The world's fastest kitefoilers put a thrilling display of tight racing as they battled each other and the conditions that spanned the full gamut of possibilities for a Mediterranean summer over four scintillating days of competition.
But in the end the talented French teenager Axel Mazella maintained his poise to grab victory by the slimmest of margins to take the opening round of the International Kiteboarding Association (IKA) KiteFoil GoldCup in southern Italy.
The 18-year-old was pushed all the way by the reigning KiteFoil GoldCup champion, Maxime Nocher (MON), and Olly Bridge (GBR), who both trailed by only a few points after a final day etched with nail-biting drama on the Hang Loose Beach track.
Yet, a clutch of other riders had shown themselves capable of being in with a title shout right to the climax of the event that saw 45 scorching races as riders' skill levels have grown apace and equipment in the "open" kitefoil class gets ever-faster.
The Italy stop was set to be the first of four. The next event scheduled for Turkey next month seems likely to be shelved because of the political unrest, but stops are still slated for South Korea and Qatar, where the kitefoil world champion will be crowned in November.
On the opening two days of competition the 62 racers from 26 nations were seeded by rankings into three fleets for the qualifying series. But the riders found themselves fighting the uncharacteristically strong, shifty and gusty winds as much as each other.
In the course of tight action on the azure windward-leeward track framed by the Calabrian hills' olive groves, several new faces emerged. Italian Mario Calbucci, 19, riding a Banga foil, posted a strong showing, while Titouan Galea (FRA), a relative new-comer from New Caledonia, also proved he was a force to be reckoned with.
Yet when the fleets were reorganised into the medals series' "gold", "silver" and "bronze" fleets for the concluding two days, the conditions again threw a curve ball. A vicious shore-break that race officials feared posed a risk to riders delayed the action until mid-afternoon.
It was in the "gold" fleet's opening four races up against the leading riders that Mazella demonstrated his sheer sizzling speed and consistency, taking three "bullets" on his F-one Diablo2 kites and flat-winged Taaroa Sword2 hydrofoil.
The Italian-Colombian rider Riccardo Leccese, on his Ozone R1V2 and Mike's Lab foil, chased the Frenchman relentlessly with four third spots from four. Such tight racing and consistency only served to highlight how narrow the margins at the top of kitefoil racing have become with a tactical slip-up or a gear failure proving catastrophically costly.
Few know that better than Olly Bridge, 18. A broken bridle and subsequent tangle after his kite inverted delivered costly poor results and used up his two discards available after ten races, but left no room for error.
The young Briton gave it everything right to the death on his Levitaz Aspect Bionic foil and Elf Joker kites, racking up four bullets and second in the "gold" fleet's concluding six races. It was not quite enough and in the end he took a well-earned third podium spot trailing, runner-up Nocher by a mere three points.
The margin of Nocher's loss was even closer, just one point separated him from his training partner, Mazella. Nocher, on identical Taaroa Sword2 foil and F-one Diablo2 kites, pressurised the French teenager, but he held his nerve to seal victory.
In the compact women's division of just eight riders, Russia's Elena came through to clinch the win after a rocky start to the regatta, while Alexia Fancelli (FRA) took the runner-up spot just ahead of a delighted Jade O'Connor (IRL).
Writer: Ian MacKinnon
Overall standings after ten "gold" fleet series races (two discards) and eight "silver" races (one discard).
1 Axel Mazella (FRA, F-one/Taaroa) — 22pts
2 Maxime Nocher (MON, F-One/Taaroa) — 23pts
3 Oliver Bridge (GBR, Elf/Levitaz) — 26pts
4 Riccardo Leccese (ITA, Ozone/MikesLab) — 36pts
5 Florian Gruber (GER, Flysurfer/Levitaz) — 44pts
1 Elena Kalinina (RUS, Elf/Moses) — 103pts
2 Alexia Fancelli (FRA, Airush/Flysurfer/Taaroa) — 125pts
3 Jade O'Connor (IRL, Elf/Banga) — 141pts
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