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How I shot my first Red Bull Rampage

A photographers experience in Utah at the biggest single weekend in freeride

Words and photography by Niall Pinder

Surprise was the theme of shooting my first Red Bull Rampage. I’ve shot a lot of cycling events, but this one was full of the unexpected from start to finish. The scale of the course, the landscape, the high stakes, and especially the atmosphere at the venue set it apart from anything I’ve experienced before.

It was surprising just getting the invite to shoot the event in the first place. A friend had suggested the idea last winter, and I applied for credentials on a whim, not thinking I’d be accepted. A big shout-out to writer/photographer Danielle Baker for guiding me through the process. But lo and behold, an email came from Red Bull a few months before the event. Now it was time to shoot the biggest event of my life.

The full media circus of Red Bull Rampage in action. Rider, photographer, fan, videographer, photographers videographer.

On the road trip south from Vancouver, BC, most of the drive was chilly, and very unlike the desert I’d seen in Rampage videos. Down as far as Salt Lake City, UT, it was still cold and windy, with snow in the mountains. Then a few kilometres from Virgin, UT we drove down a big hill on Highway 15, the air got warmer, and suddenly it seemed like we were in Mexico. Utah is neat like that, there’s such a wide diversity in geography and temperature.

Shaping Utah’s dust into perfect lines takes time, and a full team of diggers.

The vibe on practice day could best be described as highly charged; The riders and diggers were all nervous and focused. It was warm, windy, and oddly quiet for such a media-heavy event. The only sounds were shovels smacking dirt into final shape, and the blare of a water pump pump supplying the build teams.

There’s no chairlifts at Red Bull Rampage. Just hard work.

I spent much of my day watching Tyler McCaul and Juan Salido who were climbing up cliffs with bikes on their backs, riding a feature, and then shoveling dirt for twenty minutes before climbing up and doing it all again. All day long. After nine days of building and shaping lines, they were still hard at work aiming for perfect. None of these guys are afraid of hard work.

Fans, spotters and media scattered across the cliffs outside Virgin, Utah.

Finals day was a very different experience than practice. The previously quiet site was mobbed with thousands of super excited fans wearing costumes and lugging coolers of beverages. Nervous energy has been replaced by loud music and Brett Tippie’s voice booming over the PA as he got the crowd even more stoked up. And, if you looked carefully, you could also see the families of riders, who were doing their best not to look too nervous about what was about to go down on the mountain.

Brett Rheeder with a calculated move, executed to perfection on an out-sized scale

The most unexpected part of my experience was getting an actual adrenaline rush just watching riders hit the 68 foot drop near the bottom of the course. After years of photographing downhill and slopestyle, I didn’t think I’d be so affected by what I was watching. But I’ve never been on a shoot before where there was a realistic chance that the rider could die if they missed a landing. These guys are super calculated in their runs, but things can happen, and it feels very real out there watching.

The whole competition felt like it was over very quickly, even though it lasted six hours, with a couple hours of last minute, day-of practice before that. It was crazy from beginning to end.

All in all, Rampage was one of the best, most eye-opening experiences of my life, and I’m already making plans to go shoot it again next year.

Red Bull Rampage 2019: Niall Pinder’s gallery

Niall Pinder is Kelowna, B.C.-based cycling photographer. He was behind the lens in Utah for the 2019 Red Bull Rampage as a trio of Canadians swept the podium at the most prestigious weekend of competition in Freeride, including a historic third win for Brandon Semenuk.