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When Red Bull Rampage released its list of 2023 athletes in the middle of September, there were a few surprises, mostly in the name of wildcard invites: Gee Atherton, 38, an early Rampage rider who is retired from World Cup racing was invited back. Talus Turk, a 21-year-old first timer will ride the big red ridges and drops, and 36-year-old Kyle Strait, who broke his back just a year ago at Rampage will return. The list of 18 athletes will provide another great spectacle at the “superbowl” of mountain biking.
But a buzz of discontent has steadily grown louder after Red Bull Rampage released its contender list for 2023. To the dismay of many, a women’s category is still missing at the event, after three years of Red Bull Formation, a women’s-only freeride progression camp, also held in Virgin, Utah.
Formation started in 2019, after endurance athlete and professional mountain biker Rebecca Rusch “took notice of the lack of women’s representation at Red Bull Rampage,” according to Red Bull.
With Red Bull’s association, Formation quickly became the premiere event for women’s freeride, though others like Proving Grounds became the first to let women compete. In 2019, Casey Brown was the sole woman to compete with the men, but Proving Grounds added a women’s category in 2021 and ladies competed again in 2022. Camila Noguiera took gold last year out of ten competitors.
This year it seemed like there was still wind in the sails of women’s freeride mountain biking, but Red Bull “postponed” Formation for 2023 without elaboration. Proving Grounds however announced it is shaking up the event and moving to a new location “to offer the world’s top men and women in freeriding a shot to compete on the world-class new trail systems and parks being built by Carson Storch in the trees along Oregon’s Pacific Coast.”
Why isn’t there a women’s category for Rampage?
By all accounts, it’s unclear why there isn’t a women’s category for Red Bull Rampage since the vast majority of sports today include one, even after slow adoption.
Formula 1, the pinnacle of auto racing announced a new all-female driver series at the end of 2022, with the goal to “maximize the opportunity and potential of young female drivers to reach the highest level in motorsport,” and to ultimately funnel into the “F1 Pyramid” from F3 to F1. The last time a woman drove in an F1 race was close to 50 years ago, writes the New York Times.
Mixed martial arts, widely seen as the most brutal and risky of all sports has enjoyed female competition since 1997 and women have fought in the Ultimate Fighting Championship for ten years now. In 2011, UFC President Dana White was convinced women wouldn’t make it to the league’s ranks because of the available talent pool and varied level of skill, according to a UFC blog. A woman by the name Ronda Rousey changed his mind.
The first ever women’s UFC fight pitted Rousey against fighter and Marine Corps veteran Liz Carmouche for a quick and exciting victory by Rousey in 2013.
Legendary fighter Gina Carano would likely argue that building a talent pool has much to do with having representation in the sport.
“Going to the UFC fights, I remember sitting up in the last row and thinking, ‘Someday, someday,’” Carano said in the UFC blog. “And being able to watch other women experience that and doing it with such confidence, it’s really changed a lot. At one point, it was bad to be female and walk in a gym, and people don’t understand that. But now they’re all looking for the next female fighter that’s going to make it. When I was training, it was a lot harder. Now little girls can put on gis at whatever age, and not having to see them struggle through what I kind of went through really has an emotional impact on me.”
Todd Barber, co-founder or Rampage has told different publications he believes Rampage has always been reserved for the top layer of the talent pool in mountain biking and women have yet to surface. The belief assumes that women would have to compete directly with men though which would be unique for most sports.
If we looked at perhaps the most closely related discipline to freeride mountain biking, we’d see downhill World Cup mountain bike racing. There are obvious differences in the times achieved in women’s and men’s categories, the size of both categories and varying levels of support and sponsorship for athletes of different sexes, but women have been competing at the highest level of gravity mountain bike racing for 30 years now.
Freeride snowboarding also provides a clear lens to examine the absence of a female category at Rampage. In fact, the Natural Selection Tour, a big mountain snowboarding contest which combines the elements of freeride and slopestyle snowboarding (sound familiar?) over three stops partnered with Proving Grounds for the first time last year, highlighting the event’s brand name for both summer and winter sports.
Freeride snowboard icon Travis Race held the first Natural Selection at his home mountain in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in 2008, but the event stalled for a few years and was rebranded as The Supernatural. The event reappeared as the Natural Selection Tour in January 2021 with eight male competitors, four females and three different stops in Jackson Hole, Baldface, BC and Alaska.
Natural Selection contains similar constraints as Rampage, if they aren’t greater. The events are held in snowy, remote backcountry locations and they are arguably more difficult to access and broadcast.
As the buzz of discontent with Rampage has grown over the past week, more people have become outspoken about the issue, including two-time Rampage winner Brett Rheeder who posted on an Instagram story he believes women should have a spot at Rampage.
We emailed Red Bull to request comment and a representative said the brand is discussing the matter but did not have any further information to share. We’ll provide any updates as soon as an official statement is made.