Vaea Verbeek: ‘I am at a solid place where I feel that I can keep coming to Virgin on my own and accomplish new challenges’ [Interview]

We caught up with Vaea Verbeeck after Red Bull Formation to hear about her thoughts going into the event, how it went, what changed, and what's next for the reigning Queen of Crankworx.
All stoke and smiles from Vaea. Photos: Alexa Christensen

The three-time Red Bull Formation athlete and the reigning Queen of Crankworx, Vaea Verbeeck returned to the Virgin, Utah desert for Red Bull Formation 2022. We caught up with her after the week in the desert to hear about her thoughts going into the event, how it went, what changed, and what’s next for her.

How did you prepare for Red Bull Formation?

Back in February, I planned a trip to Virgin, Utah for a month that was unrelated to Formation as invites had not been sent out yet and I just wanted to do that kind of riding. I did not plan any video or photo projects while I was there, I just wanted to ride and get more comfy in Virgin for my own freeride progression. But after returning to BC in March, I got word of the invited athletes for Formation and I was stoked to be a part of it. I knew the last month I spent in Virgin was going to make a world of difference in my 2022 Formation experience. From that point on, knowing I was going to the event, I did a lot of riding in Kamloops, BC (our Canadian desert) on rocks, exposed chutes, and really fun and big jump lines. It’s one of the only places that are dry and rideable in the interior of BC during the winter months.

My friend Georgia Astle came to my house and we did tons of day trips to ride more big jump lines. This year for Formation, I didn’t change much on my bikes or gear. In prior years, I found myself doing last minute orders on products and it added stress and took away from time on the set up to feel perfectly comfortable. Other than changing my suspension coil to harden my suspension, I kept my setup the same. I came and booked accommodation in Virgin for an additional week before Formation to get my tires back in the red dirt and comfortable on the terrain again. 

How did digging go during Formation? How did you and your diggers work together to shape the Ridge line?

My diggers were Dakoda Osusky and Brooklyn Bell, but Formation also had some floating diggers this year, and it was really cool to see how many people were stoked to help on my line. People could see there was a lot of work going into the drop and it was going to take lots of hands, but luckily everyone wanted to give a hand. I definitely need to give a shout-out for extra help to Claire Buchar, Michelle Parker, Ryan McNulty, Kevin Simpers amongst others.

We spent the whole first day working on the drop in bench which had very much receded since 2015. That was a big team effort with Georgia and Vero’s team, since we were sharing that section of the line. We then moved onto the second part of the bench, which had a jump that sent me over the ridge line and dipped into a step down and shark fin on the backside of the ridge. After that, my line took me back on the ridge leading me into the jump line toward the big left hip in my line. The next day was spent working on the drop landing that came after the hip, making it smooth and more approachable. Luckily, after that drop, there were solid leftovers of a road gap and step down that lead into a final trick jump for my line. Those features were very large like everything else, but my main focus was figuring out the big drop and the rest would flow naturally.

First couple hits into the snake pit

How were you feeling on the first day of riding? What emotions were going through your head?

On the first ride day, I started on the gaps and jumps on and off the ridge line. After that, the wind picked up so I decided to go check out the first scissor rock drop as well as our drop into the bench, which were friendlier than some of the other features with a breeze. Hitting the top drop into the line was intimidating, but I knew that I could hit it smoothly. I was battling with fear, but my confidence and trust in myself kept me calm and I was excited to check it off. All of those first hits went really well for me, which I was stoked on. Mother Nature gave us another window to ride, and I was stoked to carry that momentum into the hip for the first time. Reed Boggs helped me figure out the intro jumps, and Ryan McNulty helped me session the hip.

For the first attempt, we started on the ridge and hit the 3-4 set-up jumps and skippers that lead into the hip and it went super smoothly. I followed Ryan in for the hip and I landed in a very dialed smooth pocket. I was stoked to go back and hit it smoother another time after. I felt superhuman after the first day — everything was going perfect. I felt like I saw things I could hit even if they were bigger than anything I had ever hit. One by one, I went through and checked everything off that I could, and I saw things that were out of my league but trusted that I could work it through and I did. I could really see how to trust features in Virgin, and I learned I am capable of hitting bigger features than I have before.

Team work makes the dream work!

What was your inspiration for your line going into this year’s Formation?

I was riding the trick jump on lookers right earlier in the winter, and I saw a bunch of local guys hitting the hip and thought it looked super cool and wanted to ride it. It was the same hip that I recall being pretty legendary from 2014-2015 rampage. I recall Andreu Lacondeguy, Graham Agassiz, and Kurt Sorge doing massive hits on the hip, who are all insane Rampage riders, so it felt insane and unreal to think I was going to hit their iconic rampage feature.

What were your goals for the week? Did you accomplish them?

The #1 goal for this year started after spotting the hip on the ridge that was opposite from the ridge I used to ride casually. Once I spotted the hip from Rampage 2015, the only thing that was on my mind was knowing if that hip was inside the boundaries of the Formation site for 2022. Once Katie Holden confirmed that the hip was in the boundaries, I wanted to clear that feature.

She didn’t know if there was a drop in from the top that was doable to get to that feature. All of the Rampage riders had insane drops from the top for it. On the venue scope day though, we found a challenging but realistic drop-in that put me riding toward the ridge for the hip. Going from there, the hip lined me up into quite a large drop. On scope day, finding a line into the drop turned out to be more challenging than the hip itself. Riding with Tyler McCaul the week prior, he had planted this drop into my head. Overall, the goals revolved around the hip to figure out a way in and out. As the week went on, my line ended up having pretty large hits all throughout it, but I somehow stayed composed and was stoked on getting it done.

How was it going back to the site that Formation originally took place on in 2019?

It is really cool to see how much the 2015 site has evolved since the 2019 Formation. It is definitely the most popular site for locals or travelers for a quick session. It has a super fun main line with the fun skipper line that we built in 2019 that everyone loves. I was just thinking that I was definitely excited to go back to this site, and there was lots more to unpack there. A ton of growth occurred within the riders between the two years, and there was a very visually obvious progression.

How was the overall environment at the venue this year? 

The vibes were super relaxed and everyone did a great job with the diggers they brought. Everyone was there to be encouraging and supportive and it made it a very positive space. I feel like whether you were a rider, digger, media person, or any staff, everyone was pumped for the event. The girls crushed it and everyone put their soul into this. As far as the riders are concerned, there was more self-assessment this year, and everyone was conscious of their goals and what they are working on. It was super inspiring for each of us to be a part of.

What happened during ride day two?

Going into the day, the goal was to link the large drop following the hip on my line. We played it by ear with the breeze, and we had to be patient. Once the breeze started to slow down, I wanted to warm up by riding the ridge line before hitting the bigger features. Unfortunately, the second time that I hit the hip, the breeze picked up mid air and pushed my body off to the right of the landing. In order not to high-side upon landing, I stuck my right leg out to try to counter-weight my balance, but I still took a massive slam. As I was crashing, I knew that I had blown my knee. For the first ten minutes, the pain was so intense in my knee that it really worried me about being out for the next and final ride day.

I thought that it wouldn’t even allow me to try out the huge drop we built. After a moment, the pain dissipated and I started to be a little hopeful that I would be okay. I then got up on the good leg and put a tiny bit of weight down with just my big toe, and I could feel two releasing clicks in my right knee. I knew something was very wrong so we went down to see the physio right away. I was definitely out for the rest of the day but I was going to sleep on it and see how the swelling would progress into the following morning. It ended up being unmanageable the next day and it was unthinkable to ride. At that point, I knew that I could not show up on the last day and hit the big drop I was set out to do. In retrospect, that was a great call because I ended up having a torn/ruptured ACL and meniscus tears.

Vaea’s big crash on her right hip

How do you think formation impacted your success in freeride?

Formation is the perfect environment for learning exponentially fast for big mountain freeride. I have had the privilege to participate in the past three editions of Formation. I am at a solid place where I feel that I can keep coming to Virgin on my own and accomplish new challenges. That is where it is a cool cycle of seeing new riders and faces come to Formation and get themself set up for success in freeride. I really enjoy the energy that a group of us can bring out there together. It makes the space so [much more] friendly and approachable than if you were to try to tackle this monster on your own. 

What were your greatest accomplishments throughout the week?

Seeing the fruit of my vision. I learned a lot in envisioning something and trusting that I could build up to hitting it well. That made me feel like a better and more improved rider than I was before.

Will you be returning to tackle the drop you weren’t able to complete with your injury?

Absolutely. I’m already stoked on coming back next winter and I know I have a cool crew of locals that are backing me with this and stoked to see me stomp it.

What’s next for you, Vaea?

I am on the mend from my ACL rupture at the moment. Thanks to my off-season training, my knee has been able to function without an ACL due to my strong hamstring and quad muscles that help stabilize similar to the way the ACL does. I am super fortunate to have an amazing medical team work with me at home. My knee has been handling itself without an ACL and at four weeks following the crash, I am planning to fly to Innsbruck, Austria for round one of the Crankworx World Tour. My surgeon and physio are both optimistic that my knee is strong and stable and that I can try to go race bikes. I’ll have a custom knee brace to help with support, but at this point I’m trusting the process and trying to have a good time with what I get. I’m super thankful for all the support and stoke that I got from in and out of the industry, it really fuels my fire to come back and keep pushing it.