Gorge Paddle Challenge Preview and Predictions (This Is One STACKED Field…)

 

Wow, the Gorge is going to be STACKED this weekend…

We always knew the Naish Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge would be a big deal — it’s one of the few “majors” in the sport after all, and it always attracts a solid field, but this year it’s seriously gone next level.

I had a feeling things might be going off the richter when I noticed just how many Instagram shots were coming out of Hood River over the past few days, but it wasn’t until I did some preliminary Race Index calculations that I realised just how competitive the 6th annual edition of this iconic race is going to be.

UPDATE: Be the first to get the Gorge Paddle Challenge results

The Gorge really has established itself as one of the most significant races on the calendar (the organisers do a fantastic job with this event), and it’s hard to understate just how stacked the field is going to be this weekend. Just consider these numbers:

– 9 of the world’s top 10 ranked women are competing
– 18 of the top 23 guys will be on the start line
– The men’s Double Downwinder will score close to 70% on the Race Index (even the almighty Carolina Cup only managed 56% this year)
– Based on our rating models, this is going to be the single most competitive event in the history of the sport outside of the Battle of the Paddle/Pacific Paddle Games

I’m waiting to confirm a few names, but it looks like the main event, the Double Downwinder, will score around 69% on the men’s Race Index, which makes the Gorge the only event outside the BOP/PPGs to ever go north of 65% in the three year history of the SUP Racer World Rankings system. The women’s event won’t be too far behind, with the Double Downwinder likely to exceed its guaranteed minimum of 60%.

As we wrote a couple of days ago, the Super Lap Race will be a maximum 4-star, 40% race, while the Double Downwinder will be a minimum 6-star, 60% race. This was a compromise to prevent the Gorge from having too much of an impact on the overall season, though it will still clearly be the number two race of the season behind what we assume will be number one again, the Pacific Paddle Games.

Check out the current SUP Racer World Rankings one last time, because there will likely be some big changes come Monday morning.

But it won’t be all excitement this weekend, with the community pausing to remember the loss of fellow paddler Andres Pombo, who tragically drowned while paddling in the Gorge almost 12 months ago to the day.

Gorge Paddle Challenge

Slater Trout with the money shoto during last year’s Gorge Paddle Challenge course race (photo credit: 404/@photsbymunce)

So here are the top 50 guys that are competing this weekend, i.e. the ones who contribute a weighted percentage to the event’s Race Index score (the higher their ranking, the more an athlete contributes).

Connor Baxter, Travis Grant, Titouan Puyo, Mo Freitas, Casper Steinfath, Michael Booth, Kelly Margetts, Jake Jensen, Matt Nottage, Vinnicius Martins, Toby Cracknell, Leonard Nika, Georges Cronsteadt, Trevor Tunnington, Beau O’Brian, Giorgio Gomez, Slater Trout, Martin Letourneur, Bullet Obra, Josh Riccio, Niuhiti Buillard, Zane Schweitzer, Noa Hopper, Rete Ebb, Paul Jackson, Bernd Roediger, Eric Terrien, Chase Kosterlitz, Belar Diaz, Garrett Fletcher.

If all of the guys above compete in the Double Downwinder it’ll score exactly 70%, which is unheard for any event outside of Dana Point. Zane is the only question mark – he might be racing a foil board on Sunday, which would be really cool to see but would exclude him from the main race results. There may also be a couple of other last minute entries or withdrawals, which means the Race Index won’t be decided until I see the final starting lineup on Sunday morning.

Either way, it’s definitely going to be stacked.

The women’s event isn’t too far behind the men’s: The nine top ranked athletes include Annabel Anderson, Sonni Honscheid, Candice Appleby, Fiona Wylde, Angie Jackson, Shae Foudy, Terrene Balck, Lexi Alston and April Zilg, while we’ve also got some big names that are ranked below where they should be, such as Europe’s young star Manca Notar, Hawaii’s Mariko Strickland and 2014 runner-up Lina Augaitis.

With this lineup of talent, making predictions for this year’s Gorge Paddle Challenge becomes a bit of a lottery, especially in the Super Lap course race where it’s going to be very tight.

I tried to go through and do a top 10 for the both of the men’s races, but I had to leave out so many top names that I’m already starting to doubt myself. Still, it wouldn’t be SUP Racer without a few bold predictions, so it’s time to leave my reputation on the line and try to predict who’s going to win.

Super Fun! #hoodriver #oregon

A video posted by Leonard Nika (@leonardnika) on

My main focus is on the Double Downwinder, not only because it’s the main event but because it’s at least remotely possible to make some predictions for. The Super Lap course race, on the other hand, is virtually impossible to predict. You could throw a blanket over the top 15-20 guys in that one.

Oh and it’s also forecast to be 39 degrees (102 Fahrenheit) on Saturday, with virtually no wind, so it’s going to be a HOT Super Lap. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if a few guys and girls sit out the course race and save their energy for Sunday, but there’s so much depth of talent in Hood River this weekend that both races are going to be massive showdowns no matter what.

The forecast for Sunday is a more merciful 31 degrees (87F), while the signature Columbia River Gorge wind machine is also expected to crank back into action on Sunday morning, just in time for the Double Downwinder. Those who arrived in Oregon early were treated to some epic downwind runs before the wind went flat on Thursday, but it looks like it’ll return in time for the race (so hopefully no repeat of that flat water/upstream/nowinder from last year!).

In the women’s Double Downwinder I think it’ll be an interesting battle between local expert Fiona Wylde and world number one Annabel Anderson, while I’d say Angie Jackson will be right on their tails after having camped out in Hood River all month. Terrene Black should be right up there as well, and while Candice is probably a better chance in the course race, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see her on both podiums.

In the women’s course race, I can’t see anyone matching Annabel in the long hot grind, but Candice will probably stick on her tail right til the finish.

Also the fact that I couldn’t find room for Huntington hero Shae Foudy, who defeated Annabel and Candice just five days ago, shows just how stacked the field is this weekend. Also keep an eye on Slovenia’s Manca Notar, who had to withdraw mid-race last year through injury, which will no doubt give her added motivation for a strong finish in 2016.

Looking at the men’s Double Downwinder, I can see a clear top four of Connor Baxter, Titouan Puyo, Travis Grant and the new kid on the block, Matt Nottage. These guys simply know how to read the bumps to perfection, and I doubt anyone (with the possible exception of Mo Freitas and maybe a fully fit Georges Cronsteadt), can keep up with them if the Gorge is firing.

The only question mark is on Travis, who’s been suffering from severe vertigo lately. The world number two actually struggled with it during Molokai a few weeks ago, though in his true humble fashion, he didn’t tell anyone because he didn’t want to make any excuses for finishing runner-up. Apparently he’s been getting very dizzy whenever he makes sudden head movements, which isn’t a great sign for a downwind race where you’re constantly looking around for the next bump to connect to.

As I mentioned in my “World Rankings note” the other day, Connor is in the best position vis-Γ -vis points, because he’s not holding either of his results from last year’s Gorge event in his current best five, whereas Travis and Titouan are holding both. So basically Connor has nothing to lose and everything to gain, whereas Trav and Titou need big results just to tread water, because they’ll be dropping last year’s results come Monday morning (results are held within the system for 12 months before being dropped).

Other top ranked guys that aren’t carrying big results from last year, including Mo Freitas, Michael Booth and Casper Steinfath, can all make big moves up the leaderboard with some solid results on Saturday and Sunday as well.

But getting back to the predictions: Behind the top four in the men’s Double Downwinder I’ve penciled in about 12-14 guys that could realistically fill the minor spots in the top 10, so it’s going to be an absolutely hectic race on Sunday. Or rather, it’s going to be a hectic two races on Sunday — the double Downwinder is an really cool race format that combines the times from 2x back-to-back downwind runs.

We’ve only seen this format in use at the Gorge once before, back in 2014 (a lack of wind altered the format last year), when Connor Baxter, Georges Cronsteadt and Travis Grant filled the top three spots (and in that order) on both runs.

I’ll be very interested to see how Mo backs up in Oregon after his heroic win at the JM Survivor Race last week, while I expect the hero of the EuroTour, Aussie giant killer Michael Booth, to continue his rise up the ranks this weekend (in fact I’ve got Boothy down as my top pick for the Super Lap race, though I suspect he’ll be brought back into the field in the downwinder).

Gorge Paddle Challenge

When the wind is firing in the Gorge, everybody comes out to play. This was Connor Baxter playing a game of “Frogger” during the 2nd annual Gorge Paddle Challenge way back in 2012 (photo credit: unknown)

Don’t count out Beau O’Brian, who’s had a light season of racing but is one of the true downwind masters, especially in the 14′ downwind events like the Gorge. I’m also keeping an eye on another Aussie, Toby Cracknell, after his performances in Molokai (5th) and Huntington (2nd) showed he’s in terrific form.

Toby is now the highest ranked guy on Team Infinity, with his fellow Speed Freaks Giorgio Gomez and Slater Trout not far behind and looking to make a big impact this weekend. Those three guys, along with world number three Candice Appleby, have helped elevate Infinity to the top tier on the Battle of the Brands leaderboard.

Others to keep an eye on in Oregon include the strong Tahitian contingent, which could realistically have a few guys inside the top 10, led by the raging bull Georges Cronsteadt who, when fit and firing, could easily hit the podium (he’s got a very good track record in Oregon — he won in 2013 and was runner-up in 2014). We’ve also got Georges’ younger compatriots Niuhiti Buillard, Manatea Bopp du Pont and Rete Ebb in tow (I don’t think Steeve Teihotaata is in town unfortunately), all of whom are world class paddle athletes.

Throw in dark horses such as the always-under-rated Josh Riccio, and the local wildcard Bernd Roediger, who’s apparently had some lightning fast downwind runs over the past couple of weeks. Don’t forget Aussie Jake Jensen, who was 4th in the Double Downwinder back in 2014 but who’s been struggling with form a bit this season, as well as his training partner, Paul Jackson, who’s been getting plenty of runs in over the past few weeks with his wife Angie, and who is on a brand new board that looks pretty slick in the bumps (his own brand — ONE SUP).

Casper Steinfath could also be one to watch. I’ve never seen Casper in a true downwind race, so I don’t know exactly what to expect, but I’m predicting he’ll be right up there in the Super Lap race and wouldn’t be surprised if he backs it up with a top 10 finish in the Double Down.

Looking elsewhere: Bullet Obra is a true dark horse that will probably take down a few big names in the bumps. Another wildcard is Aussie/Kiwi young gun Trevor Tunnington, who showed in Europe that he’s one of the fastest guys in the world over 200 metres, and could easily be up near the front in the course race but may struggle to keep pace in the downwinder.

Speaking of the Aussies, the Green & Gold have got a massive contingent in Hood River once again, with Travis, Boothy, Jake, Nottage, Toby, Beau, Trev, Jacko, and last but certainly not least, defending Gorge champ Kelly Margetts all in contention for the top 10 in both races.

Gorge Paddle Challenge

Flat conditions during the infamous “nowinder” race last year; Expect the wind to fire back up for the Double Downwinder this year (photo credit: SUP Racer/Welker)

The conditions are going to be very different on Sunday (windy) than they were 12 months ago (dead flat), so I’m not sure where to peg Kelly on the Double Downwinder. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him go top 10 though, and I’d be shocked if he isn’t top 10 in the course race.

I’m also very curious to see how Vinni Martins, the hero of Brazil and a monster in the open ocean downwinders of Hawaii, backs it up in this 14′ race. This guy is a machine on the unlimited boards in Hawaii, but I’m not sure how he fares in the 14′ downwind events. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see Vinni go top 10. Vinni’s JP Australia teammate, Chase Kosterlitz, is also in town, and while Chase isn’t well known as a downwind expert, he could be right up at the pointy end of the field in the flat water course race.

Actually, now that I look through this list of names again, I think it’s going to be a massive achievement just making the top 20 in the men’s races, let alone the top 10. This is certainly one stacked field.

But enough rambling. Let’s get into the predictions already…

 


 

The Gorge: Boss Man’s Bold Predictions
 

Super Lap Race

Saturday August 20
4-star race
Race Index score: 40%

Top 5 Women
1st: Annabel Anderson
2nd: Candice Appleby
3rd: Angie Jackson
4th: Fiona Wylde
5th: Terrene Black

Watch out for: Young guns Shae Foudy and Manca Notar

Men’s Top 10
1st: Michael Booth
2nd: Connor Baxter
3rd: Titouan Puyo
4th: Mo Freitas
5th: Travis Grant
6th: Casper Steinfath
7th: Kelly Margetts
8th: Leo Nika
9th: Georges Cronsteadt
10th: Trevor Tunnington

Watch out for: The Infinity Speed Freaks of Toby Cracknell, Giorgio Gomez and Slater Trout. And, well, pretty much everyone else on the start line too. There are going to be 18 of the world’s top 23 ranked guys in this race — it’s seriously stacked (I’d say there are two dozen guys with a legit claim on a top 10 spot).

 

Double Downwinder

Sunday August 21
Combined times from two back-to-back downwind runs
6-star race
Race Index: ~69% for men; ~62% for women (subject to last minute entries)

Top 10 Men
1st: Titouan Puyo
2nd: Connor Baxter
3rd: Travis Grant
4th: Matt Nottage
5th: Mo Freitas
6th: Michael Booth
7th: Beau O’Brian
8th: Georges Cronsteadt
9th: Niuhiti Buillard
10th: Toby Cracknell

Watch out for: local dark horse Bernd Roediger and downwind expert Josh Riccio. And again, there are probably two dozen guys who will feel confident of cracking the top 10, so the results are anyone’s guess really…

Top 5 Women
1st: Fiona Wylde
2nd: Annabel Anderson
3rd: Angie Jackson
4th: Terrene Black
5th: Candice Appleby

 


 

Ok so those are my bold predictions. This is a really difficult event to predict, and there are a LOT of world class athletes in town, so I’m thoroughly expecting to get a lot of these predictions wrong. Actually, the only thing I’m certain about is that the Gorge 2016 is going to be one hell of a weekend of racing.

Check back on Saturday and Sunday to see how it all goes down, and how close I got with these predictions.

UPDATE: Be the first to get the Gorge Paddle Challenge results

The Elite Course Race (or “Super Lap”) is set for Saturday, with the women at 1pm and the guys at 2, while the Double Downwinder will be on Sunday, most likely in the afternoon when the wind starts filling back in.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with these frames of Starboard riders Zane Schweitzer and Connor Baxter playing around on their new foil boards…