Erika Heineken (USA) and Florian Gruber (GER) take the 2013 Kiteracing World Titles after five days of intense racing on the competitive and challenging Chinese waters.
Reigning women's kiteboard racing world champion Erika Heineken ended an almost flawless series to take successive titles on the final day of the event in China. Boao's King Bay is a well-known tourism destination in the south eastern area of the country.
But brother Johnny Heineken (USA) was deprived of a similar feat by the stellar racing of 19-year-old Florian Gruber who snatched to the International Kiteboarding Association (IKA) course racing world title from the American's grasp.
"I think I'm going to need a couple of days before it really sink in," said a beaming Gruber. "My motto for the week was to go fast and stay safe from tangles. It really paid off for me. Initially when I saw the opening days' conditions I though it wasn't for me, but it worked out."
The Qualifying series on days one and two saw a fierce battle between the young German and last year's world champion Heineken. Other than in previous years, Heineken did not have it all his own way as he had to share the top spot on the leader board with Gruber, who was competing in a separate fleet as the 120 men were split into three groups, also scored perfect points in his four races.
Markus Schwendtner, CEO of the International Kiteboarding Association, host of the championship, was "excited to have this important event in Asia. The potential of venues and sailors is huge - kiteboarding is on virtually every beach and we are enjoying the strongest growth of the class in this region. Having the opportunity to showcase the sport here in China will definitely further add to this"
"What I am probably even more excited about, reviewing the outcome of the event, is the strength of our youth participation. We have rarely seen so tight competition, and with two sailors on the podium being under 21 years of age and five of the top ten in this age category it clearly shows where the future is. I am amazed by the technical and tactical skills of these young sailors", Schwendtner added.
The riders from more than 40 countries enjoyed almost perfect conditions as winds of more than 20kts blew steadily over Boao's King Bay, Hainan making the event a real challenge.
Sailors agreed that they liked the course that had been laid almost the length of the bay. But many found the two-metre swell breaking on the reef near the weather mark especially challenging, causing spills even among the top riders, so the course was moved to shorten the track slightly.
Even Johnny Heineken admitted he suffered some a few moments in the conditions but was stoked with his performance, particularly as he found himself racing in a competitive fleet that included the likes of men's number one seed Riccardo Leccese (ITA), Bryan Lake (USA) and Maxime Nocher (FRA).
"I'm racing in a strong fleet, so I'm very happy," said Heineken. "So far it's going well. The conditions were perfect for my 10m kite. I sailed pretty cleanly and didn't get into any bad situations. Sure, I had a couple of spills, but everyone else had problems too."
Day two of the competition saw similar conditions with winds gusting up to 23 knots, and once again the defending world champions Erika Heineken and brother, Johnny, were too strong and dominated their respective fleets with flawless performances that saw them win each of their four races by wide margins.
And again it was only Gruber, competing in another of the three 40-strong men's qualifying fleets from Johnny Heineken, could match the American's record. He scored four bullets to add to his perfect tally from day one, putting him in a tie with Heineken in top spot.
"I'm in a hard group of riders, so I'm really pleased," said Gruber. "Bryan Lake (USA) is faster on the upwind legs, for instance, but I point higher. It's just a different approach and it works for me. The conditions are similar to the first day and you catch some waves out on the reef."
Some riders who made slow starts on the opening day improved their showing, having grown more accustomed to the wind conditions that prompted most competitors, including many of the women, to put up their 10m kites.
Rolf van der Vlugt (NED) came out of the gate strong and clinched several second place finishes in his races to improve his ranking, which should see him placed among the top racers when the men's fleets are graded into gold, silver and bronze medal fleets for the third day of competition.
"I'm happy with my finishes," said van der Vlugt. "To be honest I felt much different today. I was in a fleet with all the top guys on day one. That was holding me back a little bit. Today I got tuned into the conditions. I'm still trying to find how fast I can go on flat water."
Jhon Mora (CAY) continued the strong streak he displayed on day one, scoring three bullets on day two, to take him to third in the standings, with Wilson Veloso (BRA) fourth, and number one seed Riccardo Leccese fifth.
"I've had two good days on my 10m kite," said Leccese. "So far the conditions have been epic. We're really smoking the fins, that's to say, going up wind as fast as possible. I think today I'm in the hardest group, so I'm pretty happy with the results."
In the women's fleet Steph Bridge (GBR) rode four strong races. But with Erika Heineken in such imperious form she had to settle for second places in each, with sixteen-year-old Elena Kalinina (RUS) ending third in the rankings and Katja Roose (NED) fourth.
"I've been pretty steady in or around fourth place," said Roose, delighted with the conditions and the track. "The conditions aren't difficult. The wind is strong, but the water's flat. It's superfast and it's good racing. But Erika Heineken is just so quick I'm always looking at her back. These are her conditions. She's used to strong winds and small kites. We rarely experience that in Europe."
Competition intensified on day three with the men's fleet split into Gold, Silver and Bronze, and the Heineken siblings showed they were human after all with a few blips in otherwise flawless performances in a series of races in perfect 20kts winds and flat water.
Johnny Heineken withdrew from the first race of the day after tangling with Riccardo Leccese (ITA), while Erika Heineken was passed by Steph Bridge in several races, only to snatch back victory by the finish line.
Yet the slight stumbles had little effect on the leader board with the pair retaining top spots in their respective divisions.
Gruber, who had been joint-leader with Heineken at the start of day three, grabbed a first after the American's retirement and continued to snap at his heels in each of the following three races, snatching two seconds and a third place. He ended the day second in the overall standings.
Bryan Lake also enjoyed a strong showing with high placed finishes in the mixed conditions that alternated between squalls and sunshine, which prompted most of the men put up 9m and 10m kites to blast over the waters of King Bay.
But Olly Bridge's (GBR) stellar racing in the gold fleet was among the more surprising performances. The 16-year-old European course racing champion notched up several fourth place finishes among the fastest men in the world, and stands in fourth place overall.
"I qualified for the gold fleet in eleventh position, so I was pretty pleased," said Bridge. "Today has been fully-powered, 9m weather. If the wind drops a little I might be able to reel in the leaders a bit. I'm strongest when it's lighter."
Bridge's mother Steph again fought hard with Erika Heineken, but came off second best in each of the four women's races. In the day's third race Heineken, usually faultless, fell on the downwind leg to allow Bridge to pass at the mark. But she regained her position on the second lap to win.
Another sixteen-year-old, Elena Kalinina held her position with a series of third place finishes hard on the heels of the two older and more experienced women.
"The wind is really strong for me," said Kalinina. "In such conditions I'm not really good because I don't train in this weather. Erika Heineken is very fast, perhaps unbeatable in this wind. But at least I can learn something from the girls that are ahead of me."
The lighter, shifting winds that graced day four of the kiteboard racing world championships then threw a spanner in the works of the reigning title holders' virtually unchallenged bid for back-to-back victories, favouring riders whose style more suited the conditions.
Defending champion Johnny Heineken - who had looked odds on favourite to retain his title after dominating the first three days - failed to win any of his four races.
Even sister Erika, who had won all eleven of her previous races in the series, suffered her first defeat at the hands of Steph Bridge in the second race of the day. But she showed her class in the two other women's races when she clawed back deficits to score two bullets.
By the final races of the day the men and even some of the women were putting up their largest 17m and 19m kites, which were still capable of hurtling them across the flat waters of King Bay to the delight of the thousands of Chinese spectators who had gathered on the beach in balmy temperatures.
The story of the day was the assault on the leader board by nineteen-year-old Gruber as he advanced his standing against Johnny Heineken who had proved all but unbeatable in the windier conditions.
Gruber scored two bullets and took a second place, leaving Heineken in his wake in each of the races where Andrea Beverino (ITA) also proved strong. But Gruber also took the opportunity to match race Heineken in the fourth and final race of the day, depriving both of high-placed finishes, but driving the American further off the pace.
"The lighter conditions are much more in my favour," said Gruber, revealing in his run. "My aim in my races is really to stay out of trouble. I tend to point a bit higher, so I start in the middle of the fleet. Johnny Heineken can start a bit further downwind."
The larger kites and lighter winds also smiled on Maxime Nocher (FRA), who in the final races of the session also scored two bullets, to the joy of the tight and well organized French team.
If anything, the order at the top of the women's fleet was even tighter. Bridge finally halted Heineken's winning streak in the second race of the day. But the American only faltered momentarily before reasserting her dominance.
Sixteen-year-old Elena Kalinina pushed both Heineken and Bridge hard on her foil kite, but surrendered leads and was overhauled by both women in two of the three women's races of the day. In the third race she held a good lead by misjudged the lay line to the windward mark and, along with Heineken, caught a trailing buoy line and fell.
The final day of the event was characterized by extremely light and unpredictable winds that all but prevented racing and sealed the rankings as they stood at the end of day four, with the exception of one or two swapped places.
With the breeze filling in as the final cut off for racing fast approached, race officials decided to try got the top ten men in the platinum fleet on the water for the first of four scheduled races. But it was only possible to complete one race with the men flying their 17m and 19m kites.
In the difficult conditions Maxime Nocher won over Gruber, with Johnny Heineken in third. Nocher's victory advanced him one place in the overall standings, leap-frogging 16-year-old Olly Bridge to give the Frenchman a podium finish.
But the breeze did not co-operate and died down before the top ten women had their chance to get on the track.
The failure to get any women's races off left Steph Bridge and Elena Kalinina with the second and third spots on the podium, trailing Erika Heineken who had won 13 of her 14 races in the conditions that lightened towards the end of the event.
"I sailed so well in the rest of the event," said Heineken, clearly elated with her back-to-back titles. "I lost one race. The girls are improving a lot, but I expected a bit more competition. I felt the lighter conditions at the end were not ideal for me. But I've been practising light-wind kiting and I've improved. I was happy to show the other girls that. Had it just been 10m weather, they'd have said 'that's why she won'."
Yet the first three days of the event, which was organized and locally managed by Kite Tour Asia (KTA) and the resort development of King Bay, were staged in conditions of around 20kts that runner-up Bridge believed played Heineken's strengths.
"With Erika Heineken, she's living in the right venue for the conditions we found here," said Bridge. "She's able to train with her brother in San Francisco. It was great for her. Perhaps if we'd got another day of light winds like yesterday which suit me better, I'd have had a chance at the world title."
Still, Markus Schwendtner, CEO of the International Kiteboarding Association (IKA), believed the conditions that varied over the five days showed that those who came out on top really deserved their titles.
"For the event, talking about consistency of the riders, we had strong wind and light wind that all the riders had to cope with," said Schwendtner. "For me, that really makes the winners true champions. The levels of so many riders have been raised. We have seen new riders rise to the highest levels, with many of the top ten swapping places. It's very exciting for the future of our sport."
TOP 3 overall for the 2013 Kiteracing World Championship
1. Florian Gruber (GER, Ozone/Temavento) (U21)
2. Johnny Heineken (USA, Ozone/Mikes Lab)
3. Maxime Nocher (FRA, North/North) (U21)
1. Erika Heineken (USA, Ozone/Mikes Lab)
2. Steph Bridge (GBR, North/North)
3. Elena Kalinina (RUS, Elf/Temavento) (U18)
Full results: http://www.internationalkiteboarding.org/images/documents/results/2013kiteracingworlds.pdf
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The IKA was formed to give an international platform to the skills and talents of competition kiteboarders throughout the world, and to combine the professional tours into one consistent world ranking. Since 2008, IKA is developing competition formats and rules as class association within the International Sailing Federation.
Several professional tours are sanctioned by the IKA including the Professional Kiteboard Riders Association (PKRA) which is awarded to conduct the world championship in freestyle and slalom kiteboarding throughout their tour, the Kite Surf Pro (KSP) who is running the wave world championship tour on behalf of the IKA in the most extreme wave locations around the world as well the the Kitesurf Tour Europe (KTE) and the Kiteboard Tour Asia (KTA), which are awarding the continental freestyle championship titles through their tours.
Additional programs of the IKA include cooperations with KB4Girls which is focussed on empowering women through the sport of kiteboarding, the KTA Race centers which are offering training and coaching opportunities to sailors in South East Asia, and the Kite Kids program which is offering training and participation programs to children in emerging countries.