Location isn’t the only thing that has changed over the past 20 years of Red Bull Rampage. This awe-inspiring event has an illustrious reputation and has been tested by both man and machine since 2001. The event has grown from a motley group of freeriders meeting in the desert with custom bikes, to an event of world class which welcomes athletes who spend the whole year training for this one competition. Although crowds and coverage have increased as the characteristics runners take on, much has remained the same here in the Utah desert. Great strides have been made in bicycle design thanks to technological advancements and a greater acceptance of this extreme riding style. Riders can now tackle bigger obstacles at higher speeds, ride more safely, and have faith that things will keep turning when they hit Earth behind these monstrous drops.
When looking at cycling technology and equipment improvements, there are a few major areas that allow riders to go further and faster than ever before. We asked Kyle Strait, two-time winner and the only athlete to have participated in every Red Bull Rampage since 2001, what the biggest changes in cycling technology have been. Without hesitation, Strait replied, “Geometry and suspension”.
When looking at a profile image of a bike, the geometry is one of the most noticeable changes. When riders and engineers discuss bike geometry, or “geo,” they are referring to the points, the length between points and the angles of the frame. Two of the biggest geometric gains over the past 20 years are in the front half of the bike. The angle and reach of the head tube. Reach is the point of intersection measuring the distance between a vertical line drawn from the center of the bottom bracket shell to the top center of the head tube. Twenty years ago, mountain bikes still derived much of their size, geometry, and dimensions from road or cross-country bikes.
The frame numbers have changed in all dimensions from front to back, but one of the angles, if not the most important, is the angle of the head tube. The head tube is the large front tube that the fork slides into, and they’ve gotten considerably looser over the past 20 years. A slacker head tube angle gives the bike a longer wheelbase, slows the steering, and puts the front wheel in front of the rider more. A welcome feeling when falling down vertical lengths or trying to make smooth turns at high speed.
Since much of the geometry theory and design comes from decades of road or cross-country bike experience, freeriders and downhillers were limited by the 67-degree head tube angles. found on some bikes. Modern bikes often have head tube angles as loose as 62-63 degrees, which is a huge difference in fork length.
As the head tube angles relaxed and reach dimensions increased, riders found increased confidence and stability. This progression in terms of stability and confidence has helped to evolve the size of features and terrain that it is possible to navigate at Red Bull Rampage. Looking at a side-by-side bike from 2001 to 2021, you’ll see a much longer bike overall, with very few overlapping contact points.
Another major improvement in bicycle technology comes from the suspension. The bikes went from six inches of poorly cushioned travel to over eight inches of highly adjustable, compliant suspension. Like many of the bike brands you see in Red Bull Rampage’s early photo galleries, the suspension companies and trends have faded. Early Red Bull Rampage athletes rode coil-sprung shocks, and many competed on inverted forks from brands like 5th Element and Avalanche. The trend has definitely changed and most athletes these days are seen on air shocks with Fox or Rock Shox equipment found under the majority of runners.
Frame construction and durability
Thanks to the past two decades of pilot pushing the limits, engineers have worked to do the same on the design front. Computer-animated design programs, finite element analysis and many other high-tech steps are used to develop and verify the strength, life cycles and durability of products. This allowed the bikes to become lighter, stronger and more reliable.
Back in the day, it was not uncommon for an aluminum or chromoly downhill bike to weigh over 50 pounds. Today’s downhill bikes can be made from thinner aluminum or carbon fiber and easily reach 34 pounds. With 15 pounds less mass under them, riders can now turn, turn and maneuver much more easily than ever before.
A number of new industry standards are working in unison with frame improvements that have helped components evolve to be much stronger and more durable. For example, early mountain bikes took over the axle standards of road and cross-country bikes, which were ill-equipped for the demands of off-road riding. In 2001, many riders were on thinner axles which were also narrower with 135mm spacing. Today’s axles are up to 20mm thick, while the rear axle spacing is 150mm or even 158mm on some bikes. This wider spacing allows the hubs to be much stronger, with better triangulation for the spokes to help keep the wheels spinning despite huge side loads from 360 landings or massive whips.
Other components such as tires, handlebars and brakes also saw huge gains. New rubber compounds and increased sidewall stiffness helped improve traction and reduce the chance of a puncture while more powerful 4-piston brakes replaced the unreliable 2-piston brakes found on bikes from the early 2000s. Handlebar thickness has also increased to 35mm, compared to the 31.8mm or 25.4mm thickness originally found on mountain bikes. This means a more precise steering feel and the ability to use much wider bars for increased leverage and a more powerful riding position.
The result of all of these changes is a completely different mountain bike that’s a step ahead of what early competitors took to the tracks of the first Red Bull Rampage. To some, they may look like another bike, but to a discerning eye, these modern freeride machines share little with their predecessors beyond the two-wheelers that take them down the mountain. Geometry changes, suspension technology and better components all work together to help these racers push the limits of what’s possible on the world’s most demanding stage. It’s impossible to talk about cycling development and technology without recognizing the limits early riders pushed on their modified and sometimes homemade freeride machines during early Red Bull Rampage events. They helped create a new riding discipline, drove the development of cycling, and entertained viewers around the world for two decades. Well done to the bikers and motorcycles of Rampage.