The dust is still settling on this year’s Formation (quite literally, perhaps), but what I witnessed there won’t leave my mind anytime soon. The magnitude of what the 12 headlining women rode last week is monumental, and the impacts of their accomplishments will surely be far-reaching, especially if the previous two Formations are any indication.
Despite the 2021 event taking place during COVID, with even more restrictions on who could watch it go down, countless doors opened in its wake. Hannah Bergemann and Casey Brown both started their own women’s progression jam sessions in their respective hometowns, Bergemann’s Hangtime on the Blue Steel jumps in Bellingham, and Brown’s Dark Horse Invitational on a course she designed at Revelstoke Bike Park. Women were invited to Audi Nines for the first time, where Caroline Buchanan became the first woman to land a frontflip on a mountain bike, Proving Grounds invited 10 women compared to one in 2019, and five Formation alums were invited to DarkFest, Sam Reynolds’ South African Monster Energy-backed jam, which is held on one of the biggest jump lines in the world.
Veronique Sandler signed on as Santa Cruz Bicycles’ only female freeride athlete in early 2021, and also landed a coveted X-Games RealMTB entry; Bergemann cemented her freeride career after Formation 2019, when the dark horse part-timer stomped a huge line, and basically left with a full-time pro career and a Red Bull helmet; and Harriet Burbidge-Smith, an alternate at Formation 2021, earned her wings that fall at Hangtime, when Bergemann presented Haz with her own career-changing Red Bull helmet.
I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw another Red Bull helmet ceremoniously bestowed on one of these very deserving shredders, and damn, let’s hope the industry steps up to commit more dollars to this discipline because these ladies are pushing the sport forward in ways no one else is. But the biggest change that should come out of this year is a women’s division at Red Bull Rampage—the pinnacle of freeride, and a competition that is held on the same Virgin, Utah, cliffs where Formation takes place—or a conversation about it at the very least. Rampage, now in its 21st year, has always been reserved for the top 15 or 21 freeriders in the world (depending on the era), and though women aren’t explicitly prohibited from earning a spot, none ever has. It was a longtime dream of Katie Holden’s before she eventually retired, and went on to dream up Formation, thankfully.
Casey Brown has been vocal about her desire to participate in the past, and has followed in Holden’s footsteps in joining Rampage dig crews to gain vital experience. Brown, in fact, came the closest of any woman by earning an invite to Proving Grounds in 2019, the one year it served as a Rampage qualifier (she crashed and injured her shoulder, but not before going huge, and living up to the name of the event by proving her place in the annals of freeride).
Formation is not a competition, and was never meant to be. The idea is for it to be an incubator, an event that prepares women for the stress and pressure of a Rampage-style competition, and that expands the freeride field by preparing up-and-comers for a career outside the racetape. Camaraderie, community and unwavering support are the tenets of Formation, not competition.
In 2019 and this year, Formation was held at the same venue as Rampage took place in 2014 and 2015, and the gals did not shy away from the guys’ big-mountain lines. Vaea Verbeeck’s huge ridgeline hip was part of Andreu Lacondeguy’s second-place Rampage run in 2015, Cami Nogueira and Louise Ferguson’s loose, sketchy fall-line gauntlet that sent them straight down the face of the mountain mirrored Bas van Steenbergen’s line, Sam Soriano, Robin Goomes and Burbidge-Smith took inspiration and lines from Carson Storch’s 2014 Rampage appearance, and Brown and Bergemann’s terrifyingly blind drop-in off the ridge, and subsequent run re-traced Brett Rheeder’s 2015 line. And let’s be clear: The features in these lines were not tamed down for the women. They took the same risks, conquered the same mental demons and committed to the same level of potentially career-, or even life-ending consequences by dropping in as the men did seven years before. They battled through the same nerves, found the same confidence and made history in their own right; Robin Goomes landed the first Formation backflip, for instance, moments after she threw a perfectly stylish sui off the biggest drop into the lower half of the mountain.
Technical skills aside, these 12 women showed they have the mental fortitude to compete in a high-stakes contest like Rampage. No one cracked under the pressure, even while drones buzzed overhead and influencers lined the lips of their jumps with GoPros on gimbals, as they guinea-pigged drops and features that sent them soaring several stories high into the sky.
Sure, there would be many details and logistics to work out by adding a new category to Rampage—maybe it doesn’t make sense for women to compete on the same exact venue as the men at the same time, but they sure as hell should be part of the Rampage conversation after the spectacular showing of physical skill and mental strength we saw last week. And they should be part of many other conversations for that matter, because another thing Formation showed us is that these women are some of the boldest, baddest riders on the planet, no gender qualifier necessary.