The danger of the Banzai Pipeline wave on the North Shore of Oahu evokes respect from even the most accomplished of surfers. Defending Billabong Pipe Masters champion Julian Wilson of Australia knows the danger well, and so, in readying himself for this year’s final leg of the Vans Triple Crown and the premiere surfing event of the World Surf League season, he knew that he must do something to prepare his mind for the occasion.
“Pipeline is known for fear and adrenaline, so for a bit of that I spent more time on my motorbike to get comfortable with adrenaline and excitement,” Wilson tells SI.com ahead of the event which kicks off this week. “It is one thing that gets me amped up a bit.”
Wilson, who has toyed with dirt bikes his entire life, rides a KTM 350 on short tracks and over trails to prepare, even skipping earlier legs of the Triple Crown to focus on his “long shot” attempt at becoming one of the six still in contention to take home the year’s tour title.
“I chose not to compete [in other events] so I could spend more time preparing and focusing on Pipe Masters,” he says. “If I wasn’t in the [title] race, I would have made all three.”
Wilson says his physical training approach didn’t vary much heading into Pipeline, as he put in time in the gym on strength and on the track for cardio. But with no big waves in Australia right now, Wilson knew he needed something to prepare his mind for his shot at both defending his Pipe Masters title and overtaking Mick Fanning, Filipe Toledo, Adriano De Souza, Gabriel Medina and Owen Wright for the tour title.
That he is coming off a win last year should give Wilson an edge, as it means he has surfed the most heats possible at the event. “I got to surf all conditions, perfect backdoors,” he says. While last year Wilson was fighting to stay on tour, this year he’s fighting against two countrymen and three Brazilians for the title. “I love competing and having something big to fight for,” says the 27-year-old.
Mick Fanning enters the event after winning the second leg of the Vans Triple Crown, the Vans World Cup of Surfing at Sunset Beach, his first title in Hawaiian waters. “I was stoked to get out of Sunset with a win,” he says. “I was always a bridesmaid in Hawaii.”
The Billabong Pipe Masters starts with a 32-man Pipe Trials event to determine the final two entries into the main event, which should kick off on Dec. 9, if forecasts hold.
The three-stage Triple Crown began in November with the Hawaiian Pro, followed by the Sunset competition and now Pipe Masters.
Jodi Wilmott, executive director of the Triple Crown for the World Surf League, calls Pipe Masters the “crowning moment” in surfing, a continuous event since 1971 now celebrating its 45th year.
Wilmott tells SI.com the environment of the wave—so tight to the small stretch of beach and crashing over coral heads sometimes only three feet under the water—brings spectators closer to the power than anywhere else. When a large wave crashes, it shakes the ground. “It is the ultimate surfing venue,” she says. “It is the most surround-sound reality experience.”
The event has grown from a fold-up table, some flags, a timer and a horn in its first year to being broadcast globally, especially since the influx of international surfers, such as Gabriel Medina from Brazil, the reigning WSL Champion.
To keep spectators entertained for multiple days, Wilmott says, officials time the heats so to not “waste waves.”
Wilson calls the Pipe Masters easily the most prestigious event of the year, and the one with the best arena. “It is perfect left, perfect right and the crowd is out of control,” he says. “With the situation I’ll be in here, I had to get my heart going on dirt bikes.”
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, sneakers and training for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.