Antoine Delpero possesses a smile as radiant and warm as a thousand suns. It isn’t deployed strategically but erupts spontaneously throughout any given day – for instance, when its owner is served a cold Orangina or when a learner he’s just launched into a little peeler rides it almost to the sand. The expression of joy hijacks the entirety of his face, visible practically from one end of Pays Basques to the other.
“I’m a lucky guy, a lucky bastard – that’s for sure”, he tells me. This is a man who believes he has infinite reasons to smile. For one, he has a trophy cabinet so crammed with silverware that I doubt its door can even shut properly. (Here’s a brief inventory: two-time ISA World Longboard Champion, two-time ISA World Longboard Team Champion, four-time WSL European Longboard Champion, two-time WSL World Longboard runner-up, four-time French Longboard Champion.)
On top of these achievements, he gets to work with his brother Edouard – whom I strongly suspect is his very best friend. (For the record, Edouard’s prize haul is as ridiculous as Antoine’s and – in spite of being his junior by nearly five years – also includes both Relik and WSL World Championships.) It would be hard to imagine a pair less prone to sibling rivalry. If you’ve ever spent time watching American baseball, their signals in the water are like a manager communicating with the pitcher on the mound. They operate in a spirit of unwavering cooperation and seem to speak a separate silent language known only to themselves.
What’s more, les frères Delpero occupy a premier position on what many would argue is Europe’s most iconic surfing beach. The first longboard hit the water here in 1956, and the wave riding heritage is both rich and deep. From their waterfront HQ, the Delpero Surf Experience operates ultra-small lessons in an array of languages for frothing visitors to the French Atlantic coast.
There’s a reason the pair know the waters around Biarritz like the backs of their hands. The product of parents who divided their days between careers in medicine and hobbies on the water, Antoine left the family home in Marseille at age 15 and moved into an apartment literally built into the side of Côte des Basques – there’s truly no real estate closer to the sand. Edouard followed in his wake a few years later, and here the boys have been honing their skills and plying their trade for more than half their lives.
Nowadays Antoine is father to a five-year-old daughter, and he says having time to be present for her is one of the very best perks of his job. I witness this first-hand one afternoon, spotting him on the afternoon school run in the steep streets near Plage du Port Vieux. Resting her head on his shoulder, she’s wrapped herself around him like a limpet for the journey home. It’s clear that there’s no place in the world either of them would rather be.
Having said that, soon Antoine will dust off his passport to swap Atlantic waves for their Pacific cousins as he puts on an international contest jersey for the first time in four years. He’s headed to El Sunzal for the ISA World Longboard Championship, with two objectives in mind – supporting his little brother as a teammate and avenging an upset by his friend Piccolo Clemente in the closing minutes of the 2019 final round.
Held on home turf in the aquatic ampitheatre that is Côte des Basques, that last contest was a thumping success for France from my perspective – four individual medals plus team gold – but Antoine remembers it slightly differently.
“I had a really good contest all along until the end, when I made a big mistake. I lost the title because of it, definitely”, he insists. “At 90 seconds before the end, I was first and Edouard was second. But we didn’t play the team game! I was first priority, he was second and Piccolo was third. A set came and I took off on the first wave, which was not a good wave at all. My brother was sitting far out and had priority on the Peruvian, but Piccolo was inside and took the second wave of the set. He got 8-point-something and so we ended up second and third. So that’s part of the reason I’m going to El Salvador!” he laughs. “I’m giving myself one more chance!”
On the beach and beyond, Antoine is renowned for his exceptional manners and professionalism, so an international setting suits him well. Given his language skills, I reckon a parallel universe would see him as a career diplomat. This is practically affirmed when chat turns to life in Euskal Herria. He’s learning to speak Basque – the language of his daughter’s school – and is a keen participant in the regional sport of pelote basque.
With the indigenous population known for utterly unique approaches to fashion, I wonder aloud if his distinctive hairstyle (imagine short at the sides with longer bouffant curls trailing at the back) is inspired by Basque style. “No!” he exclaims with a giant grin splitting his face. “The moolay is international you know?” Between the laser accuracy of his observation and the French pronunciation of the world’s most ironic yet practical haircut, we fall apart in a fit of hilarity.
Does this diplomatic insider have an opinion on the WSL’s changes in longboard judging criteria? “Yes I have my opinion!” he laughs. “Do you really want to know it?” His sunshine smile disappears for a minute as he explains that he understands the WSL’s desire to make longboarding as distinct as possible from shortboarding. But when the tour organisers first started overhauling the rules to favour traditional manoeuvres, he says there was an overall lack of clarity, with long-serving tour longboarders locked out of any discussion.
With communication channels limited to non-existent, many veteran competitors were left with the feeling that they could either comply with the new world order or hit the road. “In my last years in the WSL, they were trying to make the change”, Antoine says, “but in my opinion, the transition was not well managed.”
Over time, he believes the criteria have evolved to strike a better balance between modern and traditional, between high-performance and classic longboarding. But there’s a danger in veering too far to the retro single fin end of the spectrum, he says, simply because such an approach is too restrictive to suit the practicalities of holding competitions in the variable conditions that are a reality of life on Earth.
“It’s a little too narrow-minded. For me, the best longboarder is the guy who is able to do both big turns and noserides, progressive and traditional. If it’s six-foot onshore, what do you want to do with a single fin? Take a performance two-plus-one and make it look good: hit a big lip, hit a big bottom turn, stick yourself on the top of the wave for a big hang ten, and then do a big roundhouse cutback. On a single fin, you’re probably going to make two cross-steps and then just have to get back to the tail to control your board.”
In the Delpero world, the surfer ideally adjusts his or her board choice to suit the wave, the day and the conditions. “I’m not really into modern or really into classic. I don’t know, I have my vision that longboarding can be both.” His dream tour would accommodate all kinds of waves and all kinds of boards. “One stop with a perfect right-hander where you would take a single fin out and do the biggest noseride you can do, and also a bigger spot suited to a two-plus-one.”
He’s made his peace with things, though, and is happy for his upcoming ISA appearance on El Sunzal to be something of a swan song. “I like doing everything – longboarding, shortboarding, big barrels, small noserides, bodysurfing – I don’t care. I have fun in any kind of way I can ride a wave. And having fun is the most important thing. That’s what I say to my students. You want to progress and improve, but don’t lose the main point. If you’re having fun in the water, then you’re done!” He finishes with a radiant grin, and I swear the day gets a little bit brighter and the temperature on the beach goes up a degree.