A blood-curdling shriek pierces the darkness. “Rampage!” It’s Friday night at an impromptu campground in Virgin, Utah. The sun set hours ago, and the revelers are carrying on. Walking through the campsite is like being in an exposed field during an electrical storm. In the moments of eerie silence, you can feel the next eruption coming, long before the thunderous chanting streaks though the night sky. The energy builds like atmospheric static, and when it’s discharged in the form of a deafening roar, the experience is awe-inspiring. We spectators are a force of nature.
Mountain biking is a small sport, especially when considering niche events like this, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see so many old friends. Some are there as spectators, some carry media passes, and others are members of dig crews; building the insane lines that will soon become infamous. But it’s always good to see them. It’s a reminder that friendships remain strong despite years and miles. And it’s not just old friends that define the experience. Even when speaking with people I’ve never met, there’s a palpable sense of camaraderie. Whether freeriders or racers, professionals or party animals, we all belong to the same tribe now. We’re bonded by our desire to see modern day gladiators offer themselves at the altar of progression, in exchange for a shot at eternal glory.
Rampage is unapologetic in its commitment to all things manly. It’s a weekend dedicated to dirt, beer, grilling, pickup trucks, and huge airs. You could catch a buzz off of the testosterone, and yet, some of the most inspiring riders at Rampage are women. I’m standing in line for the shuttle vehicle, when I strike up a conversation with the girl standing behind me. It’s hard to tell which is more powerful, her love of riding, or the discomfort caused by her broken back. Well, not exactly broken, she explains, grinning despite the pain. Earlier in the week, she was riding jumps with her friends at the old Rampage course, and took a hard fall, compressing two vertebrae. She isn’t in any condition to make the hour long hike to the contest site, and she doesn’t have a pass for the shuttle, but there’s no way that she’s missing finals. A group of us huddle together, shielding her from the ticket checker’s stern gaze. The van fills up, but the driver lets our group of four sit in the back. “Just as long as you don’t throw up.” We shuffle in, and she sighs in relief. A flask of whiskey makes its rounds. The breakfast of champions.
After the shuttle vehicle departs, its human cargo is left at the foot of a foreboding red mountain. It seems to reach straight for the sky as it rises from the desert floor. Walking up the hill, the first of dozens of enormous wooden features comes into view. Hidden in between these heavily logoed ramps are hundreds of narrow, dusty paths, littered with people walking up to catch a glimpse of the action. Despite the previous day’s rain, the dirt sloughs off the hill heavy like snow. Pedestrians at higher elevation step off the hard-packed trails, showering those below in crimson dust and the occasional large rock. In any other setting, they’d be goat paths a foot wide, not to mention that they’d be rather challenging to cross on foot. But Rampage is anything but ordinary. Unannounced, a rider comes flying down one of these paths, launching a previously unseen gap. The chasm in question could easily contain every motorized vehicle on the hillside, and the rider’s arrival sends spectators diving off the track. Those of us without bikes need to keep our wits about us, lest we become unmarked hazards to the athletes we’re here to watch.
The speakers get warmed up to the sound of bro’d out MCs, and the tension starts to build. The sensation of static returns, and it makes the hair on your neck stand up. The event gets underway, and riders start to make their way down the course. Rider after rider charges down the unforgiving terrain. In the moments in between gargantuan airs, the crowd is gripped by an eerie silence, which erupts into deafening cheers as riders either stomp landings or crash violently. Overwhelmed volunteers have their hands full trying to stop the animated crowd from migrating up the hill beyond the “safe zone.” We’re told time-and-time-again that it’s for our own wellbeing. I know, however, that it’s not the truth. High speeds and obstructed lines of sight mean that the stakes are high for anyone dropping in, but it could get much worse if you find your line blocked by an oblivious fan. Restricting us from the top of the mountain is a way of keeping the riders safe. But the medevac helicopters circling the site are a reminder that in this environment, safety is illusory at best.
By now, you’ve seen the recap. A Californian becomes the first repeat winner with a run that, despite being incredibly technical and filled with massive hits, is somehow underrated by many of the fans. A Kiwi with flowing locks backflips over a canyon, taking second place, and capturing the hearts of everyone watching. A former Rampage winner sticks one of the gnarliest backflips ever. A Spaniard tears the mountain apart with energy normally reserved for hyperactive kids on a candy bender. Freeriding’s favorite little brother stomps the event’s most overlooked run. Looking outside the top five, a wryly-smiling Frenchman rips an amazing line that he describes simply as, “cool.” A World Cup Downhill prodigy rides an impossible section of the hill. A Canadian does arguably the most stylish move of the weekend, a textbook nosedive 360 that would make any BMX rider jealous. In other words, pretty much everyone who drops in does something truly amazing.
Sadly, the event closes on a serious note. A Utah rider crashes on a huge flip, breaking his femur and the concentration of the other riders. At that point, the wind is too much of a factor, so the course is closed and the results decided. Thus begins the exodus from the desert, and back to reality. My passenger seat window is rolled down, and as the parking lot grows smaller in the rearview, I hear one last “Rampage!” battle cry. It’s been an incredible weekend, and I can’t wait to do it again.
Photo By: Garson Fields