Cam McCaul going extra big on the Red Bull jump. Photo: Benjamin Melini
The acrid taste of dust fills the air as we scramble up the trail to the venue. It is just after eight in the morning and the final day of the Redbull Rampage: The Evolution is almost underway. Since 2001, this invite-only event has been held in the deserts of Virgin, Utah. This year represents the seventh time this event has taken place, and it promises to be the best yet. It is also the final stop on the FMB World Tour, and a win here could propel a rider to the top of the ladder.
Anticipation mixes with adrenaline and dirt to form a cocktail of intensity. The field of 40 riders has been whittled down to 12, and then combined with an additional 14 pre-qualified competitors. An international showing of talent has converged here in the middle-of-nowhere to prove their might against the mountain. Although there is only room for one man atop the podium, each rider will go home knowing they left it all on the course.
Over the past two weeks, each rider and his contingent of shoveling minions have laid siege on the primordial landscape to sculpt lines and build features. The amount of work it takes to transform a craggy mesa into something resembling a course is staggering. Previously non-existent lines now allow for a myriad selection of descents from the summit ridge. In addition to the natural terrain, the build teams have also constructed over a dozen wooden features that enable the riders to fling themselves into the stratosphere and over bottomless canyons. The iconic Oakley Sender is back from the last event, this time with more choices, including a 50-foot step down and a rollercoaster-like transfer option. The Mineshaft feature down course offers riders the opportunity to send it over a gap right into a hip and then back to the finish. Perhaps the most daunting jump, a carefully constructed canyon gap on the north side of the venue, was the scene of many spectacular hits, including one epic crash that ended Cameron Zink’s shot at the finals. Zink won the 2010 Rampage with a 360 off the Sender. It is interesting to think what would have been had he managed to stick the landing.
As the sun rose above the ridge and illuminated the demonic course, riders made their way to the starting gate. The competitors were allowed to inspect their lines one last time before take off, and we wondered what was going through their minds. This event is the culmination of a year, if not a lifetime, worth of dedication to the sport, and the hopes and dreams of each athlete hinged on only two runs. Ice the landing and you are a hero, crash and burn and its back to the drawing board. It was now time to Rampage!
Brendan Howey had the honor of leading off, and he chose a line on the south ridge. Silhouetted against a deep blue sky, he ripped down the trail and off several small terrain nuggets. The whirling blades of the helicopter filming the event seemed to be right on top of Howey as he aired off the ridge and down into the canyon. His run was safe and clean, but it was merely a taste of the madness to come. Over the next couple hours, competitors trickled down the venue, linking up drops and jumps to try and please the crowd and impress the judges. The scoring of each run was based on four criteria: Difficulty of line, Amplitude in the air, Control & Fluidity, and Tricks & Style. Every rider possessed the ability to perform at the highest level, and taming the burning fear inside would prove to be the most difficult skill to master.
In the extreme terrain, trying to cover this event proved difficult and at times dangerous. Being cognizant of where to stand and ensuring you were not in a landing zone was imperative to safety. I felt like a young Hunter S. Thompson moving about in true gonzo style. The crazy breeds of journalists/photographers that attempt to capture the essence of this event do so at their own peril. Even if getting the shot means repelling off a 45-foot cliff to set up.
The first run of the finals yielded impressive performances by perennial favorites Kyle Strait and Andreu Lecondeguy, as well as newcomers Antoine Bizet and Logan Binggeli. “It is nice to ride my home dirt. Being a racer, this is a very different type of competition than what I am used to,” said St. George local Binggeli. His backflip mid-course blew the judges away and astounded our small group, which was standing less than ten feet away when he went airborne. Big names Brandon Semenuk, leader of the FMB World Tour, and Darren “Bearclaw” Berrecloth both had incredibly exposed lines, but failed to put it all together in one smooth run. Kurt Sorge’s power and skill prevailed and put him squarely on top of the leader board going into the afternoon. It would be up to the others to lay down perfection and unseat him.
The character of each rider varied from amped up to relaxed, and you could tell who was confident in his abilities. “This course is dialed in,” said Lecondeguy in his thick Spaniard accent. At only 23, this is his second Rampage, and he is looking forward to a shot at the podium. Cameron McCaul, who qualified first for the finals, was also planning his attack on the leaders. His massive hit over the canyon gap was the only one of the day.
The afternoon sun splayed shadows over the far reaches of the venue and the competitors rallied their weary bodies back to the top for one last chance at glory. Several riders declined a second run and were happy to just take their score and their bones home in one piece. Back on course, Kyle Norbraten threw down back-to-back 360’s off consecutive cliffs in a showing of skill and courage. Berrecloth got a shot at redemption and billygoated his way down “The Heart” and into the canyon below. He aced his most technical section, but then lost it on a trick at the bottom. Semenuk then lined up for a repeat on “The Stegosaurus” and stomped his cliff gap to transfer, a feature he spent countless hours carefully crafting in the weeks leading up to the event. The remainder of his run was stellar, but he managed to over-rotate a back flip near the finish line, cancelling his chance to take home the trophy.
Frenchman Antoine Bizet, who crashed out on his first run, took the opportunity to go all out and push for a win. His first back flip in a tight, technical section wowed the audience and he crushed two more before ending his run in monstrous style. However, it would be only enough to take home second. Binggelli’s line put him squarely in third. Sorge had the competition locked up and could have walked away. Instead, he decided to take stage and rip up the course like a jet fighter. Clean, stylish and agile, he moved across the mountain, utilizing everything and stomping the Sender, followed by a massive back flip before the finish. When asked how it felt to win the event, he was nearly speechless. “It hasn’t even set in yet—I’m stoked,” said Sorge as he cruised to the award ceremony. Standing atop the podium waving the banner of his native Canada, he received a well-deserved champagne shower and reveled in his victory. The top three split the $21,000 purse and finished their season on a high note. Rounding out the top five were Lecondeguy and Tyler McCaul. Along with his seventh place finish, Cameron McCaul took home best trick and $5,000 for his fearless back flip off a step down following the canyon gap. Although Semenuk crashed out, he still took home the FMB World Tour Title. In an impressive showing of force, these men dominated the competition and set the stage for the future of the event. Over the next year, they will fight hard and hone their skills to defend their positions in the mountain biking world. Be sure to visit RedbullRampage.com for more info and tune into the NBC broadcast of the event on Dec. 8.
Check out more awesome photos by Benjamin Melini here.