Words by Seb Kemp
Photos by Anthony Smith and Morgan Meredith
The brutal beauty of the desert is the perfect backdrop for the sometimes violent and often graceful dance that 24 riders faced on Friday's Red Bull Rampage qualifiers. Throughout the time- and weather-ravaged mesas, a labyrinth of lines overlap each other like a tangled mess of yarn; one line becomes another, follows a route and then tapers out, leaving the question where does that even go? These aren't unfinished works, but rather just imaginary lines that should and could take their pilot to places that mere mortals find hard to decipher.
Our introduction to the Rampage site is through the eyes of Brendan Fairclough. Brendan is a virgin to the Virgin, Utah arena of destruction, but his presence here is attracting a lot of attention. Brendan is known among his peers on the World Cup downhill race circuit as one of the most talented bike riders on the planet and many believe that his bike-handling mastery will easily translate to the freeride coliseum in the desert.
"I've been looking forward to this all year," said Brendan when asked about his expectations. More than the World Cup season? "No, not more, but the World Cups have been such a depressing experience for me this year that I can't wait for this."
Brendan invites us to stroll up the course by way of his line. As we scramble and clamber up the deep dust banks and solid rock walls, Brendan excitedly points out his intended route. It is a very original line, shunning the wooden features and motorway-width booters and drops that Red Bull builders tailored onto the course months before the competition. Brendan's line is scratched down sheer, loose chutes and where it does weave into the prebuilt zone near the bottom he has built his own kickers that raise the already high stakes to true high-roller status. However, the one feature that has people really looking his way is the canyon gap he and his small dig crew have invented. I say invented because where he has hung the takeoff and landing is nowhere near anything people have imagined. He is, however, wisely saving this showstopper for Sunday's finals, opting to ride a slightly safer yet no less impressive line for the qualifying round. To even attempt this wild canyon gap requires him to just get past this awkward stage where 24 riders will be whittled down to 12 by way of natural selection and quasi-quantitive judging.
We stroll by Andrew Shandro, an old hand of professional freeride who, these days, is helping the next generation of Trek riders: Brandon Semenuk, Brett Rheeder and Cam McCaul. I ask him what qualifying day duties entail,
"We just have to get our guys into the finals. Once they are in then things change. The final is a whole different gig but for now the focus is getting them through qualifiers."
Twelve riders are pre-qualified for Sunday's final through their past record at this proving grounds. The riders who have to go through qualifiers are a mixed bag of first timers and seasoned riders who have previously felt the icy hand of poor luck or destruction in the desert. There are downhill racers, committed freeriders, and slopestyle freestylers. On qualifying ridge number one Fairclough is joined by other virgins Sam Pilgrim and Anthony Messere, Brendan Howey, and Mic Hannah, as well as experienced slayers like Garett Buehler and Kenny Smith.
By the time we get to the top of his line, Brendan's earlier chirpy demeanor has faded and now he is more pensive. There are six other riders assembled on the razor-thin ridgeline, crowded by cameras and their operators. The nerves are palpable. As the time nears go-time riders prepare themselves in anyway they can manage. While others are swamped by apprehension. Kyle Norbraten, usually never without a giant smile across his face, sits on the ridge and peers into the terrifying future below him. He takes shaky breaths, his exhales are strained, and his sighs quiver. I can almost hear his stomach churning and sense the electric buzz of adrenalin and fear.
Norbs muses, "I thought it would be easier because I've been here before. But nope, I still feel…yeurgh!"
Buehler is the first rider to drop in. Before he does he turns to the other riders and shouts out, "Let's get this over with. Have a good run everybody" and offers a raised palm as a high five salute to comrades.
One by one each of the 24 riders step up the brink. Buehler has a clean run and decides not to take a second, unfortunately he fails to qualify. Fairclough falls off the first drop-in but smooths his second run, narrowly beating the bubble get into the finals. However, he discovers that a badly damaged MCL in his left knee will keep him out of the finals and attempting his full line. Kenny Smith rallies hard but a missed turn results in a huge tomahawk down a 100-foot chute. The crowd gasps and it takes a while to get him up. Later, when I see him with his feet up and ice covering all his lower joints I ask him what the damage is and he replies, "I don't think my ankles are broken." Which is Rampage talk for it's over. Mick Hannah tears down the left ridge (a popular choice) but his savage attack of the hill isn't looked upon favorably by the judges. Casey Groves has a gaily painted line which is climaxed with a miniature canyon gap (relatively speaking). He executes a suicide no-hander on one step down and tailwhipped a hip which gets him into Sunday. Watts rode cleanly and made it onto the alternate list (not exactly qualified but if any riders injure or pull out then he will be on Sunday's start list). Brendan Howey rode beautifully and confidently. Kyle Norbraten overcame the nerves to lay down a solid run with a big 360 to qualify in third. Thomas Genon, the slopestyle breakout from 2012, narrowly missed out despite a great effort. Brett Rheeder took some of his finely honed freestyle tricks and dropped them like exclamation marks on the course to qualify. Anthony Messere took crashes in both of his runs and now has to wait till next time to prove himself. Sam Pilgrim had a huge crash on his second run and leaves disappointed too. Nico Vink is a must-watch rider - fast, stylish, and in the finals. Mike Kinrade took a huge crash on the Oakley Sender and won't be moving on. Quiet bomb Anton Bizet qualified fourth. Martin Soderstrom snuck into the finals because little dabs were overshadowed by a great line ridden well. James Doerfling made up for 2010 by nailing the big quarter pipe transfer and stomped into second place. Will White sits on the alternate list. Ramon Hunziker is a low profile name who confidently rode into Sunday. Nick Simcik had a great line with original takes on obvious features but didn't impress the judges enough. Chris Van Dine had issues in his first run and wind stopped his second--a disappointing end to the long road to Rampage for Van Dine. Mike Hopkins was riding his line like a madman and overshot one of the bigger step-downs, blowing off his shoe and just escaping a very, very serious injury. He later told me, "I'm just disappointed. I don't want to be that guy. The guy that turns up at Rampage and crashes. 'Oh, hey look here comes Hopkins, he is always good for a crash reel.'
After the two runs and the day of horror and spectacle - no matter how impressive it is one moment, the next minute your toes curl with terror - Sunday's finalists moved back up the hill to continue digging their big-boy lines. Crews of builders, helpers, and riders worked at the cliffs, manufacturing billy goat lines to connect drops and chutes, or piling dirt and rock to make jumps and drops. Others with eyes fixed on the top prize are literally moving mountains. Brandon Semenuk has a crew of five full-time builders here with him. They have worked all week from sun up till sun down, only stopping to eat and sleep when absolutely necessary. Brandon's line starts off steep, then winds into a huge and terrifying transfer drop and into a knife-blade-thin booter over a natural mushroom. Also helping with digging duties is Rene Wildehaber, the professional all-mountain athlete and multi-time Megavalanche winner. Covered in dirt and clearly not just leaning on his shovel, I ask Rene why he is here. "I was in the area and I want to help Brandon, hopefully win. It is also a good workout".
And that word, hopefully, is a widely used locution here at the Rampage site. Hopefully my line works. Hopefully I can ride my line. All I need to do is get down my line, hopefully.
Now the first layer of hopefuls have been cleared, on Sunday the remaining hopefuls will once again climb up the cliff faces with their bikes and await their date with the lion pit while angry butterflies turn their stomach, the zinging charge of fear tears through their veins, and their hearts hammer on the empty birdcage of their chest.