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Red Bull Rampage is the largest, most important freeride mountain bike event in the world. Rampage historically hasn't included a separate women's category, but Red Bull has been promoting the development of women's freeride through a non-competition event called Formation that's held on the same terrain.
This year Formation was cancelled
, leading some to speculate that Rampage might include a women's field. When the Rampage rider list
came out last week, we were disappointed to see neither a women's field nor a public plan to integrate women into the event.
Alicia Leggett and I sat down with Vaea Verbeeck, one of the original Formation riders and a future Rampage hopeful, to hear her thoughts about the situation. The podcast is above if you'd like to listen to us ramble. Alternatively, a condensed transcript of the most relevant parts is below.
Red Bull Rampage is a big Superbowl-sized thing. That's why it's important, and that's also why the topic today is why women don't yet have that opportunity. But to back up a bit, can you speak a bit to how Formation came to be and what Formation is?Vaea:
Yeah, Formation came about in 2019, after a very long time with those question marks in place of, "huh, yeah, there aren't women in Rampage," with tons and tons of valid reasons at that point in time. Katie Holden was kind of the mastermind at that time. She created Formation. She was one of the female riders, that wanted to compete at Rampage historically, and there's just wasn't a space there. So she went there as a digger, and tried to take in as much information as she could. And then she eventually called a handful of us and said, "Okay, bear with me. What if we take all of the five of you guys, we go to Virgin for a week and. Dig and ride and you know, Rampage style idea, but, let's just dip our toes in and let you guys have a taste for that."
All of us had a downhill world cup careers at that point in time, because it was the only possible outlet. Um, there was Hannah Bergman, she was racing Enduro World Series at that time. And we were all kind of doing side project videos that showed that we were more than just racers. So yeah, but at that time when we got the call, it was stressful. I'd never done or tried anything like this. It looks cool but you're taking the risk on your current contract that are not aligned with freeride.
We're not the kind of people to say no to trying new things, and from going there and doing it, that's where the learning curve got instantly so crazy steep. And we all went in there knowing that it was a first thing for the sport to gather the group of women and trying to replicate something like that.
So it was all super important for us to go at it the right way and not psych ourselves out, get super hurt and never want to do it again, but rather just go there, do it properly, learn so much and be stoked to go again. And, um, you know, double up the following year, which after that, it just went super crazy. We, we, we started super conservative and now it's full blown Rampage.Brian:
It is definitely not conservative anymore, for sure. Despite all the recent progression, I think it's worth saying that there have always been rad women on bikes doing rad sh*t, and whether it's Carys Evans on Rocky Mountain back in the day, or Stephanie Nychka, Katie Holden, Casey Brown, etc. Who did you look up to on that side as you were coming up Vaea?Vaea:
Well, when I was racing, it was like Claire Buchar, Katrina Strand, those were the girls from BC, Canada that I was more exposed to because they were also on the racing scene. But they were definitely not uncomfortable getting out of their comfort zone. I think the biggest thing though is there have been, for a really long time, women in freeride, but it's just that we, the public, or someone like myself that was in the racing culture. They didn't get exposed to [women's freeride] because they weren't getting that reach such as Red Bull Rampage. Like, you're aware of all those dudes but you're not getting aware of all those women because they're not on that stage, they're on their own thing which doesn't reach everyone.Alicia:
Totally. I think it's a really big part too, just to have a place where they show up in a high concentration. It's like these women can be out there doing whatever they're doing and you can come across them once in a while [in media], but it's just a one-off experience. Whereas starting in the early 2000s, the guys had a place where they could all show up and if you were there, you would see more dudes throwing backflips than you ever imagined could have existed. And women just didn't really have that until just now.Brian:
That is one of the sort of crux points about this whole thing: it's a spectacle. Rampage is mountain biking's opportunity to go beyond its borders, to go beyond racing or trail riding. And historically, it's been amazing that brands like Red Bull have made this event happen. And yeah, it's made people's careers. So at 2022 Formation, it looked fairly positive to get women into Rampage, right?Vaea:
Yeah, 2022 was the third edition of Formation. We had 2019, 2020 was held off, obviously, because of the pandemic. And then we had 2021 and then 2022. And between '19 and '21, it was much bigger drops build like crazy exposure. It was really cool, especially just from one to a second ever edition. And then from '21 to '22, again, it was like a different site—actually it was the same site as the 2019 one, which was so sick because instead of just carving your goat path on the hillside, it was like, "no, we're just going to drop the whole double cliff and going straight down." It was straight up, Rampage lines.
I want to clarify, Formation was built in a way that the access from media there was there was very small and restricted. We wanted to tell the story but the number one goal is to have the riders they're a hundred percent comfortable to push themselves because that's what we're trying to do is to create this bigger pool of freeriders who haven't had the time and experience through their careers, for obvious reasons. So it was pretty contained. There's no public allowed.
Long story short, the hype and the, the momentum behind 2022 was so big and the people that were on site. Once we were there and the people from Red Bull also that were there supporting Formation got just so psyched on what they could see, and just the massive storytelling that was going on before their eyes. And so that's when, yeah, that momentum was like, "cool, okay, let's definitely talk about women in Rampage." So they, as in the people from Red Bull that were there, decided to sit a few of the riders down and talk about, okay, "what does that look like? How could we make that happen so that it works for the riders? That works for the event? What does it look like?"
So that's where we were like "Sick. Let's definitely talk about it. Let's definitely make a plan." And we wanted to keep Formation as what it is, to have the next wave of freeriders that could see us in Rampage and be like, "This is awesome. I want to do that." And then have that platform goal to go into Formation, get ready. Have that platform and rite of passage. So submitting yourself into a Rampage would be like, "okay, you've attended at least one Formation and that was a success." And so you may move on, you know?
All those conversations were happening. And so that's where it was a bit difficult for 2023 where, when they brought back that conversation back to us, it wasn't about women in Rampage. It was about evolving Formation into something like a competition. And that's where us, the riders, said, "We hear what you're saying. But also, for one, it's defeating the purpose of what Formation is actually creating for the sport. And for two, if Formation is the end of the road for women in freeride, that means we're not putting ourselves on that stage. We're not getting the mainstream public to see women doing that stuff. That reach and all those, you know, OG freeride women that I never got to see growing up. We need to fix that in order to grow the entire sport and make the future Rampages women's categories be absolutely mind-blowing. It needs to start with seeing it on that stage.Brian:
Yeah, that's super important because one of the objections you see on social media is like, "well, Formation didn't get as many views as Rampage last year." Well, as you said, it wasn't intended for that, it was intended to be an incubator, not a pure media spectacle like Rampage. And also, it's not Rampage.
Rampage has had 20-something years to mature and be a thing that people latch onto, and that's why we want women at Rampage.Alicia:
And that's kind of a central idea. Rampage is the pinnacle of what people can do in freeride. No second tier event is ever going to get that viewership, because Rampage is the ultimate event.Vaea:
I wanted to add to that the viewing or the willingness from the public about formation was actually super, super strong. Obviously, yes, given it wasn't the kind of media or the reach of the platform that Rampage is, it was so strong and so there was just so much potential in it that. [Everyone was] super excited, "let's definitely dig into it and make it happen." So it's not that there's a lack of return on investment. It's not that Red Bull's like, "Oh, Formation is not doing nearly as good. Let's drop it and cancel it." That's really not what the conversation is about. It was more so they wanted to evolve Formation, versus we want to evolve women into Rampage.
The back and forth conversation created, at first having to postpone Formation from Spring 2023 to be September 2023, to give us a bit more time to go back and forth with Red Bull with what it looks like if we are going to do Formation as a competition. Our ask is that if we're going to write what the end of the road looks like, it better be right. And the back and forth just takes more time, takes more logistics, takes more budget on their end. And eventually it just has to be, okay, we have to pull the plug for 2023.
So do you feel like it was going to happen but they just ran out of time?Vaea:
Honestly, it was pretty quiet after the back and forth. It got quiet. And so my assumption is that the added logistics and budget on their end made it not possible to happen in 2023. That's my assumption, because I know in my heart, I know in what we've lived and discussed with them, I know that they want it as much as we do. It's just that we maybe don't see eye to eye at what it looks like.Brian:
Yeah. I personally agree that Rampage should have a women's field and Formation has a great track record [of elevating women's freeride]. You can look at the sport five years ago and today and see how Formation is achieving its goals, so let's keep doing that. I think I was pretty naive. My reaction in the spring when Formation got postponed and then canceled was like, "Oh, okay, I guess that means we're gonna see women at Rampage this year."Alicia:
I think kind of a lot of us thought that. It would have made sense.Vaea:
Yeah, honestly, it's been an interesting time having this conversation now that the Rampage 2023 roster has been out and people see there is a no women's category. It's been kind of a weird blessing that Formation 2023 didn't happen because what I'm seeing now is people saying, "oh, why is there no women at Rampage?" And instead of the conversation ending at someone saying, "well women have Formation, that's their Rampage," and people are going, "Oh, cool, sorry, I didn't know about Formation"—which, no kidding, you didn't know about Formation, it's not on that stage. It's not getting that kind of advertising, which is what we're trying to actually fix. Yeah, it doesn't end there. It's also now opening the conversation that we want to see women at Rampage. We want to, you know, we, the riders, women want to see women at rampage too.
So I think it's cool that things actually ended up playing that way because it's opening the conversation a lot more now than if it just ended with dealing with Formation.Brian:
I'm paraphrasing other people's perspectives here, not my own, but I have seen a perspective out there where people say "Rampage is really dangerous, and if creating a new field with unknown factors increases the risk dramatically of somebody dying on live television, why would a marketing company want to do that?" But Vaea you had a really good point when we were chatting a few days ago that's the injury rate isn't what some might expect from the women's field.Vaea:
Well, yeah, for sure. There definitely shouldn't be any difference between a woman having a crash and the guy having the same crash. We're just mountain bikers, we're built for it. We've ridden our entire freaking careers, same thing. But yeah, when I think about a first field of women going into Rampage, like I said, the way we approached our first Formation edition, we really want to make sure we're going into this, wanting to leave hungry to come back for more rather than psyching yourself out near death experience and "I never want to be there again." So the way that played out with Formation was we were always so dialed. Literally the first time we dropped in at 2019 Formation, we all cleaned it and we were all like "sh*t we built something way too easy." Turns out this is all good. And so, yeah, that's where in the second edition went bigger because we knew we could do that. But the approach is very, very cautious because we're very, very protective of what it looks like for the sport from the outside. You know, you don't want it to look like you're just holding on to the bull and just surviving down the hill. You don't want it to look sketch. You don't want people to hold their breath because they think you're completely out of control.
The goal is to be solid and to be capable and that makes you stand out bigger, pull off some crazy new tricks. And that's the wow factor that we want. So yeah, we're a lot more cautious about doing something that we're searching is going to be solid instead of creating even more doubts from the outside that we're even capable of doing it.Brian:
On one hand, it's lame that you feel you have to approach it that way, but I think I always enjoy watching the riders who ride within themselves at Rampage. Like super confident, stomped. Yes it's cool to see people get wild, but there are definitely some of the male riders that I don't really enjoy watching because it's just too, it's just too much. [laughs] I'm soft.Vaea:
I will say some of the guys that Rampage, the number one thing in their contracts with their sponsors is being a Rampage athlete. And so they can, you could literally do not a whole lot all year, but as long as you're going to kill it at Rampage, you have a job. Versus our contracts, personally, I was like, go to all the Crankworx stops, try to be the number one overall racing winner, but also go to those freeride events you want to go to and hopefully you do well. But you're taking risks at those events, and if I take myself out, then I can't finish the racing circuit.
I remember last year having that big dilemma in me. I was nursing a knee injury and I was at Proving Grounds. That was my first competition freeride. And I remember the day we dropped in finals, I was so hungry for a certain run, to go big. But also, that same week I had booked an eight week trip in Australia and New Zealand for the last two rounds of Crankworx racing. And I was second in the overall. And I was just like, "If you just drive home after today and you just did a good run, you'd be stoked with yourself. It's already a start."
And that's the approach I went with, but honestly, it's been eating me alive the whole rest of the week, the year. And which is why going into 2023, I was like, "no, I'm not doing Crankworx and freeride on the side. I'm doing freeride and Crankworx on the side."
That's just something I had to make clear with myself and my sponsors, because I've had regrets. Yeah, I definitely wanted to send it. I don't like holding back.Brian:
And would it help you going into 2024 when you sit down with your sponsors, if Rampage was on the table for you next year?Vaea:
Well, obviously, if it's on the table, they're listening. They're so stoked on Rampage, obviously. But right now, that's not a certain part of the conversation. We're just aiming towards it. But yeah.Alicia:
Did you expect to get an invite to Rampage this year and when did you realize that wasn't happening?Vaea:
I did not expect an invite to Rampage, just because we started that conversation in the winter. I think it was February we had a call. We were following up, basically in our minds we were "yes tell us we're going to put a category for Rampage 2023 for women and we'll get ready through the year to be ready for that."
So we were following up because we want to do this, but if we're going to do this, we want to be ready. Like I said, we were not going to half ass it. So that's why you had so many follow up calls with them. And finally, we had conversations that the conversations were not about making that happen for women's category Rampage. They were approaching it more to work on Formation. And that's where they got pushback from us. And that trickled down to where we are at now.
So no, I didn't expect a call. That's what we wanted, but we didn't get it. And from the get-go, not getting it, we were like, oh, okay, this is gonna be a different conversation.Brian:
Social media has a good habit of making everything black and white. I think the three of us are on the same page, we all think that this was a missed opportunity. But do you see Red Bull as the "big bad" in all of this?Vaea:
No, yeah. You know I don't sit with, yeah, [black and white] arguments here, whether it's one side or the other. I can see points and values coming from both ends, but I think that going super deep off of assumptions is a little too heavy to participate.
I don't see Red Bull as the big bad guy. No, I see them as... I still see those people and I could see in their eyes how freaking stoked they were on this and how they wanted to work with us. And so I still believe that that's what will eventually happen. It's just somewhere between those constructive conversations of like, "what does it look like to get women at Rampage?" And then having them come back to us with "Actually, we're going to do Formation as a competition." Somewhere in between there, there's someone above their heads that said, no for X reason. And there's lots of reasons—people higher up might not have been on the ground and seen what we're capable of, so they might be saying we're not able to, or we're going to take away spots from the men's, and we're going to make the live the live show even harder because the wind window is so short.
So there's tons of arguments, and they're valid, but we have have answers to all of these. We're not trying to steal any spots from the men, we're not trying to make it harder on their live show. We want everyone to be able to drop in twice and elevate the sport. As of right now, it's already a problem without even having a handful of women join in, you know? So that's a live show problem, not an adding a few women in the show problem. That's a bigger conversation that needs to be changed in favour of all riders, guys and girls.
Yeah, I just want to chime in that it would seem a little bit crazy for any higher-ups to criticize women's freeride right now, criticize it enough to keep women out of the biggest freeride event in the world. The development timeline has been so, so short. Even though you saw occasional women riding free ride in the early 2000s, it really hasn't been a thing until the last few years. And women are already able to throw it out on Rampage lines and trick huge features and do everything that they're doing. Just having started basically developing after Formation after 2019 is kind of insane and so impressive already. The progression is going to keep going so fast and it's just surprising that it doesn't seem like they're backing it.Vaea:
I don't know. I think they're backing it, but also Rampage is like, it's a huge event, it's a huge deal. It's their baby and it's been their baby for 20 years. So I get that. And I think the approach—and that's just me, that's just me and my perspective on things, right? But I think that what happened is whoever out there was like, "No, we can't handle that at Rampage." They might've just felt like let's do it, but on a smaller scale, let's use Formation's platform, and do that because maybe they don't think we're ready. So let's already change Formation into a competition format and see how that goes before anything else.
The problem there is that we don't really want to settle with that because if you settle for less, it's a lot harder to then ask for more because they've already established that as the women's platform for freeride competition.Brian:
Going back to what you were saying about the logistics, and that being a broadcast problem and not a men's and women's field problem. I do think that on some level, you're either going to have to extend that dramatically somehow, or cut some people. And I guess you may disagree. It sounds like you disagree, but I guess for me, I'm okay with that. Everyone at that level is so incredible, but I am definitely okay with not seeing a few of the, "lower level" guys if it means we can add some of the top women. I'd be more excited for that. The reality is those guys weren't going to get in this year anyways, if Brage and Brandon and a couple of other people who said no, had said yes.Vaea:
Yeah, but the next people down the line, you know, some people are making noise about Dylan Stark or Kade Edwards and Andreu, I hear all of those. And that's where I just don't want the conversation about women at Rampage to have any play with taking away space or spots from the dudes.Brian:
And that's very noble, but I'd be okay with it.Vaea:
Yeah, some people are definitely cool with taking some, taking some away and making room for us. That's super sweet of you guys, but I don't think that's necessary at all. They already have to fix the whole 15 to 20 riders getting two complete runs. And there's just so much sitting around at the top of the mountain while they're doing announcement, advertising, mid show, whatever it is, that is, that can't be happening.
When window is open in the morning, everyone should be dropping one after the other and then you figure out how to put it into the show. There's definitely options out there that work for different sports. I don't know what the solution is, but I think those are kinks we can work out after the math.Brian:
I think while we aren't the people responsible for making it, it's very easy for us to talk from the bleachers. I did love someone's suggestion for Rampage that the first runs not be live, and that the broadcast catches up. Same as the way the World Cups are done. The first half of the runs you watch aren't live, and so the broadcast could catch up. And the other reason that people bring that suggestion up is specifically the judging, you can hold scores until everybody does their first run so that everything gets calibrated relative to each other rather than live scoring. Scoring those things live is so hard.Vaea:
Yeah, that's what I had in mind too. First run, film all the first runs, and then as they drop in for their second run, the show and all the talking happens, and then you can trickle them in. I can see how there could be some leakage, people that are there, they have cell phones, but maybe just hold on to the scores after first run. There's definitely some way to find a solution.
I think that's where there's room for just to better the format. And it's not about integrating a few women into the show. It's just their own current problem. But we're coming in with, you know, we want to have a category of women competing against each other at Rampage. And also let's fix the other problem that you already have. As it is maybe you can still squeeze it in and make it happen. But still, every single year, riders already get skunked on their second run.Brian:
What do you hope people take away from this situation and where do you hope this conversation takes women's freeride in the next year or two?Vaea:
I just hope that we can put some light on the crazy progression that we've had the last two years and maybe enlighten some people that aren't even aware. And it's been already sweet to see the crazy support from a really big pool of viewers and supporters and they people definitely want to see women at Rampage. That's been really sick to raise that voice. And it just helps us in having those conversations on how to make that happen with Red Bull, iinstead of them pushing us aside to focus on Rampage. So that's really appreciated.
But, I think it's important to remember that we're not there to steal any space or take away from the show. We love Rampage. We all love Rampage. We just want that to not go stale, and we just wanna keep bringing more to it and grow it the way that it should.
There has to be a space for women in the sport. That's just how the sport is growing. Whether it's the small niche Rampage-style riding or mainstream mountain biking. That's just the right way for the sport to grow. It's the right way for the event to grow. And yeah, that's just where we're at in the sport now.Brian:
How much confidence do you folks have that Red Bull and the industry as a whole, that we'll all be able to figure this out?Alicia:
I think we're going to have to!Vaea:
Definitely a lot more confident now, seeing how people are, seeing just how strongly people feel about it. It's not just a small group of riders that have taken their chances and taking the risks and grown into their own freeride careers. And it's not just us seeing and believing it. There's a huge pool of people out there that are supporting it. And there's just there's absolutely no way that we're not looking back in 15, 20 years of Rampage again, after seeing women in Rampage, there's just no way we're not absolutely mind blown at the level of women riding and competing amongst each other. I just, I refuse to believe that's not gonna happen. I know it's gonna happen. It's gonna be super sick to see them grow into that.Brian:
I agree. I think, there's a lot of support and a lot of people who feel very strongly about this. So I'm hopeful, cautiously optimistic. Hopefully I'm not naive like I was this spring [laughs].
Vaea: I think from what we've seen in the past handful of years where this has been in motion and gaining momentum, we've always let the riding do the talking and that in itself has opened doors, you know, like in Fest series, in [Crankworx] slopestyle, in all other events that didn't used to have women's category. Every single one of those events benefited from having that extra new hype brought to the event to have women and just kill it.
And again, we're still in very early days at those events, right? We're killing it and people are stoked, but we're still very early. You bring us into next year or five years from now, whole other ball game, but it's already an insane start. And so Rampage is just the next one down the line.Brian:
Vaea thank you so much for joining us today.Vaea:
Thank you so much for having me and having a chat on this. And yeah, I hope everyone's just a little in line with how stoked we are on bikes and freeride. Freeride is for everyone, so let's just make that happen.
Note: after the recording of this interview, Red Bull responded to our request for comment with a statement that said they are "exploring with industry experts how we might develop a women’s category at Red Bull Rampage." We're hopeful it's a signal that things are moving in the right direction for 2024.