Originally from Perros Guirec in northern Brittany, Alexis Deniel was a regular from a very young age on many national and international surf and longboard competitions before he turned his focus to SUP surf about ten years ago. His radical and powerful style and mental fortitude quickly propelled the charismatic Breton rider into the French vanguard of the sport. At the end of his 7th season on the APP Tour, he managed to secure a 7th overall ranking for 2018 which has only poured more fuel on the fire. We caught up with the two-time European champion to find out where it started, his thoughts on the APP Tour and where SUP surf is headed…
Words & Photos Laurent Nevarez (unless credited)
Hello Alexis, you started very young and now have solid experience in a lot of disciplines, how did this all start?
I started bodyboarding around 8 or 9 years old at home in Perros Guirec, then quickly turned to surfing. My father Thierry has always been passionate about surfing and was president of the local club, Seven Island Surf Club. He gave me a lot of advice and always encouraged me. In 1995 at the age of 10, I had the chance to go to Hawaii with my family and discover surf in its historic cradle. After two weeks of sessions in Waikiki, I was totally infected by the virus and got in the water as often as possible in Brittany. Then I start to enter small competitions, building up the wins, small trophies started to get a little bigger…
When did you pick up SUP?
I started the SUP towards 2009 and was entering SUP events in parallel with longboard events. I took part in the first Stand UP World Tour in Anglet in 2010, and since then I have not stopped pouring my energy into it.
With the experience you have in different styles of waveriding, what do you like about SUP? What advantages do you see?
I have always ridden a shortboard but I love SUP in waves that have space to make big carves on the rail. It is also an excellent tool when the waves are small and closing out like at home in Perros, you take off sooner and develop more speed to make the section. North Brittany does not always catch the swell so the SUP is fun in small waves that are harder to exploit by prone surfing. The use of the paddle allows you to gain power on the manoeuvres, I find this aspect really interesting; we get to put big manoeuvres in ordinary waves. And you can of course cover a lot of ground and access remote reefs. Apart from the surf, it’s also fantastic for conditioning and fitness.
Riding longboards and shortboards must influence your SUP approach I guess?
It’s like a whole; the three disciplines are very linked and it’s important to see it that way. Shortboards bring radicalism, very tight trajectories, speed. The longboard brings the glide, the amplitude in the curves, the power and the solidity of the platform. It’s an obvious advantage in SUP to know how to move on a big board like the longboard. On the other hand, the SUP comes with quite a lot of specifics which require really dedicated work, like the handling of the paddle, the constant search for stability standing on the board, and the precision of certain manoeuvres that you don’t find elsewhere.
You were very young on that first SUWT (ancestor of the APP) event, how did it go?
After a few more big events like that one Anglet in 2010, I really decided to go for it in May 2012 after La Torche in Brittany, when I made the quarter-finals by beating Kai Lenny. It was a great time, the waves were small and difficult but I had a great board that allowed me to go fast and score. This good result motivated me to do other stops on the circuit, my dad took me to the Brazil event in the autumn and I tried to get to as many events as I could. I had some ups and downs during the 2013 season, but in September on the Californian Huntington Beach event, I finished in 9th place with the feeling of having managed to release some of the pressure and let my surfing ‘go’. It gave me a lot of motivation because I often felt (in heats) that I was not able to surf like I wanted to.
How were the following seasons? You had some very good results, such as Sunset in 2015…
Yes, that was one I’ll always remember; the conditions were huge for the first few days then it was became classic and perfect in the end. During these early years, I learned a lot in each heat in both victory and defeat. As on all surfing tours, until you have made one or two major results to get you noticed among the best, it’s difficult to get break out. Looking back, I think I was a little handicapped during those years by the fact that I took longer than the other guys to ride smaller boards and get more radical. I can put this down to my longboard heritage. My arrival at Bic and SIC has really changed my equipment and therefore my surfing.
With the shaper Jon, we worked the boards a lot and managed to quickly find the right formula for my boards to meet my expectations.
And how would you say the elite level has evolved during this short decade since Anglet?
Much has evolved very quickly since the beginning. Because it is a “young” sport, we are constantly on the lookout for changes in judging criteria, which have gone from longboarding and noserides (Antoine Delpéro in the early years), to smaller boards and surfing on the rail (Kai Lenny and Leco Salazar), and even smaller boards and an ultra aggressive aerial surfing (Zane Schweitzer and Sean Poynter) and now we are on even smaller boards still with the arrival Brazilians like Luis Diniz who is almost producing real shortboard surfing like air reverses. The challenge for judges is to score riders on “different” equipment, which does not offer the same qualities and technical possibilities. The other point for tiny boards is that the rules will surely change about having to stand at the peak for example: it is forbidden to sit in the ISA and tolerated in the APP.
The fact that the SUP surfing has become more aggressive and radical has seen the arrival of many young people on the Tour which until now weren’t very interested in the sup; we’re seeing a lot of young Brazilians with an excellent level. The interest of girls for SUP surf has also evolved, pioneers like Candice Appleby, Shakira Westdorp, Iballa Moreno, Nicole Pacelli are still in place but we can see that in recent years the young American Izzi Gomez has clearly raised the level a notch. Recently, a generation of young South American riders arrived on the tour with a super level, like the Peruvian Oliva Torreis who was 3rd in Gran Canaria.
What about the world tour itself? There were some challenges it had to face but it seems reborn again, right?
One of the hardships for riders in recent years has been to commit to a slightly “wobbly” APP Tour. We were never sure that the announced stops were going to take place, they were sometimes cancelled at the last moment. This did not facilitate negotiations with sponsors, who no longer trusted the APP, and therefore did not engage in the project. After a very disappointing year in 2017, the circuit announced for 2018 held its provisional schedule with two very well organized stages. After the premiere in New York (Longbeach) which proved to be very unique, the final round in Gran Canaria was a real success in everyone’s opinion. It offered a real ‘’set up’’: the site was perfect compared to what we’d been used to. To tell you the truth, we had not seen this quality of organization since the French stop at La Torche four years ago. For us riders it was really nice to compete in these conditions and I think that the spectators on the beach or behind their screens enjoyed following it. The Tour looks good and promising for 2019 and everyone has confidence in the APP. The return of the Sunset event is a pleasure and shows that the Tour interests the sponsors. New York remains on the program, despite conditions that are often very uncertain but the place is prestigious for a SUP event. The arrival of a third event in Barbados is a good thing, we did a photo trip there three years ago, the destination is top, the people are welcoming and the waves can be superb. The Canaries will close the year in December and I think everyone is happy.
You finished the 2018 season at the 7th place worldwide APP with great personal satisfaction I guess. Tell us a little how it happened.
It was the best year since I started on Tour. The first stop in New York was placed just after the summer season, despite the physical fatigue I really wanted to surf and I knew I had good boards with me. Luckily, the heats didn’t get held up which allowed me to recover physically after each day of competition. Thanks to my 5th place in New York, I for once enjoyed a good seeding for the last event in Gran Canaria. I was less fortunate than in New York because I had folded my two favourite boards, one in China on the plane and the other free surfing when arriving on the island. I made the heats till the 1/8 finals where I fell against my friend Julien Bouyer and the Brazilian Luis Diniz. I started with an average wave then Julien had a very good wave and I found myself at the end of the heat looking for a 4.8pt ride that I would find [laughs].
Besides the APP in 2018, you also entered the European Championships and the ISA World Championship on the French team, what do you remember about that?
I’d been chasing selection for a few years, missing it by 1pt, or 1 wave…In short this year I was in Sardinia for the Euros with Caro Angibaud and Benoit Carpentier but the SUP surfing event was cancelled due to lack of waves, so we were inevitably very disappointed to not compete. Especially since there was surf just a few km along the coast. So we supported the French race team who had a crazy competition like the double win by Martin Vitry and the performances of Olivia Piana.
Two months later, the ISA World Championships were held in Hainan, besides the good performance of Team France, how was it for you?
We flew to China and started the comp the day after our arrival, because the conditions were forecast to be ultra-flat for the second week. We didn’t have much time to surf the wave at all tides and the ISA staff did not have the time to set up the priority system to guarantee a fair go for three surfers on an inconsistent pointbreak. All the competitors complained about it and for my part, it clearly played against me in round 3 against Luis Diniz since without order of priority, it is anarchy and he succeeded in aggressively blocking me during the final five minutes to prevent me from surfing. Two of the panel’s five judges even gave him a paddling interference (which was not validated for lack of a majority).
In short, I was forced to do the repechage and in the fifth round I didn’t find the waves to express myself, always a little handicapped by the lack of priority. So I had a real feeling of frustration at not having been able to show my best level for this first selection for Team France but I keep a lot of great memories of this epic adventure with a great team and I’m proud of our 3rd overall in the world behind the United States and Australia.
I know that you are working a lot on the development of your equipment, can you tell us more about your collaboration with SIC? Would you say that the boards that you had this last season were one of the factors of your success on the tour?
Yes definitely! This year we really developed the boards with the SIC staff and shaper Jon. It’s not easy to create a model that brings together all the qualities that are expected of a board but after a lot of work, I feel that we have a model with an outline, rails, rocker and hull that works perfectly but also with solid and lightweight construction. Now we’re going to look at boards for very small waves, and also for powerful surf to expand the SIC range while continuing research on building materials.
Have you passed the SUP surf virus to young people in your area?
Yes, the young people here are really interested which is always good to see. Romain Barreau followed me to different event in France and even in Hawaii, two years ago, he participated in the Sunset event. He is now 18 years old and is one of the best young French paddlers. Arthur LeMenn is much younger but so motivated in SUP, he gets a lot of water time and competitions. It was great that he was able to come to Gran Canaria in December with his father to compete.
I often tell young people that we learn a lot by doing competitions, we see what other riders do. It puts you in a situation where you are challenged to give the best of yourself, inevitably a very positive step.
You have been traveling for a long time for competitions but also for trips to unfamiliar destinations, is this a fundamental aspect of our sport for you?
As in surf culture, I think travel is part of the essence of SUP. The goal is to go and surf other waves but in the end what we remember most is the discovery of other cultures and magical places we visit. I love to meet riders as passionate as me on the other side of the world and then share the story of these adventures through articles or videos. Philippines, Barbados, Galapagos…these are all great places we had the chance to explore and enjoy with stand up.
Brittany has much to discover too, besides surf…
Yes, we have incredibly scenery along the pink granite cliffs around Perros; it’s one of the most beautiful playgrounds in Brittany and the stand up is a great way to see it. I love touring along the coastline in a constant awe of nature. It’s funny, media agencies the world over have contacted us to come and create content here. There is a natural reserve of seven islands off Perros where you can see beautiful birds but also seals and porpoises sometimes…A simple paddle can quickly turn into an unforgettable moment. It’s great to have that wild nature at your fingertips.
There is even a SUP race and tour organized in Perros right?
The ‘’Pink Granite’’ was originally designed to bring together all the race enthusiasts of the region but more generally all those who love touring. It is an ultra-friendly event that is held each spring and the goal is to spend a great time on the water but also to show the potential of our coast to the people. There are plenty of coves and sheltered cliffs to paddle when the wind is strong but also downwind routes that are worth the detour.
You added another string to your bow last year with the launch of a project that is very important to you…
It was a crazy punt but we wanted to do it for a long time. My partner Melanie who shares all my professional activities and I opened a bar / concept store like you see in a lot of Anglo-Saxon countries, a place where people can gather around a coffee or beer and tapas but also buy clothes that cannot be found anywhere else, even boards imported from California. We created the Perroz Sea Side as a place we would love to go ourselves. It takes a lot of time and energy but we are delighted with the first year and we have plenty of ideas for 2019 with the launch of a new pop-up store, with unique collections and unique small brands that are renewed each season
So 2019 won’t be the year you put your feet up then?
Yes that’s exactly it [laughs]. If you add this to the SUP Pro, the Federal Circuit and possibly team events, there is plenty to do!.” SUP International