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Peter Jones: I asked Michael Birt, UK Kitesurfing Champion 2000, Airush and Shinn distributor in the UK, for an interview after his epic 20m+ jump. I hope you enjoy his reading his answers as much as I did!
PJ: Hey Mike, there may be a few people who don't know you already, tell us about your kitesurfing journey, when did you start etc?
MB: I’ve been in the watersports industry since ’86 when I first started competing in the North East Windsurfing Junior series. Since then I became a pro windsurfer for many years before learning to kite in 1999 and retiring from windsurfing in 2002.. A long time in the sea now I sit and think about it - so I guess that means I have been kitesurfing for 19 years! Today I run a company that distributes Smik, Airush and Shinn brands to the UK shops.
PJ: Rumour has it you can be quite competitive 😊 Is this KOTN thing getting you fired up to go bigger? Do you like the format compared to single day/weekend events?
MB: The woo does generally fire most people up and that’s a good thing. I’m no exception, but from my background (and I suppose my personality generally) I am unashamedly competitive, and have to keep a real handle on it, as I’ve seen it bring the worst out of me in the past. I have limited time for riding these days (young family) so I do think about my riding more than ever, and this more technical and technique oriented aspect I have enjoyed nearly as much as the riding itself.. I think this KOTN format is probably the best, as it brings everyone to the best locations and conditions, and thus the standard of riding, and personal achievement is far greater - it also focuses peoples riding long term which is very good for them and the sport. The weekend events are good socially though, and there is more beer involved, even if the riding can be a bit hit and miss, so both have their place I would say!
PJ: Sooo, you broke the 20m barrier a few days ago, a feat only achieved by a select few in the UK! How did the jump feel? Did you know you'd done it at the time?
MB: Yeah - that was an odd one, was not expected to be honest. I had my expectations re-wired after Olly had his session the week before. I was stunned that he was getting over 20m on flat water, I could not believe it to be honest. I watched the vids and poured over his data, so the next time I had a chance, I tried to take the extra power, with a few other ideas, and it worked, so pleasantly surprised. I had a few woos on that day and saw a few 18.19’s it was a big step up from sessions previous.
People ask what over 15 is like, and to be honest, it’s relative. I remember the first time I had a crack at woo, Rhossy - full power on the 12, and I remember it felt incredibly, recklessly high. My ego was crushed when I saw it was only 12m, and there began my journey back to old school jumping. Since then, steady progress to plus 15 was noticeable, but since then, you notice less the altitude, as the power you need to take is such that I’m 100% concentrated on the position of the kite, less so on the scenery! lol.
That 20m Jump? There were a couple of big ones, but you know how woo’s are, it’s tough to tell. I’m pretty sure this 20 was a mild double lift though. Hang time was low, but then, with my kites and with this kind of power I’m not interested in looping too much, just want to be able to drive the van home afterwards, without clutching my ribs..
PJ: You also have the record for biggest landing G-force, can you still walk, or are you just 2 inches shorter than before?
MB: Ha ha,
I’m getting better at landing normal jumps - looping is fun, but when you are going for it, loops either go well or wrong, and to be honest, missing a ligament in one knee, not being able to train so much, and having experienced some bent ribs in the past, I’m happy to have the odd butt check, if it keeps me out of the medicine cupboard! The biggest G on that 20m day was actually what I thought was the biggest jump of the day - such a violent uplift popped my back foot out of the strap and up we went, one footed. The woo shows that when I got to 15, I threw it off, as I’d decided to cut and run, and I distinctly remember it spiralling off as i continued up a fair way. The 13g Landing was the board on it’s own. Took an age to body drag back upwind and get it. Surprisingly hard to body drag upwind when only your ankles are in the water
PJ: I understand you don't use a regular twin-tip like the majority of people? Please describe your ride, what you like about it, and whether you think its beneficial for going big, or more of just a personal preference?
MB: I’ve been through the mill with board designs as the sport grew. From ’99 I started 6’+ directionals, big twin tips (which were horrid and cost me my acl) then wakeboards (with bindings) then small directionals, then twin tip snowboard boards, but as good as the modern boards are, I had the wiring in place to use these small directionals. They are simply not made any more, and I took the best of the old school ones and developed them over the past 2 years, together with help from my shaper who helped me back in ’99 and still is a shaping guru today. My boards are typically 150x41 - quad finned directionals with a small shaped rail and more or less symmetrical outline. People call them mutants, but in reality they are half way between a surfboard and an oldschool mutant.
There is no doubt, 150cm of shaped rail, even loading through both legs, and the quad fin layup brings immense grip and carve pop, the likes of which you cannot recreate on a twin tip. To people who ride twins it feels alien, but the physical performance of the thing is undeniable - and make it’s perfect for big air work.
PJ: How much do you think gear choice comes into getting those big numbers? We see a lot of people on 'race kites' hitting the heights, is there something specific about these kites that makes them effective for going big?
MB: It’s kit for sure, on flat water more so - but you have to adapt your technique to them. Flat water is a great way to hone your ideas and technique. The Vantage kite that I use is perhaps a bit sluggish and pivotal around a corner, but the efficiency and range is massive, you can pin down a lot of energy, and when released a greater proportion energy is converted into vertical climb compared to a normal kite. This, coupled with my board makes a big difference. I’m by no means as physically strong as most high level riders, nor do I have as much time on the water to have that intuitive edge, but my kit makes up for it. I’ve always been a bit sneaky that way.
PJ: Are there any top tips you could give to people who are struggling to reach the 10m barrier, who haven't yet done so?
MB: Everyone has a weak link, it’s so difficult to pin down something specific across all riders, but most don't point upwind enough, carry enough power, nor carve/pop aggressively enough.
As a basic guide (should you want is) to decent height:
- take power, a decent amount of power, such that you are well powered and using depower at slow speeds when plodding upwind.
- choose your speed and direction carefully. Medium speed, and pointing as high upwind as you can with it.
This is really important - the faster you go, the more you point downwind, thus the lower the jump, so you want to store up as much power pointing as high into the wind as possible and that means going a lot slower than you think. If you are going slow and don't have much power then you simply need more wind or a bigger kite. Speeding up to get more power is not going to help your jump hight..
- pick a spot ahead to pop from, in flat water it’s easy - in chop or waves you have to hunt for it.
- Once chosen, take some rail grip off and let your speed climb.
Then, as you speed up and head toward your mark, you have to practice your timing, juggling these elements in order;
- start steering the kite up to 12 on a race kite, perhaps further back on a more c oriented kite, keep the kite de-powered.
- after steering has started, start carving back upwind progressively using your full rail, in an exponentially closing, increasingly violent arc. Your aim is to grow an unsustainable amount of force / grip, such that in a normal carve it would have you skip out, - (like you are trying to hack the top of a wave off when wave riding).
- at the point that the carve grip is critical, your legs are as compressed and loaded as they will get, you stop steering and spring or pop upwards to initiate takeoff, as hard as you can.
- once you are up and climbing, then it’s time to sheet in.
PJ: You knew this one was coming... Any advice for people who are regularly above 10m on how to get closer to breaking the magic 20m?
MB: Take power, as much as your 9m will take. This will put the design to the wall in terms of stability, The day I did 20, 80% of my riding was against the stops on potential ‘disaster control’ and my kite was not happy about life. If I’m honest it was not the most comfortable session at all. My 7 was being used by a friend that day, so no change down for me.. He did 14.2 meters on it, so it was REALLY windy.
Make sure your speed is low, don't be tempted to think that going fast, to create power in the kite - will give you the power to go high. It just doesn't work - go slower and find more power, then find some more power again, pop pointing as high upwind as you can.
Work on your pop - that last second carve and pop, using every last bit of your rail, is where the extra meters come from (you can see why I like the small directional for this). Also the angle of the board in the water that the top guys are getting is extreme. Olly’s board (in his vid) was nearly 90 degrees to the water on take off. You try and replicate that - it’s unachievable for me, but the more aggressive the angle the more the grip, and the bigger the jump. The windier it gets, the harder the pop becomes. That’s where I am at right now, trying to still get that huck, timed and as violent as possible whist dealing with a tiger on the end of my lines!
Lastly - check your lines. When you are this powered your front lines will stretch and it’s possible your kite will start over sheeting and this has radical effects on the climb rate. Unless you are using significant amounts of depower strap (not ideal) check the kite is not flaring regularly on full power, through the session.
Sadly - kit helps too. Kite is the biggest (ad)vantage (no pun intended), and board helps too. Not saying that everyone should go down my path with directionals, but some twins are better at hunkering down and pinning excessive power in comfort at slow speeds than others..
When it all comes together the gains can be huge, and one of the best things about the woo is the way you can use it as a training tool to improve and motivate your riding to grow. Sure it’s imperfect, and not to be taken too seriously, but it’s what it brings to each session that I find really engrossing :)
Until I saw (on video) Olly do 24m on flat water I did not think 20+ was possible without kickers. Just goes to show that every day is a school day!
Oh, and taling about league tables, I thought 20 would be up there, but at the end of the week Woo sent me a weekly global leaderboard email. It seems I’ve still got a lot to learn, lol.
Cheers Mike, you're a Legend!