I've wanted to write a column about the Red Bull Rampage for a couple of years now, but didn't think the timing was right. Besides, I don't consider myself a freeride guy, so the heat I would have received was something I didn't want to deal with. But after last week's 10th edition of Rampage I couldn't hold back anymore.
It also appears I'm not alone. Trending on Instagram and other social media sites this morning was the hashtag #fuckrampage. We'll stop with the four-letter bombs there, but read between the lines in this post from Cam Zink following this year's Red Bull Rampage finals and it's obvious people are not happy:
"Everyone send Paul Basagoitia positive vibes! This champion has started a long road to recovery after shattering his T12 vertebrae yesterday and undergoing 9 hours of surgery. He had a winning run going and may have set the record for biggest step down just before going down. Lots of tears have been shed. Keep Paul in your prayers to regain feeling in his legs. There were some horrible people spreading false news that he was OK, but he needs your support more than ever to walk again. Paul, you are the most tenacious human and competitor ever. Love you bud! You'll be back! #fuckrampage"
Paul Basagoitia drops into a huge line moments before his heavy crash (click to enlarge). Photo by Eddie Clark / EddieClarkMedia.com
That final sentiment is one I'd had in the past, but while working at Yuba Expeditions in Downieville this past summer I met Todd Barber, the founder of the Red Bull Rampage. My first question to him was rather pointed: "Are you concerned that someone at the Rampage is eventually going to die?"
See the crash that had everyone talking. Hard to believe Nicholi Rogatkin walked away - and was allowed to keep riding.
Barber is a very cool, calm, collected, friendly and likeable guy, and responded as if he'd been asked that question a hundred times. "No," he said.
Nicholi Rogatkin tumbled over a cliff resulting in this grim scene. Amazingly he was able to get back on his bike and finish his run (click to enlarge).
He went on to tell me that the riders are extremely calculated in their line selections and that their "dig teams" spend weeks preparing approaches and cleaning up lines to make them safer and more predictable. His response seemed acceptable to me, and after the tragic death of a participant at an Enduro World Series event in Crested Butte, Colorado this summer, I thought maybe Todd was right. Perhaps the premeditated nature of the Rampage makes it inherently safer than an event like the EWS, where a racer can easily clip a pedal on a completely benign trail, resulting in tragedy.
But then this year's Red Bull Rampage happened. With all due respect to Barber, one of the nicest and most modest guys you'll ever meet on or off the trail, I have two big issues with the Rampage. First is the public image it portrays about the sport of mountain biking; it's a magnet for criticism. It's bad enough that there are images and videos of riders sending it off unstable eroding cliffs and massive manmade ramps that blight the natural beauty of southwestern Utah, but worse is the blatant manipulation of the terrain. There's no irony lost on the fact that this event riddled with fall lines, helicopters and massive manmade jumps happens in a town called Virgin.
Following a heavy crash, Paul Basagoitia was evacuated by helicopter (click to enlarge). Photo by Eddie Clark / EddieClarkMedia.com
Having dozens of dig teams on the red rock cliffs hacking away with MacLeods in order to make the perfect transition is like shooting fish in a barrel for organizations like the Sierra Club, who are always looking for ways to portray mountain biking in a negative light. Most Americans who don't mountain bike think of events like the Rampage when they think of our sport, a bro-brah culture of adrenaline-seeking hucksters who only care about going big and getting rad.
We all know this is furthest from the truth, but as in the corporate world, perception is reality.
On the topic of corporate chicanery, the other more significant issue I have with the Rampage is its never-ending quest to go bigger. Every year the stakes get higher, the gap jumps get wider and deeper, the risks that must be taken to win become ever more harrowing. The situation reminds me of my former life in the corporate world, where publicly traded companies are under constant pressure to grow profitability every single quarter. Being stagnant or even experiencing the occasional loss is absolutely taboo, quarterly profits must always improve, and anything less is unacceptable.
Paul Basagoitia gives a thumbs up from his hospital room. Let's all send healing vibes his way (click to enlarge). Photo courtesy Cam Zink
It's the same way with the Rampage, every year the stakes must be higher, the jumps bigger and the risks more risky. Forget reality. This is business.
I don't know about you, but to me, this philosophical approach is a losing game. You can only go so big before you hit a ceiling and the risk becomes too great. And in the instance of the Rampage, too much risk equals death. Watching Nicholi Rogatkin fall off what looked to be a 40-foot cliff is a perfect example. All he did was grab a tad too much front brake when setting up for the third of three big drops, and the next thing he knew he was rolling off a cliff. What if that cliff had been 200 feet high? And I won't even go into the discussion about him being permitted to get back up and finish his run.
I honestly feel bad and even fear for the competitors in the Rampage. They are caught in a really shitty situation. Every one of these guys is an astonishing world-class athlete with enormous talent, and understandably, they want to make a name for themselves. And in today's world of "go big or go home," the way you do it is by being invited to the Rampage and pulling off some of the most death-defying feats ever accomplished on a bike.
Back flips over massive canyon gaps have become the norm (click to enlarge). Photo by Eddie Clark / EddieClarkMedia.com
What do you do when you're on top of a giant mountain and it's too windy for a safe run, but you have a camera in your face and someone saying, "Go! You're on!" with the whole world watching?
For years I thought to myself that these guys were getting paid handsomely by Red Bull for their tremendous risks and being taken care of in the event of a severe injury. But after Basagoitia's accident during the event, riders and dig team members are speaking out (take a gander at the aforementioned hashtag to see for yourself). The truth is that these riders who are putting their lives on the line are getting paid spit and actually have to provide their own insurance for the event, which in Basagoitia's case may have to cover the cost of this helicopter ride.
Help support Paul Basagoitia in his recovery at www.road2recovery.com/cause-view/irideforpaul.
To me, this is the deal breaker. In my eyes, unless the event completely changes its approach, there's only one way the Rampage can go from here - down. And I truly hope that Red Bull will do the right thing and help provide Paul everything he needs to fully recover from his severe injuries.
I read a another quote from Zink contemplating his sixth place finish at this year's Rampage, and really, his sentiments sum up my thoughts on the event completely:
"I didn't do my second run because it wasn't worth it. We are risking our lives out here. Paul got carted off and couldn't feel his legs when they Care Flighted him out. My run was as it was. I mean I could have cleaned it up a hair. I could have done a little bit better but not a lot. It would have been a tiny bit better, maybe fifth, maybe fourth, but they weren't liking what I was doing today, so it wasn't worth risking my life. That heavy of a run - the scariest, gnarliest run I've ever done in my life - to do it again to maybe gain a place or two? It's just not worth it. I've heard Paul is in surgery right now, but he has movement in his legs again, or feeling. I think Bizet is all right, yeah, it's tough, it's tough." - Cam Zink via @deitycomponents
Editor's Note: The Angry Singlespeeder is a collection of mercurial musings from contributing editor Kurt Gensheimer. In no way do his maniacal diatribes about all things bike oriented represent the opinions of Mtbr, RoadBikeReview, or any of their employees, contractors, janitorial staff, family members, household pets, or any other creature, living or dead. You can submit questions or comments to Kurt at [email protected]. And make sure to check out Kurt's previous columns.