Words by Seb Kemp
Photos by Anthony Smith and Morgan Meredith
It's an early start for finals day. With a short practice session open from the moment sun rises above the white rock-capped conical formations to the East, riders are afforded just an hour for last-minute preparations and alterations to their lines. It doesn't seem quite right for riders to be hurling themselves into such violent acts, committing them with such grace. Brandon Semenuk launches into a 16-foot drop followed by two huge doubles. No warm-up, no easing into it, just straight to the point.
Ryan Howard, aka R-Dogg prepping the last of Brandon Semenuk’s line.
But it isn't only the riders who are there tying up loose ends. Semenuk's builders have been there since before dawn to water the lower-half of his line. These boys have been here for eight days straight, working tirelessly to construct what many believe is an event-winning line. They aren't here for any other payback other than to see Brandon do well. There is no cash to be exchanged, no deals, nothing but an alliance among friends.
Ryan Howard explains "We all just want to see my boy do well. Even if we weren't digging for Brandon then we would be here digging. It's just what mountain biking is all about: no dig, no ride."
The venue is quiet right now. Just the sweet, tempered beating of shovels on dirt, water being sprayed onto landings, and the riders calmly working their way around the basin. There is a beautiful peace. The sun is low, the light is warm, and the air is cool.
Kyle Strait has been quietly getting on with his business all week and is now just setting up for the very last obstacle on the course, a giant wooden cheese-wedge kicker into a hip landing. As he hikes back up from a dummy run he comments "It feels like it is going to be a nice day."
Most people's idea of a nice day is a lazy morning, a picnic, or a day off work to lounge in the sun. Kyle is a very normal guy and no doubt a nice day to him could mean a warm sun, a bass pond, and the companionship of a few good friends. However, today he is immersed in a totally different mental plane, one where hauling down a nearly sheer slope by way of several humongous drops is perceived to be a nice day.
The nice morning is kicked into gear the moment the helicopter fires up, the DJ starts playing his abominable playlist, and event announcer Brad Ewan's voice roars over the PA system. Then the hordes of spectators start to descend on the site. Their beer-fueled mob mentality brings a different psychic charge to the Rampage arena. The coliseum of calm becomes the amphitheater of agony.
Brendan Howey is the first man on the chopping board and follows the same line he rode for qualifiers. He shows his skill by riding flawlessly down it, but by the measure of the judge's scores it is obvious that it won't be nearly enough this year. He wisely declines the invitation for a second run. Having fired his entire salvo and will retreat to ride another day.
Brett Rheeder rolls in next and barspins off the first drop on the very top ridge. He fumbles the catch and disappears off the backside of the ridge. Everyone gasps but no more than anyone who has been up there to see the exposure of the sheer cliff outside the specatators' field of view. To fall there could be fatal. However, he reappears and the crowd thanks their lord by cheering uproariously—the rabble is here for action, not mortal blows. The rest of his run is good but again clearly this is a warm up for what is to come.
Kyle Norbraten follows and adds a second, perfectly executed, 360 to his qualifying run. Poise, speed, control and tricks for Kyle with the judges' scores for his line leaving many pondering why it didn't score better.
Next up, Kyle Strait flies down his original line, manhandling his bike underneath him but still looking fluid and elegant. He even adds in a very big one-footed invert on a transfer and hits the last huge Red Bull booter—Good enough for a nice stay in the hot seat.
‘Lyle’ drops down one of the more unique lines in the contest.
Afterwards, Semenuk flows into his serpentine creation and looks faultless—until an errant no-foot can-can sends him off-line and over the bars. He scratches this run giving him just one more to show the world how it's done.
Following Semenuk, Darren Berrecloth has an absolutely man-sized, straight-line-down-the-face-of-the-course which was a potential contest-winning line, but a fumble lower down the line looses him points.
Gravity takes over as the ‘Claw’ barrels down his line.
Doerfling powers down the slope hitting huge lines and drops, culminating in the transfer into the dirt quarter pipe that claimed him last year. Next up is Thomas Vanderham, no longer 'The Kid' as he is perhaps one of the most experienced Rampage riders here. His line is beautifully executed, perhaps making it look too easy, as the judges' scores only managed to put him into sixth.
The long-haired Will White looks amped to make it into the finals. He looks strong and confident, buzzing almost. Hitting all his lines cleanly, he even styles tabletop off the Oakley Icon Sender, something no other rider did.
Anton Bizet reminds everybody of the dangers of the course when he slips off his line and starts tumbling down the front face. People gasp and a nearby woman pleads for him to stop out loud to herself. He stops before a huge cliff. No score for that run. Kurt Sorge launches into the top half of the course, adding a suicide no-hander where others creep. Then he unleashes a huge backflip into the Fang Snakepit at the bottom before launching into the dirt quarter pipe. He easily takes the lead. Binggeli, the Utah boy, follows other riders lines the whole way down the course, adds in a crowd-pleasing backflip over a safe tabletop jump, hits the Oakley Icon Sender and transfers into the quarter pipe—second place according to the judges.
Andreu Lacondeguy looks like he is in a hurry and tears into his run. Holding a fearsome amount of speed down the top half of the course, he peppers the rest of his run with big tricks. However, it isn't deemed worthy of surpassing Binggeli or Sorge.
The Frenchman Pierre Edouard Ferry looks composed most of the way down but a slight bobble pays dearly for his score. Nico Vink opts out of his own line and borrows a line from Doerfling and Vanderham most of the way. Tyler McCaul has a wild, high-paced line that gets him down the hill by way of a rhythmic series of huge drops that he butters perfectly. A riders' favorite, but only scores him enough for fifth place.
“Regardless of what I place…it’s not gonna matter ’cause I know that my line’s gonna be the most fun thing I’ve ever ridden” — Tyler McCaul
Finally, Cam McCaul lines up his radically different line. With no Zink to join him on the East ridge, his line seems almost renegade. He hits it perfectly, makes it over the 60-foot canyon gap and flips into the Granola Cruncher.
With no pause for breath, it's straight into rider's second runs. Some opt out of a second go. Others fail to improve. Others add more spice to their runs. Semenuk goes for broke and over-rotates a flip into the Snakepit. The perfect line comes unraveled and frays for Brandon. Darren Berrecloth cleans his line but comes unwound when a 360 on the last stunt on his line puts him into the dirt. Kyle Strait washes out on a suicide no-hander at the finish line too.
With the three biggest contenders out, it is all to play for. Anton Bizet hops into his billy goat line up top, flips in the wildest of spots and then follows up with three more flips of decreasing magnitude on the rest of his run. A crowd-pleasing run which puts him second. Binggeli ups the ante on his run but isn't rewarded any more. Why this is, no one can understand. Sorge nails the same line again and fires off all the same tricks again. Consistency on such a burly line is rewarded with first place and arguably the biggest prize in mountain biking away from the clock and race tape.
At the riders move to the corral, Sorge is waiting for the last rider to get down safe so that he knows he has the crown. When Cam McCaul finishes his run Sorge's posse swarm him and lift him above there heads. "VEGAS! VEGAS! TEN PERCENT!" they cry, clearly ready to share in the celebrations tonight. Other riders come by to give him their heartfelt congratulations. Mike Kinrade, a veteran of Rampage, plants his cooler, extracts a beer and hands it to Sorge. Once the beer is downed Sorge is passed the Rampage trophy which he lifts high. With his name added to the illustrious list of winners, his mark is forever left in the Utah desert and the minds of mountain biking fans.
Kurt Sorge summarizes his day, "Today has been stressful and good. Stressful and then good." A slight understatement perhaps.
Adam Billinghurst has been in the desert for weeks preparing the site as one of the appointed Rampage builders. He looks back on the spot in the desert that has been his home and focal point and watches the dust trails of riders float into the sky like ghostly spirits that chased riders off the hill. "We created a small percentage of stuff. We made a good start but the riders made the site and event what it was." Tomorrow the wooden features will be torn down and set alight. With no one around to watch anymore the site will be stripped down naked and peeled back to just the raw terrain, leaving just the ghosts of legendary lines and the spirit trails of the riders who carved them.