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Opinion: Formation Isn’t A Competition, And It Shouldn’t Be

Community over contest

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It’s that time of the year again when women’s freeride mountain biking is squarely in the spotlight for Red Bull Formation. Out here in southern Utah, the weather is bumping with perfect temps, the cacti flowers are blooming and we are digging some of the gnarliest lines I have ever seen in person—this is not an exaggeration for dramatic effect. This year we’ve got 12 women riding in Formation, an increase of four from last year, and we have an XL-sized crew of rad people digging, learning and supporting the progression. 

In its third year, Formation has returned to the venue where it was first hosted in 2019. With a larger ‘go zone’ than in previous years, the ladies have spread far and wide across the mountain to create quite the array of lines and features. This year is set to blow minds for sure. I feel comfortable saying this because It’s already blowing mine and we’re only halfway through the week. This year I’m digging for my good pal Sam Soriano and on that note, I’ve got some thoughts and perspective about what goes into building and riding this kind of stuff. You may be surprised to hear that it’s not as straightforward as it may seem. That’s sarcasm. It’s obviously not straightforward at all so let’s break it down. 

Sam Soriano hits the trick jumps in the ‘snake pit’ while the author looks on. 

Formation is often characterized as a ‘women’s Rampage’ and though both events push forward the progression of freeride and are held on the same terrain near Virgin, Utah, they don’t have much else in common. Formation, for one, isn’t a competition. There are no judges rating riders’ style, or the technical difficulty of each feature, and there’s no winner crowned when Formation wraps on Sunday. Instead, it’s organized as a jam session and as a group effort. Along with their two diggers, athletes work on etching out their lines for three days, then spend another three working toward top-to-bottom completion. This structure gives us all an opportunity to take the stress off and work together to learn and grow. The incubator-style environment creates a more collaborative atmosphere where mentorship is emphasized so that the next class of Formation riders can be ready to step up when the time comes. If the end game was a podium, we wouldn’t have the same access to athletes, and ultimately, the same access to learning.  

This feels like a good time to mention that we’ve come a long way in women’s freeride. There was a time not long ago when only few attempted to build a career freeriding and their success stories are laden with difficulties. Now we come in packs and there is support in place to help us grow. Even with this said, it takes time. Time to learn, evolve, get hurt, take breaks, come back. It’s not just about how many tricks are in your bag. It’s your presence, building a solid grasp on who you are as a person, how you can be marketable to a brand who you want to partner with, understanding business negotiation, networking, etc. There are so many important pieces that are needed in order to be successful. 

The author, raking and and taking it all in, alongside Harriet Burbidge-Smith and Mike Ross.

After a couple of years of riding down here in Virgin, the biggest thing I’ve learned is that progressing here isn’t as linear a curve as I thought it’d be. I dug for Cami Noguiera in last year’s Formation and I remember feeling so energetic about what I was learning. Getting to dig and ride with some of the best in the game will teach you a lot, fast, and that can feel exciting. You start to learn how to grasp the sheer size and the speed needed to be successful. Features suddenly start looking attainable and the fear of dropping through large amounts of air space starts to be replaced with an excitement to fly. But one year later, with a knee surgery and six-month (still ongoing) recovery from a crash at this same venue under my belt, I’m in a different headspace. I’m finding that the exposure therapy takes time. The process comes with mistakes and misjudgements, ups and downs. When I say exposure therapy, I’m not talking about being comfortable scaling the upper edges of these walls with a shovel. I’m talking about gaining an intimate understanding of the terrain and its characteristics. Feeling comfortable with its unpredictability and learning to start to be able to predict it better. I’ve learned that this place is truly another planet. The elevation, the dirt, the speed, the body awareness needed and the margin for error are a recipe unique to itself. It can’t just be learned in a week. 

The author in a rare moment of downtime in the desert.

What Formation is doing for the sport as a whole is something that still isn’t fully understood. There’s a lot going on and most of it is happening behind the scenes. Katie Holden, Formation’s main braintrust, understands though, and that is precisely why we’re here. She knew that the recipe for excelling in freeride wasn’t straightforward and that without something like Formation, most of us would never have the opportunity to learn it. I came to a point in time in my riding last year when my progression slowed because I didn’t have anyone to show me the way. I wasn’t friends with any other women who were riding this stuff before last year. I certainly wasn’t friends with any women who were making a living riding bikes outside of racing. It’s an honest statement when I say that getting that very unexpected DM from Holden asking me to come dig opened my next chapter. This sentiment isn’t unique to me either. Aside from what it does for the 12 women riding this event, it’s incubating the growth the rest of us need to be able to be ‘the next 12’. As diggers, we’re chosen because we’ve shown promise that we’re capable of being incubated and taking these learned skills to our careers and communities. That trust alone is something to be acknowledged and appreciated. Riding at this level is a group effort. The perspective gained from friendships with people like Sam Soriano and Hannah Bergemann is a key ingredient to the recipe, as is the mentorship from people like Holden and professional skier Michelle Parker. These are four people I hold near and dear and I wouldn’t be able to be here giving you this inside scoop without their friendship. 

Building community is the underlying theme of Formation.

Formation is a great example of why community support is so important. It’s not a competition because the environment of coming together and learning/teaching prevails over everything else. This is where we’re at right now with women’s freeride. There’s a reason that before now, there were maybe only two women making a legitimate living off of freeride mountain biking. The rest of us just didn’t really have much to go off of. It’s all happening so fast now it’s hard to keep up but I could not be more stoked to be a part of it all. If there’s one thing I hope for people to take away, it’s that there is now a future for women to make a career out of riding bikes outside racing and it’s because of the mentorship from the ones who made it. How would I have ever known that you can’t just race line it off a cliff without little Samantha telling me to slow the hell down off the top? How on earth would I ever even consider a 15-foot drop off the top of these cliffs to a 60-degree, 3-foot-wide landing pad with 100 feet of exposure on one side without Casey Brown asking for help building said landing? I’d be stuck, and so would the future of women’s freeride. Formation is opening doors that have been slammed shut for years—its formula is ensuring they stay open.

Photography: Katie Holden