Charge Of The Dark Horse

In September of 2006, Australian Bede Durbidge bobbed with a quiet focus above the cobblestone reef at Lower Trestles, waiting for the next set of the fading swell. Thousands of fans lined the beach behind him, nearly every one of them here to watch the guy bobbing just a few yards further out to sea: seven-time world champ Kelly Slater. Hell, if Bede weren't wearing a competition singlet, surfing in his first-ever World Tour final, he would have been here to watch Slater, too.

A harsh glare burned off the water in the afternoon sun, but both surfers made out the next wave. Slater, a master tactician when holding priority as he did now, let it pass; Bede pounced. Even in the mediocre conditions, the wave peeled enough to allow a few of the big carves and tight airs that he'd used to down World Number Two Taj Burrow and three-time World Champion Andy Irons en route to the final. The wave earned him a 7.3, which proved to be an insurmountable lead for even the great Slater. The bell sounded, and for the thousandth time that week, the word "darkhorse" buzzed through the crowd.

A year and a half later, the description confoundingly still fits. Despite taking down a titan on a downhill run toward an eighth world title; despite making three finals since, despite being crowned the 2007 Triple Crown and Pipemasters champion, despite being ranked third in the world, Bede Durbidge is still considered by many to be a darkhorse.

"It's been used a lot," he admits of the term. "But it's just less pressure for me. I know what I want to do, so I keep my mind on that."

To be fair, the 25-year-old regular foot from Currumbin, Australia is one of the more unlikely top-five surfers in recent memory. On a ten-month tour through four hemispheres that requires upward of 70,000 dollars to follow, Bede spent most of 2007 sponsored by a second mortgage. In a sport that meticulously markets its top competitors to the land-locked masses, he remains little-known outside core fans of the World Tour. On a circuit that features three-to-four monster left-hand barrels every year, he lacks a significant result in any of them.

Nothing about the improbable year-and-a-half run to his current ranking fits the script. It was just prior to his win at Trestles that he discovered his then-sponsor, Billabong, would not renew his contract at the end of the year. The result did nothing to change their minds, and he started the 2007 tour ranked fifteenth in the world but sponsored by his trusty (and tiny) board company and his house.

"They said they didn't have money in the budget for me," Bede says of Billabong's reasoning. "It was the biggest win of my career and I thought for sure someone would have picked me up, but no one wanted me. I wasn't going to give up, so I took the second mortgage and backed myself."

It's not entirely true that no one wanted him. A small up-start clothing company called Mada would have loved to sign a World Tour surfer, but the dollar amounts are prohibitive deep into the top twenty, where Billabong, Rip Curl, and Quiksilver dominate like Detroit automakers circa 1980. Initial talks between Bede and the company began in January 2007, but it took eight months for Mada to piece together a deal that made sense for both parties.

Bede's peers at the top of the tour ratings pull down significant paychecks in addition to the considerable travel budgets they're provided. "It was a much bigger challenge for a company our size," Mada owner Vince De La Pena says. "We went through a lot of different ideas." Ultimately, in addition to being their number one team guy, Mada was able to offer something that bridged the financial gap: a piece of the company. Bede's now the proud owner of a shiny new Mada Australia distributorship.

The Mada deal came right before last year's Trestles comp, which came in the middle of a season that began with incredible promise when Bede made the final at Bell's Beach. But things went sideways from there, and while he continued to rack up Round Four loses—good enough for equal ninth and a decent tour ranking—it wasn't exactly rubbing it in the faces of the companies who passed on him.

"I lost so many really close heats," he explains now. "I was really hungry to win, but I was making little mistakes and those cost me."

Just as his most significant results grew stale, Bede found his stride on the biggest stage imaginable: the climax of the competition season on Hawaii's North Shore. The first two events of the Triple Crown were held in maxing Haleiwa and mammoth Sunset—waves that require brains, brawn, and balls that click. He finished second and equal seventh, putting him atop the Triple Crown rankings heading into the final event of both the Crown and the World Tour.

"Pipemaster" is the second most coveted title in surfing, after World Champion. But while Bede's win at Pipeline made him the first Australian Triple Crown champ in a decade and leapfrogged him to fifth in the world, it didn't do the one thing a win in the world's most famous left-hand barrel should have done: erase the term "darkhorse" from his permanent record. For the first time in years, the event was held in the kind of tiny conditions the ASP optimistically calls "high performance"—an antonym in this case for "heaving death slabs."

Bede, whose remarkably even keel in contest situations was cited by Slater himself as Bede's most dangerous competitive quality, responds with a shrug to the suggestion that his Pipemaster's title includes an asterisk: "It would have been better if Pipe were a bit bigger, but a Triple Crown is a Triple Crown. You can only surf what you're given."

Bede maintained momentum through the off-season, and started 2008 with a third on the Gold Coast and a second at Bell's Beach. He finally cooled off at Teahupoo—the first heavy left of the season. "Tahiti was coming down to earth" for Bede, says Lewis Samuels, author of Surfline.com's World Tour Power Rankings. "But he's risen for a year now. He was willing to put his money on his board and bet on himself. Bede believes in himself more than anybody."

As competition gets underway at the Globe Pro in Fiji, Bede sits within 500 points of the guy who's spent more time atop the rankings than anyone: Kelly Slater. But never mind that chasing an eight-time World Champion makes Bede the ultimate darkhorse: he's taken Slater down before.

"People have rallied around him," says De La Pena. "It's the Cinderella story. He really is that good."