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The Future of Freeride is Female

Will parity finally come with it?


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Samantha Soriano’s career path was set. By age 20, the Colorado native already had an enviable résumé, with three national DH championships under her belt, dozens of enduro podiums, a bevy of big-name sponsors and a full international Downhill World Cup schedule on the horizon.

But something was off. A nagging feeling weighed on Soriano for most of the 2019 season, her first racing World Cups as an elite.

“I felt like there was immense pressure, like I needed to prove something to everyone after winning National Champs (in 2018, the youngest pro woman to take the title),” she said. “The whole mental side of the sport just crushed me.”

Race results were how you showed value to sponsors, especially as a woman, and she didn’t want to lose her career; she loved riding bikes and getting paid to do it was her dream. So, following shoulder surgery in late 2019, she stayed within the lines she thought were already drawn for her, and planned her 2020 schedule around the World Cup DH circuit.

Samantha Soriano on her new Canyon Sender in Virgin, Utah, a bike model that could easily double as her nickname one day. Photo: Left: Peter Jamison. Right: Natalie Starr

But something else happened in 2019 that she couldn’t shake. At Crankworx Whistler, she’d met Veronique Sandler, a familiar name in women’s freeride, and started “stalking her on Instagram.” That’s when her world opened up.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is what I’ve wanted to do for so long.’” Soriano had always spent the off-season riding the Trestles Bike Park in Winter Park, Colorado, with her buddies and trying to land new tricks, but parlaying that into something that actually paid the bills seemed far-fetched. But there was Sandler, digging and sculpting her own lines, riding for fun and appearing in film segments, all without a number plate.

Photo: Peter Jamison

“I didn’t even know I could have a career in freeride,” Soriano said. “I just thought, ‘There’s no money, there’s no future in freeride.’ It was almost like I’d be throwing away the possibility of having a career riding.”

Soriano might’ve brushed aside her true ambitions if it weren’t for the big pause of 2020. With racing essentially called off, she was suddenly homebound at the base of the bike park for most of the year, where she spent almost every day. “Something just clicked. I became the first girl to hit Banana Peel, a slopestyle freeride line. After that I was like, ‘I’m done. I just want to do freeride.’”

She worked up the nerve to present her intention to transition away from DH to her sponsors, and one by one, they stood by her.

“I’ve noticed an immense relief,” she said. “We’re almost in March, I’ve been the least stressed I’ve ever been in my bike career. I’m not cramming to get ready for a race.”

Proven Grounds

A few years earlier, Soriano’s assumptions about her career limitations would’ve been right. There was no money in freeride for women. The industry was too preoccupied by how much men were progressing to notice that women were also pushing their limits. And the women who were committed to freeride couldn’t really commit because they had to work other jobs to support themselves, and, without the safety net of big sponsors, often rode more conservatively than they would have otherwise.

“I remember so many women wanted to go in that direction, but they didn’t have that support to do it,” says Casey Brown, one of the most progressive riders in the sport, and a leader in women’s freeride. “When you don’t have support, you aren’t willing to risk hurting yourself. You’re spending all your money working your ass off to do something that’s not giving anything back.

Casey Brown, fully committed on her way to shattering the glass ceiling at Proving Grounds in 2019. Photo: Paris Gore / Red Bull Content Pool

“I saw that with the older generation before me. There was a lot of interest but no brands supporting it. Even I went through that. You get a job but don’t want to risk hurting yourself, you weigh the values out, and you just don’t end up pushing it.”

The landscape slowly started changing around the mid-2010s. The rise of Instagram gave riders a platform that hadn’t previously existed. Before social media, you only got noticed through race results or possibly TV time at World Cup races, but that was limited, especially for women. Suddenly, women could not only show tricks and style on their own platforms, but sponsors could finally see the value in reaching the audiences rallying around them. At the same time, behind the scenes, women like CJ Selig of Five Ten/Adidas, were landing in influential marketing roles and advocating for female athletes. Forward-thinking brands were starting to commit actual resources toward women who didn’t necessarily want to structure their entire career around racing. In Brown’s case, Trek signed her in 2016 with a program that allowed her to de-emphasize racing in favor of filming and other projects, which, at the time, was pretty rare. Around the same time, Sandler, a Kiwi transplanted to Wales, signed with Marin Bikes, and Canadian National DH Champ and top-10 World Cupper Micayla Gatto had also started her shift from racing into freeride.

Focus and form always on point. Photo: Sterling Lorence

But the watershed moment—actually it was two back-to-back moments—didn’t come until September 2019. That’s when Brown landed an invite to Proving Grounds, the first-ever qualifier for Red Bull Rampage, the biggest and most consequential competition in all of freeride mountain biking, and historically a boys’ club. This was the closest a woman had ever been to competing at Rampage, a high-stakes test of physical and mental fortitude in which riders carve their own lines into the cliffs above Virgin, Utah, then with a blessing from the wind gods, navigate the choppy terrain with pinpoint precision, flipping, spinning and sometimes truly soaring over canyon gaps back down to earth.

Casey Brown with teammate and fellow fun-haver, Ryan ‘R-Dog’ Howard. Photo: Sterling Lorence
A true pioneer in women’s freeride. Photo: Robb Thompson

It’s a spectacle unlike anything else in mountain biking, simultaneously harrowing and captivating, and represents the pinnacle of freeride.

Brown had been vocal about her goal of making it to Rampage and had spent time on a dig crew at the event—an informal rite of passage before one day competing yourself. She’d ticked off some lofty accomplishments since stepping away from World Cup racing at the end of 2015, including a first mountain bike descent of Jackson Hole’s famous Corbet’s Couloir alongside Cam McCaul, riding in Anthill Films’ “Return to Earth” and “Not 2 Bad” and being a regularly dominating force at Crankworx. But Proving Grounds was something else altogether. The course was massive, with a 30-foot drop (imagine sending it off a three-story building on your bike), double-overhead berms and towering wooden ramps leading into huge dirt jumps.

Brown on location in Hawaii shooting for Anthill Films’ “Return to Earth.” Photo: Robb Thompson

As Brown greased the last landing of her practice run—the biggest stage a woman freerider had ever performed on—you could almost hear the glass ceiling shattering.

“That was one of the bravest things I’ve ever done,” Brown said (and mind you, this is a rider who once flew down a descent in Kamloops, brakeless, clocking speeds of 60 miles per hour for Anthill Films’ Death Grip series, so this statement has some serious gravity behind it). “It was definitely one of those throw caution to the wind moments. I had a process where I had to take into consideration everything that could go wrong, all the pressure and everything and how I was going to deal with that and get over it. It was more planning everything mentally and trying to get as dialed physically as I could. It was scary for sure. But it had to be done.”

This was the closest a woman had ever been to competing at Rampage

Brown ended up crashing out of the competition, breaking her collarbone and bruising her liver, but her mark was made. The momentum from Proving Grounds led directly into Formation, another groundbreaking event, and the two combined sent a clear message: Women had finally earned their place in freeride.

Get In Formation

Hannah Bergemann was working at the Kona Bike Shop in Bellingham, Washington, when she got a call that would change the course of her career. It was Katie Holden, a fellow Bellingham local and former DH racer-turned freerider-turned brand ambassador and storyteller, wondering if Bergemann could come to Virgin to participate in Formation, a new women’s freeride event being held on the same Utah cliffs that hosted Rampage in 2015. Holden had been constructing Formation in her head for years, envisioning a non-competitive women’s-only dig-and-ride week, and finally got support from Red Bull in 2019 to pull off.

Top talent in Formation for the trailblazing women’s freeride camp. Photo: Katie Lozancich
Veronique Sandler and Hannah Bergemann scope lines in India while shooting “Accomplice.” Photo: Katie Lozancich / Accomplice.

Bergemann grew up in Hood River, Oregon, as a freestyle skier and started racing enduros in high school—which she continued doing after moving to Bellingham for college. She did well enough in regional races that she moved up to competing in the Enduro World Series by 2019, but what she really loved was digging lines in the forest and riding with her buddies. The scene in Bellingham perfectly suited her style, with its wooden features, big rock moves and steep trails, following cues from the birthplace of freeride on the North Shore just over the border.

As she posted video clips of her sessions in the woods, riding sketchy lines and charging two-story-building rock rolls like Bellingham’s famous Chief, her followers and profile grew. Holden noticed, and invited her to be one of just six riders to join the first Formation.

“I was pretty intimidated, not really knowing what I was getting into,” Bergemann says. “I was the one at the event who didn’t have a career in mountain biking at the time; the other women were already racing or had established freeride careers. I was definitely not sure or confident of my skill level at the time to be riding with those people. It was very stimulating and overwhelming.”

Bergemann went from working at a bike shop to traveling the world as a sponsored rider in mere months. Photo: Paris Gore

But Bergemann rose to the challenge, building one of the most technical lines at the event, then stomping it—teetering along a knife’s edge ridgeline, dropping down the mountain’s face and hitting an insane double drop.

“She’s such a badass,” Holden said. “She was incredible. Watching her rise to the occasion was for sure one of the coolest parts of Formation.”

A month later, Bergemann was literally plucked out of the bike shop and put onto an international flight to northern India to film a freeride segment in TGR’s “Accomplice,” marking her first appearance in a major film. Two months after Formation, she signed with Transition Bikes, both as an athlete and as an employee on their marketing team, and officially quit her bike-shop job. Less than a year later came the exclamation point on a truly transformative year: Bergemann was presented a Red Bull helmet, landing one of the most coveted contracts in all of mountain biking.

 

“I didn’t even know I could have a career in freeride,” Soriano said. “I just thought, ‘There’s no money, there’s no future in freeride.’ It was almost like I’d be throwing away the possibility of having a career riding.”

Now, she has bigger goals in her sights: learning to flip, getting an invite to Fest Series—a core rider-run series of jams that has never had a woman participant—filming projects, perhaps racing a few EWS events and, of course, returning to Formation.

But the important part is that she has the backing to do all those things—a marked shift in the landscape. Formation flipped the switch, not just for Bergemann, but for the whole industry, proving that there’s commercial interest in watching these ladies test themselves on some of gnarliest terrain in all of mountain biking.

“That whole [Rampage] scene, there are a lot of opinions, people have lots of emotion wrapped up in Rampage. Picturing women out there riding that stuff, riding it powerfully with confidence and looking good doing it … it’s really hard without seeing it, it’s really hard to envision it. People couldn’t wrap their heads around it until they saw it for themselves,” Holden said.

Bergemann boosting at home in Bellingham. Photo: Paris Gore

A Rising Tide

The freeride scene is much less cutthroat than World Cup racing, and many women are quick to support their fellow competitors, sort of in that a-rising-tide-lifts-all-boats kind of way; everyone is piecing together a career in such a niche corner of the sport that when one person gets an opportunity for big-time exposure, everyone wins.

“There’s these amazing girls all doing sick tricks and stuff, it’s really great to see,” said Brown, who personally recommended Bergemann to fill her “Accomplice” part because she was still injured from Proving Grounds. “I love watching it. I’m not hung up on trying to do what they’re doing, I’m just stoked to have been a part of it.

“I definitely love that Veronique Sandler doesn’t want anything to do with contests. I think that’s so inspiring. She came from World Cup racing, that kind of steered her in the direction she’s going right now, she’s doing an amazing job of paving the way in the non-competitive space.”

Veronique Sandler: role model, ripper and Real MTB competitor. Photo: Sam Needham

Sandler, who also took part in Formation, notched another huge win for women’s freeride this year when she was selected as the only woman of the six riders to debut X Games’ Real Mountain Bike competition in April. We spoke in February right after she finished filming her segment, and shortly after she joined Santa Cruz Bicycles as the only pro lady freerider on their roster—a signing that feels especially significant given Santa Cruz’ long-standing commitment to World Cup racing.

“I’m still mind blown,” Sandler says of her X Games appearance. “To be included amongst my absolute idols … I’d always watched Real Moto and Real BMX and thought how cool it would be to have a Real MTB but never in a million years did I think I’d be part of it.”

Sandler was also at the helm of the woman-led freeride film, “Vision,” which came out in July 2019, just before Proving Grounds and Formation. She credits social media for the rise of women’s freeride but also in general, the current movement toward gender equality in many facets of life, not just sports. And she can’t wait to see how it keeps progressing beyond her generation, noting the number of young kids and teenagers already sending tricks that are on par with boys their age.

The accent might be different in New Zealand, but the language of body English is universal, and Vinny Armstrong speaks it fluently, as evidenced at McGazzaFest 2021. Photo: Sven Martin

The pool is indeed getting infused with more talent seemingly by the minute, and that’s in addition to an already-stacked field of women constantly raising the bar around the world. You’ve got the likes of Kiwi Vinny Armstrong throwing ridiculously stylish whips at McGazzaFest back in January alongside fellow Kiwi and DH champ Jess Blewitt, Canadian DH Champion and reigning Queen of Crankworx Vaea Veerbeeck, who showed just how formidable a freerider she is at Formation and Chelsea Kimball—whose Instagram handle @chelseasendsit might be the most appropriate moniker of all time—dominating at Freeride Fiesta in Mexico, on top of cleaning some seriously scary lines on her part-time home turf in Virgin, like King Kong.

Vaea Verbeeck charging at Formation. The cliffs the ladies dropped in 2019 served as the Rampage venue in 2015. Photo: Paris Gore

The skills are there, the support is finally getting there, so where does the sport grow from here? Will women truly ever be considered equal competitors in freeride (and earn equal money for their pursuits)? Will they get invited to Fest Series stops or Crankworx slopestyle contests or earn a spot on the FMB World Tour? Will they be invited to Rampage someday? Brown, for one, still hopes that’s to come, with perhaps different Rampage courses for men and women, similar to the Natural Selection freestyle snowboard competition.

"I’d always watched Real Moto and Real BMX and thought how cool it would be to have a Real MTB but never in a million years did I think I’d be part of it.”

Although Formation is still in its infancy and Holden doesn’t know if it will ever be part of Rampage, she knows she wants it to serve a similar purpose as Rampage in that it’s a goal to work toward so that it encourages development among young women.

“Prior to Formation, the target was on Rampage itself. Everyone was like, ‘There should be women in Rampage,’ but at the same time, they were scared and couldn’t imagine it,” Holden said. “Now that Formation is a thing, it takes a little bit of the pressure off at the moment and allows women’s freeride to develop and become its own thing, whatever that own thing is meant to be.”

Sandler in between sends. Photo: Sam Needham

Whatever “that thing” turns out to be, Soriano intends to be there for it. When we spoke in mid-February, she was about to leave on a filming trip to Virgin, and was thinking about renting an apartment locally so she could spend as much time as possible riding the terrain that has defined modern freeride. She’s already cleaned the bottom half of Kyle Strait’s 2019 Rampage line (following Kimball’s lead) and is motivated to keep pushing herself.

“I want this so bad,” she said. “I want a future in this so bad that if I have the means to make it possible, I’m going to try the most to make it happen.”

And thanks to the women who came before her, Soriano will actually be able to make a living along the way.