Red Bull Rampage is in full swing, the time of year when hordes of armchair experts take to their keyboards to spout off about who got robbed, and how the course is too groomed and manicured to really be considered 'freeriding.'
The heated debates about judging don't bother me too much – I totally get not being happy when your favorite athlete, the one whose progress you've been following 24/7 on social media, doesn't place as well as you think they should have. No matter how detailed the judging criteria gets there will still be contentious decisions; that's why things like the “People's Choice” award exist, to give that fan favorite run a little more time in the spotlight.
It's the idea that the Rampage lines are too manicured, too polished to count as freeride lines that gets under my skin. It's 2021, not 2001, and riders are going faster and bigger than ever, which means more prep work is required to ensure they can make it to the bottom in one piece. Back in the early days, the drops weren't as big and the speeds weren't as high, which made it possible to plop off a cliff into a sandy landing that had been scraped in over the course of a couple hours. That tactic simply doesn't cut it anymore – the chances of sticking a monstrous drop onto a raw landing are fairly slim, and even if someone managed to do it once, repeating that feat would be even more unlikely.
It's all too easy to become numb to the sheer size of the features found on the 2021 course, especially if you've never seen them in person. Watch enough helmet cam footage and highlights from past years and that 50-foot drop suddenly starts to seem normal, instead of being the incredible accomplishment that it actually is. It's akin to watching big wave surfers make 70-foot walls of water look like playgrounds. It looks almost doable, until you go to the beach and nearly drown trying to drop in on a mushy set of waves that are barely head high.
There's no room for error on most of the Rampage course – getting just a few inches off line can make the difference between stomping the landing or rag-dolling off a cliff and into a ravine. And yes, I know that plenty of people like watching crashes – the success of Pinkbike's Friday Fails is an unfortunate testament to that – but I don't count myself in that camp. I hate seeing crashes of any kind, especially when the terrain is as unforgiving as it is in the desert.
Rampage may be the modern day equivalent of a gladiator contest, but I don't want anyone to get eaten by lions. Those big landings and carefully sculpted lips act as islands of safety amidst all the wild terrain. They're small pockets where riders know what to expect, in between reaching terminal velocity when dropping into near vertical chutes, or pulling out a wild trick with massive exposure on both sides. To continue the ocean analogy, think of the big landings as the mountain biking equivalent of the airbag vests that surfers use to avoid getting held underwater. Those vests don't make the surfing accomplishments any less impressive, just like those landings shouldn't detract from the fact that 99.9% of the riding population couldn't complete a top-to-bottom run at the current Rampage venue.
No matter what, Rampage is
a freeride contest. What we're witnessing this week is the culmination of over two decades of progression. It's time to stop looking at the early days of freeriding with rose tinted glasses and embrace the current state of the sport. I've still got a soft spot for old janky stunts and weird slow speed technical maneuvers, but I'm not about to tell any of the diggers and riders who have been toiling away down in Utah that they're doing it wrong. Each team is making their vision of modern freeriding come to life, and I'm all for it. Bring on the big show.