ANTOINE ALBEAU – TITLE CHASE!
Antoine Albeau is used to being chased. It’s part of the job when you’re the fastest windsurfer in the world and PWA Slalom champion. His rivals try to get under his skin or past his formidable board speed but few succeed. Come race day, he bristles with the confidence of an athlete at the very top of his game and a steely focus that leaves little doubt as to his intentions – winning. To learn more on how he has made the podium his home John Carter shadowed Antoine during the recent PWA Costa Brava event to diary the champion at work.
Words & Photos JOHN CARTER
(This feature originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Windsurf Magazine. To read more features like this first, Print and Digital subscriptions are available. Prices include delivery globally for 10 x issues a year!)
JC: When we think windsurfing legends, Robby Naish carved his name in the history books in the 1980’s, Bjorn Dunkerbeck dominated the 90’s but surely since 2000 onwards Antoine Albeau is the undisputed legend of the current generation. Albeau started windsurfing on ‘l’île de Ré’ in France at the age of five and was taught by his father Jean-Marie, who was one of the first windsurfers in France. Even today Antoine helps run his father’s windsurfing school back at home, not too dissimilar to the relationship Bjorn has with his dad and their school in Gran Canaria. His first year on the world tour was 1994 and he brought home his first racing world title in 2004. Since then he has pretty much dominated PWA slalom racing and even now at the age of forty three, his rivals still fail to crack his code and edge him from the top of the rankings. So what is Albeau’s secret? There are guys who are taller than him, there are guys that have access to the same equipment and guys that can match him in the light winds of Costa Brava or when it is nuking in Fuerteventura. My assignment during Costa Brava was to observe Antoine at work and monitor the way he goes about his business each day. Each evening I chose an opportune moment to quiz him on what he had been up to and try and build a picture of one of the true icons of our sport.
AA: “I came to Costa Brava two days before the event start. Normally I would come earlier but I have been busy helping my father set up our windsurfing school back at home in France. I drove six hours to get here from ‘l’île de Ré’, so it is one of the easiest events for me. I really like to come here. I load the van, leave in the morning and am at the camp site by the afternoon. It is super easy. It is quick for me to come and I managed to train with one day of light wind when I arrived, which is kind of how the conditions normally are in Costa Brava.
I like to arrive a few days before an event, so I am not tired and I have time to organize everything. I bring all my equipment in double. That means twelve sails and six boards so everything has a backup. That is enough! I am hoping that we are not going to race in super light winds; that is my biggest fear. There are some very strong guys when it is marginal, like Steve Allen, Arnon Dagan and Pierre Mortefon. You never know what you will get in Costa Brava, we will see! The first day of an event I try and stay calm but there is always some stress, everybody has stress otherwise you are not normal! Today we have registration and first possible start at 2pm, so there is quite a bit to do. They say this will be a no wind day but I am not taking any chances. I have rigged all my sails, registered, put all the event stickers on and then I am ready. I feel ready for the event. Normally I would have done some training in the gym before an event but I have been so busy at home working with my dad so I was a bit tired. I did not sail a lot prior to the event but I feel ready, I had a couple of good night’s sleep”
JC: On the second afternoon we had light wind racing during the afternoon; when I say ‘light’ we are talking wind dipping right down to the minimum 7 knots required for official racing, Antoine’s biggest fear! At the end of the day he stepped away with third place in the only completed final with team mate Arnon Dagan walking away with the first victory of the week. I was kind of expecting Antoine to be disappointed with this result but far from it, when I caught up with him while he was packing his equipment he was grinning like a Cheshire cat!
AA: “We were not expecting so much wind today. The race crew were on it early and pushed hard for the start. They were right because the wind was super light but enough to race. After the first half an hour it picked up, there was plenty of wind. I was not fully powered on my 9.6m but it was enough. The final had decent wind so nobody could complain. I am super happy to start with a third. In these conditions it is very easy to go out in an early heat. There are a lot of fast sailors in light wind. We are using such big sails that if somebody covers you at the start, you can get really bad wind. When it is light it can be tough to recover, it is hard even to make a quick gybe with these big sails. I was not pushing too much and still managed to make the final. Third was a good place considering the conditions.
I want to make the finals at every event, that is my goal. I try to do my best for sure in the final but at the end I need to be consistent for the year. I can’t afford to make mistakes, so I have to wait for the right time to push. I don’t want to push too much, for sure it can go well but it can go bad too. I think we will get some more of these conditions so I just try and stay in the game.
In the evening we have a physio here with the French federation so we get a massage as well. We have a trainer here, they film all the starts and some of the action so we also have a debriefing so we can check it out and see what to do and what not to do. No beer for me in the evenings. I will not drink during an event, I am not really a drinker anyways! We have dinner here at the camping site, everybody eats there so it is quite nice and a good atmosphere.
I am sponsored by Orange in France and it is in my contract to put up posts on Facebook and Twitter. I think it is useful to do anyways, you get a lot of people following what you do and it is all good promotion. I have a lot of kids following me and hopefully that will inspire some new people into the sport. They love it; they like to see what we do at events and in our free time. It is good advertising for our windsurfing school too at home in France. I was at the French Tennis last week in Paris; it is quite cool for people to see this sort of thing”
JC: Today was a lay day. A‘no winder’ as we call it, so I kind of left Antoine alone as he was busy filming with a French TV crew. Half of the game at events is to be ready to race at a moment’s notice so for the likes of Albeau, it is a day on standby, waiting around until the final announcement.
AA: “We were hoping for wind today but the sky was super white and kind of hazy. The sea breeze did not come. Our French guy who knows the weather forecast predicted this and he was right. Now we wait. I still prepared my equipment and took it all down to the beach; you have to be ready and not running around at the last minute if it picks up.
I have been working with a TV crew from France who are here to do a profile on me. They are a big national channel. I went out on a bike tour with Cyril, just for an hour to warm up a little bit. Tonight I might go again. The first no wind day I am not bored, there is plenty to do. If tomorrow is the same maybe I might play tennis or something. I have my girlfriend here also, we travel most places together, she helps me a lot. The travelling is fun. Sometimes I don’t like it when I need to leave home but in the end it is good to go and see places. If I stay too long at home I get a little bit bored. After this event I actually stay here and around this area to test with NeilPryde. We normally do this every year. This is good because it is going to be the sails I will be riding next season. I like to do this and I will be working with Arnon Dagan again. After that I go to Lake Garda, which is a promotional trip for RRD. It is a beautiful place, I really like it there. It is amazing for windsurfing and the food is awesome too.
I actually think I take the job too seriously compared to some guys for sure. I think I do too much! I even do extra things for my sponsors that they don’t ask for. Later in the year I will go to Namibia for one month to try and break the speed record. Nobody asked me to do this and nobody is paying me to do this. I just do it for me. When I do it for me I still use NeilPryde sails and the RRD boards!”
JC: Clouds and rain cut out the normal thermal effect of the wind so it was another day lingering around in the camp site at Costa Brava. Today I thought I’d probe a bit deeper and see if Antoine would reveal any of his secrets as to why he has dominated racing for the past decade…
AA: “Today was stormy with rain. We had some waves so I went surfing a little bit. I always try to find some stuff to do. We just have the weekend to go now and they are not calling for much wind.
In the light wind days there are a lot of people who can win the slalom. The level all round is very high right now. Compared to five years ago the whole level of the fleet around me has improved. The pressure is just the same. I am always fighting for first place. In terms of pressure it is not so much for me these days because I have so many victories under my belt. It is always better to be in first place but consistency is more important. Second place is fine, I don’t mind coming to an event like Costa Brava and finishing second for instance.
I don’t want to make a mistake like I did in Turkmenistan last year again.
It can be bad luck and can happen. If you look at all the sports like Moto GP or Formula One it is like this. Most events are not all the same winner. At the end there is one winner and it is usually the same guy.
You just have to be up there on the podium, not necessarily winning. I think my strength is that I am good in all conditions. There is no secret, if there was a secret to winning somebody will find it and win. There are a lot of guys taller than me. Everybody is strong and they all train through the winter. You don’t have to be super tall, you have to be strong, fast, good in the start, good in the gybe and have the right mind. Arnon blew it in the second round here with that over early in the first round but this happened to me many times too. This is bad luck but it happens, it is part of the game. When this happens it can really ruin the day. It lingers on your mind. Going out early in one of the first rounds means you know you have to fight through a few more eliminations without mistakes before the discard. I don’t wake up in the night fretting about it but when I go to sleep I often lie there thinking about any bad mistakes; it is not a good feeling. Everybody is like this!
Without Dunkerbeck around it is no different for me. His last few years he was not super competitive it was only in 2011 that he beat me and won the title but those years were good battles. Now we have Pierre Mortefon, he is very consistent, Cyril is fast and could have won last year, Julien Quentel, Matteo, Ben Van Der Steen, Arnon and Ross Williams, there are a lot of guys now!”
“ There is no secret, if there was a secret to winning somebody will find it and win ”
JC: It was another frustrating day at the office in Costa Brava, with fickle winds never materializing for any official racing. Today I decided to probe Antoine about what happens on the race course these days, is it a fair game out there or do a few of the guys bend the rules or even cheat!
AA “I was expecting more wind again today but even though it is sunny there are super high clouds. I don’t think the sea breeze will pick up because of this. I don’t know if we will even do a heat today. We tried to start a few times but it is really different because it is easy to make mistakes or do an over early when it is on the edge. You need to be in the front in this kind of light wind and that means having a good start. It is part of the game so it is ok. I am in the first heat, I am ready. It is kind of the worst heat to be in on a day like this because we are on standby mode for much of the day so I have to be on the beach ready to race. We tried one heat but it was cancelled while I was leading. I think a few guys were fake pumping at the back of the pack; some of the guys are pro at doing this! If it is super light and you are on the edge and you are not in the top four, a lot of guys try to stick at the gybe and make fake pumping. If two or three guys do this maybe the race director will call it off. I normally don’t do it (Smiles!). I usually try my hardest because you never know if they will abandon a race. At the end of the day the race director is there when it is really light and it is his call.
There are not too many dirty tactics that go on these days. At the gybe you can go on the inside if you think there is space but now with the experience of the ‘no rules’, if you go on the inside, you can take yourself out in the process. Sometimes it is just better to go on the outside. On the start line some people start at the boat and at the last minute cut across down to the pin crossing everybody full speed. If somebody does this it is not cool, it is a tactic a few racers do. I don’t get angry anymore, in the past yes but with more experience I realize nothing is going to change. For sure a few years ago I kicked the sail or I kicked the board a few times but what do you do? I even broke a sail once and I needed to fix it. Now I just get pissed off and I stay in my corner! A few times I have really been sure that I was not over early and they call you over, for sure you get annoyed but at the end you are not the guy looking on the start line so you have to believe them. If they tell me now I am over early I just accept it. It is like this, it is just the decision of the judge. I had a bit of an argument with Julien Quentel in New Caledonia last year; he told me that I pushed him out of a race. I was leading at the gybe, he was on top of me and I didn’t make it. At the end of the day I had right of way. I was leading and I go where I want! If I want to go gybe ten metres after the mark I can! That is it!
The equipment is all checked by the race crew, there is a lot of talking about this, that racers have modified their sails but the sail or board factories don’t have so much budget to make special sails or special boards. Some riders sand the bottom of their boards but that is usually if they have not come out accurately from the Cobra factory. That is why you see that some boards have been sanded on the bottom. Anybody can come and check my boards if they want, I am not scared of anyone checking my equipment! I don’t listen to nobody anymore when they talk about cheating with equipment, I don’t care. For sure most of the time racing on the PWA is a fair game. The only variables are the mast, boom, fins and battens! You can make a sail have more shape, be more powerful or flatter with different battens so that can make a big difference. The fin is like the tyre for the car in Formula One and you can spend a lot of money to have the best fins. A lot of riders keep their best fins secret but at the end there are not so many factories making custom fins. Most guys know what the best fins are, after that the only thing you can hide is the softness or the size you are using.
With NeilPryde we have a really good team; we have Arnon, Julien and myself as the main riders and also Sebastian, Enrico and Malte. For sure if one of the guys is out then you can ask them to caddy or help you on the beach. If it is difficult to choose the right equipment on the beach they will do it, even for me! and I help them too.
On any race day I always check the course before a race and try and check the shortest distance to the first mark and things like that. Personally I prefer to start alone in my own corner than fight at one end of the line in a pack. When you push too hard sometimes it can go well but other times you just get screwed. That is why I am not pushing quite as hard as in the past years and just going for more consistency”
“ My strength is that I am good in all conditions ’’
JC: I was expecting Antoine to go bananas today after he was knocked out in the quarter finals of the second elimination but far from it. Light wind racing in marginal conditions made for tricky tactical decisions and Albeau was helpless at the back of the fleet after a bad start. With potentially his whole bid for the world title down the pan, Antoine stayed cool calm and collected and returned to the beach and sat out the rest of the round. There was no screaming or shouting, no punching sails and no yelling at the race officer, he took his punishment like a man and dealt with it without working himself into an anger frenzy. At the end of the day, lady luck shined his way and he took fifth in the last final which gained him third place on the podium for the event. Just like he said earlier in the week, consistency paid off, he never panicked, stayed calm, got on with the job and possibly saved his 2015 world title hopes in the process.
AA: “I was not so happy today. We did my quarter final five times and I was all the time in the top three until the last one which was valid and I was 5th. I did not make the cut, I was a bit unlucky but it is like this, it is part of the game. I did not scream or get angry, it is just very marginal conditions, what can you do? If you finish in fifth it is your fault! For sure the wind was light but I am not the last one to get planing. I am pretty fast in light winds. I just had a terrible start, I thought we were going over early so I braked but it was a good start. I was pretty much last at the first mark; I had a decent gybe but could barely get planing again. At that moment I thought the event was over for me but we started another round. I thought the race crew were pushing pretty hard for those conditions but we kept on competing. The last race I made 5th place which was enough to help me finish on the podium so it wasn’t too bad considering that bad result in the second round. Everybody had one bad result except Ross and Matteo. Third was a great result for me, I am happy with that! Pierre is behind me, Cyril is behind me, it is all good so far this season.
The result is the important thing for me rather than the money I win. I think about the end of the year and the title. You don’t make so much money winning events, for sure five or six thousand euro is not bad but in the end that is not a lot of money. When you add it up at the end of the year, you always spend a lot of money on travel and all the other costs involved. It is better than nothing but I don’t think about the money! I just want to be world champion and then I get the bonus from my sponsors!
I am not money orientated, but I don’t like going to events for free where there is nothing to win. This is what I don’t like. Do you know anybody that works for free? It is bad to have events with no prize money; at the end of the day windsurfing is our job! I have a good lifestyle for sure but I am not a millionaire, far from it, maybe in Venezuela I would be but not in France.”
JC: Antoine is a consummate professional there is no doubt about that. Sure he is highly competitive and doesn’t like losing, but name a world champion who isn’t? I think it is fair to say at the age of forty three, he is older and wiser than most of the fleet and his racing experience, as well as exceptional skill, is a large part of his winning ingredient. This season he seems relaxed enough to stay consistent and let others around him make the mistakes. With multiple world titles already under his belt, the pressure is on his rivals to push and take chances, while Albeau mops up and usually comes out on top anyways. How long will he stay in the game, well in his words “For sure when you can’t move around the mark I think it is time to move on! But at the moment I plan to do a few more years on tour. I just turned 43 and time will tell me when to stop” There is no doubt the level around Albeau is at an all-time high with many racers spending their time in dedicated training camps over the winter months but it will still take one hell of a campaign to beat him over a season. Albeau is human after all; sure he makes the odd unforced error, but come the end of the season you can rely on him to be there or thereabouts when the title is decided in Noumea.