The First Step Toward a Women’s Red Bull Rampage

At the inaugural Formation, hard-charging female mountain bikers hit big lines in Utah, with the hopes of starting an all-new event for women’s freeriding

Photo: Paris Gore/Red Bull

Micayla Gatto and Michelle Parker are standing high on a ridgeline in the Utah desert. They are talking about fear. Parker, 32, a backcountry skier, and Gatto, 31, a pro mountain biker, have spent many hours just like this, contemplating high-risk, big mountain lines. Gatto, one of a select group of women mountain bikers invited to the inaugural Formation event, sponsored by Red Bull, is preparing to drop in. 

Once she does, Gatto will shimmy through a narrow section of jagged, staircased rocks, speed down an exposed chute, where the terrain falls away to wide-open air on either side, and hit two massive jumps. As she rides into the jumps, Gatto won’t be able to see her landing. She will simply have to trust her skill to see her though safely. Jumps stomped, Gatto will rocket down a high-speed exit. With the help of her dig crew, Gatto has spent the past four days building and testing her line. Now, it’s time to go for it.

The brainchild of freeride veteran Katie Holden, the inaugural Formation took place last week, October 8 through 13, in Virgin, Utah. The week-long camp offered six of the world’s most daring female mountain bikers a chance to ride the intense desert terrain made famous by Red Bull Rampage—in the fifteen-year tenure of the invite-only, extreme freeriding competition, only men have qualified. Other influential female athletes such as Parker, endurance mountain bike racer Rebecca Rusch, and Olympic medalist and U.S. downhill national champ Jill Kintner, also came to dig and support. 

Holden, 34, envisions Formation evolving into an event that offers women a similar challenge to Rampage, but has its own distinctive character. “We don’t need to copy Rampage in a cookie cutter way,” she said. “It’s about taking the best of what the men have done and putting our own twist on it. We have to make our own path.”

Photo: Paris Gore/Red Bull

Endurance mountain bike legend Rebecca Rusch, 51, refers to herself as an “instigator.” As she cruised the 2018 edition of Rampage, Rusch began asking spectators if they wanted to see women participate in the event, or one like it. “Yes, we’d love to see women compete,” was the answer she repeatedly heard. 

After Rampage finished, a mix of Rampage veterans and athletes such as Parker, Kintner, Rusch, and Holden gathered to brainstorm a pathway toward a Rampage-style event for women. Throughout the following months, Holden doodled ideas in her notebooks and one day, driving down the road, came up with a crystal-clear plan for the event. In July, she began working with with Red Bull to plan a test event with a small group of riders.

Photo: Paris Gore/Red Bull

On October 8, six professional gravity riders and their dig crews began to transform the rugged terrain of the 2015 Rampage site (the event has used multiple locations in its fifteen-year history). They built jumps and landings, carved out transitions, and packed down the desert soil into ripping fast trail. The women built on two ridges which they nicknamed the Gnar Ridge and the Party Ridge.

The Gnar Ridge featured more exposure and speed, while the Party Ridge included more jumps and gaps. “Hannah Bergemann and Micayla Gatto were all about riding technical chutes,” said Canadian national downhill champion Vaea Verbeeck, 28, who rode the Party Ridge. “And we were just like, bring on as many features as possible. That’s what mountain biking is—we’re just one big group of people who like different stuff.”

Photo: Paris Gore/Red Bull

For the majority of the women, riding and building in the exposed desert terrain was a new experience. “It was a bit daunting,” said World Cup downhill racer Tahnée Seagrave, 24, shown here. “I didn’t expect it to be on that scale. The ridges were so tall and so big.” (Journalist Brandon Turman, who has been on the dig team at Rampage, wrote in a story for VitalMTB that the cliffs are so sheer “I was honestly scared shitless every time I swung a pick axe or threw a shovel full of dirt.”)  

Verbeeck found walking the ridgelines at Formation dizzying. “There were some spots when you’re hiking up, when you’re climbing your way up the drop, it’s like holy shit, this is exposed,” she says. 

But “when all the girls started riding, it was pretty cool to see how quickly we all adapted to the exposure,” said Seagrave.

Photo: Paris Gore/Red Bull

Casey Brown is considered by her peers to be one of the best women in freeride, though the down-to-earth rider would likely deny the title. “She has just opened so many doors for women,” said Holden.

Brown, 28, hopes to be the first woman to ride Rampage. In September, she traveled to Oregon to compete in a Rampage qualifying event. She made the final round, only to crash when the wind pushed her off course as she tried to land a huge jump. Brown was recovering from a broken collarbone, which ruled out riding at Formation, but she brought her experience with riding and digging in Utah to the event.

Photo: Paris Gore/Red Bull

“[The morning of the first ride day] we all unloaded our gear and we were getting ready in the tents and I noticed that Hannah was hiking up with her bike and her dig crew,” said Parker. “And I was thinking, well, we better motivate and get up the hill. I was walking up and I saw Hannah dropped in to the biggest-looking feature on the face. It was the prize. It was this double drop. And that’s how she kicked the session off. I’m like, okay! The girls are about to crush!”

Photo: Paris Gore/Red Bull

Besides the Canadian national championship, this year Verbeeck also won Queen of Crankworx, the prize for the best overall rider at the three-stop competition series. So she’s no slouch when it comes to hitting big jumps. Though Verbeeck had traveled to Rampage with boyfriend Bas van Steenbergen, she’d never actually ridden the desert terrain. “You can stand on the lip of the jump and look down to the landing, and it’s like, oh it’s big,” she said. “But what you can’t understand, is what it looks like when you’re coming into it on the bike.”

In a bike park or on a race course, Verbeeck can typically see both the jump and her landing. In Utah, the features are so big and the terrain is so steep, often all you can see on the takeoff is daylight. “It’s really hard to build your confidence into trying something the first time, because it’s so blind,” she said. Riders lined up rocks on the approaches to the jumps to ensure that they are on course to hit their landing spot.

Photo: Paris Gore/Red Bull

With style to burn, Vinny Armstrong, 21, won the Whip-Off competition (where riders throw out the back end of the bikes as far as possible over jumps) at this year’s Crankworx Whistler. “My first impression of the venue was a bit intimidating,” she said. “I felt worried hiking up the ridge, but then a vision started forming, ideas were flowing, and it got exciting.” She says she came away from the event with new ideas about how to dig radical lines and a fresh perspective on what she can accomplish on the bike.

Photo: Paris Gore/Red Bull

Digging jumps and trail features is central to freeride, which prizes creativity and style on the bike. Rampage, with its vast desert landscape and towering cliffs, takes that element of the sport to the next level. Dig crews arrive two weeks before the event to begin turning the venue into a showcase for the acrobatic riding of the world’s best freeriders. For Holden, it was essential to bring this ritual to Formation.

“I love digging so much but never really get to get together with a big group and work together to create something insane to ride,” said Véronique Sandler. A former World Cup downhill racer, the now-26-year-old was drawn to freeride by the space the discipline offers for creativity and style. This past year, she made a full-length film called Vision that included many of the women involved in Formation. “I’ve come away from this week feeling super hyped to send some jumps and get stuck into some gnarly riding,” said Sandler.

Photo: Paris Gore/Red Bull

There’s no lift service in the desert, so gravity riding here means a lot of trips back up the ridgelines, pushing bikes. Each rider brought a support crew to help with everything from carrying bikes to scouting lines. And riders like van Steenbergen, who have competed at Rampage, brought their expertise to building features. “A lot of the digging was new to the girls, we needed the expertise of the guys,” said Holden.

But there was plenty of role reversal, too. Parker stood on the top of the ridge as Bergemann, 22, tested a section of her line. “Her boyfriend was a digger and he was standing next to me,” said Parker. “He’s like, ‘Hannah kind of just left me up here. Now I’ve got to hit this thing!’ He was here supporting her and it’s this beautiful kind of equality.”

Photo: Paris Gore/Red Bull

Though she gets nervous before her World Cup runs, Seagrave says riding Formation required her to be in a different headspace. Like Rampage athletes do during practice, she rode each segment of her line with the other women, before putting together a top-to-bottom run. “I had to just believe in myself,” she said. “I took a few deep breaths and dropped in.” 

Seagrave rides regularly with men and she’s noticed that they tend to approach risk differently from how she does. “I see that every day,” she said. “It’s such a different process. We want to know who, what, when, why—and the boys don’t even question that at all.” She’s quick to say that women will send it hard. “We need just a bit more confirmation and just a bit more clarity.”

Photo: Paris Gore/Red Bull

“I was standing at the top of this drop with Micayla Gatto for hours yesterday talking about the mental space you need to be in to hit something,” said Parker, who flies down peaks on her skis for films like All In. “Micayla was like, man, this is such a big one for me. It was really cool actually, because [to help settle her nerves] I had to think about what makes me actually just hit the gas and go. 

“What is the thing, every time? For me, I’m standing there at the top of the peak and I hear a countdown through the radio. ‘Michelle’s dropping in, 3-2-1.’ On one, I’m going, and there’s no question in my mind. I’m honed in, I’m 100 percent focused, my breathing is slow, and I’m eyes on the prize. I’m playing for keeps.

“Micayla went to the top of the mountain. When they did the ten count, she just went. She didn’t think twice.”

“All the women are such incredible athletes,” said Holden. “I knew they would be more than capable of excelling in this environment, but you need to spend time out here to understand it. You walk around the cliffs the first day and it’s terrifying. It’s not like you’re just going to come out and figure it out straight away in one day. By the end of the afternoon Sunday, they were doing World Cup race runs down their lines.”