In the wilds of Utah, the mountain bike event so dangerously demanding that it’s saved for the end of the season. There’s a start line and a finish line: between is where riders seek out limits – their own and the mountain’s.
If this were the Alps, there’d be a safety rope. The mountain ridge is less than a metre wide. On one side, the abyss drops maybe 70m, twice that on the other side. “The crash that ends your career is always within the scope of the possible,” says Gee Atherton, the 2012 downhill mountain bike world championship runner-up. He’s resting up right now, having injured his ankles in a full-tilt smash during a practice run for the Red Bull Rampage event. Hanging around at the finish line, resting on his crutches, or, better still, sitting down, a packet of ibuprofen poking out of the pocket of his shorts.
The summit of this mountain bike race looms out of the Utah desert. Spectators scramble for spots; they crouch on their heels, skidding down two, three critical metres. They’re a friendly bunch up here, offering a helping hand whenever it is required. The view is breathtaking. Geography teachers should bring their field trips to Virgin, Utah. Without saying a word, kids would understand tectonics, erosion and rock composition.
In the character of this magnificent reddish-brown mountain lies the secret of Red Bull Rampage, the impossibility of recreating it elsewhere. It is delicate, fragile sandstone, or rather stony sand, which easily crumbles into anything from big clumps to the finest dust.
When combined with water, the sand hardens to become stable, but not set like cement. Such terrain only survives in frost-free areas with little rain. It’s a glimpse back at the crumbling monuments of a primeval world.
One guy not singing the praises of the Utah desert’s geological features is Brandon Semenuk, winner of the 2008 Red Bull Rampage, who has travelled to the final competition in Virgin as the leader of the Freeride Mountain Bike World Tour. “The ground is hard to read and that doesn’t make you particularly confident,” he says. This could be taken as understatement from a dominant racer who has won the 2012 season’s largest and most important freeride events, but the Canadian muscleman with the designer grunge haircut is being totally honest.
“Red Bull Rampage is in a league of its own. This is the contest that everyone wants to win. It defines the limits of mountain biking every time.”
Semenuk, 21, watched his first Red Bull Rampage at the age of 11, when the event was held on the other side of the village of Virgin; Thomas Vanderham, 31, from Canada, has raced in every Rampage to date. “This year is my seventh time here,” says the charismatic rider from British Columbia. Vanderham has been dubbed the Roger Moore of freeriding, because of his oh-so-cool way of brushing the dust from his jacket after the wildest rides. He think this impression is wrong, “I’ve actually been badly injured,” he says. “I don’t sleep very well before Red Bull Rampage, even though I know what I have to do. I vividly recall the night before my first attempt: none of us had any idea. I didn’t get a wink of sleep. It was probably not the best way to prepare.”
Read the full story in December's issue of The Red Bulletin.