Hannah chats to Veronique Sandler to see what the Red Bull Formation women’s Freeride camp meant to her.
I’ve just given up trying not to put the heating on, and I’m wearing two jumpers and a hat. Veronique Sandler is just back from the Utah desert and refusing to put the heating on until November. When I catch up with on Facetime her she’s wearing her puffy down jacket indoors. Already, one of us is showing significantly more commitment to their goals. It might be a minor goal and a minor failing on my part, but in the Freeride world commitment is half the battle. You can’t change your mind once you’re in the air, and on the steep slopes around Virgin, Utah, there comes a point (somewhere quite close to vertical) where just going for it is the only option.
I’ve spoken to Vero before, about a year ago, when she and fellow riders Tahnée Seagrave and Katie Curd had said how much they wished that there could be an opportunity for female riders to try out the exposed and steep terrain that Red Bull Rampage is staged on. Casey Brown had just been out there shooting a video and being coached by former Rampage rider Brett Rheeder, and they felt it would be better for the sport of women’s Freeride if more women had that kind of chance.
One year on, and ‘#Formation’ and ‘#RedBull Formation’ appeared on the social media channels of some of the world’s top female riders. It wasn’t too clear what was happening, and unlike most Red Bull sponsored events there was no big press release, and no glossy file of images – just tantalising glimpses of some mind blowing Utah topography being reshaped and ridden by a small gang of women and team of helpers.
Vero is clearly buzzing from the experience, which it turns out was only pulled together at the last minute:
‘I’d always hoped something along those lines would go down, so it was cool to see it happen…Katie Holden came up with the whole idea, she had the idea for ages and probably wanted to make it happen for a long time, but they had problems getting the budget together for it and stuff like that, so it was touch and go for a while, then a month or so before it happened they were like “yup it’s all go, let’s get it done!”‘
It seems that this year’s Red Bull Formation was intended as a ‘Year Zero’ test event, to see what worked and what should happen next year as a ‘Year One’ bigger event. This and the slightly last minute nature of things perhaps explains the absence of PR and promotions, but it seems likely there will be some kind of edit forthcoming soon enough. Whatever, it’s great to hear that the plan is there for this to be the start of something, rather than a one off event.
‘None of it would have been possible without Red Bull. Chris, one of the marketing guys from Red Bull was there and he was super behind the project, and he was one of the main guys who made it all happen. I think there were probably a couple of people doubting it before it happened, but everyone’s super hyped on it now. Everyone’s behind it.’
‘They weren’t sure if it was going to happen at all, and next year they want to have a much bigger version of it with a bigger camp and way more women in it and stuff, but then kind of last minute they got the go ahead to do a mini version of it this year, they called it ‘Year Zero’…us girls testing it out and seeing what it will be like and we’re all giving feedback on how we think it could be improved and changed for next year… We were all learning, it was pretty new to all of us, the organisers, the riders, everyone. Trial and error and learning as we went along, together as a group, which was pretty cool.’
I wonder how distinctive from Red Bull Rampage it was intended to be – whether it’s the precursor to a women’s Rampage, or something else. Vero explained that the date was a product of the race schedule and the weather – it had to take place out of race season to get the riders, and just a few weeks earlier it had still been too hot to be digging all day in the desert. In which case, why the desert? Why the old Rampage site?
‘Freeride goes back so far in that region, the whole Rampage thing and the whole Utah thing is like almost where Freeride was born in a way, so I think it’s just a pretty appropriate place to have it and it’s such an iconic area for Freeride. It was the perfect place to have it. I think further down the line we’re kind of hoping that there’ll be something maybe not exactly the same as Rampage for women, but something along those lines. But it was just a women’s Freeride camp, which aims to encourage women and get them hyped on the Freeride side of things, there hasn’t really been much support in that area for ages. Women’s mountain biking has been prominent in racing, but the Freeride thing hasn’t had much support. They’re just hoping to grow the scene and get more people hyped on it.’
Experienced event organiser Rebecca Rusch helped keep the event on track, with everyone leaving the house at the right times to get to the dig site and so on, but in terms of teaching, learning and structure, the event was pretty freeform. Experienced Rampage rider Bas Van Steenberg helped bring his knowledge to how to dig the dry terrain, along with some locals.
‘Normally what I’m used to doing is digging in the winter where you’re trying to get rid of all the water, but this was like the complete opposite – we couldn’t have had enough water if we tried!’.
Tyler McCaul and Carson Storch also came along for a bit and helped provide tips on riding some of the lines – in some instances proving that things were easier than they looked.
As well as mountain bikers, there were some Red Bull sponsored athletes, including Tarah Gieger from the motocross scene and Michelle Parker the big-mount skier and keen mountain biker. Vero admits to being a massive motocross fan and being totally starstruck meeting Tarah, but enjoyed hearing Michelle’s experience in the ski scene which she says seems to be a more equal playing field between men and women than Freeride mountain biking.
‘For me personally it was cool to have it like in a session format rather than a competition, because it’s quite a different vibe when everyone’s all for themselves. It was pretty unique. On the women’s side of things I’ve never been part of something where everyone’s fully supporting each other and getting stoked and watching each other ride. I guess when you’re racing or in a competition of any kind you’re just there to win. This was just a cool vibe and everyone was super supportive of each other.’
Not competing is very much Vero’s thing, so I wondered whether the ‘no competition’ aspect was universally accepted as being the core part of the atmosphere that she saw it as being?
‘A couple of them definitely thrive off the competition set up, which is cool but I’ve always sucked at that. It’s not the kind of environment that I’ve ever done good in. In the evenings we’d have lots of little chats and recaps about the days. There were a couple of people who were like ‘Let’s just do it. Women’s Rampage. Let’s turn it into a competition!’. There were a couple of us who were like ‘It’d be sick to have something like this, do more of this kind of stuff, so you could go to a different country a do the same thing with a group of girls.’ Casey Brown was pretty up for that too. So, there was a bit of both going on and it will be interesting to see which direction it goes in. From the whole experience and the whole trip there’s definitely potential to build on both of those things.’
I suggest that, with some prominent retirements from the top level of the women’s scene, the timing is good for the women’s Freeride scene to grow, with a number of skilled riders freed from the demands of a race schedule and the need to win. Vero agreed.
‘Yeah, it’s super cool. People like Manon (Carpenter) are definitely going out there and enjoying exploring different aspects of riding now, which is sick to see.’
There were only two days of building at the Red Bull Formation camp, so there was a limit to how much could be built in that time. Each rider could take along two diggers, and with many of them being guys, Vero thinks it added to the dynamic of the event. The focus for riding was on the women choosing their lines and getting to ride them, but it wasn’t a ‘women only event’. Vero likes this aspect a lot and hopes that will continue into future formats.
With the limited time for digging, the teams worked together to create lines they could all ride, working collaboratively to incorporate their different desires, rather than each to their own. They made use of some pre-existing features, built by locals or on past years of Red Bull Rampage, while adding a few new pieces of their own. Vero says that the six riders’ characters and strengths showed in the different things they wanted to build to ride, with Micayla Gatto and Hannah Bergemann wanting to work on some ‘raw, gnarly chutes’, while Vero liked more bike park style lines like a berm into a jump that allowed her to do tricks such as crank flips and no-handers. Without judges to impress, there was less of a focus on the tricks and style, and more of a focus on seeing what could be ridden in the steep terrain. Vero admits that the exposure was nerve wracking.
‘It’s crazy! Tahnée was saying if there were trees there you probably wouldn’t be that scared, but because it’s so exposed there’s nothing to kind of base anything off! It’s just different. If you’re super comfortable in that terrain and your ride it all the time you probably wouldn’t find it gnarly, but it’s just such a different set up to what any one of us were used to. It was definitely scary, for sure. In the back of my head there was always the thought of going off a cliff or something. Even standing on some ridges we could feel weak in the knees! It’s so gnarly and it’s so crazy what those guys do at Rampage, it just makes you respect all that so much more.’
‘Still now, I’m still not too sure how grippy it is, because it’s such loose terrain. You think it could go either way. But it’s super cool to ride that kind of stuff.’
Despite the challenges, Vero is happy with what she achieved and her only regret is that – in true Rampage style – the wind prevented her from getting in a full second run. With a few bits on her first run that she’d have liked to tidy up, there’s a touch of unfinished business thanks to that infamous Utah wind.
Veronique talked repeatedly about the great atmosphere at Red Bull Formation, and how good it was to ride with women in such a supportive environment – working together, getting stoked together, having fun together, and learning together. She’s really keen for the non-competitive format to stay, at least for a few more years, while the scene grows. Whatever comes next though, I can agree with her final thoughts:
‘I’m hyped to see what it turns into. I think there’s potential to be something big’.