To the ordinary spectator, Red Bull Rampage looks like a death wish. The bikers drop into a 780-foot long sheer face, sending it off 50-foot-plus cliffs onto bike-length landings with exposure on all sides. Beyond grasping the extreme skill and athleticism needed to take on this terrain, one major question lingers: how are these athletes able to overcome fear?
Darren Berrecloth, a longtime Rampage competitor and one of the best freeride mountain bikers in the world, was on site at Rampage this year in a new role as an athlete advocate and commentator. He says questions about fear easily rank as the number one query he's received throughout his career – and the answer isn't always straightforward.
Watching Rampage is comparable to glimpsing the tip of the iceberg. Obviously, these are 19 of the best freeriders in the world who've earned their spot based on proven ability to take on this type of terrain. But what you see during the live broadcast doesn't do justice to the physical and mental preparation involved in taking that drop in.
We spoke to athletes at Rampage, including Berrecloth and Carson Storch, as well as coaches and members of Red Bull’s performance team, to better wrap our heads around how this event goes down. We found that the answer isn't necessarily about conquering fear in the moment.
Preparation Is Key
Across the board, competitors stress spending time on the bike coming into the event. Rampage is not the place to work out the kinks.
Bend, Oregon’s Storch, 25, was competing in his fifth Rampage. "Out here, there's nothing like it in the world, just the terrain and the dirt and everything,” Storch told ASN. “There's definitely some specific training I do, working on step down flips or free drops. It's just being cozy on the bike and whether that's working on tricks, riding downhill or riding other types of mountain bikes, it's all about time on the bike and feeling good prior to coming out here."
Berrecloth backs up this sentiment: "The preparation for this event is done beforehand – they're not going to hit a drop a zillion times just to get their jitters over it to try that trick. They're going to hit the drop and just get comfortable on it, just to feel the speed and the timing in the air so that they can do what they know how to do because they've been preparing for that."
These competitors have incrementally worked their way up to the top-tier level, which can be explained in a very pulled-back view of a human’s ability to adapt to their environment. Through this lens, Rampage is an opportunity to recognize the amazing things humans can do when they're purposely driven in one direction with intention.
Visualize & Don't Forget To Breathe
While competitor's lines can look like one long hallelujah moment, these bikers are actually intimately familiar with the terrain by finals day. Line selection is key, says Storch, who relies on his experience over the last five years in choosing the builds he takes on. He says, "It's trying to pick the right lines, the right features to build and then just trying to take all my strengths and put it into one line that I feel represents my riding style."
Competitors arrive two weeks before the event, each with a crew of two builders. They're given a "scope" day introducing them to the venue, which changes alternate years. This year was a fresh slate, meaning the competitors and their dig crew had to start from scratch digging and picking to sculpt their line down the 780-vertical feet of mountainside.
The crews meticulously build jumps, landings and berms by hand over the course of two weeks. Prep includes hiking up and down, feeling the terrain (from hardened dirt to loose rock and sandpits), identifying challenges and mentally mapping it so that they can visualize their runs from start to finish. This is exactly what they want to be doing at the top of the course before they drop in – “mentally riding the line.”
At the top, Storch says he focuses on breathing and going over the run in his head.
"You can get crazy nerves especially with the helicopter flying around and being up so high. I'm thinking about choosing the right window to drop in when the wind is calm." He adds, "The main thing I do is breathing and going over my run again and again in my head and seeing myself landing everything that I plan to do. Then just dropping in and having fun with it."
Repetition Is Crucial
The process leading up to a competitor's two Rampage runs includes envisioning a line, building the line and then guinea-pigging each feature, which Berrecloth says is the toughest physical and mental part of this challenge.
"At the end of the day, the biggest thing for me was always repetition," says Berrecloth. "Start with the basics and work your way up." Storch explains how practice goes down at Rampage: "Practice out here isn't like a normal slopestyle competition. You've got to take it one feature at a time and hit it a couple times." He also explained that most riders hold off on pulling their most progressive tricks until finals.
This year, due to the new venue and wind delays during practice, the majority of riders hadn't actually put together top-to-bottom runs until finals, so that incremental practice was even more valuable.
In practice, Storch was the first rider to guinea pig the centerpiece 50-foot cliff – this was the biggest cliff he'd ever dropped. He straight aired it five to six times ahead of finals. The fall away shot of him airing it was a highlight leading into finals.
But as he made his way down his first final run, he wasn't able to link up the upper section leading to the cliff. Once he did eventually work his way over to the cliff, he spun a gigantic 360 – a huge step up from the straight airs he'd been landing in practice. The preparation and repetition paid off on that feature. In an event this consequential, this is a big win even if he missed the podium.
The Fear Is Real
The truth is that these competitors do feel fear; while all of the preparation and practice can make it less daunting, there comes a time when these riders must acknowledge the fear and channel it into a motivational tool.
Berrecloth, who's competed in Rampage since 2002, shares that throughout his celebrated career he's continuously battled and struggled with fear, especially coming back from injury. Fear has made such an impact in his career, that he's focused on it as the theme of a new movie, “Reverence,” which singularly explores the topic.
During Rampage, Storch says that he's adopted a mindset of seeing the terrain through a non-threatening lens.
"Out here it's easy to look at everything as a threat, because it is scary and we are risking our lives, but it makes it fun when you look at it like a challenge, because that's really what it comes down to is having fun doing it."
He also relies on breathing techniques to stay calm. Ahead of Rampage, Storch participated in a Red Bull athlete training session called Performance Under Pressure, a rigorous examination and understanding of the mental skills, or soft skills, of an athlete.
One particular skill the training hones in on is a breath holding exercise. Many athletes go into this with the experience of holding their breath for 45 seconds – at the end of the exercise, it's not unusual for them to hold their breath for 2-3 minutes.
Through this process, the body reacts with fear, but in a controlled environment where they have the opportunity to reflect on seeing their bodies react to pressure. Athletes have the chance to monitor a quickening heart rate, the loss of crisp breathing sensation and tingling in the arms and legs, essentially losing control over their prime high-performance physiological state. The athletes are able to recognize these symptoms and learn to bring the body down to a state of optimal performance under pressure.
It's through this combination of acknowledging fear and redirecting it through intentional mindsets, controlling the physiological reaction to fear through awareness and breathing, a mental focus on visualization, and the confidence that comes from preparation and training ahead of the event, that allows competitors to enter the “flow zone,” or a state of being present and seeing the task at hand. It’s essentially what prepares them for what an average onlooker would merely balk at – to drop in at an event like Red Bull Rampage.
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