In 2015 Liam Whaley and Gisela Pulido were the overall freestyle champions when the tour was run by the WKT (previously VKWC), but due to conflicting association politics and poor organization, a string of events were cancelled at the end of the season. Liam and Gisela never actually got to stand on a podium as champions. Sadly they were notified of their titles via email.
That capped off a tumultuous and damaging couple of seasons for the image of the freestyle competition world, resulting in the GKA devising the ‘Rider of the Year’ ranking to ensure that, regardless of which freestyle event associations sanctioned the events, there would be five ‘freestyle based’ ‘Grand Slam’ events on the calendar that were guaranteed to be run by good local organizers who have proved to be well organized and have sufficient prize money and infrastructure for riders. As a GKA Grand Slam event, the GKA member brands would ensure support by making sure that their team riders attend.
The ‘Grand Slam’ calendar of events for the GKA Rider of the Year championship was set up before the birth of the World Kiteboarding League, and included a variety of freestyle events to find the most all-round rider. The series lined up like this:
30th January – 14th February 2016
MONDIAL DU VENT, LEUCATE, FRANCE (IKA)
15th – 22nd April 2016
WIND VOYAGER TRIPLE-S INVITATIONAL, CAPE HATTERAS, USA
4th – 10th June 2016
MAITAI CABARETE FREESTYLE INVITATIONAL (WKL)
12th – 17th July 2016
PRINGLES WORLD CUP, FEHMARN, GERMANY (WKL)
26th August – 4th September 2016
Heading into the last event in Germany, Alex Pastor led the rankings, but if five events were completed, riders could discard their worst result from the season. In that instance, it looked most likely that Aaron Hadlow would become Rider of the Year. All Aaron had to do was make sure that he didn’t finish more than five positions behind Alex. The Germany event therefore took on a great significance. It has the longest waiting period on the calendar (ten days) and the winds were really light for nine-and-a-half days. By the final day only the trials and a few early rounds had been run. At the eleventh hour and just before the event was to be called off, there was suddenly enough wind to run a few hours of competition. Unfortunately Aaron had gone out of the event, finishing a very surprising 13th, but if the winds didn’t come through for further rounds, the event would be called a non-event. Alex needed the wind to hold for at least a couple of hours and to make sure that he also wasn’t surprisingly knocked out. The GKA caught up with Alex Pastor to talk about winning the GKA Freestyle Rider of the Year title.
The GKA’s five event Grand Slam series kicked off in January with the Red Bull King of the Air. This was a new event for you. Was it an event that you’ve always wanted to compete in, or did you already have half an eye on the GKA Freestyle Rider of the Year title?
I usually go to Australia to train hard for the freestyle season, but the World Kiteboarding League wasn’t formed by then and we weren’t sure what was happening with freestyle events, so I ended up not going to Australia. The King of the Air is really spectacular and gets a lot of interest. Plus, big air is always fun, but with a lot of riders picking up injuries at the event I had always been unsure about entering it just before the freestyle season. It was a really great experience though and I think I’ll do it again next year, although obviously I hope to do better.
You finished 13th at the KOTA. Not a position you’re used to, but what was your favorite experience during the event?
The first day was good for me, I got one of the highest scores when I did that double handle-pass and a couple of kite loops. The second day didn’t line up so well and I was flagged out before I could find the conditions to do those tricks again. Riding at Big Bay in front of all those crowds is unbelievable though; you feel like a hero. There are so many people that come to watch from all over the world who really love kiteboarding. As a rider you don’t want to miss experiences like that.
Aaron and Alex looking on at the action at the King of the Air. Their own battle for the GKA Freestyle Rider of the Year would go the distance. // Photo: Tyrone Bradley / Red Bull Content Pool
The Mondial du Vent in Leucate came next. That was a tricky round because the winds were unusually light for that spot and it was also the last event run by the IKA that you would compete at.
Although it was quite light there were some good sessions on nine metre kites. The wind died at the end of the competition so we ended up with four guys in joint first position, including me, which was good. Within about three weeks of that event we had already confirmed Cabarete as the first World Kiteboarding League event. The people from Mai Tai were really keen to help us create our own world tour and to change the way things had been run in the past. We all worked really hard to make it happen with their help.
Up next it was the Triple S. You were there, but didn’t compete. What happened?
Invites were based on the previous year’s results and I didn’t go last year because of a clash with events. So I had to go through the qualifiers which were run behind a jet-ski in the light winds. I got one of the highest scores on the rails but I fell off the kicker a couple of times as I’m not used to riding behind a jet-ski and I kept overtaking it when landing!
Some people have criticized having invitational events such as the Triple S and the Red Bull King of the Air within the GKA Rider of the Year Grand Slam series, but we wanted to find an overall freestyle rider. What did you think of the event?
Well, it was a problem for me in terms of Triple S qualification, but luckily I was able to make up ground on Aaron after the King of the Air and Triple S as we had more pure freestyle events overall. I really enjoyed riding the features in the Triple S park after the event. It’s super fun and nice to do something different. I ride the cable a lot too, so I think I could do better and I plan to enter via the video contest next year instead of having to work through the trials.
Cabarete came next; always a tough event for the established riders because the locals just want to take the big guns down don’t they?!
Yeah! And the conditions are difficult for competition. There’s lots of chop and you have to get used to jumping from that small kicker close to shore. The wind is really onshore, so you ride downwind, wait for the kicker to line up and then cut upwind to hit the kicker, but when you’re not used to it it’s challenging.
The new WKL format really worked out well at that event. Local rider Luis Alberto Cruz knew he needed a 9.5 from his final trick, which was really unexpected. You were in that final, how did it play out?
It was unbelievable! He landed a Hinterberger 7 right at the end. He’s so used to that kicker though and he got the timing just perfect. His kite was going down, he got amazing height and everything worked out for him. He got the 0.1 point difference that he needed to beat Bebe. It was crazy and a really exciting end to the final. I was so happy that the new format was working as I’d been really involved in the development. I was also happy that the live stream worked well. I was just really genuinely happy! I knew it would be really challenging to beat those guys in Cabarete, but I still got really good scores and made it through to the final. Youri actually lost in the first round and Aaron wasn’t there, so yeah, ranking wise it was also good for me because the only rider who was ahead of me in the rankings and finished higher than me in Cabarete was Bebe, so it wasn’t a bad result.
Then it got really interesting between you and Aaron. You were leading the way on points, but at that stage there would be a discard available if all five events ran and Aaron would have won when his discard was applied as long as he didn’t finish more than five places behind you in Germany. The light wind conditions meant that the Germany event was really close to being called off on the final day having only completed the trials and a few early rounds, but then in the last few available hours there was just enough wind to continue through to the semis. So tight, wasn’t it?!
Yeah I knew it was really close because I saw the breakdown on a GKA press release that I needed to be six places ahead of Aaron. I knew that Aaron had already gone out in 13th place in Germany and it was funny in the end because when you get equal first with 12 people then that would be six spots difference. That’s what happened in the end… but during the event when on the water I didn’t know exactly how it was going to work out point-wise. I just knew it was going to be close and that I just had to focus on the event and the final if it came to it. It was really nerve-wracking though because I won my semi final, but the other semi didn’t get completed, so we counted back to the previous semi final with 12 riders taking ‘1st place’ and sharing the points. The organisers waited until the last minute of the event to announce the Rider of the Year! But I’m really pleased to win and I’ve enjoyed competing in a wide variety of freestyle competitions!
GKA RIDER OF THE YEAR FINAL STANDINGS:
1 Alex Pastor (SPN) Airush 28.4 points
2 Aaron Hadlow (UK) North / Ion / Red Bull 31.7 points
3 Carlos Mario (Bebe) (BRA) Slingshot 33.9 points
4 Liam Whaley (SPN) Cabrinha / Brunotti 39 points
5 Posito Martinez (DR) 43 points
1 Bruna Kajiya (BRA) Airush 7.9 points
2 Hannah Whiteley (UK) Best / Chiemsee 17.5 points
3 Paula Novotna (CZE) North 18.5 points
4 Estefania Rosa (BRA) Cabrinha 24 points
5 Pauline Valesa (FRA) F-One 25 points