April 15, 2014
by Christopher Parker (@wheresbossman)

“It’s Not Rocket Science.” – A Second Look At The New Champions Tour, With Insights From Danny, Jamie And Travis

The SUP Champions Tour

The Carolina Cup will kick off the 2014 Champions Tour (photo credit: Riviera Paddlesurf)

So the SUP Champions Tour got announced 12 days ago. Generated a lot of interest. Lots of chatter, lots of excitement, lots of questions… (LOTS of questions). In short: The whole thing has received a lot of attention. In fact, the original article became a Top 10 all-time post here on SUPracer.com, literally overnight.

And with good reason.

If this thing gets airborne it’ll mark the beginning of a big new chapter in the world of stand up paddling. A new tour. A new way to help unify the racing scene. And a lot of paddlers are backing it… Jenny Kalmbach summed up the mood:

“Excited to see the creation of the SUP Champions tour. This is a great start to bringing the athletes and events of SUP together! Looking fwd to being a part of the 2014 tour!”

So yeah. The SUP Champions Tour. If it works, it should be pretty big. But let’s step back for a second and recap. The basic summary of the Champions Tour is this:

  • The sport of SUP racing is incredibly fragmented
  • There are several big SUP races out there that do a great job for the paddlers, the industry and the sport in general
  • These races are all “standalone” events that aren’t tied to any kind of tour
  • Many of the top paddlers got together and said: Hey why don’t we just create a ranking system/tour based on these existing races?

It’s a simple concept with a few simple goals:

  1. Help grow the sport by embracing the grassroots, mass-participation nature of SUP
  2. Give back to the events that are developing the racing scene and fueling the industry
  3. Unify the race scene by getting the top paddlers to race each other more than once a year

That’s my take on it anyway, but I wanted to hear from the top paddlers themselves, so I asked some of the big names to give me their take on the CT.

Travis Grant offered up a good summary:

“I like the concept of the SUP Champions Tour. Straight away the Tour has managed to cover all board sizes (12’6, 14′, Unlimited) and all conditions (flat, surf, ocean, downwind), meaning a true, all-round champion should emerge out of it. The 2014 Champions Tour is only the beginning of course – things will be pretty basic this year as everyone plans for 2015 and beyond – but I reckon it’s a good start.

The concept itself is great: Pick the biggest and best existing events that already attract loads of paddlers and which do a really good job looking after everyone, no matter whether you’re a pro or a newbie. Then just build a rankings system around those races. Simple. The races are already there, we don’t have to start from scratch.

I hope this year the concept can prove itself and then in 2015 we can see it expand into a proper world tour, encompassing more events in places like Australia and also maybe one or two more races in Europe as well. If that can happen then the Champions Tour will undeniably become a *world* Champions Tour, so I look forward to seeing where the paddlers can take it.

The whole idea is to give back and support the sport, so for that reason alone I’ll be supporting the Champions Tour this year. Though on a personal level, I’m pretty pumped to race against guys like Danny, Georges, Connor, Jamie and Kai more often…”

Jamie Mitchell was straight to the point:

“Pick the best existing races, get everyone there, rank them. Good idea. It’s not rocket science.”

While Danny Ching defined the Champions Tour as being:

“A tour where all SUP racers rank each other by competing at the big events that are helping grow the sport.”

Danny has actually been one of the guys driving this whole idea of a new Tour. The 404 front man holds a rare place in this sport and is one of the few paddlers who can lead the pack (both on and off the water): He’s proven himself as one of the absolute best paddle athletes in the world, which has given him the respect of his fellow paddlers. Meanwhile he’s also become a manufacturer/brand owner, which gives him added insight into what the sport needs.

So Danny has taken a lead behind the scenes the past few months, helping get paddlers on board (no pun intended) and chatting to the potential events about the goals of the Champions Tour and what it would mean for each individual race. I asked Danny what he believes the whole point of the Champions Tour is and here’s what I got:

“The goal behind the Champions Tour is to help unify the sport of SUP racing. Currently there are many great races around the world that provide great experiences and help grow the SUP industry and community, however there are also many races that fail to deliver on their promises and turn people off from the whole SUP racing world. So in my eyes the CT is all about giving back to industry by bringing high profile racers together and supporting events that have helped to grow the sport in one way or another.

In theory, by providing as many high profile racers as possible at these mass-participation events, we should be able to help unify and grow the sport from a grassroots level up. So in some ways this whole Tour is actually more about the recreational and junior paddlers than the elite guys & girls. Though of course if we can grow it from the ground up, then in turn that will help the industry grow, which in turn will help the sponsors who support us elite athletes to do what we do.

This year is just the beginning of the CT: In 2015 I’m sure we’ll see a lot more, especially in terms of including more races outside the USA.

In 2015 we’ll see the paddlers working with race directors working with manufacturers and industry leaders to help further improve the events that we already know are the best in the world. In turn, if we can base a Tour around that, then I think everybody in the sport is going to win.”

Again, quite worthy goals. But they’re just goals, not yet reality. A lot needs to happen and it’ll take a lot more than a few lofty soundbites to get there.

Though I think everybody involved with the CT knows that: Nobody is promising a whole lot this year. There’s been an emphasis on keeping it basic. At least for now… Long-term there’s vision, but for now the general belief is that the paddlers simply need to embrace and support the events that are growing the sport.

2014 won’t be spectacular. It’ll be simple. But it’ll be a start.

The 2014 Champions Tour will be more of a skeleton circuit than a fully developed tour. For example the guys and girls behind it have been very careful not to use the word “World” in there. For starters, almost all the races are in the States this year, so that would look kinda stupid. But more importantly, this Champions Tour concept needs to prove itself first before it can lay claim to any sort of world champion-crowning status.

I think you’ll see a lot happen during and right after the Carolina Cup, which is in just 11 days. In fact I think you’ll see the Carolina Cup become a key race, period. Not just because it’s the very first race of the very first Champions Tour, but because it’s becoming such a huge, all-encompassing stand up paddle event in general. The Carolina Cup is becoming the East Coast’s answer to the West Coast’s BOP.

For Danny Ching the reasons why are obvious:

“The key word is ‘Event’. The Carolina Cup is not just a race, it is an event. The event provides several races for all levels, as well as a great venue for everyone to participate and/or spectate. Then on top of that there are also several days of clinics for high profile paddlers and industry leaders, as well as demos for many SUP manufacturers. Plus it’s a chance for everyone to come together and chat face to face about where the sport is heading.

However I think the Carolina Cup’s biggest draw card is its unwavering support of everyone who attends.

They spend as much time and dedication to make first time paddlers and kids welcome, as they do top racers and high profile industry leaders. It’s clear they care about everyone’s experience. The Carolina Cup organisers provide a beautiful venue, race courses for all levels, an extremely grueling long course where anyone can line up alongside the top paddlers, great prizes for everyone from kids to rec paddlers to pros. The event helps out with board storage and logistics, demos of new products to help drive sales to the brands, provide clinics of all levels and works with great local and national sponsors to help make the experience something better for everyone.”

So in short: Great event.

And because a lot of the big name paddlers will there this year, along with plenty of influential industry figures, I’m guessing there will be a lot of Champions Tour-related chatter before and after the race, on the beach, in the hotel lobby, at the bar, everywhere. From those discussions the Champions Tour will start to take a more solid form, rising from the vapor-state that it’s currently in.

After Carolina it’s only two weeks until stop #2 (OluKai), so by mid May we should have a much clearer picture of what this ship looks like and where it’s sailing.

2013 OluKai SUP Race - Maliko Gulch

OluKai always draws a crowd. It’s becoming something of a pilgrimage in the SUP world… (credit: 808photo.me)

OluKai will be an interesting one: We’ll get to see the likes of Travis, Danny, Kai, Connor, Andrea, Jenny and two dozen other big guns race alongside 300+ stoked out downwind fans in the only “Unlimited” race of the Tour. Rankings from OluKai will be based on the overall line honours results, meaning whatever place you cross the line, that’s your final ranking. No board classes to worry about. The race itself will certainly still be giving trophies and recognition to all the different classes and divisions, but as far as the CT rankings go, it’s whatever position you cross the line.

I like that idea as it makes this a very simple, straightforward race: If you finish 10th over the line, you get 10th, no matter what board you or anybody else ahead of you is paddling. Pick whichever board you think will be fastest. If you think a 20 footer is the quickest down the famous Maliko course, go for it. Or if you think you’d go quicker on a 14 footer, you’re more than welcome to try.

Some will argue, perhaps quite rightly, that “Not everybody has access to a fast unlimited board.” To which I guess you’d say: Making OluKai anything other than an unlimited race would fundamentally change this great event and go against everything the Champions Tour is trying to achieve. And again: We all know the 2014 Tour won’t be perfect.

Stop #3 (the Lost Mills, Europe’s premier SUP race) covers Europe in June, before the Stop #4, the Ultimate SUP Showdown in Waikiki, brings the Tour back to Hawaii in August. The Showdown is the odd one out on this Tour: It’s not one of the traditional, mass-participation events, however the way they pulled off their inaugural race last year – where the paddlers were treated with a great deal of respect – was extremely impressive and warranted its inclusion (plus this year the Showdown will be an open event, where anyone can enter, and could even go a long way to helping restore the great legacy left behind by the old BOP Hawaii).

From there the Champions Tour immediately heads inland, with Stop #5, the Gorge Paddle Challenge, in late August. The Gorge has established itself as a very well run, well respected event that draws plenty of amateurs and elite paddlers alike. Last year’s Gorge Paddle Challenge saw the second-most-competitive women’s field of the year, behind only the BOP. This year both the men and women will be there in force, as will hundreds of paddlers who just wanna enjoy the very-enticing Double Downwinder concept.

After the Gorge it’s a six week countdown until the big one: The Battle of the Paddle, the Super Bowl of SUP, the race that started it all. The BOP will contribute two races to the seven race Champions Tour, with the Elite and Elite Distance races counting as separate races in the rankings. It’ll also be the grand finale of the inaugural Champions Tour and will see the crowning of the first ever CT champions.

All in all, the 2014 Champions Tour schedule looks like this:

Race #1: Carolina Cup, April 26th (Elite Graveyard Race, 14′ division, ocean/flat)
Race #2: OluKai, May 10th (line honours, downwind)
Race #3: Lost Mills, June 21st (14′ division, flat)
Race #4: The Ultimate SUP Showdown, August 16th (12’6 division, surf)
Race #5: Gorge Paddle Challenge, August 23rd & 24th (overall combined results, 14′, downwind/flat)
Race #6: Battle of the Paddle Elite Race, October 4th (12’6, surf)
Race #7: Battle of the paddle Elite Distance Race, October 5th (14′ division, ocean)

MEN: Best 5/7 results count in the overall rankings
WOMEN: Best 4/7 results

So there you go. The SUP Champions Tour.

Seven individual races at six great events. Every board class and all types of conditions represented. Then you just encourage the top paddlers to attend as many of those races as possible, which in turn should help unify the racing scene while also giving back to the events that help grow the sport and fuel the industry.

As Jamie Mitchell said: “It’s not rocket science.”