Kamikaze 5
Kamikaze 5

The Kamikaze… it’s safe to say that it's the most notorious downhill track of all time. I couldn't wrap my head around it until I rode it a couple years back. Basically the only way to do it is to just tuck and pin it harder than your nerves tell you to... the increased level of comfort is nominal at best, but the faster you go the safer you really are. To a varying extent at least. The daunting factor is that for a good chunk of the track there is basically a cliff on your left and piles of jagged death boulders on your right. It's cute when people say it is “just a stupid fire road". Most of those people have never ridden it, and it's safe to say they clearly have never hit 50–60 miles per hour on it.


Words by Ian Collins. Photo by Ian Collins

Recently I was lucky enough to head north from my home to Mammoth Mountain in California and shoot some photos of the first inaugural Kamikaze Bike Games. Initially I was just heading up to shoot some race pictures of the US national race. After catching wind of a ‘legends’ race on Kami I took one look at the confirmed rider list and was giddy. A lot of work must have gone into organising something of this calibre that pulled this many bad asses. Hats off to the people that made it happen. Anyhow, I thought it would be a hoot to see a bunch of fossilised game changers rallying and drifting around on the infamous kitty litter that this iconic track was, and still is, comprised of.

Mammoth is truly a freak of a mountain. It's bald, virtually devoid of trees up top. Built from volcanic activity and glacial movement, you really do feel like you're on the moon. The ‘dirt’ is basically pumice stone. Light, loose, and deep, you have to get comfortable with the fact that you can't stop on a dime. In fact you can't do anything on a dime. It's truly unique, feels totally foreign and you have to just accept it or get broken. Back before bikes had evolved in the slightest, this place was the Holy Grail of pushing things to the limit before the technology was there. Although it sounds nuts and I wouldn't want to try, it was conceivable and it's historically accurate that the godmothers and godfathers of the sport careened down this track at speeds of up to around 70 miles per hour. They did this on low–tech bikes with black S&M looking skin suits, bowling ball helmets and no visors. Most of them had chainrings of around 52 teeth up front so they could really lay into the track and get up to top speed and pedal while tucking into the most aerodynamic position that was humanly possible.

This weekend was a bit different. No John Tomac, no Missy Giove, no Myles Rockwell (all huge names in the history of the sport and Kamikaze legends). Still a stacked cast though. Riders from all over the spectrum, pioneers like Greg Herbold to local legend Jeremy Purdy. Twenty Four year old Kyle Strait showed up for his first time to even ride on the historic track. Monumental World Cup talent Giovanna Bonazzi flew in from Italy for more than the sake of nostalgia. The contrast on the invite list was truly sensational; a varying mix that stacked up nicely.

The track was interesting, comprising of two stages which eventually finished down in the village. Stage one was basically the proper upper Kamikaze track that dropped 1,932’ over 3.2 miles, the other was lower Kamikaze (2.0), dropping 1,169’ over 2 miles. Fair enough. As I cruised the pits I saw quite a range of equipment. I initially heard and expected it was mandatory for riders to shred their old bikes from way back in the stone age. Turns out that wasn't the case, but after a couple of minutes of spectating I realised it was probably for the better. It was easy to see who was still in the industry, and who was just stoked to throw a rig together and get out. Certain riders like Dave ‘Cully’ Cullinan had bikes that even current World Cup qualifiers would drool over, while some cats like Tattoo Lou DeAngelis clearly were in need of some fresh bits. I spotted Kelly Lee's Yeti complete with a 150mm 30º rise blue anodized Ringle stem, I tripped on Mike Galeota's GSR (Galeota Speed Research) with a RockShox pull shock. Tom Rogers of DVO mixed old and new by rigging a 52 tooth chainring on a trick, Santa Cruz V10 with modern equipment. The variety was refreshing.

Anyhow, after lurking the pits for a bit and trying to find old rides and retirees I cruised up to 11,000 feet to watch the riders battle for glory. After heading down some way and setting up to shoot, it truly set in… I realised how nuts the sport was in the early days. It dawned on me after I was bitching to myself because I was riding my trail bike this time, and I only had a 160mm rotor on the back brake. Last time I was on a full DH rig and it wasn't that bad. One run down shooting practice and my the rotor was covered in your standard black and iridescent coating that lets you know your brakes had glazed over and smoked. How did these riders do it with rim brakes? Maybe they just didn't really brake. I'm not really sure, but it was humbling and made me bow down a bit.>>



Kamikaze 7
Kamikaze 7

Once the race started things got interesting. It was surprising to see only one pass during all of my spectating. The staging of the riders was well thought out. It was cool to see how it panned out, and I got to witness some great riding. One rider (with bar ends) pulled a huge two wheel drift in front of me, a few were grinding in the top gear while tucked on the fastest section. Ken Foraker, an amputee with one leg, came ripping out of a long drawn out turn and stood up to pedal out like a champ. Bless his heart, but Tattoo Lou slid out in front of me and snapped his handlebar in half. He got up and finished with half of a bar and a massive grin, then raced the Pro GRT the next day. That's grit right there.

As far as the race itself went, Leigh Donovan took the top step for the women by over eight seconds. Interestingly enough when I chatted with her she expressed how nervous she was about this race. Even in her prime she had never won here. It was always that one track she couldn't conquer. She was stoked to feel the butterflies again, squash them and take it down. Brian Lopes took the win decisively by five seconds wearing a black skinsuit and a visorless full–face lid, appearing to pay homage to John Tomac, only on a 29" wheeled carbon fibre XC bike. As if most mountain bike enthusiasts weren't already impressed enough by Lopes, this solidified what a savage athlete he truly is, was and will be. After not riding the track in 15–20 years Brian smoked the likes of Kyle Strait and Mikey Haderer, both of which are nearly two decades younger than him. No disrespect to them, but this speaks volumes about Lopes' prowess and timelessness. The man is one of very few that can span his dominance over multiple generations. Regardless of what you think, he is a beyond capable despite his age. Impressive to say the least.

After the downhill race wrapped up, in the typical style of the heavily missed NORBA races, everyone grabbed beers, cameras and loved ones then headed up the hill near the chairlift to watch dual slalom as the sun set. It was a blast to watch. Dual was/is such a spectator sport! Not the place to rant about that, but it was great to see everyone really getting into an event that really has it all.

Props to the people who set this up and got so many big names on one big mountain. Ten events, stacked roster, both old and new, held on an iconic mountain, and great vibes all around. I can't wait to see what next year’s venue will hold. I expect that it will just be bigger and better, so if you are a legend, big timer of the past, or even a newcomer to the sport, make a point to get there and take it all in. You won't be disappointed.