Around now we should have been enjoying the Red Bull King of the Air 2021. Rather than licking our wounds of loss, let’s anticipate what’s still to come when the event is re-scheduled for November this year. Ben McCann re-sets the scene
WORDS: Ben McCann PHOTOS: Red Bull Content Pool (unless otherwise stated)
When King of the Air ‘21 comes around later in the year, it will have had almost two years of build up, during which time we’ve seen the level of big-air kiteboarding explode. In combination with 2020’s disdain for the world economy, every aspiring and professional rider in the sport is having to work harder to earn their spot. Minds have been concentrated and the risk level continues to rise. To use a clumsy WindGuru metaphor - the forecast is all red and black. KOTA 2021, when it runs, will be electric. Here are the trends, fads and changes to look out for:
Top image: Steven Akkersdijk Photo: Ydwer van der Heide
Big air has been heading in this direction ever since Antonin Rangin landed the first board-off mega loop at KOTA back in 2018. They’re divisive; love at first sight for some, while others felt that people needed to be reminded that kiteboarding is not like motocross – if you lose your mode of transport mid-air, you’re not going to die. Adding rotations changed opinion, and they’ll be a judge’s favourite as they can be executed at height. As a result, these tricks were the ticket in the video entry competition, with riders like Janek Grzegorzewski and Giel Vlugt dropping big ones and finding themselves firmly on the Red Bull rider list.
Janek’s charging with these, too. Also known as Contraloops or Dirtyloops, they are your familiar looking kiteloop, but the rider’s front hand rather than backhand loops the kite forward, which is unusual. They’re not brand new though. Graham Howes stood out in 2015’s video entry competition by using them, and Kevin Langeree was throwing them with frontrolls in 2019. Janek has, however, stepped things up by combining them with board-off rotations.
To set the record, he’s jumping, taking his board off, looping the kite with his front hand, all whilst doing multiple spins before landing smoothly with the board firmly back on. Why? He’s right-foot forward dominant – not ideal for KOTA with wind from the left at Kite Beach, but by using a downloop, he can use his stronger hand and convert all his tricks in the opposite direction. Sneaky. However, only time will tell how these will be scored. It is widely acknowledged that the downloop is more tame than a megaloop, as the loop is initiated quicker, which catches you sooner.
Angely Bouillot Photo: Danus Macijauskas / Core
Airton Cozzolino, Angely Bouillot and Tom Bridge are the wildcard picks for KOTA 2021 - chosen for their potential and injection of drama. In that regard, Angely is the best wildcard to date – her inclusion in KOTA 2020 was a bold move by Red Bull. Angely’s achievements captured the hearts and minds of everyone who tuned in, smashing expectations and misogyny to pieces. Airton is also a priceless choice. No one wants to lose to a guy who doesn’t have any straps on his board. If it wasn’t for the heavy chop of KOTA 2020 he would have made it to the semi-finals. Instead, he narrowly lost to Joshua Emanuel – a heat that was Airton’s for the taking if he’d stuck his last trick in the dying seconds of the heat. Anything could happen with Tom Bridge in the field. He will ride boots and he will ride his own way. Judging criteria will be of little concern, but that’s not to say that he’s not competitive. You don’t dominate junior kiteboarding like he did without a competitive streak. He’ll channel the will to win in other ways. It could be huge crashes and ridiculousness. It could be triumphs and innovation. Either way, there will be fireworks.
Jesse Richman, 2 x winner - 2013 and here, in 2020 Photo: Tyrone Bradley
When reigning champion Jesse Richman broke his leg at Lanes on Maui training for the 2021 event in December, we looked around the rest of the fleet to see where the unhooked gnarliness would come from, bearing in mind that Liam Whaley was also injured. By the time November rolls around we pray that the full crew are fighting fit. Our eyes again were drawn to Tom Bridge who could set the event alight with megaloop passes, a genre of tricks that, arguably, have had their thunder stolen by board-offs in the video entry contest. However, if executed at height, they would surely be the highest scoring moves ever seen at KOTA.
A trick that must be preying on the minds of riders like Tom is the Megaloop Slimchance, a trick that has never been landed by anyone. Like a demo tape purposely leaked to the fans to build a bit of underground hype, Tom has been teasing the internet by practicing the components of it. For clarity, it’s a megaloop with a frontroll as the kite loops and then, in the finite moments after the yank, unhooking and passing the bar before swinging underneath the kite with all the pressure on your arms. Oh, and because it’s a frontroll, you do it all backwards, so you can’t see what you’re doing.
It would require Tom to ride boots in order to harness the landing. He’d need an obscene amount of kite skill and spatial awareness, and finally a willingness to defy what’s gone before. Tick. Tick, Tick.
Stig Hoefnagel Photo: The Stoke Farm / Naish
When examining the subtext of the rider’s list, a clear strategy can been seen from Red Bull: a changing of the guard. Gone from the 2021 rider-list are the ever-performing but never-winning names of KOTAs gone by, such as Aurelien Petreau and Lewis Crathern (the Brit is however first reserve). In are a collection of fresh faces, the next generation of big-air riders who are hungry to make their mark and establish themselves in the sport amongst the kite gods. Edgar Ulrich, Arthur Guillebert, Stig Hoefnagel and Giel Vlugt have all been awarded positions through their strong video entries. These younger riders know what a privilege it is to be involved in KOTA, the biggest event in the sport, soaked to the core with exposure and opportunity. The sodden nature of the event also carries unparalleled pressure. One shot. It’s you and your kite against 17 other riders. If you don’t rise to the occasion, there’s a hoard of talented individuals waiting in the gallows to take your place.
Red Bull’s commitment to keep the event fresh and pushing forward has also lit a flame underneath the top names of the sport. Kevin Langeree needs to prove that his newly founded brand, Reedin, is KOTA worthy. Aaron and Jesse need to equalise Kevin’s hat trick of titles. Liam needs to stand in the middle of the podium for the first time. To put it simply, the upcoming KOTA is the most important one to date, and all you can do is prepare the best you can.
SH*T JUST GOT SERIOUS
In 2021 we can expect an increased level of professionalism amongst the riders. I don’t mean stale press conferences and striped ties, but nutritionists, strategists and psychologists.
Marc Jacobs dropped nine kilos in preparation for KOTA ‘21 – lighter, leaner, faster. Kevin Langeree was the first rider to truly utilise the power of strategy and coaching, using Robin ‘Coach Robin’ Oudshoorn as caddy and strategist to propel him to multiple victories. Contributing to the added pressure, the mental maze of KOTA is getting harder and harder to navigate. Everyone has a breaking point and, much like the physicality of our sport, everyone has a point at which they start to lose mental form due to the stress.
Above: See our double video feature with Jesse in issue #105 here
2020 wasn’t easy on the mind and I think it’d be fair to say everyone is feeling a little fragile. If those big-air riders are sensible they will have already begun training their minds as well as their bodies to deal with the stress of KOTA.
S LOOPS, ANYONE?
Let’s talk about risk. We’ve discussed in KW before that a true competitor will take the path of least resistance, with the least risk and highest probability of success, hence the gradual move away from megaloop passes towards board-offs for big points and less physical challenge. Once the standard rises and everyone can nail a board-off, the rider who is willing and able to go the extra mile will be the victor. Think back to Jesse’s 2020 display of enormous Kung-Fu passes. The judges awarded him the crown for doing it bigger than ever before. So what’s next? Everyone doing huge Kung-Fus and passes? This is unlikely as it requires a solid background in freestyle, which many of the incoming big-air generation, who have the most to prove, do not possess - other than the aforementioned Tom Bridge.
Joshua Emanuel Photo: Ethan Lundy
Therefore, we may start to see innovation emerging in other areas. If it’s 40+ knots, we might witness Joshua Emanuel throwing his all-time lowest loops. If we’re even luckier, we might catch a glimpse of the infamous S-loop. A megaloop where the direction of the kite is reversed after the first loop, during the ascension, in the elegant shape of an S. You can draw it in the air with your finger. First put on video in 2009 by Ruben Len10, the move has been little more than an urban myth until the 11th of January 2021, when South African Camdyn Kellet treated Instagram to an S loop that was met with huge applause. Not clean by any means - he snapped his board and his lines - but remarkable, nonetheless.
Now, the likelihood of this move debuting at KOTA 2021 is low. It requires a small kite, which goes against the current trend of hanging on to a nine metre. A teenager putting up clips of such a highly regarded trick is going to open the floodgates, though. It perfectly portrays the hunger in the upcoming ranks of riders and, perhaps just as significantly, the progression in big-air kite design over the past five years, too.
TOOLS FOR THE JOB
Kites like the Core XR changed the game for riders of a broad range of experience wanting to simply go huge. All of a sudden you could effectively buy a cheat-code for kiting. Get that kite, rig it up, press X,Y,O,right trigger, start button, X and you could find yourself a good few metres higher than you’d usually go, thanks to the high-aspect design that somehow managed to merge the upwind drive of a racing kite with the usability of a bow-kite. Word soon got around that those kites went high. People that you once considered to be totally useless were now sitting above you on the WOO leaderboards. The smart brands got a whiff of the demand for big-boosting kites and got to work, but it’s only in the past two years that we’ve seen kites that boost big can now also loop with power and reliability. These new generation big-air kites loop better than anything that came before it. Not in terms of sheer-yanking-power, but in terms of the levels of confidence you have in it catching you. Brands across the board are now striving to produce kites that are catchier than Spotify’s top 40. Hence Duotone’s commitment to making their line up lighter, with the incorporation of their SLS material. In the hands of the consumer in 2021, big kiteloops, once deemed out of reach due to the requirement of high skill and fear thresholds, are now well into the realms of possibility. In the hands of the professional rider, generating effortless height just got easier. At KOTA 2021, if you’re on inferior gear and you’re not as high, you are going to lose.
Another key evolution of the KOTA franchise over the years has been the increase in polish and production value, year upon year. Without throwing KW editor Jim (livestream commentator) and the team too far under the bus, earlier KOTAs struggled to reach the broadcasting standards of competitive sport that we’re used to. Shakey cameras, missed tricks and audio nightmares were commonplace. Now, KOTA is just about Netflix-binge worthy, which has only increased the general public’s interest in the sport and made the whole event far more engrossing for the die-hard kiters reading this mag. One element that would greatly increase the ability for the riders and the audience to understand the action would be to introduce live-scoring, as seen in the GKA, whereby the riders see their scores in real time on an electronic display on the beach, and their required scores to win are updated in real time. Everyone would then know how tight the heat is. At present, the riders rely on their caddies to inform them what the scoreboards are reading, which results in lots of staring at phones and shouting across the water at confused competitors in 30knots. There is no doubt that big-air is the discipline of the moment. Quite how it took so long to dominate, no one knows. Height and extremity is the appeal of kiteboarding, yet for many years the sport has been in a state of existential crisis, not knowing whether to imitate wakeboarding or surfing or sailing. In 2021, the ducks are in a row. Kiteboarding is enjoying the feeling of job security. It feels as though it has real purpose, and is loved by those around it. The future is hopeful, full of prospect and KOTA has played a huge part in that. The competition has almost single handedly driven the sport in a new direction, causing industry wide change - from kite design to the way the emerging riders are taking the sport. The forthcoming KOTA, when it arrives, will be a sudden release of pressure, because big-air kiteboarding is at boiling point. If the progression levels continue to rise like they have been, the pressure on the 18 riders will push them to their limits. Expect breaking points to be reached and more reason to watch than ever before.
RED BULL KING OF THE AIR 2021 RIDER LIST
TOP THREE FROM 2020
(Automatically qualified) Jesse Richman (USA) Nick Jacobsen (DEN) Aaron Hadlow (GBR) FLY TO KING OF THE AIR QUALIFIER Kevin Langeree (NED)
REST OF THE FLEET
(In alphabetical order) Steven Akkersdijk (NED) Angely Bouillot (FRA) (Wildcard) Tom Bridge (GBR) (Wildcard) Airton Cozzolino (Cape Verde) (Wildcard) Edgar Ulrich (FRA) Joshua Emanuel (RSA) Val Garat (FRA) Janek Grzegorzewski (POL) Arthur Guillebert (FRA) Stig Hoefnagel (NED) Marc Jacobs (NZ) Giel Vlugt (NED) Lasse Walker (NED) Liam Whaley (ESP)
FURTHER VIDEO ENTRY QUALIFIERS