From playing in Paris Saint-Germain’s junior football team to World Championships in kiteboarding, this Parisian doesn’t do anything half-heartedly. TOJ caught up with him at the Kite-Tech in Dakhla, Western Sahara.
At the age of 16, Julien Leleu decided to become a professional kitesurfer and left PSG after four years. In 2013, he came third in the French Championship and the following year, he was in the top nine at the Professional Kiteboarding Riders Association and Virgin Kitesurf World championship. He surfed, filmed, joined and founded Light Bros and competed worldwide when a sudden injury thwarted what was until then, a smooth-sailing career. The Outdoor Journal’s Lorenzo Fornari met him after his comeback, at Kite-Tech in Dakhla, Western Sahara, where he’s gliding and pulling off his wicked tricks once again.
What makes you different from other athletes?
Maybe outrageousness. I’m always extreme in everything I do. If I start to do something, I do it fully, or I don’t do it. It’s the same with business, parties, everything. If I start to train as well, I train a lot.
For me, there was always been one sentence that has led my life: ‘Chose a job you love, then you’ll never have to work again’. In anything I do now, even if you can call it work, I surf, wakeboard and skate because I love it. I think that that you should never have any regrets. If you want to do something, if you have an idea, if you’re dreaming about something, you don’t want to regret it.
What would you say that your biggestsports accomplishment has been to this day?
To be honest, it’s coming back from my injury. It was a hard one for me because the doctors were not really positive about me getting back in the water. The accident happened when I least expected it. I broke my knee in the World Cup, when I was doing the best out of four. I had to be out of training for one year after that, trying to get back. Now, I’m back and stronger than before.
What is the greatest goal that you aspire to?
I want to go as far as I personally can and I think that I still have a lot under my feet to go. When I had the most amount of points, I was in the top nine in freestyle kitesurfing. My biggest challenge is to stay on top every day and find enough time to dedicate to all my activities. I’ve got a lot of things to deal with; I’m a professional kitesurfer, work for a video company, as well as Ride & Dream. It’s not easy all the time, but I try to “go with the flow” more and find the time at the right moment for everything. Also, the first time I entered the top ten was an achievement for me because I probably started kiting later than others. For me, just to be able to catch up on all that time I had lost was a good for me.
From Parisian footballer to surfer boy. What is the best advice you’ve ever gotten from the people around you?
My stepfather helps me a lot, he is on top of things and gives me advice. He was the French tennis team’s trainer at the Sydney Olympic Games and he has always been there for me; to let me know if I’m on the right road or maybe going a little bit too far. All the time pushing me and believing in me. My mother and father as well, but he was the one on top of things. He had the key to help me get there. I was the one who had to do it, but he knew the road.
Who inspires you? Who are your heroes?
In football, it’s Zidane. In tennis, it’s Federer. In kiting, there are a lot of different names, but I like Alberto Rondina and Aaron Hadlow. They have been examples. I don’t want to follow the same road, but they are inspirational.
How did you get into kitesurfing?
Every time I stayed with my father, when I was little, I used to watch him kiting or windsurfing, from the car. He has always been around water sports and started kiting when the sport was growing and it was really dangerous; two line guides, no security and a lot of accidents. I was around 12 years old, the first time I kitesurfed. I was playing football at Paris Saint-Germain until I was 16 and couldn’t kite as much as I wanted. When I was 16, I decided to live with my father. I started to kite every day when it was windy and entered the first kitesurfing school in the world. It was in the North of France, in Dunkerque, and it’s pretty cool.
We are at the Kite-Tech right now, in Dakhla, Western Sahara where tech entrepreneurs and startuppers are coming together around their common passion and curiosity of kitesurfing. How has it been for you?
It’s been interesting, definitely. It’s really cool to see people getting together thanks to kitesurfing and around tech. It’s not just a sport, it’s a meeting; people are getting together to talk about their ideas, their point of views and businesses. It’s very interesting to see how the sport creates a lot of interaction.
I like all kite competitions, because we’re like a little family and it’s different to any other sport. In football, for example, there’s a lot of competitions between players, and even though we still have that, we are also friends doing high-fives before and after competing. It’s good to share all of those moments because either you win or you lose, but you can always rely on the boys.
You can follow Julien Leleu’s adventures on Facebook, Instagram and Youtube and find out more about the diverse and creative ‘meeting of minds’ at the first ever Kite-Tech here.
Feature image courtesy of Julien Leleu.
The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.
Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.
No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.
A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.
We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.
These lands, however remote, are important.
Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.
The Mongols invented the modern world*
The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.
Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.
REAL MEN TROT
I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.
I learned what that meant the next day.
The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?
And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.
Sabine crosses a river along with Stinky, the resident guard dog, who followed the horses and was very much a part of the team.
Mongolians worship the sky and we understood why after witnessing the big blue skies and red sunsets of the steppe.
Though every Mongolian doesn’t ride, those who do seem to have horsemanship in their blood. Here, expert horseman Buyana races up a hill at one of our campsites.
Our horses enjoyed grazing freely by the tents every evening, as the riders ate dinner and got settled at the campsites for the night.
Jackson was interning with Stone Horse over the summer and showed us a few tricks, including how to throw a lasso.
We met a group of students who were practicing their archery skills just outside Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city.
a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities
But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.
When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.
We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.
The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.
One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.