite. You can fly them with just four lines and no bridle, and you still have a wicked full-depower kite. This makes our lives much simpler.
Tell us about the first kiteboarding trip you did with Lou Wainman and Mauricio Abreu. What did windsurfers think of the sport back then?
We did that trip just after the first Red Bull contest in Leucate. Mauricio was on the Wipika team with me and Lou was riding for Naish at the time. I had been to Tarifa many times before, so I was happy to drive them there. Before the trip, I didn’t know Lou at all, but we immediately became good friends. Even though our riding styles were so different, we had the same concept of having fun, with little interest in contests. We both tried to explore the sport for ourselves. I had a huge amount of respect for Lou before I met him, and after spending time together I was even more impressed. Lou is a very rare person in that he is an incredibly humble person, but he is one of the smartest people I have even met. I am very happy that we work together today.
About the windsurfers in Tarifa, we had been there kiting a few times before and had already exposed the people there to kiteboarding. The writing was on the wall that windsurfing was already a declining sport before kiteboarding was even on the scene.
What do you think have been the most important moments in kiteboarding? Are there any products or riders that you think were critical in moving the sport forward?
In the beginning every step was very important to make kiteboarding what it is today. Everybody involved back then was important, bringing help and development to a new sport. Every improvement, 4-line kites, twin-tip boards, and bow kites, has been important. The Tronolone video High, which featured Lou Wainman and Elliot Leboe, was a very important event. It revealed the birth of the wakestyle side of the sport and really pushed kiteboarding into a new and exciting direction. The new generation of riders is pushing hard, and I love to watch Aaron Hadlow, Ruben Lenten, and all the good young riders. They all do a great job of showing the potential of kiteboarding and that’s helping to make the sport bigger.
What do you think about the progression of safety systems in kiteboarding? How much safer do you think the sport can become? What were the safety systems like in the beginning?
There are probably still some improvements to be made, but safety looks quite good today. I am sure we can do even better and I have some ideas that I am working on. With Wainman Hawaii we try to keep things simple and strong. The beaches are getting more and more crowded, so we need to pay attention to that too. Back in the early days, we rode connected to the kite without any possibility of releasing under load and some people paid for this mistake with their lives. With good depower and quick releases, today we are far from that, thankfully. Ultimately, each kiter is responsible for their own safety. It’s important that experienced riders try to help the less experienced ones, but the companies have to take care with the construction of the equipment. Like with a parachute, you have to trust your equipment, and this is our responsibility as manufacturers.
How involved in product development are you at Wainman Hawaii? How did you get involved with that brand?
I was a little removed from the kiteboarding scene for awhile after having trouble finding a company that I was happy to ride and work for. I hadn’t heard from Lou for a long time, and when I wrote him a message he told me he was starting his own company and was in Europe. I decided to go see him, and we discovered that we were both looking for the same thing: a good, simple, bad-ass kite. I also met the other partners (Mike and Mark), and we all became friends, so we got to work. A long time ago, Lou wanted to start a company with Nicollo Porcella and me back when I was staying at his place on Maui, so Wainman Hawaii is an old dream that we were finally able to make happen.
I have been involved as much as possible with Wainman Hawaii, not only on R&D, but also with contracts and everything else I can help with. I give my input on each product. Mike collects all the info from me as well as from Lou, Niccollo, and Bertrand and finalizes the products. Right now we have great cooperation between our people in the US and in Europe. We are all friends, love our jobs, and give our best for the company. Lately, I have taken a little time for myself and got married and set up my house in Cuba.
Can you describe the rationale behind Wainman Hawaii naming each kite size as a different model? What is the thinking behind not sticking to the traditional yearly product releases like the other companies?
Most people follow others because they are not so sure of themselves. We don’t follow what the other companies do. Each kite has a name because we love them and we don’t want to just give them a number. Each kite has been developed separately and has its own character. Another thing is that we don’t want to make different models as our kite can suit almost every rider for almost any style of riding. Also, we think changing kites just to make more money is bad. If the kite is good, then why change it?
It seemed you disappeared from kiteboarding for awhile before being active again with Wainman Hawaii. What were you up to?
I was having trouble finding a company and equipment that I was happy with, so I stepped away from the industry for awhile and focused on improving my boards and creating the Alkita brand for my shapes.
Has Lou Wainman been as influential to the sport as people think he is? What do you think about the fact that many riders who have learned to ride in the last few years have no idea who he is?
Lou has been probably the most influential rider of all because all the guys who are influential today were originally influenced by him. To me he is a star and a legend. I say star because it’s like with music and art. A good song can make someone super famous, but when it’s perfect, it lasts forever. It’s the same with Lou. If you watch a front to blind from a long time ago, it was perfect. The difference was that he was the first and only one doing it. It was the same with other moves. He was landing flat 540s and even 720s like ten years ago, and these are moves that the progressive kids are still trying to learn today. Lou has never been one to go running after media coverage, so I think that’s why he’s not as well know to newer riders.
You spent a lot of time in Cabarete when it was first becoming a known kiteboarding destination. Who were some of the characters around there at that time? How is Cabarete different now?
At first I remember Eric Hertsens, Marcus Boehm, and some other European guys living there. Cabarete was a really small town then, and kite beach was a nice little spot that was usually almost empty. Today there are many hotels and a real kiteboarding scene. When the kite schools started, some of the Dominicans started to kite and progressed very quickly. Luciano Gonzalez, Jose Luis, Ariel Corniel, Alex Soto, and Posito are some really good kiteboarders who have come out of Cabarete. The level of riding is really high there, and this makes it a great place for progression. The riders there are always training together and have lots of fun while pushing each other. I like that spirit.
How long have you been going to Cuba to kiteboard? Are people in the U.S. missing out on a great place to go kiting because of the travel restrictions?
I first went there in 2000 and I have been there a lot since then. The first reason why is that my wife is Cuban, but Cuba is a large island with a huge potential for kiteboarding. I know Americans cannot go there because of political reasons, but if they did, they would probably love it. Cuba is not a great spot for waves, but there can be a few good days here and there. The Cuban people make it a very interesting place. Cuba is a spiritual country and has a very rich culture, but economically it’s a pretty depressed country. Even so, I see much more happiness in the eyes of the people in Cuba compared to most countries where the people have more money. I have a few Cuban friends kiting there, but I ride by myself most of the time. There really aren’t any tourist kiteboarders in Cuba.
What do you think about the current state of kiteboarding competitions and the push to get course racing into the Olympics?
I see the windsurfing spirit coming running to kiteboarding, and it makes me laugh because we knew this would happen since the beginning. It seems like people with big interests are deciding how competitions should be, and I don’t even know if these people kite. It’s going to make kiteboarding look boring, I think. I personally don’t like racing, but if some guys like it I have no problems with it either. If they really want to get more good exposure for the sport, they should focus on freestyle contests instead of racing.
Kiteboarding as a sport is just barely ten years old. Where do you think we’ll be in another ten years?
I think it will go in a few different directions. We have wakestyle boot riding, strapped and strapless wave riding, and freestyle riding that will all progress in different directions. Riders’ techniques will also improve and we’ll start to fully realize the potential of kiteboarding. I think line length will reduce and this will bring the best vision for the sport. Imagine how sick freestyle will look on 6 meter lines!