If there were a single, collective desire held by the eclectic European surf tribe for their annual fall gathering for the Quiksilver Pro France, it might be one that would appear curiously self-defeating at a glance. Hitting the road from the generally more gray and less tubular far reaches of the Old Continent in surf buses laden with boards, bros and bongos, they come expecting to surf themselves silly, but simultaneously hope the swells that duly greet them will be too much to dare tackle.
Because genuinely juiced-up Hossegor, with only La Gravière really holding the swell and all breaks north maxed-out, tends to take proceedings from a worthy spectacle to legitimately spectacular -- especially when the world's finest surfers also happen to be in town.
"Real waves," reigning World Champ John Florence said of today. "Genuine power," offered Jeep Ratings leader Jordy Smith. "Exceptional," reckoned Joel Parkinson. And despite the bank perhaps not being quite of the classic proportions served up for those oft-cited vintages of 2004 (the Bruce/Andy Final at huge La Nord) and 2012 (the Kelly/Dane Final in Gravière shorebreak Teepees), nevertheless a stellar day of surfing competition ensued today. With audacious airs, resplendent rail carves and thumping tubes, video-game style repertoires played out along the steep berm of famously coarse sand and pebbles that give the spot its name, widely touted as one of the finest beach breaks in the world.
Emmanuel Macron, France's president who was elected in the spring of this year, is having something of a challenging rookie season. The source of his plummeting popularity are efforts to reform France's notorious labor laws, in an attempt to improve workplace efficiency. And yet wherever this morning's strong local crowd fell on the political spectrum, they showed strong approval ratings for the ruthless productivity on display from Les Landes' finest, Joan Duru, who threw an 18-point heat total on the scoreboard only five minutes after punching in for his shift. After successfully free-falling out of a heaving shorebreak lip to end his first wave, the local boy, who spent his formative years flinging himself through La Gravière grinders, hung an audacious line through a backside double up to the delight of the cacahuete gallery.
Jordy Smith and John Florence both successfully saw off challenges in Round One, with John needing to quell an uprising from Italo Ferreira. The Brazilian aerialist surely hucked as big an air as any seen on Tour this year, a fully-rotated backside air reverse on the end of a meaty right. Florence threw a straight slob air of his own in reply, as well as tearing into the towering righthand walls with those blistering rail gouges that served him so well at Margaret's. At the horn, Ferreira was left seething with unfulfilled revolutionary zeal.
"I didn't see his wave but I heard everyone freaking out and I knew it was a big score, he's always going to do something massive, especially in those conditions," Florence said. "I was starting to get my composure back towards the end of that heat and got a couple waves. It always feels so good to be out in competing in proper, real waves again."
Jordy Smith, who, as current World No. 1 is wearing the Jeep Leaders' yellow jersey, put on a similar show of force to dispatch local wildcard Marc Lacomare, as well as Kanoa Igarashi, in lined-up conditions ideally suited to his strengths. The knack that the South African has had for finding the best waves in heats for much of the season was again on show at La Gravière, a notoriously fickle beast that can at times frustrate all but those of the very strongest resolve.
"It's got a lot of power out there I'm kind of psyched on the conditions, it's so buttery it's really nice when you get that open face you can really lay down some tracks," Smith said. "My boards are feeling really good, it's kind of the usual that I normally ride and when there's a bit more power in the waves my boards seem to love it, so I'm stoked."
Jeep Leaderboard no.3 Julian Wilson arrived in France before anyone else on Tour, and had been putting more time in on this bank than anyone else, billeted with contest director Miky Picon just over the dune that protects the town from being over-run by Biscay whitewater. Alas, his sound preparatory efforts were to no avail, as he saw his chance of taking a maiden French win extinguished in Round two at the hands of Marc Lacomare.
On a day of assorted dramas, beautiful waves, local standouts, jetski spills and mental and physical anguish (Toledo's aggravated a back strain that saw his movements seriously hampered before losing out in Round 2) perhaps the strangest thing of all was how relatively inconspicuous France's favorite ever surfer, Kelly Slater, was in his absence.
Aside from an early 2000's sabbatical, the 11-time World Champ has been a fixture at France's biggest surfing event since 1990 (President Macron was 12 years old at the time), always drawing the biggest crowds and loudest clamor. But if conditions and performances continue to be of the headline variety witnessed today -- and the forecast is very promising -- between World Title and requalification stories and peak performances, we all might barely get the chance to mutter, 'Kelly qui?'