How the Tour de France of mountain biking is transforming one southern Utah town
Virgin, UT (October 21, 2022) — Tyler McCaul paused for a minute to survey his progress, wipe his brow and catch his breath. His muscles burned from digging and scratching. A fine, red powder dusted him from boot to brim, turning to crimson streams where it met his sweat.
In six days, McCaul would compete in the Red Bull Rampage, the best-known mountain biking competition on the planet. First, though, he had to carve his path, figuratively and literally. Each of the 18 invitees to the prestigious freeride event spends four days digging into and sculpting southern Utah’s unique red clay to create a route that, they hope, will be bold enough to vault them to victory.
This year’s event is set for Friday on state-run land outside the tiny town of Virgin, population 707, which has hosted it in various locales since its inception in 2001.
The Rampage’s unique format has evolved over the span of two decades. As it has flourished, so has the surrounding rural area’s connection to the sport and the event. Once best known as a pit stop on the way to Zion National Park, Virgin and to a lesser degree the nearby communities of Hurricane and La Verkin, have become intrinsically linked to the competition. They are part of its identity, just as it is now a part of theirs.
Somehow, using shovels and pickaxes and unbridled creativity, mountain bikers have built something big in southern Utah.
“It’s becoming quite the hub for riders,” said McCaul, 32, who moved to Hurricane in 2019 and is one of an estimated five competitors in this year’s Rampage who live in the vicinity. “It used to just be a place that we would visit for Rampage and for film projects and stuff. But now it’s, you know, kind of relative to how a lot of surfers live on the North Shore in Hawaii right by Pipeline. [We’re] where we get to do what we like to do every day.”
A special location
This is the place. Todd Barber knew it as soon as he saw the red cliffs rising out of Josh Bender’s backyard.
Barber was looking for a venue to stage a mountain bike competition in the mold of the big mountain skiing contests he helped Red Bull establish in the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe, Calif. He figured Bender, a pioneer of freeride mountain biking who had recently moved to Utah, would be a good resource. They took a scouting trip around the area, including to Hanksville and Caineville to the northeast, but everything he saw felt too remote or too flat or too narrow. Barber wanted 25-foot cliff drops and enough space for a run to last a couples of minutes.
Then Bender mentioned some people had been filming a mountain bike flick on the cliffs and spines behind his house.
“I walked up and I’m like, ‘That’s it, dude,’” Barber recalled. “‘Cause I’m a big skier and so I kind of grew up skiing in Alaska and it looks like Alaska made out of dirt.”
It was better than dirt, though. The cliffs were formed from a perfect mixture of hard rock and the red soil unique to Southwest Utah that allows a tire to neither stick nor slide and that transforms into a malleable clay perfect for building jumps when wet.
That was spring 2001. That November, the first Red Bull Rampage was held a few miles from Virgin. It featured a lineup that today would be a who’s who of freeriders, yet it was a shadow of the spectacle it is today.
Today, it’s the best-known mountain biking competition on the planet, according to McCaul. Barber called it “the Super Bowl of everything” in action sports. And Kevin Christopherson, a Hurricane resident and the president of the Trail Alliance of Southern Utah, compared it to the Tour de France. He explained that it’s the only mountain biking event that is widely known outside of mountain biking circles and “if you win or podium or top 10, your career is made, at least for a couple years.”
It has been nearly as big a prize for the state of Utah, according to Jeff Robbins, the president and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission. The event is a driver of the $45 million in economic impact mountain biking brings to the state, he said.
“What it’s done is it’s become a postcard card for Utah in the mountain biking community, and not just for that area, right?” Robbins said. He added, “It’s really become an opportunity to showcase Utah.”
This year’s event will be aired live online nationally on ESPN+. A highlight reel will be shown Oct. 30 on ESPN and the full event will be available on RedBull.com. Barber said tickets to attend the event, which were limited to about 800, sold out in three minutes.
“People think that it’s been this big the whole time,” he said with a chuckle. “I mean, the first four years it was pretty ragtag.”
‘The Special Sauce’
In fact, back then, the riders didn’t really construct their lines, they just rode the terrain au natural. As their skill sets grew, however, the competitors began making augmentations. One year someone brought a shovel to create a ramp. Another year it was buckets of water to aid in the construction of bigger jumps. Then they began to recruit friends to help with the labor.
Now competitors are given seven full days and two helpers to build the line, including landings and jumps, they think will most impress the judges. They can’t touch their bikes for the first four of those days. During the last three, they complete the build, take test runs and fine-tune their routes. Then they have one full rest day before they test the limits of their bikes, their bodies and gravity.
No other event allows competitors to build their own trail. It’s what makes the Rampage unpredictable and undeniably exciting. Barber deemed it “the special sauce.”
McCaul said the responsibility of envisioning his own path and then building it felt “overwhelming” when he stared out over the wide-open landscape before his first of 10 Rampages in 2010.
“Most events that we do in mountain biking, we show up and there’s a course that’s built,” he said. “Maybe you have ridden it in the past, maybe you’ve seen pictures of what it is, maybe it’s a regulated ramp that is a nine-foot-tall ramp with a 20-foot long radius and you have that jump in your backyard and you’ve been practicing it. And, you know, you show up feeling fresh. You’ve practiced on that feature and you know exactly what you’re going to do.
“This one, there’s a lot of a lot more variables, a lot more question marks. You’re kind of getting thrown in the dark and you’ve got to figure it out when you’re here, especially the guys who have never been here and don’t live here.”
Which is why so many Rampage competitors have begun to relocate to southern Utah.
Reed Boggs, who placed third last year, and DJ Brandt are transplants like McCaul, who moved from Aptos, Calif. Two more are homegrown talents: St. George natives Jaxson Riddle and Ethan Nell. Several others, McCaul said, rent places in the run-up to the Rampage.
Those athletes encourage the young riders they see on the trail. As the mountain biking community grows, so does the number of athletes interested in the Rampage and the sport, especially the freeriding discipline.
“In our little community, to have anywhere from half a dozen or more of the top racers in the world just hanging out on a local trail and a local bike shop?” Chistopherson said. “That’s been the biggest influence, really.”
Many of those young riders gravitate toward freeriding, which is distinguished by its emphasis on acrobatics and creativity. Unfortunately, Christopherson noted, while Rampage leaves plenty of trails in its wake every year, they are so extreme and located in such remote areas that they’re usually inaccessible to recreational riders. But Red Bull has donated to TASU, which helps it build community trails. Plus Rampage organizers have promoted biking by contributing to high school teams within southern Utah and paying for lights to be added to a BMX course.
Rampage Leaves its Mark
Hosting the event is not without its drawbacks, especially for a community as small as Virgin. And all that digging and scratching has environmental impacts. Though the courses are dismantled after each event and the builders are required to use burlap sandbags instead of plastic ones, evidence of the event typically remains until the next monsoon, or beyond.
“Rampage has a big impact on the name Virgin,” Christopherson said. “I mean, it is a little, tiny town. And then thousands of people from around the world descend on Virgin. You know, it’s a lot. And so they’re trying really hard now just to lessen the impact and be a positive influence.”
Over the past 21 years, southern Utah and Rampage have become increasingly inextricable. So what will happen if one day Rampage doesn’t return? It could happen. Barber said the success of the event has come from not putting pressure or expectations on it. That includes locking the Rampage into a permanent location.
There’s no, like, ‘It has to be here.’ But It obviously makes sense here,” he said. “I’ve been around the world looking for other locations, and this is the spot.”
He believes that so strongly that he recently moved to Hurricane and bought a six-acre parcel that he’s hoping to turn into a mountain biking hotel. Using shovels and pickaxes and unbridled creativity, he believes he can turn it into something big.