Editorial (with sick photos)
Why I Love and Hate Red Bull Rampage*
*hate is too strong but alternatives made the headline awkward
The first Rampage I attended was the second one, back in 2002. I kept going until 2010 and then decided to watch the huckfest from the comfort of my couch, which is a much better way to see what is actually going on. At the last venue there was only one vantage point where virtually everything was visible, but that spot was reserved for judges and the official event filmers. After NBC got involved it also became increasingly difficult to create original media during the event; non-event filming was prohibited and locations for photography continued to diminish as well. I miss it but it's certainly less nerve wracking viewing from home.
You've probably heard how bonkers these fragile ridgelines chutes and drops are in person, and I can tell you this isn't hyperbole. In 2002 I felt a little sick to my stomach walking up the mountain for the first time. I couldn't get my mind around anyone riding a bike there and I felt quite certain catastrophe would result. While I got used to it somewhat, and learned how forgiving the soil can be when prepared adequately, the absurdity of the lines being attempted amplified over the years as riders became more skilled and more audacious.
It's hard to overstate the importance of Rampage to mountain bikers of a certain stripe. Imagine if there was only one place on earth where you could hold a big mountain ski competition or a big wave surf event? While the riding approaches Rampage in a few rare corners of the globe, only one place where it's practical to hold the competition has been found despite years of searching.
This singularity comes with pressure and high expectations. For fans of Rampage it is sacred and needs to be treated accordingly. You can't have announcers talking out of their asses and you can't screw up the judging too badly (like one early year when several of the judges were sloshed) or you will hear about it. The same goes for the format, the location, qualified riders, coverage for both TV and internet etc.
Keeping the fans happy and keeping the standard high is a monumental task and one that, for the most part, Todd Barber and H5 Events with the help of Red Bull, have done an excellent job with. In fact the event has become more polished, the judging has generally improved, most pre-built features have been removed, the digging time has increased and the spectacle continues to be worthy of our attention. Without a large and dedicated audience the value of the Rampage would fatally diminished and it's clear organizers have paid attention to criticism in recent years.
It's well known that in the early days there was much less digging. In fact there is far more digging in a single day now than there was for the entire competition in 2002. A kicker might be built and a landing cleared out some, but compared to the colossal landings supported by tonnes of rock and sandbags, it's like building a backyard pump track vs. building A Line and Dirt Merchant combined. And there were riders who simply showed up, poached a line and never touched a tool at all, something that can't happen now. Tricks were few but the audience was more easily impressed and the vibe was amazing.
Eventually Red Bull swung it in the other direction, constructing huge features that doubled as billboards. The Oakley Sender, The Polaris RZR Booter etc. robbed riders of creativity but they saved time and created moments we wouldn't have seen otherwise. The choice to ditch them this year and let the riders create something their own was a bold stance and the right one for the event.
This year, with a brand new venue, riders were allowed 8.5 days of digging along with two comrades and 75 sandbags. The rain on Monday the 22nd kept riders off the hill for half the day but, according to Todd Barber, some riders felt the wet weather improved digging conditions enough to compensate for the time lost. Despite this there were riders who were either digging right up until the end or who failed to complete their lines. It seemed clear that riders didn't have enough practice time because of the number of falls by the very best riders. Seeing Brandon Semenuk miss a move by a wide margin twice is rare indeed. Jordie Lunn's line was thought by many to be the gnarliest on the hill but he didn't end up riding it. While the line wasn't completed, Jordie told me Brendan Fairclough had given him the okay to ride his line. Unfortunately Jordie was dealing with food poisoning all week and half a run was all he could muster, and he hadn't been able to ride any of the bottom section.
Riders were able to practice and dig for four days leading up to the event (Oct. 22nd through 25th) but with so much digging to do this didn't seem to be enough time. Clean runs make for exciting competition, particularly for the second runs. Rampage has occasionally done reverse seeding for the finals, but has usually kept the run order, killing much of the suspense. Thankfully this year the riders were ordered from lowest score to highest for run two and Andreu had the chance to push Brett Rheeder late in the competition. He had a mind-blower of a run going but a crash ended his bid for a second victory.
It seems to me that ending the dig interval several days before the event, with dig and practice days before that, would ensure riders knew their lines and had ample practice time. This problem isn't new. In 2015 Nico Vink attempted his incredibly nasty line for the first time in the finals, crashing out of the competition. In 2008, when there was a qualifier course and a finals course, Cam McCaul rode a line blind because he'd had to qualify and wasn't able to ride the finals course at all. He crashed hard and when I saw him shortly after he had no memory of his run.
Rampage has to be one of the hardest events to judge in action sports. There are so many factors involved that isolating a score for the chosen criteria has to be agonizingly difficult. Giving the judges access to monitors so runs could be replayed was a first this year and it's a welcome change. Another change was how the scoring was presented to the riders; they were told to ignore the value placed on each run in favour of the ranking. That makes great sense because there is no telling what is coming next, but it also means you need to nail the early scores and remember that point when you are scoring runs later.
Most of the controversy this year surrounded Brendan Fairclough's burly high speed run that included a decent-sized backflip and a massive canyon gap. For that he was awarded a 67.66 and 10th place. Brendan was clearly upset with the score but he wisely bit his tongue during his post race interview. For me Brendan's run was creative and burly, particularly his canyon and the steep chute and he ripped his line for incredible flow. If a run like that can't score then maybe Rampage needs to have two categories, one for racer types and one for the freeride crew. I for one would miss seeing racer style but with a score like that it's hard to imagine many World Cup riders making the Trek to Virgin in the future.
Adolph Silva's score was another head scratcher. He went huge with lots of style and tossed in a big flip but ended up 11th. The fans disagreed entirely giving him the people's choice award. I wouldn't say his was the winning run but for me it was a top five. And yet with judged events there will always be controversy. The key is managing things with transparency and the appearance of fairness.
This year there were 6 American riders out of 18, but four of the five judges (KC Deane, Bender, Kyle Jameson and Greg Watts) and the head judge (Randy Spangler) are American. Only Nico Vink of Belgium can claim to not be presided over by Trump. It hasn't always been this way but the judging crew is often at least half American. And if you look at the perceived judging tragedies the ones that come to mind are, Norby (Canada), Antoine Bizet (France), Tom Van Steenbergen (Canada), Brendan Fairclough (United Kingdom), Szymon Godziek (Poland) and Adolph Silva (Spain). And to my mind Ethan Nell (USA) hasn't laid down a podium worthy run for either of the last two years. Incredible runs, but not as incredible as some of the others who scored lower from my vantage point. So you have a riders who aren't American who many feel were robbed and you have judging panels stocked with riders from the U.S.
I'm not suggesting there is anything deliberate here but anyone familiar with even basic psychology will tell you that each of us have unconscious biases and we are generally inclined to favour those a) we know better and b) who are more like us. Our countrymen fit perfectly into those categories, as do our teammates. Could it be time to mix up the judging panel to more accurately reflect the multi national make up of the ridership?*
*Red Bull deserves credit for not having any of their sponsored athletes on the panel.
Another head scratcher is how little was done to let the world know about the judging this year. In previous years the judges names were published by Red Bull along with some bios and photos but this year it took some real digging for me to discover their identities. In 2016, when Mike Berard was producing stories for Red Bull, he put together an entire article on the judges with bios and video. The names I discovered for this year were eventually verified by Todd Barber along with the judging criteria, but I don't remember ever having to dig before this. A simple google search and I was done. Again, this may not be deliberate,* but if you are trying to prevent controversy it makes sense to ramp up the transparency.
*I could have done my digging before the event but I didn't anticipate needing to
All judges were provided with the judging criteria prior to this years event. The basics of the judging are below. We also stressed to the athletes to not stress on their individual score and to focus on executing their best run. The goal of the judges is to rank each athlete on the merit of their run and not how high their final score is. It was stressed that the winning run could have been in the 80’s and what is most important is that we get the proper ranking. Who has the number 1 run, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…..and not who scored the 98 point run. I think a lot of people freaked when Bren-dogs score was in the 60’s, however this gave the judges the ability to go up or down in ranking depending each run. I think his final ranking was correct if you look at the judging criteria below. - Todd Barber H5 Events
JUDGING FORMAT - Provided by Todd Barber
- The best overall score from both Run 1 & Run 2 will determine final ranking
- In case of tie – the highest cumulative score from both runs will determine final ranking
- One central start location located at the top of the venue and all athletes must start from start structure
- Once the athlete leaves the start they will have 3 minutes to complete their run or they will receive a zero score – DNF
- All 5 judges’ scores will be added together and divided by 5 to get the individual average.
- High and low judge scores are discarded to get final score.
- Judges to use automated judging tablets to record score
- Judges to use a manual “Steno” to record details of each individual run
Overall Impression score given from the following criteria - total of 100 possible points
- Degree of Difficulty of chosen line
- Tricks and style
- Fluidity and control
- Amplitude / Air
I asked Todd Barber who sees the scores and he told me this; "Only the judges and scoring company. We keep this information private so as not to cause additional controversy. We work extremely hard to find the right judges (all prior Rampage athletes) with the highest level of experience/knowledge and we have to trust the process once it starts."
As the FBI will tell you, if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to worry about. Many high profile events are entirely transparent about judging, revealing the name of the judge and his or her nationality every time a score is revealed. I think this would go a long way toward mitigating criticism, and perhaps this would help judges become more aware of their biases. We all have them and they are nothing to be ashamed of, but sometimes the awareness that our judgments will be made public increases our perception of these predilections.
Then I asked Todd about making the scoring public in the future; "Not sure how this would fix anything by trying to single out one person. After the event, the judges commented on how similar their scores were across the board. Also, with the addition of replay in video judging it allowed all the judges to watch replays of runs and compare. All judges felt their scores were correct and valid. Also we do throw out high and low scores to try and minimize any extreme difference from affecting the average."
C'mon Rampage, show us what you've got!
Overall this was a really solid Rampage. The lines constructed were incredible, the level of riding was insane, and there were no major injuries to my knowledge. At the same time, any groundbreaking event must adapt and evolve in order to improve. More practice time should produce more completed runs, more transparency and a more international judging crew could reduce perceptions of bias. The only downside is that we'd have less to moan about on the internet.
Long Live Red Bull Rampage!