Opinion: When Does Risk Outweigh the Reward? How Red Bull Rampage Changed Our Perspective 88
It's Saturday night following the 10th Anniversary of the Red Bull Rampage, and I just came across a photo of Paul Basagoitia giving the camera a big thumbs up from his hospital bed. Paul was on the run of his life, nailing his line and bagging tricks with the best of them, when things went awry and he landed a little (okay, a LOT) too deep on what is probably the biggest step-down in MTB history. And then he crashed hard. REALLY hard. The crash where you're going 40+ miles per hour and high side before falling another 20 feet to packed dirt kind of hard. So hard that a mortal like me can't even fathom crashing that hard because I'd never find myself in that situation to begin with.
Paul is currently in ICU - basically the worst place you could ever wind up in a hospital - fighting to regain feeling in his legs after shattering his T12 vertebrae and undergoing nine hours of surgery.
Seeing Paul's thumbs up photo inspired me to write this piece, though it has been on the back of my mind for several years.
I remember being a grom watching New World Disorder something (I'd remember the number, but at the time they were all a glorious blur of awesome in my adolescent mind), and being blown away by this new guy on the scene who dirt jumped so damn well. He was throwing combos and variations no one else was doing at the time, and he seemingly came out of nowhere. Little did I know, just months before Paul had won the first ever Crankworx Whistler slopestyle event in 2004, on a borrowed bike no less. He went on to win many more competitions and set the pace in the dirt jump/slopestyle scene for a few years.
Over ten years later Paul is still a contender. He's as Pro as you can get. The man knows how to ride a bike, and he can ride one damn well. He's also a stand up character. And today I'd like to make a case why guys like Paul are being short changed, big time.
I have attended Rampage four times now, and last year I had the honor of being part of Paul Bas and KC Deane's shared dig team. As we stood on top of the mountain, I watched the two from behind as they choose a line down. They decided to stay far rider's right, sneaking behind the backside of the upper cliff before dropping down a hundred feet or more into what would be a 50+ foot canyon gap above the bottom ridge. With a line chosen, the hard work of sculpting something remotely ridable began.
We decided to start with the hardest part first - digging a five or so foot wide path into the side of the mountain that led into a large, precariously placed drop and a catch berm. This was honest to god back busting hard work. We toiled for hours to gain an inch as the mountain battled back against us, unyielding to our tools. Each time the pick axe landed it struck hard rock that made my hands sting as the impact buzzed through the handle.
The hours of slaving away went on, and on. All the while with our backs turned to one of the biggest cliffs I've ever stood next to. I was honestly scared shitless every time I swung the pick axe or threw a shovel full of dirt. Call me a pansy, but it was too much for my senses to handle. It's absolutely terrifying out there.
You saw Claudio Caluori's helmet cam - he rides all the rowdy World Cup courses at speed - well, Rampage doesn't even compare. The exposure and rawness of that mountain are something you have to see up close and in person to believe. Unlike many of his videos, Claudio's screams in the Rampage preview are real. He very likely did lose sleep about being asked to ride down it.
Renowned Red Bull Signature Series host, Sal Masekela, said it himself during the live feed. He "would rather take on Jaws tomorrow or a backcountry scenario with unstable snow" before dropping in on Rampage.
So where am I going with this? Rampage is gnarly. You get that. That's what makes it so awesome. But would you believe me if I told you the riders often can't even afford to pay for their travel to the event, much less pay for exorbitant hospital bills should they land six inches off line?
I remember Tyler McCaul coming in 5th place in 2013 and telling me that he could barely cover his whole trip with his earnings. In 2014 Kyle Strait was awarded $4,000 for his 4th place result, leaving just $1,000 take home after his expenses for two weeks in the desert. At an hourly rate that's probably worse than minimum wage. This year Cam Zink made just $3,000 for his 6th place finish, and the pay scale falls off fast after that. Many riders in the Top 10 couldn't even cover their gas expenses with the pennies they made for their efforts. Perhaps the biggest of all, the riders are not covered by an event insurance policy. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
This is MADNESS.
How can Red Bull do this to the best in our sport in good conscience? It's literally costing the Pros money to hurl themselves down the gnarliest mountain Red Bull could find, and they're not covered if they fall.
That's blatant exploitation. Seriously. And it's to the point where riders are facing more potential for worse injuries. Riders must bring their own insurance to the event, and are then required to sign a liability waiver freeing Red Bull of any responsibility.
This is the part where my mind wonders how this even became possible. Surely at some point in our sport's history the money was good enough to make it worthwhile, to make it enticing enough to these super talented riders to even consider trying it. I mean, it had to have been, right? Or perhaps it never was and this has been an issue for many years? Regardless, Red Bull hasn't kept up with the pace of the sport, rider progress, and growing risks.
Attention, validation, and recognition, it seems, may be the real driving forces behind the decisions the Pros make. Perhaps that's the society we live in, where standing on a podium, another hundred Facebook likes, or a video's final view count is sometimes more valued than anything else, though there's surely more to it.
The 2015 Red Bull Rampage had an invite list of 42 riders. At least seven of those riders found themselves in the hospital. That's 17%, or nearly one out of five who were badly hurt. In 2014 it was worse. Those numbers aren't good. Would you hit any drop on any trail with those odds of wiping out hard? Hell no you wouldn't.
Now I also must acknowledge that the sport itself is insane. It used to be that doing a backflip was a big deal, but not anymore. Now you have to find the biggest damn cliff or widest canyon to jump, and you had better do it with some style and a big trick to boot. God forbid you slip a pedal.
Another valid perspective is that no one forces the riders to compete. That's true, there's no gun to their head. Riders know the prize money before they accept their invitation, and they know the risks involved. If they can't afford to go, they don't have to go.
Shawn Spomer, who also writes here on Vital, reminded me that every year since Rampage began in 2001, a lot of the riders have been financially at ends with only a small handful making a living from mountain biking. Every year they knew the consequences. Every year the riders wanted to push themselves. Was 2015 any different? If anything, in 2015 all the riders have the history of disgusting crashes and lines to weigh their lives against. In 2015 they could probably make the most calculated decisions about competing being worth it.
Maybe the Pros are stoked for the opportunity and arena to push themselves. Maybe they fully agree with me. While Cam McCaul was announcing he said, "We all know the risks out here." Then Nico Vink stated - despite not even being able to really look at it because it was so steep - that he had to try his line because he'd regret it if he never did. That sounds more personal than Red Bull-influenced. No one wants these guys to risk their lives, but maybe they are okay with it, regardless of publicity/money/success? In some sense their lives have basically ramped up to the things they try to do at Rampage.
And then there's the FEST Series... a place where the riders hit the biggest jumps on the planet, again under their own free will. One key difference is that they do it in a safer environment, free of corporate pressures and time constraints, free of a live feed, and free of making someone a big pile of money. A friend recently told me, "We all want to feel like super-humans, and thanks to bikes sometimes we can." This is especially true in this instance.
So is it Red Bull's fault? No, it's not. That's not what I'm trying to get at. This is bigger than that. Yes, the Pros choose to do it, but what pressures do they face? At what point does passion no longer outweigh the possible outcome? Shouldn't their basic needs be met, including full coverage in an accident?
To add, the event has gotten to the point where every rider has to build some incredible and unique features to do well. You can't just ride down the mountain anymore. That's not nearly rowdy enough for the cameras. As a rider you have to bring a big build crew, which in turn means persuading your buddies to join your dig team.
Sounds like a dream, right? Building rad lines at Rampage? Think again. Shear exposure, smoldering temperatures, a risk of dehydration, sore muscles, blisters, snakes, and scorpions aside, these buddies will need to work 12 hours a day for six plus days in a row for nothing - because the vast majority of the riders can't afford to pay them. The diggers do it out of passion and love for their rider buddy whose "big day at Rampage" has finally come. The diggers are an often forgotten but major component of every rider's performance. "Privilege" only goes so far, and unfortunately lodging, food, and transportation don't pay for themselves. The riders do their best to make it happen for their build crews, but it's high time Red Bull properly acknowledges this crucial component.
Well then, why do it? I reached out to several riders in preparing this opinion piece. What Cam Zink said to me summed it up best:
"You do it for yourself, first and foremost, and there's a lot to be said about that. You're not going to do it just for the money or the fame. But if you are at a contest and someone is making money off of your efforts, your risk, and you're not really benefitting, that's where you run into a bit of a snafu. Rampage is perhaps Red Bull's biggest stage. It's one of their most viewed events ever, second only to the Stratosphere project with it's multi-million dollar budget. We're putting on a huge show for them, and someone else is getting the vast majority of the benefit in this scenario."
You surely noticed that Zink and others decided to bow out of a second run. Why is that?
In the end, how many
hundreds of thousands millions of dollars of product are going to be sold on the backs of these riders? How many ads are going to be made from the photos and video clips? How many eyeballs are going to see their logo over and over again as the public watches in awe? It's time for Red Bull, and really every company that exploits the riders skill and courage (including Vital MTB), to share that benefit.
What really angered me about this whole situation wasn't the dollars though. As press, when we sign our papers to get approved for a media pass, among the many legal clauses we agree to is one stating that we will never post a photo of a bad crash or a rider's condition after the fact. It's literally the first clause in a two page agreement. Why not? Why the hell can't the public know what happens out there? Why must it be shrouded in secrecy? Rampage is no walk in the park. What you're asking the riders to do is a life or death situation. There's no hiding that. We understand keeping things quiet out of respect for the athlete and their family until the time comes if/when they want to tell the world, but Red Bull attempted to sweep this one under the rug. They stated that Paul was just fine and told the announcers the same (who in turn unknowingly told the public), when in fact he's fighting just to feel his legs and feet again, let alone walk. You only get in a medical heli evac when you're badly injured.
Red Bull's action in this instance was just plain wrong.
So I ask the mountain bike community this, is Red Bull a sport savior? Them rescuing the World Cup downhill live feed and sponsoring other big events may lead you to believe so.
Johan Hjord, another Vital writer, reminded me that Red Bull has had a very positive influence on mountain biking as a sport, and I hope they will continue to do so. Their image and what they do for some riders does indeed go beyond the event, and pretty much every time you see an athlete with a Red Bull helmet they are excited to wear it for the recognition, care, and paycheck that it brings with it. They even support spinal cord injury research.
Even so, if Red Bull (and other companies) truly want to further the sport, they need to start by ensuring that ALL of the guys that put their lives on the line are taken care of when tallying up their bottom dollar, regardless of the event. We're all partners in this together.
When I originally wrote this piece I was a bit teary eyed and furious over Paul's condition, and I intended to end it with a call to action for the Pros. The next time they found themselves on top of that mountain I wanted them to boycott the live feed, to refuse to drop in until their needs were acknowledged and met. To let the seconds, minutes, and hours tick by as the world patiently waits. I wanted them to make the corporations sweat a little while the cameras were rolling. Now I find myself looking at the bigger picture...
I don't know what the athletes in other major action sports are making and what benefits they receive, though I hope to hell that it's better than mountain biking. If it is better, mountain bikers deserve to be treated on the same level. But even then, even if those needs are met, I want you Pros to consider for a moment if it's still really worth it. Is it? Honestly? Because in our minds your lives are worth so much more.
It's time we raise the troops and rattle some cages - and I'm going to need your help doing it. I'm talking to you, riders, and to you, spectators, and to you, companies who truly live and breathe mountain biking. Help spread the word and help make the reward more worth the risk. This all points to a bigger picture, and unfortunately Red Bull falls at the brunt of it. The bottom line is that our Pros, our heroes, deserve more.
To Paul, Jeff Herbertson, Antoine Bizet, Tyler McCaul, Nico Vink, Tom Van Steenbergen, Carson Storch, and the others who were injured at Rampage, know that the entire mountain bike community is pulling for you. Hang in there and keep those thumbs up. You'll all be back on two wheels in good time. Don't rush your recovery though, because the way things stand right now, it's simply not worth it...
Show your support for Paul by sending him some encouraging words on his Facebook page. A donation fund is in the works. We'll keep you updated on his progress. Zink says Paul is in better spirits today and that surgery went as well as it could, but your help and support are still very much needed.
- Brandon Turman
UPDATE: June 23, 2016 - Red Bull Announces Several Changes to Rampage for 2016
UPDATE: October 28, 2015 - Red Bull responded to this article and some of the key questions/concerns raised by it. Read more in our follow up piece here: Red Bull Steps Up, Basagoitia on the Mend, Positive Changes for Rampage and the Bike Industry Ahead
UPDATE: October 20, 2015 - Red Bull posted a short article about Paul's crash, his current condition, and provided a link for community donations. They state:
"Five-time Red Bull Rampage competitor Paul Basagoitia was injured during his run at this year’s finals. He was taken to a local hospital where he continues to be monitored and receive treatment. Paul and his family wish to inform everyone that he is in a stable condition. Our thoughts are with Paul and his family at this time and we wish him a complete and speedy recovery.
You can find more information, as well as make a donation to the Paul Basagoitia fund, at road2recovery.com.
Paul — the two-time Crankworx Whistler slopestyle winner and first rider to land a double backflip in natural terrain — famously burst on to the scene in 2004 like no other rider before him. He entered his first slopestyle on a borrowed bike and claimed a massive upset victory over the sport's current heroes. Innovating the flat drop tailwhip among other unique combinations, Paul has been known as one of modern mountain biking's most prolific contributors to the progression of the sport ever since.
Paul's unique line at this year's Rampage was no different, challenging the judge's highest-scoring terrain, and traversing the course's most exposed southern boundary. After landing a backflip that led into a 360 and a one-handed step-down, Paul crashed on the runout of a large step-down jump further along the course. Paul was immediately attended to by on-site medical staff before being transported to a hospital."
UPDATE: October 19, 2015 - Road2Recovery has started an official fund to help Paul with his medical costs. Donate here. Even if it's a small amount, every little bit will add up to a big difference.
UPDATE: October 19, 2015 - From girlfriend Nichole Munk: "His chest tube that was put in to assist with access to his spine during surgery was removed today and he is such a fighter that he is already looking forward to rehab! This is all new territory for us and we are flooded with information right now, but he will beat this! Thank you to all the riders, sponsors, friends and people involved with the event that have shared their support."
UPDATE: October 19, 2015 - From Cam Zink: