With its unique technical challenges backside tube riding is a difficult art to master. Navigating the unpredictability that's added into the equation by reduced vision and the need for added head space is a skill that separates the best surfers from the rest.
Watching Championship Tour stars tackle average size Teahupo'o this year provided some valuable lessons. When Teahupo'o is huge, the classic pull in, stand tall, blow out routine needs no explanation. But things get much more complicated as barrels shrink. We witnessed several moments of brilliance this year as backsiders answered the challenge.
While grabbing the outside rail is the most common solution to solving the backside riddle, the ultimate form is the hands-free approach. Only a few surfers do it. Even fewer do it well.
In fact, technical barrels garnered the highest scores this year, and while there were several bachhand standouts, Kelly Slater and John John Florence ended up in the final because they navigated these unpredictable tubes better than the rest at Teahupo'o. One huge part of their secret? Knowing when to let go.
Their ability to position themselves properly, and control speed through the tube is uncanny. They drag, bend, and contort to slow down or accelerate. But any opportunity to go hands free is one they pounce on. The pinnacle came in Round Five, when Slater earned his second perfect score. Kelly's ability to swoop under the lip, and carry momentum over the foam ball, was the difference between a 10 and an incomplete ride.
Ross Williams equated Kelly's approach to "reading braille inside the barrel." Slater's cat-like feats looked impossibly natural. As for John John, his impressive brand of backhand tube riding helped him grab the yellow jersey for the first time in his career.