Survival 5
Gee Atherton is one of the few World Cup DH riders to brave Rampage on a regular basis. With both podium finishes and massive crashes to his name, Gee truly knows the highs and lows of competing here. This year it was not to be, and in the words of Gee hi

The Red Bull Rampage is many things. It is hot and dusty, somehow both crowded and abandoned, exciting and terrifying, and almost incomprehensible. Yet amid all these things (in the minds of the riders) it is about one thing and one thing only…survival.


Words by John Parkin. Photos by various

Riders may train and practice for months, take huge build crews into the desert, literally for weeks to fashion their insane lines, but in the back of their minds all they want to do is get down safely. Every other competition, every other race, riders push their minds and bodies further than the average person could even imagine, and yet somehow they remain in a comfort zone of sorts. Rampage forces people out of their comfort zones and with each and every day leading up to the event this becomes more and more evident. Previously cocky riders are now quiet and contemplative, while others remain excessively confident, in public at least. This may be a competition, but it is a competition like no other.

Having already been here in the desert just outside of Virgin Utah in 2010 to witness the last Rampage first hand, I had an upper hand on newcomer (and World Cup racer) Brendan Fairclough. There was a lot of hype surrounding Brendan's first trip into the desert, people calling him for the win before he had even got on his flight to Vegas. Rampage is not an event you can win easily. While Brendan may be one of the most gifted bike handlers ever, he had never experienced terrain like this before. Days digging a line that more than a few thought might not actually work made it clear what his intentions were. Brendog was not here to make up the numbers.

Sitting at home reading this, most probably with rain falling outside your window, it will be hard to imagine how life is in the desert. First of all it is hot. Really hot. And while it may be hot, it is really the relentlessness of the heat that gets to you. Freezing cold at night, the temperature starts to come up as the sun rises, and by 10 in the morning it is at 30+ degrees, and it stays that way, until the sun sets at 7:30pm, each and every day. Shade is pretty much non–existent as all the plant life sticks resolutely to the floor. Were you relaxing on a beach with a cocktail in one hand and a copy of ‘The Secret Race’ in the other, weather like this is not exactly a problem. Add a big old pile of dust that needs to be climbed every day and things soon start to change. The dust gets everywhere. Incredibly fine, powdery dust that hangs in the air, clogging your nostrils and drying your mouth. You feel as if you are in an oven, with the intense sun beating down on the back of your neck and the dust sucking up every last ounce of moisture from the air. Once you can picture these conditions in your mind, try to imagine hiking up a 1000 foot mountain with a shovel and pickaxe and digging trails. Then do it every day for a week. Once you can do that you will have a pretty good idea of what life is like for the riders and their build crews.

Like everything in the modern world, Rampage is evolving, and that evolution is speeding up. 2010’s event was sold as the ‘evolution’ of Rampage, but the change between that and 2012 was even bigger. What used to be a rider and maybe a couple of mates digging a line has morphed into riders bringing huge crews of flat–brimmed cap wearing bro’s, weeks in advance, working into the night with generators and lights. There were murmurs among some of the assembled riders that this was maybe taking things a little too far, but no rules were broken. That is part of the magic of the event, the almost complete absence of rules and regulations. Riders can pretty much do as they please, and being in Utah this extends to pretty much everything off the bike as well. Want to shoot some shotguns at the old Rampage site a couple of miles north to blow off some steam after a frustrating day? Feel free. Want to get there on dirt roads in a massive truck? Feel free. Want to buy beer with more than 3.2% alcohol? Forget it... Utah is a Mormon state and as such their drinking laws are among the most prohibitive in the USA, either way it didn’t seem to slow things down at the after–party on Sunday night, as one of the World Cup riders found out to his detriment...>>


[part title="The Red Bull Rampage | Survival Page Two"]

cameron zink at 2012 redbull rampage
cameron zink at 2012 redbull rampage

Friday morning saw the twenty’ish riders who actually had to qualify arrive at the bottom of the hill. Sunday’s finals may well have been the big show, but some of the lines that were ridden just to get there were insane. Rampage first–timer Mick Hannah (another World Cup racer) was having fun riding on the unusual terrain, and had no intention of killing himself to reach the finals. Two solid runs on well established lines were nowhere near enough to put him through, and showed the crazy level needed to succeed in this competition. How about Brendog? Things didn’t quite go to plan. Third rider out of the gate, first drop and it was all over in a huge cloud of dust. Missing the landing on the tricky opening obstacle by literally a few inches was enough to suck all of his speed in an instant, and Brendan found himself lying in a pile of powder with a badly tweaked knee. The pain wasn’t enough to stop him sneaking into the finals with an average second run, but by that night it was pretty obvious that his second run hadn’t exactly improved things. Brendan was out and his final’s line remains unridden, maybe next time.

Kenny Smith and Mike Hopkins also joined the ever increasing group of riders hobbling around on crutches instead of riding, both with absolutely enormous crashes. Chatting over breakfast the next day, Hopkins expressed his surprise at being able to get up after overshooting his landing by a solid 20 feet. Watching slow motion footage of yourself crashing and seeing your head hitting the spokes in your front wheel is not something even the pros are used too. For every horror story there were tales of epic heroics, and Cam McCaul was the only rider to hit the vast canyon gap, and with it he took first place. A straight air this time, but there was talk of a trick in his finals run over the 50 foot chasm.

So after weeks of suffering in the desert, lines were nearing completion and the vastness of what they had created was beginning to set in for plenty of the riders. Spending weeks building a line with your friends and colleagues doesn’t really leave you much room to decide last minute that it is all a bit big. While qualifying was crazy enough, there were few lines that had really pushed the boundaries of what had been done before on bicycles. On Sunday that was all set to change, with Brandon Semenuk, Kyle Strait and Gee Atherton all the proud owners of insane lines that few others at the event would even attempt. Unfortunately for Gee, Saturday morning didn’t exactly go to plan, as a massive crash put him completely out of action. Overcompensating on the exit of a turn, Gee pulled way too far right on a huge step–down and cased a rocky outcrop about as badly as you could imagine. His bike came to a complete stop but he certainly didn’t, and he nailed himself into the landing some 15 feet below. According to the man himself it was the biggest crash he has had yet, and coming from Gee that really means something. The disappointment was clear on his face, but above all he was happy to have made it through such a terrifying crash still able to walk. At dinner that night, as he apologised to his dig team for all their hard work going to waste, it was made clear to him that as long as he was able to walk away from the event everyone was happy. Again, the feeling that surviving the event was probably much more important than winning it came to the fore.>>

[part title="The Red Bull Rampage | Survival Page Three"]

brandon semenuk at 2012 redbull rampage
brandon semenuk at 2012 redbull rampage

Sunday morning dawns and things get very real all of a sudden. In an effort to avoid the blustery winds that tend to come up in the middle of the afternoon, the schedule was compressed and riders would be taking their second runs as soon as first runs had been completed. Weeks of work were coming down to a few short hours and the level of apprehension was palpable. No sooner had breakfast been eaten there were calls over the PA for riders to make their way to the top of the hill. As the thousands of spectators jostled for position, many of them trampling lines in the process, the riders sneaked past on their way to the impossibly high ridgeline. Still a quietness hung in the air, along with the dust. The low whine of a turbofan engine firing up is the first hint that things are kicking off, and as the heli takes to the air the silence is shattered. Suddenly the empty hillside with a few scattered souls of the last week is transformed into an event venue. 2000 fans, probably more media and hundreds of industry hangers–on line the course. TV cameras are everywhere, and incredibly serious looking film crews sprint around the hill while seasoned photographers like Sterling Lorence and John Gibson take a more measured approach. Music booms from the mobile Red Bull DJ booth and the metamorphosis is complete.

Dust hangs in the air, disturbed by the constant stream of quads and dune buggies ferrying equipment and injured riders to vantage points high on the hill. Then it all begins and the true madness of what you are viewing sets in. Young Trek rider Brett Rheeder is first man off and a barspin attempt on the first drop does not go to plan. A silence descends immediately as it looks as if he has fallen to his death from the back of the ridge. With the helicopter behind the ridge as well, there is nothing to break the silence until he pops up, clearly unharmed to a huge cheer and proceeds to pin the rest of his line. Rider after rider throw themselves down the hill, some having clean runs and others making mistakes, but after every crash they somehow seem to get up, dust themselves off and continue. People seem to be able to walk away from crashes that appear life or career ending at first, and the crowd relaxes from the earlier tension. All eyes are on Brandon Semenuk as he rolls out of the start gate, and a seemingly flawless run on the top half of the course is ruined by a small mistake on an easy jump. The pressure has clearly been getting to Brandon this season, with Crankworx not working out and now this. A second run offers a second chance for the man from Whistler, but it is not to be, and he hits the deck again. With all the insanity going on, it is easy to forget that riders are actually competing, with a panel of judges analysing their every move. And herein lies the biggest issue with this type of event. Your line might be creative, it might be difficult and you might have ridden it perfectly, but unless the judges agree, you are shit out of luck. Style is clearly a completely subjective thing, and to attempt to judge it and assign it a score is no easy task, and as such the judges are pretty much always wrong, as long as you ask enough people. Luckily there was one thing that everyone agreed on, and that was Kurt Sorge. His dominant display in his first run was a clear standout performance, and was enough to win him the competition in its own right, but that didn’t stop him going up and bettering it straight away. While there were complaints at the event about every place from second to last, which admittedly paled in comparison to the internet chatter, no–one could argue that Sorge was a deserving winner. And suddenly it was over. Everyone had survived. Some were on crutches, but they were still walking. And so the most insane spectacle in the mountain bike world had finished for another year. Where next? Apparently Mongolia and South America are on the list of potential venues, bring it on!