Within the universe of mountain biking, Red Bull Rampage is something of an anomaly.
While most events skew relatable and participatory (think Grinduro), or loosely aspirational (ie. World Cup racing, or some of the great adventure races), Rampage occupies an entirely different space in our collective psyche. In a sport where risk-taking and progression are glamorized, Rampage represents the illogical extreme. It’s a place for the world’s best to prove how much they’re willing to risk in their quest for glory. And the upshot is that once a year, just outside of Zion National Park, we mortals are able to witness something exceedingly rare—moments of vulnerability for the seemingly invincible titans of the sport.
The new venue, as seen on the walk in. Although this image gives a sense of the scale, it does no justice to how much exposure this terrain offers.
The historical argument in favor of Rampage has been one of excellence. From road racing to football, there’s something captivating about watching athletes who are both gifted and dedicated performing at the uppermost reaches of their human potential. Rampage offers these moments by the truckload. Every year, the sport’s most accomplished stars and hungriest up-and-comers stick lines that are bigger, more exposed, and packed with more tricks than ever before, and for many fans, that’s enough. The relentless march of progression keeps many of us returning to Southern Utah every October, and many more glued to our screens wherever we may be, bearing witness to what is arguably the highest level of riding possible at that very moment.
Two-time Rampage winner Kyle Strait was unable to reach the podium, in spite of a huge, incredibly stylish run.
Seeing as many of the POV clips from Rampages past have joined the ranks of the internet’s most-watched videos, it’s probably safe to assume that most cyclists have at least a passing familiarity with the energy drink-fueled freak show. Although the prototypical big mountain freeride contest saw its inaugural edition in 2001, this year marked only the 11th time the event has been run. After the 2004 edition, citing concerns over the increasing degree of danger to which riders were submitting themselves, the promoters called off the event, presumably for good. It didn’t reemerge again until 2008, after the appetite for a more challenging freeride competition had become too significant to ignore. However, this year’s brand-new venue, the fourth used to date, reignited the conversation about risk-taking in a big way.
Fan favorite Graham Agassiz, mere moments before disaster. Landing inches to rider’s right of his landing netted him a broken pelvis. Thankfully the medical staff was on him within seconds, and he’s currently on the path to recovery.
By now, you may be thinking, “Rampage is supposed to be dangerous. Without danger, it’s pointless.” In principle, that logic is hard to dispute. For years now, industry icons, professional riders, and spectators alike have wondered aloud about the probability of truly catastrophic injuries, yet every year the most daring freeriders make the pilgrimage to Virgin, Utah to defy those odds. As we witnessed in 2015 with Paul Bassagotia’s life-changing accident, those risks are anything but theoretical. But hard as it is to believe, this year’s venue raised the bar a few notches higher, and the riders are starting to take note.
Last year’s winner Kurt Sorge blasting the same drop that had ended Graham Agassiz’s season only minutes before.
Something happened this year that is, as far as anyone I spoke with can remember, unprecedented. Last year’s “Best Trick” winner Sam Reynolds opted not to take his run, voicing concerns about the danger involved. While others have opted out after experiencing the terrain in person for the first time (Kirill Benderoni, anyone?), we’ve never seen that choice made by a top rider with an established history of navigating the steep, exposed lines for which Rampage is infamous. But perhaps more amazing was the response, which has been almost universally one of praise from riders and fans alike.
Brendan Semenuk took his second Rampage win this year with a technical line that started off with this unforgiving double drop. He opted out of a second run once it became apparent he had won. Unlike most contests, the terrain at Rampage is so dangerous that there would be no victory lap for the style king.
At the center of Reynolds’s decision was the first move of most rider’s runs, a drop off the starting platform onto an incredibly narrow spine, flanked on either side by sheer drops that promised deadly consequences. Although there was safety netting to the right, it offered little comfort, a fact that became all too apparent during the final practice session, when more than a few of the top competitors made their first attempts at riding their lines, each time slamming on the brakes at the last possible second and returning to the top for another pass at it. A number of people typically thought of as fearless repeated this dance, in some cases more than a dozen times before finally completing this do-or-die move. For a group of professional risk takers well acclimated to what many would consider unreasonable danger, seeing them wrestling with borderline debilitating fear is surreal.
Thomas Genon hitting the drop in question. What you can’t see is just how vertical the terrain is on either side of the landing. Sam Reynolds is not exaggerating when he talks about 100-foot drops.
This is not what fans are used to seeing, and that’s precisely why moments such as these matter to our sport. These are people who are widely accepted as the best in their field, known for huge tricks and cinematic video segments that offer up the carefully crafted impression that they know no fear. To see these riders grappling with terrain that puts them at the bleeding edge of their abilities, both physical and mental, is to humanize a corner of the sport that can feel impenetrable for riders without a death wish. No amount of POV footage can truly convey the experience of jumping canyons, but every single person who has ever ridden a bicycle knows what it’s like to feel fear in the pit of their stomach, and to push through. It’s a common thread that binds us all, and Rampage is an opportunity to appreciate that, at least in some ways, the heroes of freeriding are more like the rest of us than we think.
With this year’s edition in the books, we wait in tense anticipation to see what the future holds for freeriding’s premier event.