If this were the Alps, there’d be a safety rope. The mountain ridge is less than three feet wide. On one side, the abyss drops maybe 200 feet, twice that on the other side.
“The crash that ends your career is always within the scope of the possible,” says Brit Gee Atherton, the 2012 downhill mountain bike world championship runner-up. He’s resting up right now, having injured his ankles in a full-tilt smash during a practice run for the Red Bull Rampage event. Hanging around at the finish line, resting on his crutches, or, better still, sitting down, a packet of ibuprofen poking out of the pocket of his shorts.
The summit of this mountain bike event looms out of the Utah desert. Spectators scramble for spots; they crouch on their heels, skidding down six critical feet. They’re a friendly bunch up here, offering a helping hand whenever it is required. The view is breathtaking. Geography teachers should bring their field trips to Virgin, Utah. Without saying a word, kids would understand tectonics, erosion, and rock composition.
In the character of this magnificent reddish-brown mountain lies the secret of Red Bull Rampage -- the impossibility of re-creating it elsewhere. It is delicate, fragile sandstone, or, rather, stony sand, which easily crumbles into anything from big clumps to the finest dust. When combined with water, the sand hardens to become stable, but not set like cement.
Such terrain only survives in frost-free areas with little rain. It’s a glimpse back at the crumbling monuments of a primeval world.
"This is the contest that everyone wants to win. It defines mountain biking’s limits."
One guy not singing the praises of the Utah desert’s geological features is Brandon Semenuk, winner of the 2008 Red Bull Rampage. He has traveled to the final competition in Virgin as the leader of the Freeride Mountain Bike World Tour.
“The ground is hard to read, and that doesn’t make you particularly confident,” he says. This could be read as understatement from a dominant rider who has won the 2012 season’s largest and most important freeride events, but the Canadian muscleman with the designer grunge haircut is being totally honest.
“Red Bull Rampage is in a league of its own. This is the contest that everyone wants to win. It defines the limits of mountain biking every time.”
Semenuk, 21, watched his first Red Bull Rampage at the age of 11, when the event was held on the other side of the village of Virgin; Thomas Vanderham, 31, from Canada, has raced in every Rampage to date. “This year is my seventh time here,” says the charismatic rider from British Columbia. Vanderham has been dubbed the Roger Moore of freeriding, because of his oh-so-cool way of brushing the dust from his jacket after the wildest rides. He thinks this impression is wrong, “I’ve actually been badly injured,” he says.
“I don’t sleep very well before Red Bull Rampage, even though I know what I have to do. I vividly recall the night before my first attempt; none of us had any idea. I didn’t get a wink of sleep. It was probably not the best way to prepare.”
The way to prepare, says Vanderham, is to focus on the strengths of, and avoid any weaknesses in, the composition of the course. The only fixed points are the start gate and the finish line; everything else in between is open, the possibilities for creativity endless.
As a rider, during the Monday to Thursday before qualifying on Friday, and on Saturday’s rest day before finals day on Sunday, you can dig and irrigate as much as you want; you can build with wood and stone and you can grab as many helping hands as you can find. It’s your mountain, your line, your will, your skill. Your madness, your demons. Your fear, your body, your limits. Your run at Red Bull Rampage -- it’s you.
Vanderham (pictured above) doesn’t compete regularly. These days, he’s more into making mountain biking videos and traveling. “The only exception is Red Bull Rampage,” he says. “I’m real good at the wide, fast jumps. I love big mountain races, extreme terrain.” Ever tried a backflip? “Once or twice, but it feels weird hanging upside down under the bike. I’m more into the long jumps.”
As a logical consequence of his preferences, Vanderham and his backup troops build a landing on the opposite slope, which is higher by at least 15 feet than that of the t-crossing, i-dotting Martin Söderström, who uses the same jump at this spot.
The lanky Swede is making his debut at Red Bull Rampage, and the fact that he travels to Utah as the runner-up of the FMB World Tour doesn’t make it easier for him. It’s a case of all or nothing, especially since Semenuk is considered much more of a big-mountain specialist than Söderström with his dirt-jump background.
In the lead-up to the event he suspected that Red Bull Rampage would be bigger than anything he had ever done before. The sheer size of the jumps, absurd gradient, and exposure of the terrain have put Europe’s best freerider under more pressure than he could have imagined. His strategy: survive the wild upper part and excel at the bottom, with its largely artificial obstacles. He hides his trepidation behind his wide smile, but those who watch carefully notice that Söderström (pictured below) is out practicing a good part of his course while everyone else is either tinkering around with their bikes or licking their wounds.
In the midst of all the bike talk and dismissal of bruises is a chattering freerider who couldn’t care less. “It’s an important contest, but it’s just a contest.”
Do you fear it? “No, man.” Excited, nervous? “Why, man?” Who will win? “Lots of the guys could, man.” Including you? “Totes, man!” Andreu Lacondeguy, undoubtedly one of the favorites this year, is letting off steam. As a rookie two years ago, he finished fourth after a gust of wind blindsided him and his bike on a backflip.
The Catalonian is always accompanied by his brother, Lluis, a happy-go-lucky kid and a demon on a BMX. (To distinguish between them: Andreu’s knuckles are tattooed with LOVE DIRT, Lluis’s read RIDE BMX.) “I think Red Bull Rampage is less dangerous than other events,” says Andreu, “because you build your own takeoffs and landings and you don’t have to rely on the stuff brainless track builders usually come up with.”
There’s a sense in the paddock that this year’s judges will be looking more for creativity and big-mountain skills. The days when bold idiots could gamble with a single killer trick are over. “In 2001,” Vanderham says, “you needed a lot more balls than skills. Today it’s more balanced.” Gee Atherton is on the other side of the balls-versus-skills debate.
He hits an overhang with the right side of his body and head a good 30 feet above the ground; he blacks out momentarily -- his helmet is covered in blood.
Despite his ankle injuries, he drags himself onto his bike at 8 in the morning on the day of the event, when the light is still clear and the spectators are few. The 60-foot drop he’s aiming to do is the biggest of his career. He hits an overhang with the right side of his body and head a good 30 feet above the ground; he blacks out momentarily -- his helmet is covered in blood. It’s not a career-ending injury but a season-ending one. It is no coincidence that Red Bull Rampage is the last stop before the winter break.
Semenuk’s line from the mountain is bold. Only he would contemplate riding it, let alone actually go through with it. However, a couple of careless mistakes send him crashing out in both his runs. Suddenly, the FMB World Tour is wide open.
Vanderham slams out two more Roger Moore runs. With these he would very likely have won all Red Bull Rampages to date. In 2012, they enable him to post an impressive seventh top-10 finish in the history of the event. Van the Man is happy, and now looking forward to the ski season.
Dark horse Lacondeguy makes two relatively unspectacular screwups. His chattering now has an angry undertone. He finishes fourth again.
Söderström rides the steepest learning curve of the weekend. In his final runs, it is hard to imagine that this is his first time here. Although he rode a bike usually used by recreational and junior downhill riders, he makes the difficult upper section of the mountain look like a walk in the park. Below, he shines as expected -- until the last jump.
On the way to overall victory of the FMB World Tour, his jeans catch on the saddle while he executes his very last 360° jump, leaving his Björn Borg underwear exposed to the crowd.
Söderström is pissed off, “but being the second-best freerider in the world is not so bad.” It means Semenuk is crowned winner of the FMB Tour.
Other finishers: American rider Wil White, on a bike that would have been considered scrap metal 10 years ago. Geoff “Gully” Gulevich, who makes jumps where other riders just feel their way. Gulevich’s fellow Canadian, Kurt Sorge, who knocks out two insane runs, charms the judges and wins the event. Best news for all concerned: confirmation of the 2013 event, again to be held in Virgin, Utah.
Check out the January 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands December 11) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.