Agents for Change

Words Lacy Kemp
Photos Lacy Kemp
Date Oct 20, 2015

My name is Lacy Kemp and I am a hypocrite.

Maybe you are too. Maybe not. Let me explain. I work in the bike industry. I love riding. I love working with athletes, showcasing their incredible talents and stories, and doing whatever I can to bring them closer to their fans. I love what I do and wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

“It’s fucked up,” I responded.

“It’s kind of like smoking cigarettes,” he said. “It’s bad, everyone knows it’s bad, but it’s still kind of fun.”

Last year was my first time at Red Bull Rampage. If you’re unfamiliar with this event, I suggest you do a simple web search. Surely your feed will be inundated with images of guys jumping their bikes off of 30, 40, 50 foot cliffs, podium shots with champagne showers, blue skies with helicopters chasing the riders down knife ridges with spectators ogling below. But I’ll also bet your results turn up photos of crumpled bodies at the bottom of a cliff, bloody limbs, and videos showcasing the most horrific crashes ever to occur on a bike.

Welcome to Rampage – the most hypocritical event in action sports.

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What you never want to see, but are glad is available at an event like Rampage.

Rampage is held in a fairly remote part of the southern Utah desert in a tiny town called Virgin, just outside the gates to Zion National Park. The landscape and skies are a perfect couple of dramatic scenery. Dark red dirt that’s finer than the softest powdered sugar infiltrates every possible pore of clothing and acts as an unintentional self-tanner. The skies are either the brightest blue you’ve ever seen or terrifyingly ominous. I’m not sure there is an in between. Rampage boasts a similar effect. It’s either the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen, or the most gut-wrenchingly awful thing you’ll ever witness. And, I’m afraid the latter is becoming ever more prominent.

As I sat in the red dirt staring up at surrounding canyon walls, I watched as dozens of people clung to cliff ledges like toys placed precariously by a child on a massive Lego construct. People dangled by rappelling ropes chiseling away at the soft layers of rock and clay, designing incredible works of art.

That would soon be the only way down for the athletes. Others worked in small crews creating landings for jumps that seemed big enough to set down a Cessna without much effort. One was even dubbed the “Great Wall of Rampage.” It was a truly impressive effort of dirt manipulation. As the week progressed we started to see the riders testing out the features that were so thoughtfully built just for them. A tiny city of trails and negotiation came to life. Lines crossed over one another as riders reluctantly agreed to let another athlete crisscross their trail or share a jump.

While tensions grew thick over the battle for dirt that could or could not be shared, a bigger storm was brewing: the good old white elephant. No one wants to talk about what this event could turn into, but it’s clear to me that Rampage is someone’s death waiting to happen. These guys are essentially out in this desert alone. Mountain biking doesn’t have the clout other action sports do. We don’t have the support of the adrenaline world (yet). So everything that goes on in Virgin is essentially a roll of the dice. There is no massive paycheck that will set you up well for the next couple years of your life. Perhaps there are new contracts that could equal financial success, but to a mountain biker, that might mean being able to afford an apartment and a used Tacoma.

Some refused to ride their second runs because the scoring was such that in order to win, they may have been on a suicide mission. Or maybe a paralysis mission. Or a tens of thousands of dollars medical bill mission. Whatever was in their head that caused them to say no, that’s what we need to be talking about.

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A tiny city of trails building and dirt negotiation comes to live in Virgin, Utah.

Yet, each year hundreds of thousands of people tune in to the live feed on Red Bull TV to watch their sport’s heroes go for broke – or go for broken. And each year the runs get scarier, the crashes get worse, and the question is whispered louder and louder, “How has no one died here yet?”

Honestly, I don’t know. It’s true the riders are incredibly calculated and talented. They wouldn’t send a line they didn’t truly believe they could ride. I also give huge kudos to the medical staff on site for being VERY fast to the scene of an accident. Having a helicopter on standby for the very seriously injured is also a huge plus. But one serious head trauma is all it would take for someone to start their day off as a potential champion and, instead, end their life as the “dude that died at Rampage.”

As I climbed up and down ‘Mount Rampage’ I kept saying to people, “This is fucked up.” I said it to my friends. I said it to the team managers, and I finally said it to some of the athletes that I could see were really struggling with the reality of the event. Each time I saw a rider go down the feeling of nausea grew ever more prominent. The crazy thing is that every single person I said those words to agreed with me. Some (of the athletes!) even nodded and high-fived me.

Some refused to ride their second runs because the scoring was such that in order to win, they may have been on a suicide mission. Or maybe a paralysis mission. Or a tens of thousands of dollars medical bill mission. Whatever was in their head that caused them to say no, that’s what we need to be talking about.

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No dig, no ride. Poaching lines is seriously frowned upon. These anti-poaching devices worked well.

I watched multiple friends get carted off in ambulances over two days. Compound fractures. Internal bleeding. Broken vertebrae. Concussions. Potential paralysis. You guys, THIS IS FUCKED UP. And the worst part? I’m there to document it and bring it to the masses. I’m there to share the stories of Rampage and how incredibly intense (for better or worse) the event is. By creating the media that pays my bills, I’m promoting this event, and therefore glorifying the carnage that ensues. My plan was to make a story about the build crews of three of the athletes. I wanted the focus to be on the emotional toll this week takes on the guys that pay in blood, sweat, and stiff muscles. As the week progressed two of the teams I was focusing on were stopped short due to their riders crashing out of the event with injury.

It suddenly became apparent to me that while my main focus would remain intact, I wanted to show (at least write about) a side to this event that exists only in the unmentioned thought. I watched as the crews spent hundreds of man hours constructing these masterpieces of trails sit on the sidelines as their riders were carted off to local hospitals. Their faces showed dejection, sadness, and frustration. I was curious if they felt responsible. I was curious if they were angry. I found myself feeling angry and feeling responsible, and feeling so guilty. We’ve created an event where the riders are simply pawns in a gladiatorial arena. We watch as they fall one by one. Or we watch as they put in an insane effort only to come up a little short. And we watch as the helicopter blades go round and round for hours at a time. We watch like it’s some middle-aged fight to the death.

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Sam Reynolds flew high above this canyon gap with his feet off the pedals – twice.

“But no one makes the riders do this. No one holds a gun to their heads,” I’ve been told. True. No one forces this competition on the riders, but by promoting it as the biggest thing in mountain biking and creating a contract structure that awards placing at this event, they have an indirect pressure to compete, even if they’re terrified. I asked Andreu Lacondeguy why he (and the riders) show up to an event like this.

“You know? I don’t even know,” he said rather cheerfully.

“It’s fucked up,” I responded.

“It’s kind of like smoking cigarettes,” he said. “It’s bad, everyone knows it’s bad, but it’s still kind of fun.”

So, maybe it’s addicting like nicotine? The drive to compete and remain relevant is so addicting, that the athletes are willing to literally risk life and limb.

There simply has to be a better way to reward the athletes that push the sport. We need to redefine what mountain biking currently is, and the direction we want it to go. We’re at a tipping point. The diggers know it. The riders know it. The media knows it. Everyone is afraid of this event, yet everyone still shows up. Everyone still watches. There is an unspoken fear of, “If I don’t go I’ll become irrelevant,” from some of the athletes. For me personally, there is the journalistic drive to go and talk about the scary stuff, but that means I’m still marketing an event that I love to hate, and I have a serious problem with that.

People are starting to talk. With the injuries from guys like Paul Basagoitia, Tyler McCaul, Nico Vink, and Jeff Herbertson (among many others), the realization that something has to change is palpable. A collective voice is emerging from guys like Cameron Zink, who has been very outspoken about the dark side of this event. But Cam is only one guy. It will take an army from all sides: the riders, the media, and the fans to really push the sport in a direction that is realistic. Glory is great. Imminent danger is not. The safety of the riders has to be considered. The risk vs. reward has to be fair. And we, as the watching public, have to take part of the responsibility for letting it get this far.

I’m not asking for Rampage to be turned into an event with pure flow trails (barf) and no challenge. I don’t think anyone wants that. There’s a reason so few people can compete in this event. It’s hard. It’s really hard. For 99% of us, it’s impossible. It should only remain for the elite. The concept of constructing an original trail down a mountain in a week is a brilliant idea and totally unique, which is why so many of us fans have flocked to the live feed. But for the sake of life and not death, let’s set some regulations, provide insurance for the athletes (that often lose money just traveling to this event), and put all the riders and judges on an even playing field. Eight people crashing out of the event is uncalled for.

I don’t know where to go next with my thoughts – I only know that continuing the conversation is better than simply watching the replays of carnage and saying nothing at all. We all love to watch Rampage, but yet we all cringe when someone falls off a cliff. Then we watch that crash over and over, essentially making it ok to have happened in the first place, because we know that the rider ended up being ok.

We’re all hypocrites for this. All of us. Let’s talk about it. Let’s help promote the change our sport needs to see. Let’s honestly support the riders that are putting everything on the line. Let’s encourage amazing riding and talent, but figure out a way to make it more inspiring and less terrifying. It’s not watering anything down. It’s truly growing the sport in a direction that we can justify without fearing for the death of our icons.


Are you a hypocrite too?

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Comments

doug-nielsen
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Doug Nielsen  - Nov. 4, 2015, 2:20 p.m.

I know I'm late on this article but what really bothers me is that Cam Zink started the whole #f@$krampage thing, then I buy his new movie, and what's the whole thing about?? Rampage and how rad it is. But, I guess that's the point of your article. I'm not a hypocrite on this. I think Rampage is freaking insane and should be cancelled. It had its moment. Hell, UCI downhill scares the hell out of me.

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brente
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brente  - Oct. 26, 2015, 8:30 p.m.

Never had an interest in rampage or it's ilk….sorry just don't get it. Mountain bikingis not a spectator sport just go ride dammit.

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jerryek
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Jerryek  - Oct. 21, 2015, 5:38 p.m.

I think there are two sets of issues here, one easier to address than the other.

First, I think everyone would agree that Red Bull and others sponsors should be doing more to support athletes who participate in these types of events. No rider should be doing this as part of their job, then have to raise money from the public to cover medical costs when things go badly. That's complete BS. I also don't see how this should be part of the FMB series. Obviously, that increases participation and the profile of the event, but it also encourages riders to weigh the risks/rewards in ways that isn't really fair. DH riders don't have the same pressure to participate, and its not surprising that fewer of them make that choice.

The second and more difficult issue is the future of an event like this. Because riders build their own lines, and there is progression every year, the risks are getting out of control. Unlike a slopestyle event, there is no pre- built course to keep things within reason. Thus, the ballsier riders - or the ones with the most to gain from riding a ridiculous line - will be motivated to go beyond their comfort levels, and continually push the bar for what it takes to win an event like this. Nobody has died yet, but with the way the event is set up and normal progression inherent in the sport, it will happen soon. The lines will just keep getting more and more ridiculous.

I have no idea how to address that last issue, as the open format of the event is what makes it so cool. But at some point, I would imagine that established riders will stop competing, and the event will be guys like Bender taking increasingly stupid risks. Cam Zink - the guy who was comfortable doing a 100 foot backflip - has spoken out about how the Rampage is too much. Unfortunately, with the given format, its just going to get worse.

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riley
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Riley  - Oct. 21, 2015, 12:34 p.m.

I think rampage should go back to being held every other year.

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jt
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JT  - Oct. 21, 2015, 11:31 a.m.

I get this. Totally. Rampage is damn near as burl as burl can get. In most any other sport, the athletes are covered when competing/performing and that goes for a lot of cycling events/races too. Why it isn't here, with what's getting built and done, it's crazy for the event sponsors to NOT pony up and get the riders' a policy at least. With that, one thing always concerned me, and that's the lack of chest and spine protection on the riders. The promoters/sponsors should have been mandating appropriate protective gear for the contest all along. True it won't solve all injuries, but if you're out there in jeans, a t shirt, gloves(maybe) and a full face and expect to not get injured you haven't been watching your competitors. Or you've not spent enough time at a skatepark to see how screwed up people get bailing at MUCH lower amplitudes. It's negligence on both parties to be out there in what the rock and dust will regard as your birthday suit when you crash. If you look at Bas' crash, a spine protector could very well have prevented that fracture. How Rogatkin got away without more of an injury is just luck. And truly unfortunate, Bas' luck turned sour. I can hope (I do) and donate (I have) for a speedy recovery, but it's time the promoters, the riders, and the riders' sponsors sat down and had a powwow to establish just how much the riders' lives are worth. It's time to raise the baseline for safety both before a crash (protective gear) and after it (insurance and wage coverage).

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mark-karlstrand
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Mark Karlstrand  - Oct. 21, 2015, 1:20 p.m.

+1 on the chest, spine, neck protection. It should not be optional. I wonder if Paul B. would be were he is with better safety gear?

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Dirk
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Dirk  - Oct. 21, 2015, 11 a.m.

This is a great article and I'm very happy it was written. There was another good one on one of the other sites as well…

To me, the whole "they choose to be out there" and "it's for the love of the sport" argument holds when we're talking about a few bros out there, throwing down on their own time or for their own, grassroots event. Throw advertisers making huge bank off the footage and not-terribly-well-paid athletes (comparatively speaking) feeling pressure to attend and perform into the mix and that argument falls apart.

My other problem is that Red Bull is a lot more than just a title sponsor to this event. They're integral to the planning of it. They've built their multi- billion dollar corporation on the backs of just such events. It's unconscionable that Paul Basagotia is seeking a pittance of dollars for his recovery via online donations. Can you imagine a hockey player doing the same? Your co-worker? This situation is ridiculous.

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cam@nsmb.com
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Cam McRae  - Oct. 21, 2015, 4:07 p.m.

Not only that - Red Bull sponsors many of the top athletes - and maybe those athletes are treated differently at the event in terms of accommodation and expenses, tilting the playing field.

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rvoi
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rvoi  - Oct. 21, 2015, 9:35 a.m.

The real-time judging at Rampage adds suspense, but it also promotes the cliff diving atmosphere. If the judging results were not announced until the end of the day(s), I think it would alleviate a lot of the uncomfortable extra pressure on the athletes. The riders could focus on riding their line the best way possible rather than worrying about chasing the current leader. That is what riders seem to want. The judges would also get an opportunity to step back and look at the competition as a whole before passing out scores which might lead to more consistent judging overall.

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t.odd  - Oct. 21, 2015, 11:29 a.m.

I watch a lot of pro surfing online, and one thing I love about the judging is that it isn't rushed. they take the time to watch the wave, watch a replay, then go back and watch replays of previous waves to compare it against before they make their final score. I've always felt like in mtb events the judging gets rushed because of the format and everyone is usually left with a bit of a bitter taste in their mouths. Format/judging is a huge factor imo.

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Lacy Kemp  - Oct. 21, 2015, 2:50 p.m.

Judging in general is just so freaking subjective… what if it were rider judged?

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t.odd  - Oct. 21, 2015, 6:27 p.m.

I think judged events in general are pretty lame and way to subjective, rider judged seems to have worked well in other events like Fest, but, who knows, maybe?

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whatyouthink
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whatyouthink  - Oct. 21, 2015, 7:37 a.m.

I am so conflicted on this topic. On one hand I understand the argument that these guys all choose to be here and send death defying stunts. I also agree that they don't get enough support for what they are doing. I partially think this is just the wrong format for the event. We have seen how successful the fest series has been (I mean hell they swept the podium at rampage). Maybe the FMB style that pushes scores and podiums just isn't right. This event is supposed to be the pinnacle of FREERIDE mountain biking. Maybe we give these guys a week out in the desert to put together awesome footage for the viewers free from the pressure to drop in with the wind. Free from pressure to send drops that will get a high score because they might die. I think the mountain bike community (all the bike brands and media outlets and the fans) can make a competing event that these riders would rather be at. Maybe red bull then steps up when they are losing their event and makes rampage better supported for the riders who risk everything.

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jared
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jared  - Oct. 21, 2015, 4:04 a.m.

Plagerizing from another comment I saw elsewhere- if Red Bull can send a dude to space, Red Bull should cover the medical bills (medevac/hospital/surgery/lost wages) when these dudes bite it hard.

Red Bull is by far the biggest benefactor of Rampage.

These guys give it their all, but for the next year when their runs start getting circulated on social media amongst non-riders, none of them will remember the rider's names, just the logo of the sugar-swill sponsor.

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matt
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Matt  - Oct. 20, 2015, 10:53 p.m.

I'm sorry, this is a passionate and well written piece, but I can't bring myself to agree with it. These guys are coming voluntarily to ride lines of their own design and construction. They're not stupid. They know the consequences and they can back down at any point they wish. Don't feel ready for Rampage? Practice, come back next year. Don't like the wind? Don't ride, pick a backup line, whatever. Don't like subjective judging? Can't handle the pressure of competition? Don't compete. It's really that simple.

Nobody is forcing these riders to do this, and many others have carved out great careers for themselves without Rampage. Backing down is an ingrained cultural practice in every other mountain sport. There's no shame in bailing - when you've fucked up is when you don't come home. It seems like maybe we've hit the point in mountain biking where top athletes are going to have to learn to use their brains and say no when what they're doing crosses their personal threshold for acceptable risk.

I will say this though, this event needs off the FMB calendar. It's not relevant to the slopestyle riders who contend for the overall at the end of the year and is an unfair and dangerous place to determine the champion in a slope and DJ comp tour. Some riders are clearly comfortable at Rampage (Claw, Semenuk, Sorge, etc) and some (won't name names here) are clearly not. So that pressure, I do believe needs to go.

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Dirk
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Dirk  - Oct. 21, 2015, 8:25 a.m.

Did you read the article?

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kelley
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Kelley  - Oct. 20, 2015, 10:41 p.m.

Sometimes you have to ask yourself, "is the juice worth the squeeze?"

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the_yeti
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The_Yeti  - Oct. 21, 2015, 7:28 a.m.

Shh…. Just learn to like it.

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