Before launching off a giant cliff on her mountain bike, Samantha Soriano has a habit of wringing out her hands. It’s her way of shaking out her fear, which she has named “Tito the Anxiety Mosquito” after a character on the popular animated sitcom, Big Mouth.
She also has a face and name for her internal motivator: “bangin’.” So, as she’s perched above a ridge, ready to drop, she wrings out Tito, grabs the handlebars, and says to herself, “let’s go bangin’.’”
This is a tactic the 20-year-old used at Red Bull Formation, an extreme freeride bike event in which eight of the world’s top female mountain bikers hike, roll, drop, and jump some of the toughest terrain in the sport.
The event, which wrapped up June 1, took place on the same cliff-laden mountains of Virgin, Utah, where the Red Bull Rampage happens every year. During Rampage, the world’s best freeride mountain bikers—none of which, in the event’s 19-year history, have been females—spend a few days digging their very own lines and building jumps before competing to see who can put together the most difficult, impressive line. Rampage is widely considered the most jaw-dropping (and dangerous) event in freeride biking, with spectator tickets often selling out in a matter of minutes.
Formation, besides putting athletes in mortal danger on the same steep, rocky, exposed terrain, is a whole different experience.
The second installation of its kind, Formation was designed to cultivate the future of the sport. It provides a jam session learning opportunity on the intimidating terrain, instead of a competition, allowing women a platform on which to work their way toward equal stomping ground as the men. In this case, they are on the very same challenging topography as Rampage—minus the fanfare—where they spend three days wielding shovels and pickaxes, digging their own lines on the terrifying, wall-like terrain. They then take three days to ride the lines they’ve created, one feature at a time, before linking a top-to-bottom rip session. That requires hauling their burly, 35-pound bikes on their shoulders to the top each time, any misstep potentially resulting in a 100-foot tumble off a cliff.
“I took a trip out here and was very humbled, to say the least,” Soriano says. “Everything scared me. The first time I hit one of the features, I thought I was going to die. The exposure, the amount of drops, it was so raw. I had a really hard time believing this was something I could actually do.”
In spite of Tito drumming up anxiety on her shoulder, Soriano etched her mark among the world’s elite riders at Formation. She rode one massive feature after another, soaring off jumps and doing tricks. At one point, she managed to take both hands off the handlebars and throw a “no foot” move (in which the rider swings both legs to one side and then back onto the pedals in mid-air) after learning it in less than two days.
“She’s a sponge. She’s a product of her environment,” says Red Bull Formation creator and former pro mountain biker Katie Holden. “She has all of the skills, but she’ll rise to whatever occasion is presented, which is pretty special.” Fellow riders and organizers at Formation echoed this sentiment while witnessing Soriano’s skills.
Soriano hails from Littleton, where she quite literally grew up on two wheels. Her father put her on a BMX bike when she was four years old, and along with her older brother, Ross, she spent her childhood racing on the track. In her early teens, she decided to try mountain biking, entering a cross-country race in Crested Butte.
Over time, Soriano realized she really shined going downhill, and began competing in downhill and enduro events. By the time she was 17, she was even crowned national downhill champion. But she was never really in love with the racing.
She describes the switch to freeride as “a rebirth.”
“Being a World Cup racer was my dad’s dream, my sponsors’ dream. It’s nice to not have the pressure of racing,” she says. “I just want to ride my bike and have fun.”
For the Columbine High School graduate, who now lives in Winter Park, there’s nothing that beats the thrill of successfully navigating terrain that most people would never consider riding.
When Soriano initially arrived in Virgin, Utah, last fall to check out the terrain, she met Rampage riders Ethan Nell and DJ Brandt to familiarize herself with the area and practice her skills. She tried doing a 360-degree spin while dropping off a cliff and didn’t complete the rotation. She hit the ground backward and “turtled.” She continued riding with a sore back until one day, about a month later, she went in for an X-ray and discovered she had broken a vertebrae. She was off her bike for a few weeks. Three months later, she was participating in Red Bull Formation.
The closest she came to disaster during that event was dropping into a jump feature off a 20-foot cliff and landing with her weight too far forward, compressing into her handlebars, but staying in her saddle. She yelled, “I just did the gnarliest push-up ever,” and later described it as “almost dying.” But by all appearances, was unscathed and “bangin’.”
From there, she and the seven other riders continued upward, launching off of even bigger drops with higher stakes. Organizers and participants unanimously called the 2021 Formation event “historic” and the “biggest features” ever ridden by women.
“It’s never not going to be scary,” Soriano says. “You just get better at dealing with it. I’m always going to be scared to hit drops. A lot of it looks worse than it actually is. Every feature I’ve hit has looked way scarier before I hit it. Then when I do it, I’m like, I’m totally fine. You can eye up something and be like, there is NO way I’d ever hit that. Then you hit it, and you’re like, oh wait. I’m OK. The scariest part is always the before.”
What’s next for Soriano? Look for her this August at the 2021 Proving Grounds, a freeride competition in Oregon, as well as in a forthcoming BFGoodrich tire commercial. You also might happen to see her bombing terrain around Winter Park. She’ll be the one dropping the biggest cliffs.