“I’m scared shitless,” says Todd Barber. “The morning of, I feel like I’m going to war on the beaches of Normandy.” The sentiment by the co-creator of the most jaw-dropping mountain bike competition in the world neatly sums up its intimidation factor. A veritable battleground that tests human potential in every way imaginable, Red Bull Rampage has made a mark on action sports that goes beyond the realm of biking enthusiasts.
Preparation for the event begins one week before the two-day competition, when riders and their support teams show up at the base of towering 70-foot red-rock cliffs and punishing canyon gaps to plot out their routes. And this is what distinguishes it from nearly every other competition on the planet. The course is what they make it—using picks and shovels to carve out the lines down the mountain that might secure them victory. “It’s where imagination meets craziness,” says Jeremy Grant, who has filmed every Rampage event as creative director at Freeride Entertainment. “You can be as crazy as you want, but if you don’t have the creativity to find a new line you won’t do well.”
So why go to dizzying heights to see what the mind and body can achieve? “You’ll get 40 different answers for why the athletes push themselves,” says Barber. “Personal goals, fame and glory, sponsorships, girlfriends.” But while the impetus for competing in the event may vary, an overarching theme emerges when the dust of madness clears. “When you push your own limits you figure out who you are,” says six-time Red Bull Rampage competitor Darren Berrecloth. “You only know who you really are when you’re at that edge.” We look back at 10 years of holy shit …
2001: HUMBLE ROOTS
Beginning in 2001 in the Utah desert, the early years of Red Bull Rampage were raw, unfiltered attempts to make big- mountain riding something worth paying attention to. “It went from a bunch of crazy dudes in the desert hucking themselves off cliffs to now you have a million people tuning in worldwide,” says competitor Berrecloth. “People’s careers are made or broken from this event.” Canada’s Wade Simmons, also known as the “Godfather of Freeriding,” secured his spot in history with the first winning run down an entirely natural course—something that in later years would be exchanged for man-made features and massive jumps.
2002: BIGGER, BETTER
Confidence grew after co-founder Todd Barber and crew realized they could pull this thing off. The magnitude of jumps exploded as riders pushed the possibilities of “big.” “There is a flame, a spark that ignites in the desert with all these riders together,” says Grant. These were the glory days of reckless enthusiasm, where anything was possible and everyone was willing to let the landscape define them. The event staked its claim to Utah’s dusty desert floor as the ultimate proving ground on a bike. Year two showed that not only could you build an event around high-risk freeriding, but that it could resonate beyond the scene.
2003: FIND THE BEST LINE
Things turned technical when riders showed up for the first time with build teams prepped to carve unique paths down the mountain. Routes became individualized, letting riders showcase their personal style. “The first few years everything was raw,” says Randy Spangler, who has been at every Red Bull Rampage, first as a rider and now as part of the official course-building team. “And you still want it raw now, but if you don’t do some manicuring you can’t progress the sport.” The event morphed from a venue for riders to push their limits on fear alone into an elevated state of sport-defining planning and execution. If the previous year had been about going massive, this year’s competition was about refining an event that was growing in popularity. It was also the first year the event attracted a substantial number of spectators, who headed out to a course more than two hours’ drive from Las Vegas.
2004: THE PERFECT STORM
Faster, bigger riding meant supercharged stakes. “As dangerous and extreme as it is, it’s also very calculated,” says Derek Westerlund, founder of Freeride Entertainment. “Danger is part of the job description. It’s no different than football or automobile racing.” Kyle Strait—a rider who has participated in every Red Bull Rampage—secured his first victory by flying over the “Mansize Gap,” an enormous 70-something-foot split in the earth that could devour anything man- sized that entered it. Strait was 17 years old at the time.
After the results of his win were called, he pranced around grinning uncontrollably and wore a bear costume for his trip to the podium. As young as he was and as foolish as he might have seemed, there was no doubt about the poise and focus he exhibited earlier in the day, when he took his hands off the handlebar, midair, over the gap. Many thought the move was the ceiling of what was humanly possible on the event course. Though there had been injuries aplenty before—including a few serious leg breaks by competitors dropping down the cliff—there was a general sense that the limits had been reached. Organizers put the event to sleep over the next three years.
2008: NEW KID ON THE BLOCK
Red Bull Rampage arose from hibernation with a vengeance. “We don’t see it as putting ourselves in danger. This is what we’re comfortable doing—this is what we do for fun. If there was a shuttle to the top [of the course], I’d go ride this course every day,” says Berrecloth. That youthful glee carried 17-year-old Canadian rider Brandon Semenuk to victory, which he took with a style that belied his years.
2010: MAJOR REWARDS
Cameron Zink, who Westerlund calls “one degree shy of crazy when it comes to riding a mountain bike,” finally nails it after years of attempting a 360° spin down the face of a cliff. Landing this trick set a benchmark for what was possible—not only for the sport but also for Zink as an individual. “Zink transitioned from this madman to a family man and still stayed at the top of the sport. He would do the biggest, craziest stuff, and when he found out his girlfriend was pregnant, it allowed him to focus. He pulled off even more amazing things with that focus,” says Grant.
As riders moved away from bigger and better and narrowed their focus, risks became more calculated and streamlined in a way that made previously impossible moves perfectly plausible.It was also the year that new man-made structures sent the entire course into space, as the “Oakley Icon Sender” was born—a steep wooden ramp that connects the top section of the course to the bottom of the mountain. The Sender went through several iterations; two years after it was born, Zink asked for a small lip to be built at its very top ahead of his run. After a meandering upper section, he rocketed off the lip and nailed the biggest backflip in mountain-biking history.
2013: PHYSICS- DEFYING
New Zealand rider Kelly McGarry took what was thought insane—crossing a 72-foot-long canyon gap—and married it with what the laws of physics would deem impossible: backflipping while crossing it. The year was also notable because it exhibited the volatility of the mountain, where weather has caused problems seven out of the 10 years. Organizers cancelled the second of two runs because of heavy winds. As a result, the winner was announced off of the first round-scores, giving the victory to Strait, who became the first repeat winner in Red Bull Rampage history. But for the riders, there’s a siege mentality in taking on a course like this that trumps much of the scoreboard watching. “These guys are all your friends and when they drop in, your heart stops beating,” says Grant. “But the feeling of when they cross the finish line and get it, it’s so high. It’s a total roller coaster. You get why they do it.”
2015: LIMITS REACHED
“We’re at a plateau state right now where if you go too much further the risks are exponential. In terms of the size of gaps, jumps and drops we are at a standstill—and I’m comfortable with that,” says Berrecloth. Kurt Sorge (right) brought a new level of fearlessness to the event in 2015, clinching victory after coming back from injury. “He got hurt after winning in 2012 and started losing sponsors. The industry started to doubt him. Kurt standing on the podium this year is a huge deal,” says Grant. “I think the event shows how hard you have to work for something,” says Sorge. “Surviving the event makes you appreciate everything in your life more.”