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Two decades of progression: the evolution of bikes at Red Bull Rampage
As we approach the 20th anniversary of Red Bull Rampage, we take a look back at how bike technology has changed over the past 20 years of the iconic contest.
The venue isn’t the only thing that's changed over the past 20 years of Red Bull Rampage. The awe-inspiring mountain bike downhill event has an illustrious reputation and has been taken on by riders and their machines since 2001.
The event has evolved from a ragtag group of freeriders gathering in the desert with customised bikes to a world-class event that hosts athletes who spend the entire year training for this one competition. Although the crowds and coverage have grown like the features that riders take on, much has remained the same here in the Utah desert.
Great leaps have been made in bike design thanks to technological advances and more acceptance of this extreme style of riding. Riders can now tackle bigger obstacles at higher speeds, ride more safely and have faith that things will stay spinning round when they touch back to Earth on the backside of these monstrous drops.
Join us as we look at some of the biggest shifts in bike design over Red Bull Rampage's 20-year history.
There are two major areas that allow riders to go bigger and faster than ever before. When asked what the biggest changes in bike technology have been, Kyle Strait, two-time winner and the only athlete to have competed in every Red Bull Rampage since 2001 said without hesitation “geometry and suspension.”
Geometry is one of the most notable changes and can be seen just by looking at a profile image of a bike. When riders and engineers discuss bike geometry, or “geo”, they’re referring to the points, length between points, and angles of the frame.
Two of the biggest geometrical gains in the past 20 years are at the front half of the bike – the head tube angle and reach. Reach is the intersection point mer of the bottom bracket to the top centre of the head tube.
Twenty years ago, mountain bikes still pulled much of their sizing, geometry and dimensions from road or cross-country mountain bikes.
Frame measurements have changed in every dimension from front to back, but one of, if not the most important angles is the head tube angle. The head tube is the large front tube that the fork slides through, and they have gotten drastically slacker in the last 20 years. A slacker head tube angle gives the bike a longer wheelbase, slows down the steering and puts the front wheel out in front of the rider further – a welcome feeling when dropping vertical pitches or trying to make smooth turns at speed.
Since much of the geometry theory and design carried over from decades of road or cross-country bike experience, freeriders and downhillers were limited by the 67-degree head tube angles found on some bikes. Modern day bikes are often running head tube angles as slack as 62-63 degrees, which is a huge difference over the length of the fork.
As head tube angles got slacker and reach dimensions grew longer, riders found increased confidence and stability. This progression in stability and confidence have helped evolve the size of features and terrain that’s possible to navigate at Red Bull Rampage. Look at a bikes from 2001 to 2021 and you’ll see a much longer bike overall, with very few overlapping points of contact.
Another major improvement in bike technology comes from the suspension. Bikes have gone from having six inches (152mm) of poorly damped travel to over eight inches (203mm) of highly tunable and compliant suspension.
Like many of the bike brands you see in the photos from Red Bull Rampage, suspension trends have faded. Early Red Bull Rampage athletes rode coil-sprung shocks, and many competed on inverted forks from brands like 5th Element and Avalanche.
The trend has definitely changed and most athletes these days are seen on air shocks with Fox or RockShox equipment found under the majority of the riders.
Frame construction and durability
Thanks to the last two decades of riders pushing the envelope, engineers have worked to do the same on the design front. Computer animated design programmes and lots of other high-tech steps are used to develop and check strength, life cycles and durability of products. All this has resulted in bikes getting lighter, stronger, and more reliable.
Back in the day it wasn’t uncommon for an aluminium or chromoly downhill bike to weight over 50 pounds (22.7kg). Today’s downhill bikes can be made from thinner aluminium or carbon fibre and easily hit 34 pounds (15.4kg). With 15 less pounds (6.8kg) of mass underneath them, riders can now spin, flip and manoeuvre much easier than they could before.
Working in unison with the frame improvements are a number of new industry standards that have helped components evolve to be much stronger and longer lasting. For example, early mountain bikes carried over axle standards from road and cross-country mountain bikes, which were ill-equipped for the demands of off-road riding.
In 2001, many of the riders were on thinner axles that were also narrower at 135mm spacing. Today’s axles go up to 20mm thick, while rear end axle spacing is 150mm or even 158mm on some bikes. This wider spacing allows hubs to be much stronger, with better triangulation for the spokes to help keep wheels spinning true despite huge side loads from landing 360s or massive whips.
Other components like tyres, handlebars and brakes have also undergone big improvements. New rubber compounds and sidewall stiffness increases have helped improve traction and reduce the chances of flat tyres, while more powerful 4-piston brakes have replaced unreliable 2-piston brakes found on early 2000s bikes. Handlebars have also increased in thickness – from 31.8mm or 25.4mm in diameter to 35mm thick. This means a more precise steering feel and the ability to run much wider bars for increased leverage and a more powerful riding position.
The result of all these changes is a completely different mountain bike that is leaps ahead of what early competitors took to the slopes of the first Red Bull Rampage with. To some they may look just like another bike, but to the discerning eye these modern freeride bikes share little with their predecessors beyond the two wheels that keep them rolling down the mountain.
Changes in geometry, suspension technology and better components all work together to help these riders push the limits of what's possible at Red Bull Rampage. It’s impossible to talk about bike development and technology without acknowledging the limits early riders pushed on their modified and sometimes homemade freeride bikes at the early Red Bull Rampage events. They helped create a new discipline of riding, pushed bike development and entertained viewers around the world for two decades.