On a sunny morning in Virgin, Utah, myself and photographer Hannah Morvay make a left turn into the trailhead parking lot at the old Red Bull Rampage site. The dirt lot is rutted and I bottom out my Subaru which is loaded down with bikes and gear, drawing attention from a group of camped out riders who are standing in a circle smoking weed and drinking breakfast beers. Cluh dunk! They look away after I wave.
It’s Red Bull Rampage-eve and the buzz of speed, high-arcing whips, and flips is in the air. The old Rampage site is off to a busy morning and riders of all ages are showing up to show off. Some bring their girlfriends, marching them around and telling them where to stand so they’re not in the way. Some are locals who know the mountain and it’s dozens and dozens of lines webbed across the terrain well enough to fly down at a ludicrous, yet controlled speed. Others are warming up at a zealous pace while dogs run around at the base of a hip jump and nearly get splattered when the riders land.
Tyson Henrie, coach and founder of the Outlaw Bike Team, a gravity-focused mountain bike team, is keeping a watchful eye on his athletes, aged from 8-15, as they warm up on the same hip jump. In between jumps, he’ll adjust the air pressure in their suspension and let them know if they should try anything different on the next roll-in. The kids are just as excited to ride as everyone else, but take their time getting familiar with the dirt again. The Outlaw team arrived in Virgin the day before from Park City. They come down for a training camp of sorts every year and to ride the unique terrain of the Zion desert, watch their heroes at Rampage, and progress their own skills.
“It’s kind of like our Whistler,” says Henrie. “We can always find something challenging, but progressive. It’s not just straight into something super gnarly. We can work up to it.”
As a team, they probably spend the least amount of time riding freeride lines like the drops and jumps in Virgin, compared to practicing other disciplines, like dual slalom, dirt jumping, downhill, and enduro. Athletes can join Outlaw as early as 7 years old and can stay on as late as 19. The team offers a casual and easygoing training vibe, although it is still structured in a way that is meant to progress the team members’ skills and abilities on a bike.
Competing in races isn’t required but it is encouraged. Training takes place from May and can go all the way through November. Henrie leads the training and it’s a mixed bag meant to enhance proficiency in all areas. One day of the week is usually dedicated to a pedally enduro ride, another could be riding downhill trails at Sundance Bike Park or shuttling up to a downhill trail, and another day might consist of countless dual slalom laps. Henrie says that dual slalom has been making a bit of a comeback and it’s one of the best ways to improve skills. “You can do a ton of laps, and see their skills get better and better.”
Henrie has been coaching for 12 years now. He started coaching skiers when he was 19, and got his first mountain bike a year after. It wasn’t love at first ride, but the sport grew on him over time and he realized that there was nothing like the ski coaching he did that was comparable in the mountain bike world, at least not for youth who want to ride gravity disciplines.
“Parents are realizing that they can’t just send their kids out. The kids are gonna do it anyway, so we might as well give them the support to do it properly.”
His initial vision consisted of taking the structure and programming he knew in ski coaching and bringing it to the bike world, which is much more relaxed than competitive skiing. Word eventually spread around Park City and kids started signing up.
“We never really took it super serious. That’s what I love about mountain biking, is that it’s definitely just a bunch of bros riding, even at the top level. They take their craft seriously, but it’s not like other sports.”
Sponsors took notice also and realized the potential of the Outlaw Bike Team. Today their sponsors include Commencal, Kenda, Demon, Fox suspension, Magura, Muc-Off, Leatt, and more, all interested not only in helping riders get the best parts, but lowering the barrier to joining a structured gravity team. The sponsors offer discounted rates to team members, as even joining the Outlaw team carries a steep price tag. Entry can cost between $400 and $1,900 depending on the program someone signs up for.
Henrie wants to work up to having a fleet of bikes available for team members, but Outlaw isn’t there yet and it’s not always necessary. It’s mandatory to have a quality bike when someone signs up for Outlaw, but it doesn’t have to be a top-shelf carbon dream bike. Brands like Commencal, Norco, and others are putting out more affordable and quality youth full-suspension mountain bikes than ever.
After warming up on the hip jump for a solid 30-40 minutes, Henrie takes a group of the riders over to the Breakfast line, a freeride line with gaps, loose dirt, exposure, and mandatory, technical drops. Not everyone in the group has ridden the line and they spend a chunk of time on the way up going over the best way to approach the features. Other mountain bikers are riding the line too, some are fast, some can barely pull it off, and some crash.
One by one, the athletes from Outlaw make it down, and Henrie follows the last two down the mountain in a small train at an admirable speed. All of them ride it with confidence. The riders who didn’t ride the Breakfast line are practicing on other jumps with parents close by.
There is a set of jumps next to each other, so some of the riders go for the smaller ones and some will try the larger. The riders who did the Breakfast line head over and meet the others at the jumps. When one of them hikes their bike up to the drop in and starts picking up speed on the way into the jump, the other kids standing around chant “You can do it!” in the voice from the film The Waterboy.
Finley Kirschenmann, a 12-year-old who’s been on Outlaw for four years knows he’s progressed because of the team atmosphere.
“It’s really cool, because it’s not fun to come out here and get peer pressured,” he says. “Tyson helps and some of the older kids on the team motivate and help you to do bigger things. But, they’re not gonna say, ‘hey, do a triple flip,’ because they know what you’re capable of.”
Kirschenmann has been coming down to Virgin for four years with Outlaw. He loves enduro, downhill, and dual slalom, but freeriding is a nice reminder that it’s OK to slow down on the bike.
“I’ll get nervous for a race, but freeriding gives me my own mindset to be able to do anything and push my own limits, and for my friends to push my limits, instead of going to a race and seeing how fast and gnarly I can get.”
Henrie told me about Kirschenmann when we arrived earlier that morning. He’s been progressing exponentially for the past few years and is now at a point where he wants to backflip his downhill bike. Kirschenmann has been practicing flips for years, but hasn’t done one on the big bike on dirt yet. He does backflips almost daily, he says. He started on a trampoline with his BMX. This year he landed one on a resi-jump with his dirt jumper.
Henrie, of course, has a training plan to teach a backflip. Like anything else in skill building, it takes progression and practice. If one of the athletes wants to learn a trick, they start on an airbag jump. Once they feel confident and can land it on the airbag they move to a resi-jump, which has a more rideable landing with some give to it. After countless practice runs and solid landings on the resi-jump, then they can try it on dirt.
“I’ve been taking a while,” says Kirschenmann. “It’s more mentally challenging. You’re carrying around a bigger bike and there’s more that could go wrong.” He’s alright with that, and so is everyone else. He’s sure the time will come.
When it does, his dad Jeff probably won’t be any less nervous, at least on the inside. “I’ve gotten more adjusted to it because I’ve watched Finley since he was really young and there’s been a lot of those experiences where I almost get sick,” says Jeff. “But, he’s proven to me that he has good judgment. I’ve never seen him squirrely, I’ve never seen him do something out of pressure. I’ve seen him say no to certain things because he’s not ready for it.”
He dropped Finley off at that morning for practice, and then went down the road to ride the other trails in Virgin. Jeff knows his son is in good hands with Henrie and the team. “When I see him do things like this, I want nothing to do with it, but he’s got confidence. He’s hit thousands of jumps, so he knows how to do it.”
And for the other parents watching their kids take flight on the massive kickers, they know their children are progressing and pushing their limits in a controlled environment. Before Hannah and I leave for the day, a few of the Outlaw riders take a break and sit inside the gap of a step-up while other riders jump it. They’re going about 15-20MPH and there’s room for error, so it’s not a risk to the riders below. Some of them case the landing.
Henrie is still watching them all and picks up on what they can do differently to clear it next time. He tells one to pump a roller, pedal twice afterwards, stay off the brakes and he’ll clear the step-up.
The scene is a far cry from the half-ride and half-party scene a few hundred yards away on the hip jumps beside the trailhead. For Outlaw, freeride is far from a free-for-all. For every cased jump or missed landing, Tyson Henrie makes sure that they have the guidance they need for a clean landing, or a better race result – assuming that’s what the kid wants.
“As long as they’re progressing, and learning, staying safe, and having fun. They’re so young. That’s really all I’m concerned with.”