Photos: Tim McKenna and Alex Laurel
Twenty-three years old, pro surfer. Lives alongside the lagoon in Tahiti, on his doorstep are some of the best and most beautiful line-ups on the planet. Twice European Pro Junior Champion, winner of the Teahupoo WCT trials at 21, invited on Young Guns 2 with Slater, Reynolds, Craike, Flores et al, Alain Riou’s biog reads a bit like every young surfer’s fantasy. Born and raised in the French colonies of Reunion and then Tahiti by a family originally from Brittany, Alain now plies the smooth trade he learned on perfect tropical reefs at the temperate beachbreaks of the WQS, where, after a difficult 2006 he’s now looking to step up. And while maybe not exactly make-or-break time, in terms of making the jump into the Dream Tour big leagues to join Quik stable mate Jeremy Flores, there’s no time like the present.
Where are you right now Alain?
I’m at home in Tahiti right now for Christmas and New Year. I got back from Hawaii about ten days ago.
And you’re staying at home for a while? Any waves?
Nah, I’m off to Florida for a QS on the second of January. We do have a little swell from the north right now though, so I’m surfing around Papenoo, it’s a bit of a drive but you get together with the boys and spend the day there. Tomorrow we are off to Moorea.
You live right on the lagoon near Teahupoo right?
Yeah, I still live at my parent’s place just in front of the lagoon; it’s a two minute boat ride to the outside reef, the boat is parked in front of the house suspended to a portico to make it easier to put to sea. My dad’s a boat driver, as soon as Teahupoo is on, he is hired by photographers to go in the pass and to get as close as possible from the action. It’s really an ideal place to relax; on Tahiti iti there’s no stress factor. We have two rental bungalows in front of the house for friends because it’s a long drive to surf here every day, so people can stay here if they want.
How was moving to Tahiti for you and your family?
I was born in Reunion and moved to Tahiti in ’98. It was a big change for us. In Reunion I lived an hour away from the sea and when I arrived in Tahiti I was literally a two-minute boat ride from one of the best breaks on the planet! But moving to another country isn’t always easy, you have to make a whole new set of friends, start over again. Luckily I was welcomed with open arms and made a bunch of friends in no time, I definitely feel like an adopted Tahitian son now. It’s my home. Surfing definitely helped me make friends and become accepted.
Did you always want to be a pro?
Yeah, I always wanted to be a pro surfer even if I never really told people that. It’s only after passing my baccalaureate that I really put everything I had into surfing. My parents were always there to keep my head on my shoulders. They were both professional sportsmen and always wanted me to keep my options open. They always wanted me to finish my studies. And then when they saw that I was doing pretty well they let me do as I wanted.
How do you deal with being far away from home during the whole of the WQS tour? It seems like something Tahitian surfers can struggle with?
I found it a little difficult this year. I was only home for three months of the year. If you’re winning contests then it doesn’t really matter. It’s when you start to log average results and you haven’t been home for four months that it can be hard to stay positive and get back in the race. All you can think about is going home. I think you need to be able to take breaks from the tour if you want to stay motivated to surf in shitty wave conditions… Otherwise you tend to fall into a negative routine and it can be deadly. If you’re not 100% amped to surf in those comps then you don’t stand a chance.
Winning consecutive EPSA Pro Junior Title (2002, 2003) helped you make a name as a competitor but your free surfing in Young Guns 2 turned a few heads too. What was that whole trip like for you?
It was totally unexpected and to show up on this massive 6 star luxury boat with Kelly in the Mentawais… Surf trips don’t really get any better than that. We had amazing waves and the whole thing was just a great experience. I think I learnt something from everyone on the trip, the level of surfing was incredible.
How does growing up surfing tropical reefbreaks develop your surfing differently from most Euro Pros who come from the beachbreaks? Would you say it’s an ideal training ground?
It’s a great place to learn and perfect manoeuvres because the waves are so long and you always have time to lay down several manoeuvres on one wave; you know exactly where and when to do them allowing you to focus just on technique. The downside to this is that surfing the often small, shitty beachbreaks on tour becomes that much more difficult, I wouldn’t say Tahiti was the best place for learning to battle it out on the WQS. When you start to travel, it can be really hard to adapt to the difficult conditions you often find at ’QS contests. If want to do well on the ’QS then you have to actually find a way to enjoy surfing in those conditions otherwise there’s no point trying. You have to be able to adapt yourself and learn to enjoy it. Just like the saying, the person who’s having the most fun – in one form or another – is often the guy that ends up winning.
What kind of relationship do you have with that wave? How is it living so close to such an amazing wave?
I surfed Teahupoo for the first time when I was 16 and I remember being shit scared. I’m not part of the heaviest chargers out there but with time I’ve got to know the wave really well and now I don’t ever miss a good session out there. I feel comfortable out there, fear has given way to adrenaline and a desire to surf bigger, deeper barrels. It’s a wave that’s definitely helped me to get my confidence up in big waves, and it’s definitely one of the fastest ways of making a name for yourself when you tell people that you live in front of Teahupoo. In 2003 I won the WCT trials out there. It was at home and everyone was there to support me, it was pretty amazing. I feel like it’s when I went from being a Junior surfer to competing with the big guys on the QS. That was a highlight for sure.
Do you find it hard to get to sleep at night?
Yeah, whenever I know there’s a big session on the way, I get so excited and it’s hard to sleep anyway because the lagoon is all agitated and there are waves breaking onto my front lawn. That’s when you know that it’s going to be mental.
Living in Vairao, you put up quite a few WCT surfers during the Teahupoo leg. Which guys have made an impression on you so far?
When I was younger, having all those pros that I looked up to and being able to see their daily routines during the competition was the best learning experience I could ever have had and super motivating. It’s great to be able to show them the local culture with the Tahitian dances, ma’a, the fiestas… Mick Fanning has been staying at my place for quite a few years now, we’ve become good friends and whenever I go to Australia I stay at his place, it’s really motivating and it feels a bit like home over there now.
What is Tahitian surfing missing to compete with Hawaii’s level?
I think that the young surfers in Tahiti are just as talented, if not more, but the big difference is that they don’t have the support and infrastructure that Hawaii has: the sponsors, coaches, the ability to travel. In Tahiti it’s a lot harder, people don’t have the means and the young guys easily become frustrated with the whole thing if things don’t progress.
Tell us a bit about the up-coming generation of Tahitian surfers, guys like Michel Bourez…
There are a lot of young surfers who are on their way up. Tamaroa, Kevin Bourez, Keoni. Michel is a really complete and powerful surfer. There’s no bullshit in his surfing. Plus he’s really motivated, I’m pretty sure he’ll achieve whatever he wants to do. He’s already proved himself by becoming European Champion.
How do you handle the fierce competition among your new generation of surfers? Do major rivalries exist within the Quiksilver team?
The competition is becoming increasingly intense with every new generation. I don’t really feel any rivalry with other guys on my team though. It’s more like we’re just a good group of friends that get to travel together and push each other in our surfing. I’m always happy to see someone who’s on the team win a contest. I get a bit jealous but we never try to trip each other up. We try to help each other out. After that it’s a case of survival of the fittest and we don’t all have the same goals.
Can you tell us a little about Jeremy, trips that you’ve done with him, the influence he has on other team members and how you think he’ll do on the WCT this year?
I’ve known Jeremy for ages, we kind of progressed together. We’ve always been close friends. He’s always had that desire to be the best. When you watched him surf you could tell he always had a goal. He wasn’t there just to have fun. I always thought he would qualify for the ‘CT but not as fast. He really made an impression this year. He was so solid and consistent throughout and still didn’t look like he was giving 100%. He should do well on the WCT. He doesn’t know all the spots and will obviously have loads to learn but I think he’ll definitely re-qualify through the WCT and go on to do well.
Your smooth style helped you lots at the beginning of your career but the WQS seems to favour more of an aggressive approach in the water. How do you feel at?
It’s something I’ve been working on hard, but I’ve always found it quite difficult to be more aggressive. When I’m in the water I don’t like to think about what other guys are doing. I want to win through my surfing, score a perfect 10, I don’t want to be the guy who’s hassling others and always paddling inside. I don’t want to have to resort to bad sportsmanship. I think I’m probably a bit too nice to other surfers in the water. After a year like 2006, I’m really hungry for success and I won’t be doing anyone any favours this year.
You seemed pretty disappointed with your season on the QS last year? Fired up for 2007?
Last year was pretty difficult for me, I finished 80th and in 2005 I was 52nd. It was kind of a wake up call but I had quite a few injuries including a pierced eardrum and bad back… and I think I learnt a lot. Sometimes you have to take a step back to take two steps forward. I lost some of my confidence half way through the season, at the most important turning point in the season so I’ve been working on my mental attitude this year, even if I’ll have to wait a bit to see any progress. I’m confident that it’s going to pay off and ready to give everything I have for 2007.