The Road to Bells Beach

Behind the scenes at the Rip Curl Pro

John John Florence, en route to a commanding victory over Slater and Medina. Photo: Joli
John John Florence, en route to a commanding victory over Slater and Medina. Photo: Joli

The last thoughts inside the head of a roadkill kangaroo are all tumbleweeds. For all their cuteness and occasional deliciousness, they can indeed be a very, very gormless animal. This morning on the road to Bells Beach, a kangaroo bounded over the wire fence of Bob Johnson’s farm and straight into the path of the Toyota SUV in front of me. The marsupial was a big eastern grey, as tall as the car, and a collision would not end well for either of them – anyone who’s had a roo smash through the windscreen and land in the front seat with them knows the terrific and frantic bloodbath that ensues. Anyway, the animal bounded over the fence and was hopping parallel to the car along the side of the road before swerving, for reasons known only to it, straight in front of the Toyota’s tires. It was ritual hara kiri. The unfortunate beast could not have planned its demise any better.

I saw the same maneuver soon after, in the Bells Bowl two hours later, this time it was Gabriel Medina. With his heat against Bede Durbidge seemingly under control, with Gabe leading handsomely and holding priority in the dying seconds, he chose to not simply block Bede from catching the winning wave, he veered left and tried his best to get run over and catch Bede on an interference. There was nothing subtle about his gamesmanship – his hands were in the air before they left the rails, the fade flagrant, and the display of histrionics to the judges wouldn’t look out of place at the World Cup in Rio come June. I watched it and had only the one question for Gabe: why?

The collective goodwill that followed Gabe’s win at Snapper was close to universal. The winds of change were blowing and Gabe was the agent of that change. Brazilian, goofy, young. It wasn’t so long ago that he’d stormed petulantly off stage in Portugal after losing to Julian Wilson in the final, but he’s matured a decade in the year since, far more comfortable in his own skin. He’s won a lot of heats since then and he’s won them in good style and with good grace. And Gabe will win a lot this year. He might win the whole damn thing, but he needs to keep in mind that how he wins will be remembered as much as what he wins. Just ask Kelly, the winningest surfer of all-time who snaked Shane Beschen once and has never been forgiven for it. There’s a saying about a Greek guy and a goat that I’m not going into here.

Gabriel Medina managed to use the changes in wind direction to his advantage. Photo: Joli
Gabriel Medina managed to use the changes in wind direction to his advantage. Photo: Joli

My prediction yesterday of Adriano de Souza being a frontrunner for this event was promptly sat on its backside during his heat with Filipe Toledo early this morning. Whether it was the fact he was surfing against a fellow Brazilian that threw him or not, but Adriano started the heat by paddling Filipe around the corner to Centreside, taking themselves three football fields out of position in order to get the first wave. Someone just give these guys a coin to toss. The pair was among the stars of yesterday but checked their common sense in at the door. It proved once again this contest is never about surfing the man… it’s about surfing the wave.

Kelly Slater hasn’t surfed Bells yet this trip, but it didn’t seem to have held him back too much this morning. The past few days he’s been driving south along the Great Ocean Road to a nameless big-wave location that he surfed at, as Ross Clarke-Jones offered, “16-to-19 feet.” The whole coast has been smoking in the past days and Kelly has had his share. He’s staying next door and I haven’t seen him once. Mind you, I live next door to Alan Green, the founder of Quiksilver who owns most of Jan Juc and has about 400 neighbors. Kelly has stayed with Greeny at Bells since he first signed with Quiksilver, and despite the fact he severed ties with the brand he’s finding it harder to sever ties with the hundreds of personal relationships he’s made over those twenty-three years. They will endure.

Watching Kelly’s heat standing next to Maurice Cole you were privy to the moodiness and capricious nature of not only this wave, but the whole coast itself. Maurice was working through the changes in wind degree by degree and for each one was pointing out all his landmarks – the old windmill on the hill, the top of the steps, the spot where he buried his dog – and it demonstrated the layers of knowledge needed to surf well here, and why winning this contest means so goddamn much to whoever does. One guy gets a trophy; everyone else gets a headache.

No airs required. Jordy Smith utilizing the rail to redefine performance surfing. Photo: Joli
No airs required. Jordy Smith utilizing the rail to redefine performance surfing. Photo: Joli

Halfway through his Round three heat today, your correspondent was ready to hand Jordy Smith the trophy. In the space of two waves, he redefined both the contest, and the season itself. The Bells Bowl pulsed, but it had nothing to do with Jordy’s surfing. Turns were happening at will. This was the best performance surfing the Tour has seen in moons, and it didn’t need a single air. It was rail work of the highest order. It was frightening. After Jordy’s first wave my colleague commented immediately that it was a 10. I responded that there wouldn’t be a 10 handed out all year. The judging scale has been noticeably crushed so far, 10s no longer used as Dream Tour marketing slogans. Jordy’s wave came in at a 9.57… but within two hours I’d be proved wrong.

The afternoon session, moved over onto Rincon on the rising tide, floated all boats but the dominant storyline was one of redemption. Three guys who needed big wins had them, and they did them in the style we’re accustomed to seeing.

Mick Fanning shook off the title hangover and re-engaged. Julian Wilson was next. Again, ever since your Nostradamus-like correspondent pinged him as this year’s world champ before Snapper he’s hardly been able to walk out of a heat. The move to Rincon however let the genie out of the bottle, and suddenly he had the perfect rampy canvas to pull something from columns A, B, C and D, all on the same wave. The inside section at Rincon horseshoeing back at him was just built to order for his forehand twirlybird and the one he unleashed at the end of his heat iced a 9.93. My world title prediction was back… however my perfect 10 call was suddenly feeling some heat.

The 10 predictably came soon after, and it came from a guy who needed it more than anyone. John John Florence has barely made a heat all year, and already there was chattering mentioning his name and Dane Reynolds’ in the same sentence. If John John were to lose interest and walk away from the Tour at this juncture there’d be one loser in that deal, and it wouldn’t be Dos Juans. The kid can pretty much do whatever he likes and he will continue to surf three times a day in good surf and the checks will continue to roll in. The wind shifted just before his heat with Kelly and Gabe, the 300th wind shift for the day within a 90-degree arc, and it created a 200 meter right with a custom-made, contoured ramp every 10 meters. What happened next shouldn’t have been a surprise. This has been brewing. The fact they gave him a 10, well, even that didn’t surprise.

John John will be there on Finals day. You can make your own predictions on what happens next.