RED BULL RAMPAGE
MOUNTAIN BIKING’S VALHALLA TURNS 20
The evolution of mountain biking’s most famous event through the eyes of riders who helped make it a global phenomenon
Words & Photos by Ryan Cleek
In sport, after an event has proven itself to be uniquely challenging to its competitors, it can take on an abbreviated, or one-word nickname. Auto racing has “Indy” and “Daytona,” which are not unlike “The Derby,” when it comes racing on four legs rather than four wheels. In mountain biking, one event has truly earned its mono-monaker: Rampage.
It’s been 20 years since the inaugural Red Bull Rampage was held in the southern Utah desert just minutes outside of Zion National Park; and on Friday, October 15, the fifteenth event in that two-decade window went down. To say the event has had an almost immeasurable impact on mountain biking wouldn’t be an understatement, but even a world-renown sporting event has to start somewhere.
Val·hal·la | \ val-ˈha-lə
1: the great hall in Norse mythology where heroes slain in battle are received
2: a place of honor and glory
Build, test, rebuild. Kyle Strait tests out an upper section of his line, which he shares with Cameron Zink.
In the early days of Rampage, riders often had no choice other than to practically just skid down extremely steep, loose, and largely unmanipulated natural terrain riddled with massive cliffs, blind drops, and consequential ridgelines. Some thought the spectacular, dangerous, and nearly comical crashes of the first event made those brave riders and the burgeoning sport of freeride look foolish. Which, to an outsider, is understandable. Imagine if during the 1970s and 80s the only style of motorcycle riding ever seen on national television was Evel Knievel hucking his star-spangled, hillbilly carcass across the sky only to spectacularly implode into a heap of shattered, Wild Turkey-soaked bones? A bit of hyperbole? Indeed; yet, when the very first Rampage (2001) was born, big mountain freeride was still figuring out what it was all about, growing pains and all. However, it was the broken bikes and battered bodies of those early contests which built the foundation for what today is mountain biking’s most spectacular event. Like Cormac McCarthy wrote in “All The Pretty Horses,” “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”
It might have taken a few tries, but over time the Rampage not only found its sealegs, it evolved into a truly one-of-a-kind spectacle that combines highly consequential big-mountain riding with jaw-dropping slopestyle-like tricks on a dirt canvas that could only be crafted with highly creative trail building know-how. When viewing the Rampage through the lens of retrospection, Randy Spangler is uniquely qualified to comment on the contest’s evolution from a “skid-and-pray fest” (to quote Mr. Spangler) to its current state of incredible freeride feats performed by some of the sport’s most skilled, confident, and fearless riders. As an athlete, Randy competed in the first three Rampage events (2001-2003), and since 2009 he has been on the pre-event build crew that prepares the mountain for the riders to build their lines, while also being a longtime judge during the contest finals.
Randy Spangler’s history with the Red Bull Rampage ranges from riding in the first three events to being a part of the build crew that preps the mountain for the riders to judging the finals.
“When Rampage began, it was basically based off of big mountain skiing,” explains Spangler. “You looked at the mountain, chose your line, and rode what you saw in front of you. I don’t think that approach worked out that well over here, because this dirt is very soft and if you don’t do anything to prepare it to be ridden riders just load-up the front-end of the bike and go over the bars, which was something we all experienced in those first few Rampages. So, that meant for the event to progress and riders to really be able to show what they can do, the line building factor had to come into play—what we needed was water.”
A number of the riders who were a part of the early Rampages are still involved with the event in some capacity today. “I recently realized that over all of my time spent at the Rampage, whether as a rider, or part of the build crew, or as a judge, when all of that time is added together I’ve spent two years of my life out here working on this mountain specifically for Rampage,” said Spangler.
As mentioned, 20 years have gone by since the first Rampage contest. For some perspective, in this year’s event there are 19-year-old, first-year competitors, like Utah’s high-flying Jaxon Riddle. With a background in motocross and BMX, Riddle only recently took his skillset to mountain biking.
Nineteen-year-old Jaxson Riddle works on landing in preparation for his first Rampage appearance.
“I just got my first mountain bike five years ago, and although I was aware of Rampage, I never even thought about trying to compete,” said Riddle. “Now, it’s crazy to think that I’m in the event, and also digging and riding next to all of the sick riders I’ve seen here for years on TV. With huge cliffs everywhere out here, the veteran riders have given me a lot of help and advice when it comes to choosing and building my lines.”
One Rampage athlete can relate to Jaxson, as he rode at the Rampage as a young teenager, but he also competes today as a high-profile veteran of the contest. Kyle Strait, 34, is the only rider to have competed in every Rampage contest to date. At just 14 years old, he rode in the inaugural Rampage. Three years later, he’d win the 2004 contest, and he did so again in 2013 to become the first two-time Rampage champion. Two Rampage wins, along with being a world-class rider in multiple disciplines, perhaps Strait’s most impressive feat is simply being durable enough to regularly compete, not to mention consistently contend for the win, in a consequential contest which routinely sidelines mountain biking’s most skilled athletes. No other mountain biker has a perspective on the Rampage like Kyle Strait.
Kyle Strait is the only rider to compete in all 15 Red Bull Rampage events. His first appearance was 20 years ago at 14 years old.
“Over the years, Rampage has changed in a bunch of different ways,” said Strait. “What we can build now out here is nothing like how the event started. The first four years, we didn’t really build anything on our lines. We kind of just roughed up the raw, natural terrain, with rakes and maybe moved some rocks with picks and shovels, that was it. Once we are able to add water everything immediately changed for the better. Even when we had to hike up our own water to help us build the lines we wanted, that still was a big reason the event and our riding have evolved so much.
“In those beginning years, it was kinda like huck and pray. Whether that was related to the parts on your bike, your suspension, or frame, we all had a lot of broken stuff back then. Nowadays, most things hold up pretty well out here, unless we mess up really badly.”
Freeride is typically a young rider’s game. And, don’t be confused, there is no Masters division at the Rampage. Yet, twenty years after he first competed at Rampage as a 14-year-old boy, Strait still approaches the event with the drive and purpose necessary to endure all that is Rampage: long days of digging in rugged desert conditions; media obligations; and most obviously, actually riding his custom-built, white-knuckle-inducing line. When all of this is witnessed in person, it’s evident he’s still out there to win.
“My approach to Rampage almost changes every year,” said Kyle. “My approach the very first year was just ‘let’s see if I can ride this.’ From then on, it became how can I push it by getting better and drops and jumps, or whatever it may be to ride these lines. From there, my approach was `how can I improve my run, what can I add to my run, what’s important and what’s necessary to do well in the contest.’
As the riders became more comfortable riding and building on the unique Utah terrain, the level of riding began to elevate, as well.
“In many ways, the line building and rider progression go hand-in-hand,” said Strait. You see these massive, 100-foot landings out here that we built by hand (Kyle points toward his line). That area of the mountain used to be an unrideable cliff, now after two or three days of building it’s a landing for a huge drop. There was a window in the past where there were some wooden features on the mountain, but I don’t think I’m alone when I say I’m glad to see that go away and return to natural terrain, because this dirt has a lot to offer when you add water to it. With how much better we all got at building our lines, plus the bikes are so much better and more durable these days, I feel like we’re in more control than we ever were before, and that shows in the style of riding we’re able to do out here.”
In the early days of Rampage, spectators and media alike held their collective breath as each competitor descended the unruly Utah mountainside. Back then, sometimes the rider who crashed the least number of times could take the win. Today, riders continually go bigger while throwing more complicated tricks, and a practically perfectly executed run is necessary to stand atop the podium. Gone are the days of open qualifying to 40 or more riders hoping to compete on the Utah mountainside. This year, only 15 elite and highly accomplished freeriders (plus five alternates) are selected to contend for the title, a measure taken to ensure the sport’s most qualified riders drop in for the big show. Big-mountain freeride has solidified itself as a legitimate genre, and only the most capable riders on the planet are invited to the sport’s ultimate proving ground.
For years, Cam Zink and Kyle Strait join forces to build a line which they’ll share on their final runs.
Cameron Zink, another former Rampage champion whose feats on this Utah terrain will forever link his name to the contest said, “Just look at the 15 riders who are selected to compete at this year’s event. They’ve all done amazing things on bikes for many years and would largely be considered legends of the sport. When guys like Emil [Johansson] and Tommy G. are alternates, the level of riding to simply be selected is through the roof and all-time high.”
When witnessing the Rampage in person, it’s difficult to imagine riders in the future going bigger on steeper, gnarlier, or more demanding terrain; then again, 20 years ago the Rampage of today was unimaginable, as well. Both Zink and Strait cut their teeth on the elite World Cup downhill race scene before spearheading the freeriding movement of the early 2000s, long before most brands would sponsor a freerider. As riders who helped put freeride on the mountain bike map, where do they see the future of Rampage going in the next 20 years?
“In my opinion, the future of where Rampage goes in the future is wholly dependent on the venues and sites riders have access to,” explains Zink, who first competed at the Rampage in 2003, before winning the title in 2010. “You can dream up whatever run you’d want to do and practice those tricks at home on your own time, but the reality is everything is dependent on what the site and venue has to offer when it comes to terrain. It took a long time for the Rampage to take the shape of what it has turned into today, in terms of building proper terrain for big mountain riding. If it’s possible to find better venues for us to build and ride that will keep progressing the event forward, but it’s really hard to find a site that’s even as good as this one.”
“I think the future of Rampage, or how it evolves over the next decade comes down to what kind of support the athletes get to do the event from the brands they ride for and from the Rampage venues. Our line building skills are getting better and better, and it’s possible to keep moving forward to new venues that offer great terrain for the riders to put on a show. Each Rampage venue offers something different, like the one this year has the gnarliest chute ever with a good run out that makes it possible to ride. Whereas other venues may have more big drops in the middle of the mountain, which would completely change how riders approach that site versus the one we’re riding here. The event and the riding are currently at all-time highs, so if we can keep moving forward with the right venues to build the lines to showcase their riding, along with riders being supported to pursue freeride, I do think Rampage can keep progressing in the direction it is going.”