Focus, calculation, confidence and a cool head; that’s the name of the game. To be the best in big air it takes more than guts. Today’s extreme side of kiteboarding comes down to extraordinary feats of athleticism, knowing ones limits and how to surpass them, unusual conditions and daredevil displays from the world’s best riders.
From the birth of kiteboarding to the development of equipment, emerging trends, disciplines, world tours, innovation and design, there’s no doubt that Big Air kiteboarding is capturing the attention of the masses and is making waves throughout the sporting industry.
Over the years Duotone Kiteboarding has watched five of its riders push their personal boundaries and demand more from their gear in order to realize their visions. It’s riders like Reno Romeu, Aaron Hadlow, Hannah Whitely, Lewis Crathern and Lasse Walker who are responsible for shaping not only the performance of Duotone’s products but trusting in the safety they provide.
As the European winter sets in, riders will relish in the hard winds and storms brought to shores from across the Atlantic and set their course for the Red Bull King of the Air 2020.
For the first time ever, the guys at Duotone got together with these highly individual riders to ask makes them tick and what the path to pulling that trigger on a mega loop feels like.
How did you get into it Big Air?
Reno: I’ve always wanted to do the hardest trick out there. I competed on the PKRA World Tour for many years and every time we had an extra discipline added into an event I loved to compete in the big air ones. I always did well which grew my confidence and my addiction to flying. Whenever the wind was pumping I took a big kite and just went for it. There was no such thing as enough and it’s the same today.
Aaron: When I first started it was the only thing around; spins, board offs and then kite loops came along later down the line. After years of focusing on the low, powered handle pass tricks it has come full circle and now going big is cool again. For me, today’s Big Air is about the most extreme moves and riding on a limit that scares me. For everyone the concept is different, but I like to push myself and the sport forwards at all times. I need a physical or mental challenge.
Lewis: Big Air is the discipline in kiteboarding where you aim to achieve maximum height with everything you do. When I first saw the sport on my local beach in Worthing, UK, 2002, it was the huge air that riders were getting that attracted me. After a dabble in windsurfing I moved to kiteboarding. I craved the height and started to develop my skills outside of my parents house. Previously I was massively into anything where I could develop arial awareness skills, especially on diving boards.
Hannah: We have such diverse weather conditions in the UK. The wind can be light and easy and it can also be wild and strong. There’s always a storm on route and even back when I was starting out, I was always out there no matter the conditions. I would never miss a session because it was howling.
Lasse: When I starting kiteboarding I mainly focused on freestyle, that’s what everyone was doing. I trained and competed in some small competitions, but every time the wind was strong I never changed down a kite size, in fact, I took a bigger one and it just escalated from there.
What do you find attractive about this extreme way of riding?
Reno: For me flying high is the best sensation in kiteboarding right now and the fact that every jump you do is different is what drives me. You can jump 20 times and then there will be one where it all lines up. The perfect gust and a well timed loop is powerful enough to make you feel insignificant; if you crash you know it might not have a happy ending. This is what makes me keep coming back each session and why it is so attractive to me, because involves a lot of risk. Actually when you have the rights conditions it’s the discipline that provides the most fun. That said, the conditions needed to really send it are few and far between. When I do get the heavy winds it’s epic.
Aaron: There is huge adrenaline that comes with it. I really have to take myself out of my comfort zone to feel rewarded from a session. Unless I am on the absolute edge I really cannot get that excited about it. It’s the search for the biggest mega loop that keeps me motivated.
Lewis: I love the simplicity of it all. How much wind can you deal with? How high can you go? There is nothing like the feeling of lift and I like the idea that there is no limit to how high you can go. It only takes an updraft of wind, a sudden gust or change in weather and your next jump could be 3 times higher than any other on that day. It keeps you going. The speed in which you must think and react tests you.
Hannah: Going out in strong wind always excites me, there’s a sense of going into battle, you don’t know what’s going to happen, I love that. The stronger the wind the higher you can jump and pushing yourself to loop in stronger and stronger winds is pure, calculated adrenaline.
Lasse: In the beginning, riding on the edge of extreme was always fun and the reality was, I was better at flying high then I was at pure freestyle. It wasn’t that I wanted to be the best at the time, the overall stoke just pushed me. With more time spent riding this way, it was only time before I could bring something to the table; this was around the time of the Megaloop Challenge and the Red Bull King of the Air.
Has Big Air presented any challenges or forced you to overcome any fears?
Reno: There are always challenges and fears to overcome. It’s a discipline that demands calculation, risk, confidence and a cool head. If you get it wrong at such heights and speeds it could be your last. That knowledge is challenging in itself and the success comes from suppressing any fears you have but acknowledging that it’s there. It’s 110% brain power and focus.
Aaron: There are different levels and ways to ride Big Air. For me the biggest thing to overcome is the risk factor. In the end I might think about it before heading out, but once I am out on the water I am in my element and comfortable in that zone.
Lewis: In 2009 and 2010 I set myself a challenge to boost over my local landmarks, Worthing & Brighton Pier. I faced criticism and negativity which I had to balance against my own feelings and desires. I learnt a lot from that.
Learning some of the technical mega loops on my unnatural tack has been challenging as there is such little margin for error when that high up in the air. Repeating something that unknown and dangerous hundreds of times in order to understand it is no easy feat.
Hannah: The only way to grow is to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Looping the kite in 40+ knots definitely scares me, I guess I just like to challenge myself and that’s what attracts me about the Big Air. Like anything, the more you do it the more confident you get. What seemed scary before now seems normal, so I keep pushing knowing that the road keeps going.
Lasse: I know this is not what people want to hear, but it’s a lesson I learned that hopefully can educated other riders who are into Big Air about the unexpected. In 2016 I took a big hit in the Red Bull King of the Air. This style of riding is all about being in control and staying in control. My point is, I was in total control until I got hit by a gust. The variables are unpredictable and what happened was out of my hands. This really shook me but I’ve now adapted to consider the unpredictable.
Where has Big Air taken you, personally and physically?
Reno: Big Air has made me see how crazy you can go if you want and without knowing, especially in the competition. It’s a big challenge competing against the best riders in the world but also against yourself to do the best.
Aaron: Big Air has made me respect the conditions and always be prepared, it is not something you can go 100% on without being in perfect shape mentally and physically.
Lewis: Big Air has taken me full circle. From my first interest to take up the sport, all the way to where I am now. It is without doubt my favourite discipline and the one I am best at. It connects me with many other kiteboarders in the world and it’s something I passionately coach.
Physically, it has also forced me to explore the boundaries of what my body can take. As professional riders in this discipline, you can’t avoid the extra attention to physical strength and wellbeing needed.
The growth of this discipline has been down to a core group, which I’m part of, attempting the unknown and achieving new heights. That said, my crash in 2016’s King of the Air, Cape Town, was a pinnacle moment in my life. There’s no point hiding the fact I ended up in a coma, but my whole Big Air career is made up of the heroic moments and the reflecting lows. It’s all positive! Big Air has shaped my body to how I look today. It does not matter how many gym sessions you do. Nothing will work your body harder than a strong gale force session on the water.
Lasse: Big Air kiteboarding has seen me and the sport grow, as well as put new destinations on the map. I like to think I’m perceived as a positive personality in this discipline and I’m grateful for the opportunities it’s presented. After all, I could be working as an Architect right now, but thankfully I’m paving my way as a pro kiteboarder.
Are there rules to this discipline?
Reno: Everybody sees this way of riding differently. For me it’s go bigger, loop the kite lower, make it count, this is my challenge. There are rules to getting to that stage though. Take it slow, do it properly, cover the basics. Crashing within your comfort zone will make you a better rider.
Aaron: No, I don’t think so. Everyone has their own interpretation and even at the highest level the risk level differs. Some people like to simply go the highest and others put their body on the line. Then there is anything in-between with board offs or handle passes and combinations with kite loops. It is very expressive and subjective.
Lewis: In competition terms, the judging criteria will always give you some guidance for what they are looking, but not in every day riding. Everybody has their own opinion to what looks good; some prefer to perform manoeuvres with the board off, others with big rotations. My favourite aspect is the big mega loops. I like to see kites level with riders on a horizontal axis, but that’s my thing. Some unwritten rules are starting to become more important as everyone is starting to boost so high. Giving way to the rider who might be airborne, for example, is a good one as they cannot manoeuvre so easily up there!
Hannah: In Big Air competitions you get rewarded for how radical and extreme your moves are, how much risk factor you put in and how much height you have. Basically go big and extreme or go home!
Lasse: Do what you can and stay in your lane. Build up skill and confidence, but do it slowly. Forcing it is not learning and it’s knowledge that keeps this discipline safe and fun.