On The Rampage: Behind Freeride’s Biggest Freakshow

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This story first appeared in Issue 103 of Singletrack magazine. 

Everyone knows about the riders of the Red Bull Rampage; the drops and hucks. but no one ever sees the hundreds of faithful fans who camp in the Utah desert and trek miles to watch and help make it the spectacle it is.

WORDS BY FAHZURE FREERIDE // PICTURES BY ROB NORBUTT

issue 103, red bull, rampage

Probably the first things you’ll notice are the contrasts:

the brilliant cobalt blue sky against terracotta red mesas, flecked by juniper green dots. Or you may notice the billowy cottonball clouds against the dry air, strongly scented with sagebrush. But come the middle of October in Virgin, Utah, the biggest contrast – the one everyone has come here to see – is the age-old ‘man against mountain’. More precisely, Red Bull Rampage is ‘man against desert’ where as Edward Abbey predicted: “An increasingly pagan and hedonistic people (thank God!), we are learning finally that the forests and mountains and desert canyons are holier than our churches.” The Church of Freeride is holding its annual pilgrimage.

Oddly, while the bicycle industry has abandoned freeride, a growing number of riders express their passion by digging their lines, flying with style and taking time to session. And, of course the pros do it with so much daring that Rampage is easily mountain biking’s biggest spectacle. But, unlike most pro sports events, Rampage has a shadow side, one that holds dear to its grassroots: a Mad Max culture where, at times, it is difficult to tell the difference between the riders, spectators, diggers, media and Red Bull staff. And those are essentially the divisions, along with a few VIPs thrown in. Each of these divisions, made identifiable by wristband colour, have different levels of entitlement and access. Sure, you might be a bit jealous of the swamp-cooled shady tents or catered lunches that some with a higher standing than spectators receive. And you may want a little bit more access or the ability to move around unimpeded, but all of that matters little to most spectators at Rampage . They are all-in.

Going all-in

‘All-in’ means becoming part of the community, the temporary autonomous zone that is Burning Man for freeriders.

Many people camp just north of the current Rampage site along Kolob Creek or in adjacent canyons near the original Rampage site. With shade, water and the best riding spots in Utah just across the street, the creek-side locale provides an easy living for the community of Rampage loyalists that grows over the course of the two weeks before the event.

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The inundation begins with riders and their digging teams showing up in those two or so weeks, many of them using Las Vegas as a landing spot. While the event site is not ‘closed’, there is no support for diggers or athletes until one week before the event so most of the riders spend time scoping lines and riding at the old Rampage site or on the nearby Grafton and Flying Monkey trails. Because the more elite riders can afford to put their teams up in hotels, the privateers begin the population of the creek-side camping with portable lodging in a variety of fashions: RVs, tents, and U-Haul rentals. Even though the towns of Hurricane and St. George are less than an hour away, the kind of time involved getting back and forth from the course makes those trips, or the extravagant trip to Vegas, precious and action packed.

In the week before qualifications, the course opens for fully supported building with water trucks, lunch service, shuttles and first aid. Simultaneously, the community of freeriders and fans begins to explode in the creek-side camp area as some of the early diggers and riders move to more stable accommodation in anticipation of the event. The campground and area trails begin to get busy a couple of days before qualifications, and while it seems that about every other person is a Utah yahoo, that means every other person is part of the great freeride diaspora, with riders and fans arriving from Europe, Asia, South America and the Middle East. In a variation of the Western Loop of National Parks, an increasing number of freeride fans use Las Vegas as a jumping-off point for an adventure that includes a mix of Rampage, Moab, Fruita, Sedona, Flagstaff and Bootleg (Boulder City), each offering a different twist on classic autumn desert riding.

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Freeride funhogs and desert dirtbags.

Some of these freeride groupies opt out of the dirtbag experience and go full tourista, renting a Fiat 500 and staying at the La Quinta down in Springdale. But most freeride funhogs choose to experience the desert natively and are often a little better equipped than their professional(ish) brethren when they roll into camp. An assortment of recreation vehicles, EZ-Ups, Sprinter vans, travel trailers and expedition tents fills the campground on the Kolob in the days preceding qualifications, during which the course is closed to spectators. The fact that the course is closed to most of those camped at the centre of the freeride universe merely means that revelry will be active, for just across the road is the original Rampage site.

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As the main event has moved, now twice, to bigger venues, the original site has been transformed over the years into a freeride playground with plenty of options for kids of all ages. With features like the ‘Bender Drop’ in the background, the new terrain is sculpted from the same cookie-dough hero dirt that the pros ride. Many folks focus on Baby Steps, a less than a quarter-mile long ridgeline-to-hip-kicker that offers good lines of sight and safe, moderate jumps and drops, all rollable. You can extend Baby Steps and your skills by hiking further up the ridge where you’ll encounter bigger, 2+ metre drops and terrain used in the first four Rampages. Here the air pulses with excitement and anticipation, not just for Rampage but for the freeride fest that is about to be.

issue 103, red bull, rampage

issue 103, red bull, rampage

Typically, Rampage qualifications take place two days prior to finals, with a dig day in-between to allow riders to prep the course. By the night before qualifications, the campgrounds and surrounding lodging in the Virgin area are mostly filled with a thousand or so members of the freeride community. Campfires buzz, but are extinguished early, knowing that tomorrow is a full day in the desert. The morning of qualifications begins early for everyone in camp, whether you want it or not, as calls and responses of ‘Raaaammmpage’ echo across the valley bottom every few minutes, starting at sunrise. The wise and experienced move quickly to fuel up and gather a day’s worth of supplies. The two-mile, uphill, dirt-road trek to the site, for all but the privileged, must be accomplished under your own power, limiting your carrying capacity. The foolish few walk, while most roll out to what has to be the largest, most remote bicycle valet service in the world, parking 500+ bicycles.

Close to the action.

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Rampage, unlike most downhill and even slopestyle events, offers unparalleled spectating opportunity.

With almost one thousand feet of vertical drop, no trees, and several minutes between riders, the show unfolds three-dimensionally, with plenty of time for awe-filled reflection and analysis, bolstered by your fellow freeride freaks. Because most of the spectators are planning to party during their experience, you will witness a wide variety of conveyances for libations: messenger bags lined with silver bubble wrap, previously frozen box wine in a bag, plastic bags of beer in a down coat in a backpack, CamelBaks full of who knows what, and a car-muffler sized flask.

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The day ebbs and flows through the riders, most folks happy to see accident-free runs – a few more partisan with passion for particular riders. Lunch comes and goes with many in attendance seeking a quick shady respite or opportunity to empty for the afternoon liquid reload. Afternoon qualifications are intense, as this is it for most who choose to take a second run, so risk-taking and anticipation are high. As this mixes with the crowd’s weed, alcohol and heat-strained buzz, a supportive, convivial air rises in the crowd with different sectors of the crowd calling each other out with Vuvuzela and Raaaammmpage. The afternoon of qualifications usually wraps quickly, with many riders not taking second runs, and the crowd exits en masse, resulting in chaos at the bike valet. With light fading fast, most folks make a beeline to their nests for a quick meal and preparations for the ‘rest’ day.

Most years, the rest day occurs between qualifications and finals and results in the whole community of freeride freaks dispersing across the local trails Grafton, Flying Monkey and, for the tamer crowd, JEM. The day is usually capped by Fanpage, a freeride freak-off session, with prizes, raffles, step-up lines, $5 tricks and lots of sending. Of course, 2015 was another ‘anomalous’ year with the schedule weather-changed, moving finals to Friday, in anticipation of an approaching storm. And so consecutive mornings ring to the Raaaammmpage yells of the dawn patrol…

This year’s final.

From a spectating standpoint, Friday’s main event was much like Thursday’s qualifications, with about the same sized crowd and schedule. Of course, everyone was treated to new lines, bigger moves and more experienced riders. The expected battle of the Fest riders vs. the slopestyle kids never really materialised, but most fans hardly care about the judging. The fact is, with every rider uniquely interpreting the terrain through near superhero moves, the spectators are more impressed by the diversity in riding than they are subjective judgements about difficulty and line choice.

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This year again weather affected the finals, shortening it because of wind and leaving the last couple of riders to sit out their second runs.

Paul ‘Bas’ Basagoitia’s fall was a blow to the crowd, reminding the wildly enthusiastic of the gravitas of the competition. Nonetheless, the freeride faithful were only beginning to have their fun.

With an early wrap on the event, there was plenty of time for sending at the old Rampage site and participating in the Fanpage carnival. It peaked with dozens of freeriders dotting the hillsides and kicker lines, much like when the rope drops on a powder snow day with each rider uniquely interpreting their line. Amid the ‘did you see that(s)?!’, the cacophony of visual images is confusing and dangerous. With riders, media and spectators all unclear and unregulated, near misses are fairly common, but collisions are thankfully, rare. The sun has a natural way of controlling these things and about the time people start to get stupid and pissed, the show moves across the street to camp.

Several of the camps along the creek have sound systems, some of them light shows and, at least one, the Park City Old Town Guerrillas, regularly features DJs. The party which, this year and usually, includes fire jumping, dancing and arguing about superlative performance, goes on until almost dawn across half a dozen bonfires spread along a mile or so of creek. People make forays out of their camps and tour the scene, some of them lost, others searching, but all seeming to know they had found their place. This year, the morning after finals was, unusually, a Saturday, meaning the freeride fest would continue for a bit for many – for others and soon all, the freeride freak diaspora would begin. No doubt these itinerant freeriders are out now spreading the gospel until next year’s Rampage revival.

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