How bike tech lets Red Bull Rampage riders flirt with death, and survive

For nearly 20 years, the best downhill mountain bikers in the world have gathered in a remote corner of the Utah desert to compete against one another in what has become the craziest event the sport has to offer. Held annually in Virgin, Utah, the Red Bull Rampage tasks riders with navigating down the side of a very steep, very rocky mountain face while pulling off jaw-dropping stunts along the way. In order to win the Rampage, riders need to not only be fast and fearless, but creative and smart too. It doesn’t hurt if they have a healthy dose of luck on their side as well.

Prior to the start of the event, the Rampage course is little more than a starting gate at the top and a finish line down below. Competitors show up a week ahead of time in order to find and develop a route that not only takes them down the mountain, but allows them to showcase their riding skills along the way.

Brett Rheeder | Red Bull Rampage 2018
Brett Rheeder backflipping in a slopestyle run at the Red Bull Rampage. Paris Gore/Red Bull Content Pool

No two riders take the same path, and part of the fun is seeing how they use the terrain to their advantage. Some prefer to include high-flying stunts like backflips and corkscrew twists, while others go for big jumps and even bigger drops. Most mix a bit of all of those elements into two death-defying runs that are closely monitored and evaluated by a team of judges. The riders are then assigned a score of 0 to 100 based on their style, creativity, and boldness. The mountain biker who earns the single highest score for the day is crowned the Red Bull Rampage champion.

“Because these bikes are already outfitted with the best components available, there isn’t much need to customize them any further.”

In the days leading up to the start of the competition, the riders spend their time with their two-person “dig team” building trails, banked turns, ramps, and other elements that allow them to get the most out of their run. It can be difficult, backbreaking work, but in theory it all comes together on the day of the event when they finally get to unleash their talents. If everything goes right, they put on quite a show for the thousands in attendance and the millions watching at home. But when things go wrong, it can lead to spectacular crashes that can be extremely painful to watch.

While Rampage riders occasionally suffer injuries, the vast majority make it to the bottom unscathed. This is thanks, in large part, to the extremely well-built and technically advanced bikes that they ride. Of course, skill does play an important role as well — but we’re willing to bet that even the most practiced downhill mountain biker wouldn’t fare well if they hurled themselves down the hillside on a $100 Schwinn.

Behind the Bikes

While attending the most recent edition of Red Bull’s epic event a few weeks back, we had the chance to sit down with mountain biking legend Darren Berrecloth to talk about the technology that goes into making a bike Rampage-ready. Surprisingly, most of the bikes that the riders use aren’t as specialized as you might think. In fact, fans of the sport can actually purchase and ride the exact same bike as their favorite competitor, with only a few minor differences — provided they have enough cash, that is.

“Most of the bikes used in Rampage are just off-the-shelf models,” Berrecloth tell us. “The majority of the riders only replace the grips, tires, and seat in order to get the feel that they want.” He goes on to add, “Because these bikes are already outfitted with the best components available, there isn’t much need to customize them any further.”

When the first Red Bull Rampage took place back in 2001, the downhill bikes that were used in the event were state of the art for the time. Now, they seem completely antiquated compared to today’s models, which have seen major advances in component technology. Today’s bikes are lighter, more agile, and more responsive, with much better shocks, tires, and brakes too. All of this has made the outrageous stunts that are a part of Rampage safer and easier to pull off, even as competitors continue to push the envelope in terms of what they can pull off.

“This can change the way the bike handles to a degree, but makes it much more suitable for the conditions found at Rampage.”

“When tuning their bikes for Rampage, the riders really only adjust their handlebars and seats to fit their preferences,” Berrecloth says. “Some will swap out a component here and there due to commitments to their sponsors rather than performance. Otherwise there aren’t many modifications these days.”

Darren Barrelcloth’s Canyon Sender

Barrecloth’s weapon of choice is the Canyon Sender CF 9.0 LTD, a downhill mountain bike priced at $8,000. The Sender comes equipped with a carbon fiber frame, which helps to keep it relatively light while still maintaining a high level of durability. Tipping the scales at about 35 pounds, the bike is surprisingly svelte for a dual-suspension model. Canyon has gone to great lengths to ensure that the Sender’s geometry helps to keep it agile enough to handle the twists and turns that come with downhill racing, which is essential for navigating the steep routes that are a part of Rampage.

What makes the Canyon Sender a great option for Rampage riders is its Fox Factory 40 fork, which is paired with the Fox Factory Float X2 rear suspension. These two components work in conjunction with one another to absorb much of the impact that comes along with the big drops and sky-high jumps that the riders endure. As with most mountain bike suspensions, both the 40 and Float X2 can be tuned to meet the rider’s specific needs, adjusting the amount of compression based on the terrain, the trail being ridden, and even the weight of the rider.

“One of the few changes that a rider makes to his bike is adjusting the suspension to allow for as much as 8 inches of travel,” Berrecloth explains. “This can change the way the bike handles to a degree, but makes it much more suitable for the conditions found at Rampage.”

In order to take top honors at Rampage, Rheeder had to pull off a 360 degree twist immediately after exiting the starting gate.

In mountain bike terms, travel is the maximum distance that the wheel will move from the top of its suspension stroke down to the bottom. In other words, it’s how far the shocks actually move up and down while absorbing an impact. Most mountain bikes only offer 5 or 6 inches of travel, with the average rider only actually needing just 2 or 3 inches at any given time. But for Rampage riders the full 8 inches is is a must. When dropping off a 40 foot high cliff every inch of that travel –– and then some –– is required to maintain control and keep the rider safe.

A bike’s suspension –– both in the front fork and the rear –– plays a crucial role in keeping the rider safe too. With less travel, the shocks absorb less of the impact, and the excess kinetic energy is passed onto the handlebars and seat, which can be jarring for the rider. Without the full 8 inches of travel, Rampage competitors would be much more likely to suffer injuries or be thrown from their bikes following the impact that comes with sticking the landing after a big jump or drop.

Brett Rheeder’s Trek Session

Canadian Brett Rheeder, who won this year’s Red Bull Rampage, rides a Trek Session 9.9, which includes a lot of technology and design for its $8,400 asking price. Like the Canyon Sender, this bike comes equipped with a Fox Factory suspension too, but also comes with the added ability to fine tune its geometry. This feature allows riders to change the head tube angle of their bike by as much as a 1/2 inch and the bottom bracket height can be adjusted by as much as 10 millimeters as well. Those may seem like minuscule changes, but they provide a noticeable difference in terms of performance. For a professional rider looking to get a leg up on the competition, it is a nice option to have.

Brett Rheeder's winning run at the 2018 Red Bull Rampage Red Bull

In order to take top honors amongst a stacked field of competitors at Rampage, Rheeder had to pull off a 360 degree twist immediately after exiting the starting gate. From there, he went into a big double-drop, sticking two tough landings in rapid succession. That was followed by yet another big drop that took him down to the midway point of the course, where much to the delight of the gathered crowd he hit an impressive backflip. The Canadian rider wrapped things up by completing another 360 on the lower section of the course, quickly followed by a second backflip as he neared the finish line.

Of course, Rheeder made the entire run look easy, in no small part due to his own level of skill and experience. Thanks to its finely tuned suspension and adjustable technology, the Trek Session 9.9 played a significant role too. The bike comes equipped with Trek’s Active Braking Pivot (ABP) technology, which allows the Session’s suspension system to work independently of its hydraulic brakes.

On most bikes when the brakes are applied the torque that is generated from that action is transferred into the suspension, compressing it to a degree. This prevents the suspension from fully rebounding when rolling over bumps or drops in rapid succession. This in turn keeps the tire from staying firmly planted on the ground and can result in a loss of traction at a time when most riders need it most.

Trek’s patented ABP system prevents that from happening by attaching a braking caliper to a part of the frame that floats independently of the other components. This helps to isolate the braking torque from the suspension forces, keeping the wheel firmly in place on the ground and limiting the amount of skidding that leads to a loss of control. On a highly technical downhill course like the one found at Rampage, that extra level of performance can spell the difference between success and failure.

The people’s choice: YT Industries

YT Industries’ Tues CF Pro Race was a bike that was ridden by no less than five competitors at the 2018 Red Bull Rampage, including second place finisher Andreu Lacondeguy. It too comes equipped with the Fox Factory 40 fork and Float X2 rear suspension, giving it the same level of compression and travel as the bikes being ridden by many of the other competitors. But what sets the Tues CF Pro apart from the crowd is how YT has redesigned its geometry across a variety of frame sizes to make it a more aggressive downhill machine.

“That’s not really the case anymore and it shows in the way the riders move on their bikes.”

In previous generations of the Tues, the head tube remained the same length no matter which size frame a rider chose, which means taller riders essentially rode the same geometry as shorter mountain bikers. That isn’t necessarily optimal and could impact performance. This time out, those lengths vary based on the size of the bike frame, with the headtube increasing in length as the size of the bike increases.

Thanks to feedback from its pro riders, YT also increased the length of the chainstay by 5 millimeters too. These subtle – but significant – changes help to distribute the weight of the rider more evenly between the wheels, which when combined with a slightly longer handlebar reach has resulted in better stability and control, particularly on fast, technical, terrain.

Considering that Berrecloth told us that most of the bikes used at Rampage cost somewhere between $8,000 and $11,000, the Tues is a real bargain at $5,500. While that’s still more money than most consumers will ever spend on a mountain bike, it is at least somewhat affordable for serious downhill riders looking for a pro-level ride.

YT Industries’ Tues CF Pro Race Bike | Red Bull Rampage
The YT Industries’ Tues CF Pro Race YT Industries

It isn’t just the bikes that have helped to improve rider safety at Rampage, the protective helmets, padding, and armor that they wear have all gotten better too. Berrecloth tells DT he’s seen some major advancement in that area over the years with the equipment getting thinner and lighter while still managing to absorb plenty of punishment. Better still, thanks to improved designs and more flexible construction materials, the rider’s range of motion have improved as well, allowing them to move more freely and naturally on their bikes.

Trickle-down bikenomics

“In the past we were limited with what we could do in part because the armor we wore prevented us from being able to move freely,” he says. “That’s not really the case anymore and it shows in the way the riders move on their bikes.”

While early Rampage riders wowed spectators with their considerable downhill skills, today’s mountain bikers push the envelope even further with their high-flying stunts. The improved equipment and gear plays a significant role in that, providing them with a great sense of confidence that they can actually pull off the things they envision. That has made the craziest mountain biking competition in the world even more intense and awe-inspiring.

Us amateur riders aren’t likely to ever take on a challenge that comes anywhere close to Red Bull Rampage, but it is nice to know that the bikes and other gear that the pro riders use is available to regular riders too. If that equipment can help the pros survive the toughest downhill event on the planet, chances are it’ll keep us safe as well.

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