Inside the Most Dangerous Bike Comp on Earth
Every fall, the world’s best mountain bikers assemble at Red Bull Rampage to hurl themselves down cliffs in search of fame and fortune—if they make it down in one piece.
Of the dozens of crashes at last fall’s Red Bull Rampage, the one that rattled me most was Kelly McGarry’s. During practice a few days before the competition, McGarry, a 32-year-old from New Zealand, misjudged a 70-foot gap jump over a canyon and overshot his landing. At six feet four inches, McGarry is the largest guy on the Freeride Mountain Bike World Tour, and both of his wheels imploded on impact. (In the vernacular, he “tacoed” them.) McGarry went over the handlebars and landed face first in the sandstone, eventually ragdolling to rest in a sitting position while his bike bounced down a ten-foot cliff.
The next day, I found McGarry leaning gingerly against a split-rail fence, watching as a rider threaded his way along a knife-edge ridge high on the course. He had a jagged abrasion on his jaw, a bandaged wrist, and a few cuts and scrapes on his legs. “I had a minor miscalculation in speed,” he said. McGarry has long, curly blond hair, which protruded from his flat-brimmed Diamondback hat, and he stooped forward to hear me over the PA system. After the prelims, he said he was headed to get an X-ray; he thought there was a chance that his back was broken. “I think I got a little bit lucky there,” he said. “But it’s not golf, man. It’s the Red Bull Rampage! You’re riding bikes off cliffs. Shit goes wrong.”
In fact, it goes wrong quite often. Rampage is a freeride event, the last of five major events on the FMB World Tour. The point of the competition is to see who can ride the best, scariest line down a 1,000-vertical-foot mountain in southwestern Utah, just outside of Zion National Park. The riders are judged on the speed, skill, and style with which they ride, much as they would be at a freeride ski competition. Unlike ski comps, riders can build jumps and berms into their lines, adding a level of danger and difficulty that generally exceeds any other formal mountain biking competition in the world. There are few rules, none of which govern where to ride, and there is an almost unbelievable amount of exposure high on the mountain: When riders crash, they are often at risk of literally falling off cliffs.
Because Rampage is held in a remote location, not many people watch in person, but the event is recorded by a small army of people shooting stills and video, which are then distributed across every social media platform on earth. When McGarry wrecked, Red Bull had three high-definition cameras rolling, including a GoPro that was strapped to his helmet. Within a few hours of the wreck, Red Bull had pulled together an edit and posted it online. And there are crashes like McGarry’s all the time. In 2013, two riders, Mark Matthews and Logan Bignelli, broke femurs and were airlifted to a nearby hospital. A rider named Dustin Schaad flipped over his handlebars (aka endoed) off a 30-foot cliff, and a rider named Mike Hopkins, who had taken one of the biggest falls in the competition’s history the year before, knocked himself unconscious. “It’s the only real mountain bike event,” Red Bull rider Andreu Lacondeguy told me. “But the riding level is getting so insane that you’re actually putting your life on the line every time you do a run here.”
A few days after McGarry’s crash, I climbed the venue’s leftmost ridge, where a rider named Kyle Strait was working his line, segment by segment. Strait competed in the inaugural Rampage in 2001 as a 14-year-old, won at 17, and now, at 28, is considered one of the most natural and fluid athletes in the sport. At the 2013 Rampage, he became the event’s first two-time winner, charging the fall line, the most direct route down the mountain, and throwing a no-hander off an 80-foot step-down.
In 2014, Strait and his girlfriend, pro enduro racer Rachel Throop, drove from California ten days before the competition to begin building Strait’s line. Like most of the riders, Strait was staying at a nearby RV park, and a few friends joined him to help dig. After several competitions in a row, the ridge’s easterly flank had been hacked and ridden to pieces, and the organizers switched to the westerly side. This meant everyone was building lines from a blank canvas.
“The riding level is getting so insane that you’re actually putting your life on the line every time you do a run here,” says Andreu Lacondeguy.
To speed the process, Red Bull allowed teams to use power tools, and sections of the mountain looked surprisingly manicured. “It’s probably the last time we’ll let them use those,” a Red Bull marketing exec said. “They built too much, too fast.” That decision also heightened a low-grade tension between old-guard freeriders like Strait and Cam Zink, who prefer to build less and ride more direct lines, and riders who come from slopestyle backgrounds and are accustomed to smooth, perfectly shaped hits.
The event has changed in several similar ways over the past decade. “It’s very good riders with a lot of resources, good psych teams, and builders who know how to ride and build very well because of it,” said Brett Tippie, a journalist who competed at Rampage in 2002. When I asked him whether he preferred the more recent version, he groaned. “Yeah, I like it more—to watch! To do? If I had to get down this mountain, I would take a more natural line. Maybe do some of the jumps half as big as these guys. That would be as far as I’d want to take it.”
Up on the ridge, Strait hadn’t yet ridden the two most challenging features of his line—a near-vertical section of sandstone near the summit, and a 65-foot cliff off the ridge to riders’ right—because he had spent most of the afternoon waiting for the wind to calm. It’s often blustery at Rampage. Lacondeguy, a 26-year-old pro from Spain, later told me that the combination of big air and wind was exceptionally distressing. “We don’t control the wind, and it’s just the worst,” he said. “It’s a factor that nobody sees, nobody feels, just the riders. It’s terrifying.” Throop and I stood near the cliff and watched as Strait flowed through a series of smaller hits along the ridgeline, passed by us, and then grabbed his brakes a few inches from the lip of the 65-foot drop. My chest tightened. He hiked back up for another run.
Lacondeguy’s worries about the wind are multiplied by Rampage’s organizational structure, which does not come with a robust safety net. A serious crash at the competition can be disastrous in triplicate: Riders can get injured, disqualified for failing to finish, and then be liable for onsite medical care. Red Bull doesn’t cover travel to the event, let alone health care costs. When Bignelli and Matthews broke their femurs last year, they were both billed for their helicopter rides to the ER. There is no guarantee that a good ride will even cover expenses. Winning comes with a check for $50,000, but fourth place netted $800 in 2013. (In 2014, it bumped up significantly to $4,000.)
But Rampage also provides an enormous stage for riders to showcase their skills. It’s the most high-profile event in freeriding and has made or enshrined the careers of many of the sport’s biggest names. Partly as a result of his 2004 win, Strait has been able to make his living from mountain biking for the past ten years. Only a couple dozen of the best freeriders make enough money to ride full-time, but a good result at Rampage can open the door to a career riding bikes. For a lot of guys, that alone is worth the risk.
Rampage was born in 2001, when founders Todd Barber and Paul Crandall were at a freeride ski comp in Alaska and wondered why mountain biking didn’t have a similar event—something that split the difference between downhill racing and the kind of riding their friends were doing for fun. One of their friends, Josh Bender, was then living in La Verkin, Utah, ten miles east of the current venue in the small town of Virgin, and had become somewhat famous for riding his bike off cliffs. Barber and Crandall came to ride with Bender in Utah and realized there were lines everywhere, and they were all big. Virgin, they agreed, could be their Alaska. Red Bull signed on as a sponsor almost immediately, and the first event was held in October 2001.
Few riders at the first event had spent much time learning how to drop cliffs, and the riding at early Rampages was improvisational: Start at the top and find a way to the bottom. “When we first started coming, it was like, alright, we show up, Thursday practice, ride whatever’s there, maybe chunk out a couple options, and then you rode the contest,” Strait told me. Line building was minimal, and almost nobody prepared or packed landings. In videos from Rampage 2001, the riders look tentative and uncertain; they creep into drops that the lowest-scoring riders in 2014 would not bother with.
Rampage went on hiatus from 2005 to 2007, as Red Bull looked for a new location. (Ultimately, it stayed near Virgin, but moved five miles away to a different set of features.) It returned in 2008, and NBC signed on to produce a TV broadcast beginning in 2010. That year also saw the introduction of a massive step-down jump, a ramp that sent riders 40 feet down and across an 80-foot gap. Cameron Zink, a 29-year-old from Nevada and one of the sport’s biggest names, threw a 360 off the step-down that year. In 2013, he rode into a tree during training and arrived at Rampage with a large infected bruise in his groin that required twice-daily draining. He decided to throw a backflip off the jump. In anticipation of another wreck, an NBC cameraman ghoulishly shadowed his girlfriend, Amanda, who was nine months pregnant with their first child. Zink landed the backflip, but then went off course and was awarded third place, behind Strait and McGarry.
For 2014, the venue was missing a singular, distinctive jump like the step-down, but it seemed to excite the riders more. Zink planned to throw a 360 off a 55-foot cliff feature; if successful, he thought it might be the biggest 360 ever done in natural terrain. (The step-down had launched riders off a wooden ramp.) To create a rideable landing for the 360, one of Zink’s diggers had roped up and rappelled down the feature with a shovel. “That upper line will be the burliest big-mountain line I’ve ever ridden and one of the burliest things I’ve ever seen anyone else ride,” Zink told me.
A drop like this would have bottomed out the suspension on bikes from ten years ago. Riders at Rampage use modified downhill racing bikes, which have become plusher and lighter over the past decade. Lighter bikes allow riders to rotate more easily in midair, which has opened up a whole new world of tricks. It is now possible to not only send bigger drops but also trick them. Paradoxically, the riders now also wear less body armor than they did in the early days; the increased emphasis on tricks means that a full set of armor is too restrictive in midair. Aside from full-face helmets, neck protectors, and knee and elbow pads, their only protection is a T-shirt.
Tom van Steenbergen was the first rider in the 2014 finals to go down hard. In the prelims, van Steenbergen, who was 18 at the time, hit a big drop off the middle ridge that funneled him into the Canyon gap, which he backflipped comfortably. But it was clear that backflipping the Canyon wasn’t enough to win, and so in the finals van Steenbergen went for a front flip, under-rotated, and slammed down onto his right hip. The crowd fell silent. In my notes, I wrote, “Front flip. Really not okay. Hard. Looks like a lot of pain.” But after a few moments of attention from the medics, van Steenbergen stood up, waved to the crowd, and limped out of the way.
Twenty minutes later, a rider named Mitch Chubey bobbled a backflip off the ridge, and his bike pinwheeled 100 feet down a cliff. Next, Brett Rheeder, an acrobatic 21-year-old, linked a backflip and 270 off the side of the ridge, then tossed a no-handed backflip off a man-made kicker at the bottom. The judges gave Rheeder 88 points, which put him in first.
The heavy hitters all rode within minutes: Cam Zink hit his top section flawlessly, floated the 360 off his drop, and high-fived a crowd of spectators—good for 89.5 points. Strait, too, rode his entrance clean, buzzed by where I was standing, and sent the 65-footer for the first time, landing deep but staying upright; he earned 85.5 points. After Strait came Brandon Semenuk—a big drop, two tail whips, and a 360; 88 points—and Andreu Lacondeguy, who had finished fourth at Rampage on three occasions. Lacondeguy rode the two biggest drops on the riders’ right ridge—Semenuk’s and Strait’s—then floated a perfect backflip off a prebuilt jump at the bottom. It looked to me like a top-five run. The judges awarded him 95.5 points, and the crowd tittered.
One of the thornier challenges at Rampage and a perennial frustration for riders is that it is a judged event. Nobody I spoke with could exactly tell me what the judging criteria were, although there was a general consensus that riders were evaluated across four categories and each category included 25 points, so a perfect run would result in a score of 100. Getting someone to describe the four categories was more difficult. Eventually, I caught up with one of the judges, a 37-year-old pro named Aaron Chase, and asked if he could walk me through the scoring.
“Sure!” he said. “It’s line choice….” As we spoke, an awards ceremony for overall FMB World Tour champion got underway in the background, and Chase seemed distracted.
“And line choice means? Like, what do you mean by line choice?” I asked.
“Well, okay. Andreu rode from the top to the bottom in a straight line, down the fiercest—that’s the fiercest line. And on the other hand, you’ve got the [left] ridge, where people walk up. No one’s walking up Andreu’s line. You’d need a rope.”
“It’s the gnarliest line, then?”
“Yeah. Line choice! It’s the gnarliest line. Biggest jumps in it, maybe, biggest drop.”
The crowd wasn’t paying much attention to the awards ceremony. “Can’t get anybody happy in there, huh?” Chase said.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“I dunno,” he said.
I waited a bit. “After line choice?”
“There’s tricks, and there’s amplitude,” Chase continued. “You know, like air, amplitude. And then fluidity and control. Speed and tricks.”
“Speed and tricks are the same category?”
“Yeah. Well, speed could always be in fluidity and control. But fluidity and control. How did your run flow, and look, and feel?”
In practice, it was a fifth category, overall impression, that seemed to determine the scoring. I happened to be standing next to Chase and the other four judges as they scored the final riders in the first round. As best I could tell, the judging process proceeded as follows: Watch the run, talk briefly with the other judges, settle on an overall score, and then send it to the announcers.
Between the first and second rounds of the finals, the riders hung around a tent in the finish area and ate lunch. Zink wandered by holding a can of Natural Light. I found Lacondeguy in the tent, sitting on a couch and brooding, despite his position on the leaderboard. He said he was happy with his run, but the prospect of riding a second time seemed to have frayed his nerves. “The first [cliff] is smaller than the second, but it’s more exposed,” he said. “You got a 100-foot cliff in front of you, you got a 50-foot cliff on the side, cliffs all over the place. There’s no mistake up there.”
“I just want to win this and do my own thing next year,” he continued. “I don’t want to deal with wind. I don’t want to be here when it’s all wet, not worry about weather, or the livecast, or crowds.” The risk-to-reward ratio didn’t feel right, he said. He paused. “Sometimes you don’t get much out of it. Nothing out of it.”
Not much happened in round two, except that a rider named Louis Reboul crashed hard while trying to backflip the Canyon and was taken to the hospital. The next rider out of the gate was McGarry.
McGarry, whose back did not appear broken, had looked skittish on his first run but stayed on his bike over the Canyon jump and scored a 73.5, well behind the leaders. I watched his second run of the finals on a TV monitor, looking over one of the announcer’s shoulders. To my astonishment, McGarry went for a backflip over the Canyon, this time shorting it. His rear wheel slammed into the lip of the landing and tacoed again, the second time in four days. McGarry somersaulted into the ground and was still for a few moments, then sat up, and the medics helped him out of the way.
After the finals concluded (Lacondeguy’s score held up, and he didn’t need to take a second run), I fell into conversation with a British Columbia–based rider named Geoff Gulevich, who goes by Gully. Gully’s line included a backflip and a two-stage drop of perhaps 30 feet; he finished in 17th place. He had traveled to Rampage with his physiotherapist. Of all the athletes, he looked to be riding the most within his limits. “The past two years I hurt myself, being a little in over my head,” he said. “If the riders are smart, and they put themselves on a line that’s within their capabilities, then that’s fine. It’s just when people put themselves in over their heads….”
“Kelly McGarry is a very close friend of mine,” he continued. “But he had this weight over him because he flipped the Canyon last year.”
When I caught up with McGarry, he seemed tired and perhaps a bit sheepish, though uninjured. “I was at the top, and the guy ahead of me crashed while trying to flip the Canyon, which was quite demoralizing,” he said. “There was a bit of wind around, and I guess a bit of a misjudgment.” I asked why he had still decided to go for a backflip.
“’Cause I’m stupid!” he said, and laughed. “I don’t know. It’s the biggest comp of the year, and all my friends back home are watching. I was representing my country, and I just wanted to go big and not hold back. It was hard to break through the mental barrier, and I then I just went for it because I didn’t want to look back and regret not going for it.”
Peter Vigneron last wrote about Spartan Race founder Joe De Sena.