Cast against big wave surfing and skateboarding, moto freestyle or big mountain skiing, it's arguable that Rampage takes the cake as one of, if not the, gnarliest sporting events in the action sports world. Alongside backflips over deep desert canyons, and drops into nothingness, viewers watch as mountain bikers either shred or rag doll their way down a cliff riddled, booter laden, singletrack scratched mountain face. You can not watch a lot of sports. But once exposed to its unadulterated extremity, it’s near impossible to not watch the Red Bull Rampage.
And while the tightly controlled GoPro and Red Bull edits of action highlights, crash compilations and behind the scenes continue to be released on the interweb, it’s quite obvious that the corresponding exposure for our sport is massive. Unprecedented actually. This and the network NBC show hasn’t even aired. Nothing in mountain biking comes close. So then, enough said? A job well done. All is perfect in the Utah desert?
Well, maybe not.
I had the unique experience of working as the Kona Team manager during this last Rampage, the second I’ve attended (the first I was a journalist for Bike Magazine). Working with Aggy, Antoine Bizet, Paul Bas and our team of builders and mechanics was a lifetime experience. One I’ll not soon forget. As someone who’s written about mountain biking since the late 90s, it afforded me an up close and personal glimpse into what is actually going on during the event. And as the days wore on and the stress mounted to near unbearable proportions, one phrase kept popping into my head: Catch-22.
Now a colloquial term that comes from the famous book by Joseph Heller of the same name, a Catch-22 is a paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape. Basically, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Having seen the event as close as you can get to the eyes of the athletes, I can confidently say that Rampage is riddled with parody.
That is not to say that the people organizing and funding Rampage are out for blood, but as the old adage goes, if it bleeds, it leads—if you watched the intro to the live webcast you saw 80% eating shit, 20% sticking it. It’s also not to say that riders are forced to participate in the event. Quite obviously, they’re not. But let it be known, that if you want to make a name for yourself as a big mountain freerider, if you want the sponsorship dollars that go along with that moniker, then you have to ride at Red Bull Rampage. You have no choice.
It’s also not to say that a lot of the riders participating in the event don't absolutely love it and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. But spend time with them in the days leading up to qualifications and finals and you’ll see just how mentally and physically challenging the Rampage is on athletes, who, save for a couple of slopestyle riders, rarely compete.
Risk vs Reward
It should be noted that every possible effort has been made to respond to injury at the Red Bull Rampage. There’s a life flight helicopter on site. There’s a small army of paramedics scattered throughout the course armed with spine boards and defibrillators. On the flip side, every effort has been made to ensure this event is super dangerous. There are no guidelines to building, you can make anything you want. Anything you think you can ride, you can create. This on a mountain face riddled with cliffs and loose dirt, sharp rock and massive kickers into space. Sure, the dirt is soft, but the rock isn’t—and there’s a boatload of it. There is huge exposure everywhere. The first day I was shitting my pants just walking around. But it’s beautiful and photogenic and unique unto mountain biking. And without the propensity for great failure, there cannot be great reward.
Scary vs Rad
After Aggy’s second run, where he came within one stepdown of the run of his life, the Kamloops, BC rider, who’s never experienced huge Rampage success in his career, was obviously upset. He took solace with Brandon Semenuk, who barely stayed on trail after not being able to handle a deep compression after landing a sniper 360 on the upper part of his line. I asked Aggy what they were talking about and all he had to say was, “Basically how scared we were.” And they should be. As talented and brave as these riders are, the line is super thin. Take the technical preciseness of slopestyle riding then slap it on the side of a near vertical mountain face. That’s what these guys are doing. And guess what, even the best crash riding slopestyle.
And crashing here is as real as it gets. And if you can’t quite get that from TV, walk around the venue a bit and you’ll see that death and destruction lurks in every corner. If Brandon’s over the bars fumble after his 360 had happened 10 feet farther down his line, to the lip of his giant canyon gap and a 100 foot cliff, we’d be having a much different conversation right now. Just imagine the rift that would have in the sport. It’s that real.
Man vs Mountain
The Oakley Sender was a point of great debate during the event. It was massive this year, with the landing super narrow and steep as shit. In the building and practice days leading up to qualies, it was the elephant in the room. And right from the beginning, we all knew that Zink was going to flip it.
As the event played out, there were a few things to consider. It’s windy out there, and that skull faced drop of doom stood out like a sail. Many of the competitors, like McGarry, Cam McCaul and Norbs chose lines in the adjacent canyon where their jumps were less affected by wind. And while Kyle Strait and Cam Zink’s moves during the finals were nothing short of miraculous, their results proved that if you didn’t hit that sucker from the top, you were hard-pressed to make the top three. Fortunate for those two Oakley riders that one of their sponsors had the rare ability to brand and build a stunt in a Red Bull event. Unprecedented.
The Catch-22 for the other riders? Run the risk of spending tons of hours building your own super complicated, difficult, exposed line from top to bottom (i.e. Aggy, Semenuk, Tyler McCaul), or forgo burl and huge effort in exchange for go for-the-ages big. In fact, if we were to look at the top three finishers, all of them did something spectacular off of a built-up feature. Which is all cool, and huge props to those riders. Zink’s backflip was insane, and if he had a chance to do a second run, you would have seen him incorporate tricks into the top and bottom of his run, then attempting the biggest back flip in the history of the sport…again. But for those not willing to take such a massive risk (the top drop was only attempted a grand total of five times during the whole week), not hitting the big one ended up being to their detriment. On the flip side, if Zink or Strait made even the smallest mistake, it could have been the end of their career.
Money vs Fair
It would be interesting to know the total price tag for this event. From the construction of the Oakley Sender to the camera coverage (there were nearly 60 staff on the film and TV production crew alone) to the safety, promotions and organization, it’s got to be well into the millions. Yet one of the big beefs of the athletes was prize money. Sure, if you do well at Rampage you’re guaranteed massive exposure, a real career boost to be sure, and there’s monetary gain associated with that. But for the most part, people don’t remember who came 5th or 6th or 2nd for that matter, and the prize money reflects it. Tyler McCaul will get $1,200 for his absolutely insane 5th place line. Cam Zink $4,500 for his 3rd place finish (he would also win $5,000 for best trick). The total prize money comes in at $55,000. For an event where athletes are risking their lives, with two serious injuries in the finals requiring medi-vac and a rash of broken bones throughout the comp, it doesn’t seem like the risk to reward equation is all there. Especially when Cineflex helicopters are flying dawn till dusk and Red cameras seem a dime a dozen. Catch-22? If you want to play in the big leagues, you have to play by the coach's rules.
Commercial Content vs Sport Progression
In the end, no one died. That’s the big sigh of relief I felt. And I know I wasn’t alone. It was a huge bummer that half of the field didn’t get to ride their second run due to a wind closure. For those who did, and risked it all in the name of Rampage fame, including Logan Binggeli, who broke his femur after missing the narrow Sender landing after a massive back flip on his second run, it’s even more sketchy. I heard Andreu Lacondeguy say, after blazing his second run and moving up to 3rd place (momentarily), then hearing word that only first run scores would count, “Holy shit, did I really just risk my life for nothing?”
At the same time, I felt a great weight off of my shoulders. Even though we spent hours upon hours shoveling and chipping in Antoine Bizet’s line off the top and constructing his own backflip kicker after the Sender, and would have to watch it go unridden, at least I knew that none of our guys would be seriously injured. The night before the event I couldn’t sleep. Thinking about his all-or-nothing-crazy-Frenchman attitude sitting out a wind/injury delay had me in a near panic state.
And sure, maybe this is something we need to get over. Motorsports, surfing, skiing and the like have all endured death in competition. Mountain biking never has. One team manager who works for another energy drink company said to me, “That’s when you’ll see the prize money go up, when somebody dies.” Harsh, but perhaps very true. At the Rampage, it was the word no one wanted to say, but everyone couldn’t help thinking. After watching a dude ragdoll off a 50-foot cliff during qualifying, miraculously escaping with just a blown ankle, you viscerally saw how close the “d” word was.
That all being said, the drama is palpable, and it transcends onto the computer screen. It makes for incredible entertainment that extends far beyond the cycling community. The Catch-22? How far can riders keep pushing in the name of the almighty view?
Big vs Bigger
Which brings us to the next point of contention. Is this part of the story we want tell in mountain biking? When does the pricetag of progression get too high? And is massive risk a central part of that? Thankfully, no one did die, or suffer a life altering injury. And yes, progression in our sport happened in a serious way. But know this, there will be another Rampage somewhere, someday, and it will have to be gnarlier than this one. That’s crazy. The world is watching and obviously, it wants more: bigger flips, crazier air, wilder crashes. This is the legacy that the Red Bull Rampage has created: amongst great risk comes huge reward. And as athletes and their bikes get better and bolder, they need an outlet that moves that into the mainstream. And finally, through the work of Freeride, Red Bull and H5 Events, the three parties who conceived the event 10 years ago, there are now legions of cinematographers and photographers on the ground and in the sky, armed to tell the story—good and bad—at every angle. Rest assured, the stuff that survives the cutting room floor is the craziest.
Beginning vs End
Because Red Bull likes to mix things up, and with rumors swirling that this might be the last Rampage at this venue, it’s hard to know what’s next. Fact of the matter is, after Logan Bingelli’s horrific crash, which closed the course for nearly an hour, the winds picked up and a big black cloud encircled the venue. As a spectator, it was an eerie feeling, like Ma Nature herself had had enough. Up next? Zink and Strait, and with the Oakley flags snapping in the wind, organizers decided to call it, negating all of the athletes' second runs. For an event built around climaxes, it was about as anticlimactic as it gets.
It will be most interesting to see what happens next. Even with the injuries and the trepidation of a level of riding and risk unsurpassed in our sport, it’s arguable that this past Rampage might be the most visually impactful event in the history of mountain biking. Kelly McGarry’s GoPro silver winning run hit five million views in the first week it was launched. The world is eating it up.
Damned if you do and damned if you don't. “Defying the odds of getting hurt so bad,” in the words of Cam Zink shortly after landing one of the most impressive moves in all of action sports. But no matter what, even amongst all the parody, all the contradictory elements that make this event so unique, you can not
watch Red Bull Rampage. You can’t turn away from athletes who are willing to risk it all in the name of doing what no one has done before them.
Words: Mitchell Scott
Photos: Sterling Lorence, Paris Gore, Nathan Hughes, and Colin Meager