Brandon Semenuk on riding a single crown fork, and what his fourth Rampage title means to him
Brandon Semenuk cemented himself in history at Rampage this year, becoming the only rider to win the event four times. Not that his legacy was ever in doubt. Semenuk has been a lodestar in freeride for more than a decade now.
And though the accomplishment was much discussed before, during and after Rampage, winning a fourth title wasn’t necessarily Semenuk’s goal. Instead, the chance to attempt something new at the pinnacle freeride event, even if it meant falling short of a win, was priceless to an innovator who has seemingly done it all within his sport.
“I was just stoked on being able to show up to an older site that I have competed at in the past — like, I’ve won an event on that site already — and be able to show up and do something different,” Semenuk said. “[Winning a fourth time] is just one of those things that’s a bonus on top of just being there and having a successful run, and more or less putting down what I had in my head.”
This year, Semenuk took on Rampage on a RockShox Zeb 38mm single crown fork. Typically, riders opt for a dual-crown fork at Rampage to withstand the extreme impacts of mountain biking’s gnarliest event. With the Zeb, however, Semenuk felt no difference from his dual-crown setup, and was able to introduce pull off tail whips and bar spins into his Rampage repertoire thanks to the greater range of motion in his steerer tube.
In an interview with the Trek Race Shop, Semenuk explained how he prepared for Rampage this year, and how he managed a day that included a long delay, high winds and a bailed first run. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
When did you opt to go with a single crown fork this year?
Brandon Semenuk: For me it was just about having a setup that was not going to be compromising to a good bike setup for the location. Obviously with advancements in suspension, some of these single crown forks are just as good as the dual crowns, which gave me that option.
To be honest it really made no change to the bike because all the geometry stayed the same, the axle-to-crown of the fork is identical. The damper in the Zeb, it’s really amazing. I actually prefer it for that application. So in a sense it was almost the better fork choice. I’d say the only thing it lacked was if you’re doing whips, a left whip would suffer for me because I can’t put the steerer tube against the frame and control the bike. Or if you got a little sketchy, you can’t rely on the fork hitting the frame and keeping the wheel straight. I would say other than that it really didn’t make any changes.
It really made no change to the bike because all the geometry stayed the same, the axle-to-crown of the fork is identical. The damper in the Zeb, it's really amazing.
What sort of prep did you do to get ready for this event? What’s the process of fine tuning your setup?
Semenuk: The setup for the fork is the same as always, just finding the right high- and low-speed settings and air pressure and bottom-out. Obviously there are a lot of hard hits, so running enough bottom-out tokens without running too many and making the fork feel harsh. It was pretty easy because the fork’s actually a bit more progressive than, say, a BoXXer, so it was easy to have it still feel supple and nice, and not worry too much about it actually bottoming. At Rampage, usually the pressures just go up and you add a little bit more bottom out to the fork. You take what feels good and you just try and up it a little to a point where you know it’s not gonna be too harsh on the fork.
Walk us through the event itself. You had to bail on your first run; how did that affect your nerves?
Semenuk: Honestly, on the second run a lot of nerves were out. The first run was a lot trickier, just sitting up there with that really big delay. And obviously my good friend just went down and you want to know what’s going on with him and make sure he’s good. And then obviously on the first run nerves are always bigger, and the crash sucked and whatnot. But I got up and the nerves were gone, and I got to ride half my line. So I was ready to get up there and do it again. The second run was actually a lot easier to drop in for.
You mentioned waiting to do that first run. How much communication was there about what was happening with Tom [van Steenbergen] after his crash? And were you getting time estimates or were you largely in the dark?
There wasn’t a lot of information, to be honest. I didn’t know what was going on with Tom, they hadn’t really said anything. The most information I got was kind of near the end of the wait when they were saying that the medical team is still not back in position, because they’re trying to figure out if he was going to get helicoptered out or if they’re going to drive in an ambulance. Obviously right there you know it’s a bad situation.
Every time we're there, and with the same group of friends that work their asses off to help me put this together, it's pretty incredible.
Basically for the entire portion of that delay, I was getting a lot of five minute warnings. I don’t know how long I was actually up there, it was probably 45 minutes, give or take, but it was just five minute warning after five minute warning. So it’s a bit challenging. If someone tells you five minutes, then you chill for a couple minutes and then you start to get back into the mindset and start to get warmed up, ready to drop in. And then they’re like, ‘Oh no, delay,’ and then it’s another five minutes. So you’re kind of coming in and out of this prepared state to drop into this round. It took a bit of a toll I’d say. But obviously we need medical in position, and we need to get Tom out safely.
You finished with a score of 89 as the first rider to do his second run. Were you confident that was going to hold for the win?
Semenuk: An 89 is a pretty good score, but it’s not an amazing score by any means. So I knew there was room for people to improve. And by no means did I think I was gonna win the thing. I was just stoked to get a run down and I figured it would probably be a top three. Which, you know, is still pretty good at Rampage. A podium at Rampage is always sweet. So yeah I was happy with it.
Where did this year’s edition of Rampage stack up among everything you’ve accomplished in your career?
Semenuk: I mean it’s the pinnacle event for freeride mountain biking, so it’s amazing.They’re all different from each other, every one I’ve had. Obviously, it feels great. It’s awesome. I don’t think this one will change my career, or my life the same as the first one did, or the second one, but it’s still a great event, it’s an insane experience every time. It’s got a lot of value to me just in a different sense than some of the other ones. There’s not particularly one thing I’d put my finger on. It’s just every time we’re there, and with the same group of friends that work their asses off to help me put this together, it’s pretty incredible.
After the race, you said your run was roughly 90 percent of what you wanted to do, because the wind and the crash made your second run a little trickier for you. What did we miss out on?
Semenuk: I was just a little bit more tactical on the second run. Obviously the first run you have that buffer of knowing you can go back a second time. And then second runs are quite a bit windier, so I was just thinking ahead knowing that no one really scored a great run in the first runs, and that maybe I should hold back on a few small tricks or combinations, and just get a solid run in the bag.
Just with it being windy like that, it's so easy to make mistakes. You saw a few people pull it back in some areas where you saw them tricking in practice.
I knew the run would be there if I just got down the hill. Obviously I fell on the flat spin Nac on my first run so I just didn’t do the Nac on the second, and then a couple other small tricks throughout to find little places to score points. And then a lot of people did the same thing on their second runs, just with it being windy like that, it’s so easy to make mistakes. You saw a few people pull it back in some areas where you saw them tricking in practice.
It’s just playing the game a little bit. Obviously I’d always love to throw everything at it. When you’ve only got two runs to get down the mountain, it’s not always the easiest thing.
How much does it mean to you to have a singular legacy at the event now? Did it motivate you to try to win a fourth Rampage title?
Semenuk: To be honest, I don’t really think about that stuff. I’m not a numbers person. It’s awesome obviously, like I’m stoked that that came to fruition, but it wasn’t a goal of mine. It’s just one of those things that’s a bonus on top of just being there and having a successful run, and more or less putting down what I had in my head.
I mean yeah, it’s great in a sense, but I was just stoked on being able to show up to an older site that I have competed at in the past — like, I’ve won an event on that site already — and be able to show up and do something different than I did the other two years was more of an accomplishment than actually winning the event for the fourth time.