This week, the ASP Women's World Tour is back on the eastern side of Australia for stop number three: The 52nd Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach. Last year, Sally Fitzgibbons rang her second consecutive bell trophy in Torquay, Victoria. Part of the aptly named Surf Coast, the tiny town experiences wily weather but consistent waves. And they're often flawless. Torquay (home of both Rip Curl and Quiksilver) and neighboring Jan Juc have a combined population of about 13,000, but that number "swells to approximately 34,000 during peak periods–including Easter," says the Surf Coast Shire's Jodie Keating. Easter in Victoria is the Rip Curl Pro.
"I have been coming here for about ten years and I love battling the elements and wearing a wetsuit," Fitzgibbons says. "In a lot of ways, it reminds me of home in the winter, so I feel comfortable. Bells holds really special memories for me and seeing my picture amongst the past champions certainly fills me with confidence and excitement."
Sofia Mulanovich, who won a bell in 2005, says she also loves Bells because it reminds her of home -- in Peru. Rip Curl rider Tyler Wright likes surfing in her sponsor's hometown and adds, "It's a massive and prestigious event, as well." Sage Erickson simply calls it magical.
Powerful, long-period Southern Ocean swells swing around Tasmania and lash a long, flat rock reef that's surrounded by stunning, rust-colored cliffs. Between Rincon, the Bowl, and Winkipop, anything from two to 16-foot is surfable, and Bells tends to favor regular-footers. It is a high-caliber wave and the ladies surfing it get better each year.
"This year, Bells is going to see some of the best surfing we have ever had at the Rip Curl Women's Pro," says Brooke Farris, Rip Curl's International Events and Women's Team Manager. "The talent on tour is so incredibly high right now and the open wave faces at Rincon and Bells Bowl will really allow the girls to display their repertoires. I can't wait to see who's left standing at the end of the Easter Weekend."
Since my predictions for how these things will go down generally seem to fall short, I asked four-time Bells winner (and four-time world champion) Lisa Andersen to give us her top contenders at the Easter contest.
"The trick with Bells is to be the first one out in the morning and the last one out at night," she explains. "You've got to surf it enough to get a good idea of which waves are better than the others. Steph [Gilmore] knows that wave really well. It is one of those waves that you can really carve, so Steph's going to be dangerous there. And I would say that she's ready to take some people down after the last two semifinals. I'd put my money on Steph, but I'd put a back-up bet on Carissa Moore and Tyler Wright. With the confidence that they have, I think those two are going to be pretty hard to shake right now. And Sally Fitzgibbons, for sure. So, I would say the top four girls now are the top four who are going to place really well. But there may be a dark horse in there."
There is a rivalry developing between the top four women in the world right now. They may not acknowledge it (perhaps we even invented it) but it's there. How could it not be, when they're vying for the same world titles? And come on, do people who aren't concerned with points take on the World Championship Tour?
"I think it's just a really healthy rivalry," Fitzgibbons said in Margaret River. "At each event, there's not exactly a 'top four' standing out the whole way. It's just really being consistent and putting that good surfing together, no matter whether you're behind or in front, and I guess that's how we end up with these semifinals."
As for defending her back-to-back event titles, Fitzgibbons says, "Gail Couper won 10 titles back in the '60s and '70s and no one has done a hat-trick at Bells since then, so it would be a special achievement, but not something I am focused on at this early stage."
Wednesday, March 27 starts the Rip Curl Pro's waiting period, which lasts 12 days for the men and just six for the women, before they head over to the New Zealand Surf Festival. The forecast isn't exactly optimal (two to three-foot with onshore winds), but the weekend has potential. And you know, surf forecasts are wrong all the time.
RIP CURL WOMEN'S PRO BELLS BEACH ROUND 1 MATCH-UPS:
Heat 1: Courtney Conlogue (USA), Laura Enever (AUS), Silvana Lima (BRA)
Heat 2: Stephanie Gilmore (AUS), Alana Blanchard (HAW), Sage Erickson (USA)
Heat 3: Tyler Wright (AUS), Malia Manuel (HAW), Nikki Van Dijk (AUS)
Heat 4: Carissa Moore (HAW), Paige Hareb (NZL), Sofia Mulanovich (PER)
Heat 5: Sally Fitzgibbons (AUS), Bianca Buitendag (ZAF), Rebecca Woods (AUS)
Heat 6: Coco Ho (HAW), Lakey Peterson (USA), Pauline Ado (FRA)