King of the Air 2018

Words by: Ben Gillespie
Photos by: Brendan Pieterse (unless stated)

It’s been a funny season in Cape Town so far. November saw some classic conditions and you may have seen some epic pictures of big days at Kite Beach or Misty Cliffs, and of course heard the news of Josh Emanuel posting a new world record 28.9m jump. So it was a promising start to the season, and one that set hopes high for exceptional conditions for this year’s KOTA competition – so high in fact that when we releasing the official list of competitors on TheKiteMag’s social media channels it was with an effusive note on the strength of the lineup and the likelihood of pumping wind and waves…

Well, how things change. Over the next month only a handful of days offered the kind of conditions that take ordinary riders off the water and give the big dogs a chance to push the limits, and by the time the waiting period was within reach, more than a few people were wondering if we’d be looking at another few weeks of flat forecasts as we did in 2017.

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Then, a few weeks prior to the event Nick Jacobsen took himself out of the competition with a broken fibula (we’re still waiting to hear the full story on this one, keep an eye on Nick’s socials) and then, with just a few days to go, Aurélien Petreau was called home to France for a family emergency. That’s Aurélien who only pulled his first kiteloop just two years ago, and since then has competed in the King of the Air once, and now executes board off kiteloops more reliably than I can board start…

So all in all, we’ve had a very uncertain lead up to this year’s event, and it’s safe to say those of us rubbing our hands together in anticipation back in November now had the jitters… But time marched on regardless of our concerns, and before long the start of the waiting period was within sight. And fortunately, against the odds, a promising forecast had developed and it looked likely a two day event would take place over the first Saturday and following Tuesday. Energy in Cape Town was high, with riders and spectators optimistic about the chances of good conditions, and excited about the arrival of first and second reserves: Liam Whaley and Tom Bridge. There was also an excited buzz around the new KOTA venue of Kite Beach.

PHOTO 1 - King of the Air 2018

Those of you who have visited Cape Town will know that Big Bay, the venue for the KOTA in South Africa thus far, is a less popular beach for kitesurfing than almost any other beach along this stretch of coast. Given the shape of the bay and the amenities on the beach, which make it an incredible arena from a spectator’s point of view, it’s not hard to understand why the event has found its home there since its move to South Africa, but the orientation of the bay means the predominant south-easter tends to be gusty and up to 10 knots less than a kilometer or two in either direction and it rarely offers up the kind of conditions that thousands of us flock to Cape Town for every year. Kite Beach, on the other hand, regularly sees all but the most hardcore of riders blown off the water for the entertainment of the crowds stood outside the Pakololo bar watching the show as the sun goes down. The decision this year to change the venue caused some logistical headaches behind the scenes but was welcome news to riders and fans alike.

So, with the forecast looking good, thoughts turned to the kind of action we might be lucky enough to see. Last year saw the successful deployment of several megaloop variations including the one footed megaloop which arguably clinched it for Nick in the final against Aaron Hadlow, who was instead focusing on sticking the more technical megaloop KGB. Watching riders training here in Cape Town gave some clues as to the direction in which this year’s event might be heading. The handlepass maneuvers are often considered too risky to spend too much time practicing, so it’s always tough to know who might be hoping to stick one of these, and the competitors are serious enough about tactical advantage to avoid giving too much away. Despite this, overhearing the chatter on the beach and in the bars, the crowds were certainly expecting the board off megaloop to be a staple move for several riders, rather than the deal breaker it might have been in 2017. And so, on to the comp…

DAY ONE.

Saturday morning saw the excitement building as crowds arrived at the event site. Being a weekend, the crowds were out in force and eagerly awaiting the start of the action. First possible start was gradually pushed back to 4:15pm and by this point the crowds were frothing and the wind was peaking at 32 knots. Not quite record breaking conditions, but solid nonetheless.

PHOTO 2 - King of the Air 2018

After a long wait, the riders wasted no time getting down to business. Lasse Walker opened Heat 1 in spectacular fashion with a one footed kiteloop straight out of the gate, meaning he pulled last year’s best trick within the first 60 seconds of the start of the event! A high bar indeed for the rest of the contest. He won by a comfortable margin against Ozzie Smith and Marc Jacobs, despite solid performances from both.

With Heat 1 over as quickly as it began, the competition was under way. Once this contest begins it sweeps you up – standing on the water’s edge here on Kite Beach feels so familiar and yet with this show unfolding in front of you it’s a little overwhelming. The standard is so high, and the pace is relentless.

KOTA 18 Day 1 7 - King of the Air 2018

KOTA 18 Day 1 47 - King of the Air 2018

Big loops and later rotations from Josh Emanuel and Steven Akkersdijk in Heat 2 put them both ahead of Kevin Langeree who couldn’t quite match their amplitude, before similarly classic KOTA performances from wildcards Ross Dillon Player and Sam Light saw them edge out Ruben Lenten in Heat 3. To have two legends of the sport find themselves struggling for their position in the competition so early just goes to show there are no easy heats in the KOTA, which makes for an electrifying spectacle for the crowds from start to finish.

Things escalated quickly in Heat 4, with Lewis Crathern pulling out all the stops to keep Freestyle champ Liam Whaley and former KOTA Jesse Richman at bay, and racking up three trick scores higher than any other trick score in heats 1-3… Lewis in 1st and Liam in 2nd meant another crowd favorite pushed into 3rd position and set to battle their way through several more rounds to have any chance of making the final.

Brendan Pieterse KOTA 2018 12 - King of the Air 2018

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Heat 5 saw strong performances from Gijs, Reno and Jerrie, with Jerrie falling victim to a couple of snapped lines early on. Again, no new variations from Gijs or Reno, but massive execution of the classics saw both post some of the highest scores of the round, with Gijs narrowly taking the win.

Heat 6 may well have been the most exciting heat of the day. Tom Bridge, just 16-years-old and only five hours in to his first visit to South Africa took to the water against seasoned KOTA contestant Antonin Rangin and 2 x former champ Aaron Hadlow. Tom rose to the challenge with exceptional gusto, posting the highest score of any 3rd place competitor in Round 1 before being flagged out against Antonin’s huge board off megaloop (the first of the competition) and Aaron’s apparently accidental front roll board-off megaloop. Now if that’s not a thorough introduction to the King of the Air I don’t know what is. By this point the crowd were ecstatic, having seen a level of riding that’s really hard to put into words. With conditions improving into the evening and – with plenty of time left before sunset – the call was made to hold the first elimination round, pitting the six 3rd place competitors head to head in three separate heats.

Two exceptionally close heats saw Jessie and Marc send Jerrie and Tom home, before the wind really kicked in and Kevin and Ruben took to the water. To finish Day one with two titans of the sport fighting for their spot in the competition was the kind of drama that only the KOTA can deliver. And with winds approaching 40 knots we were treated to a real spectacle from both of these exceptional riders, before a massive kiteloop board off sealed the deal for Kevin Langeree, sending Ruben Lenten out of the competition. It was an insane heat and could easily have been a most epic of finals…

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Riders and crowds made their way off the beach to the announcement of a likely continuation the following week and, sure enough, come Wednesday morning the wind filled in nice and early and the event countdown began. First possible start was bumped a few times before 25 – 25 knots made a start possible at 3:45pm…

DAY TWO.

With stronger conditions than Day one, and elimination looming for two of the three riders in each heat, Round 3 saw the competition off to an exhilarating start. We sometimes see tactical competition at KOTA, with riders playing it safe, racking up points and doing just enough to take the heat. Not today. Jessie opened the round with outrageous enthusiasm, attempting his signature kiteloop half cab double backroll, taking off with such energy that he almost stuck it with a third bankroll thrown in for free. Despite not quite making that move, he took out Josh and Ozzie with a kiteloop frontmobe, before Ross Dillon-Player and Marc Jacobs fell to massive megaloop rotations from Liam Whaley. Finally, Reno Romeu and Antonin Rangin went out in an exceptional heat which saw three huge kiteloop boardoffs from French rider Antonin somehow bested by a textbook performance from Kevin Langeree comprised of a kiteloop one footer, kiteloop board off and a front roll kiteloop. Just to clarify: three kiteloop board offs – a trick not seen in competition a year ago – are no longer enough to take you even as far as the semifinals of King of the Air…

Brendan Pieterse KOTA 2018 17 - King of the Air 2018

Brendan Pieterse KOTA 2018 13 - King of the Air 2018

Round 4 saw further casualties, with Lasse Walker, Sam Light and Gijs Wasseaar all failing to do enough to continue through to the semifinals. And Jesse Richman may have been the standout performer again in this round, nailing one of only a few kiteloop handlepasses and continuing to channel the irrepressible energy that we saw in Round 3.

THIS ONE THURSDAY - King of the Air 2018

Unfortunately – as the competition progressed – it became clear the wind wasn’t likely to increase past its initial strength, which forced the competitors to push the envelope technically in the hunt for those extra few tenths, as opposed to pushing for bigger moves. So we saw a number of handlepass attempts in both the semi and the final as riders attempted to differentiate themselves. Finally we lost Jesse, Steven Akkersdijk, and even the mighty Hadlow as Lewis, Liam and Kevin moved into the final.

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USE KOTA 18 Day 2 185 - King of the Air 2018

SHOW TIME.

By this point Kevin in particular was very clearly in his groove, nailing a solid range of tricks in every heat with both style and amplitude. Entering the final, the atmosphere on the beach was incredible, with fans of all the finalists lined the edge of the water, running up and down with flags, and cheering as their favorite competitor made their runs back out to sea. For the riders, the final seemed almost mechanical, with each knowing what they needed to crank out in order to win. In the end, Liam and Kevin executed best; Liam nailing a double pass and Kevin grinding through his trick list with perhaps the most amplitude we saw all day. Lewis’s flag came down before the heat’s end, signaling his securing 3rd place, and an agonizing wait began on the beach. Crowds surrounded both Liam and Kevin as they came off the water and the judges deliberations began. Finally, a voice on the loudspeaker announced Kevin as King of the Air 2018 for the second time, sending fans swarming to carry both riders off the beach and up to the podium.

WINNER Shot - King of the Air 2018

In the end we saw incredible progression over last year, with board off kiteloops and other variations now the norm, and witnessed the unbelievable technical ability of some of the best riders in the world. It’ll be interesting to see what else these riders can dream up in the next 12 months, and to see if rumors of new tricks in the making are any more than just that. And maybe next year will deliver a solid 45 knot day and the kind of jaw dropping intensity that we know these riders are capable of.

This article originally appeared in TheKiteMag #24. To subscribe, go here.

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