In the last few weeks, we've seen two incarnations of pro surfing: one being sold as a bright technotopian future; the other, harking back to days of Russell Crowe as Maximus, maybe a doomed empire.
We've had Kelly's wave pool and then the France event, surfed back by back. The most predictable wave that's ever been, followed by the least predictable wave on Tour. Hasn't it just had people thinking. What do we want pro surfing to be? What should it be? Why should it be at all?
We stand at an ideological crossroad.
The WSL are about to unveil a new vision for the Tour. Rescheduled. Resequenced. Rethunk. Certainly leaner. There will be some bloodletting. Potentially chlorinated, but whether the wave pool will be part of the Tour outright or go down a separate evolutionary path, we don't know yet. From the few crumbs we've gathered, the French event that has entertained us for the past week, one of the best all season, is no guarantee of even being there. If indeed the Tour finishes in September, as we're hearing, that squeezes out anything European in the schedule. But in the space of a single minute last night, however, we saw why the French event – and the brand of pro surfing it represents – deserves to be there.
Let's be fair: Medina was the only guy in the field capable of beating Florence in the mood the Hawaiian has been in this week, and their semi was always tantamount to a final. That's no disrespect to the rest of the field, but it was going to take something jarring to knock John out of the sublime orbit he's been in.
With the plug being pulled in the Bay of Biscay and the tide dropping fast, their heat started slow. The crucial exchange dropped halfway through and was over in a hot minute. It sequenced like this. Medina took off on a corner, and in a clearly planned gambit, threw himself into a backhand flip that stuck. Eight-point-five. Florence's dialed air reverse suddenly lost its potency in the judges eyes. Florence was on the wave behind. He almost ran Medina over – an accident on neither surfer's part. Gabe does this subtlety, but his competitors are onto him – before launching into a wild, failed slob grab. Medina spun straight around into the third one that gurgled through the inside and turned it into a score. Medina, 15 points in a minute. Florence, rattled for the first time all event. Momentum shifting. French crowd flushed with joie de vivre.
Amidst the structural tedium of a four-day draw with plenty of meaningless heats, there were some real moments in France, and this was the pick. Now, if they could just somehow engineer a format and a schedule that produced these more often than not, then you'd have something. There's hope, but moments like this won't happen in a pool. The pool is something fundamentally different. The pool is first man against machine, then man against himself. What we saw in that minute was man against the ocean, then man against man.
There is no lineup more random on Tour than the quartz pebble peaks of La Graviere, but the overlooked aspect of Gabe and John's success this week was how well they surf broken lineups. Surf with them anywhere, and they don't sit still. They circle like pelagic fish, in patterns imprinted long ago, that casually put them in the right spot at the right time. It's no accident they have owned this contest between them in the modern age.
Using another metric, however, it was little surprise to see them dominating. If you asked the question, "Is their best surfing yet to come?" of every surfer in the field in France, there aren't a lot you could easily answer yes to. Medina and Florence, certainly. Their surfing dragged the judges with them this week, and with the exception of John at Margarets and Phil Toledo at J-Bay, we haven't seen that happen this year. Even Jordy, who, despite leading the ratings coming into France (and who still has a shot at the title, although the money has shifted to John), hasn't significantly evolved his surfing this year, and his timid exit in France reflected that. He's surfed largely to an old system, an old system that has only evolved in recent years when it's been dragged kicking and screaming. The Tour has run on a familiar groove for so long. Same events, same time of year, same formats against same competitors, which has allowed guys to surf to familiar patterns and master the dark science of winning, year after year, robbing pro surfing the vital essence we witnessed in a hot minute today.
Well, the system is about to be dragged into the future, and we're sitting here with popcorn and beer.
We haven't heard anything about the changes to the women's Tour, but in the meantime, we're looking at getting an interesting finish to this season at Honolua. With both Sally and Tyler going out in the semis in France, it becomes tough to split both them and Courtney Conlogue for the title on adjusted ratings — a heat or two at best. For all three of them, Carissa Moore's return to form in France could not have come at a worse time. If there's swell in Honolua, it might be Carissa and Steph surfing to decide the title, just not for themselves.