The world’s top female free ride mountain bikers have descended on Stellenbosch for DarkFEST 2023 this weekend with only one goal in mind, to match the men in achieving some of the highest and longest dirt jumps ever ridden.
DarkFEST takes place down the vertiginous mountain slopes of the aptly named the Hellsend Dirt Compound in the Banhoek Valley, along a 900 metre course that now boasts the longest road gap jump in the world. Hurtling at speeds up to 80km/h riders fly through the air at heights of up to 50 feet (15 metres) above ground level over distances of up to 110 feet (33 metres).
New Zealander Robin Goomes and Canadian Casey Brown, who last year opened the way for the ladies when they became the first women in history to land the 90 foot (27 metres) gap jump, now face the prospect of a terrifying extension of the jump to 110 feet (33m), which is a little more than a third of your average rugby field.
Goomes has already run the full line at DarkFEST this year, including all the jumps and the two giant “Rocket Launchers” at the bottom, so it promises to be an explosive two days of riding.
The expanded contingent of seven women will join 23 of their male counterparts this week to hone their airborne skills on the biggest jumps possible on a mountain bike. By the time the gates open to the public on Friday, expect the closely-knit crew of athletes to have perfected their technique and tricks during the week to wow spectators.
For those who dare to watch, the audience will be treated to moves that include Backflips, T-bogs, Tailwhips, Superman Seat Grabs, Double Backflips, Cali Rolls, Can-cans, Three-sixtys, Suicide No-handers, Nothing Airs, Tuck No-handers, and Nack-Nacks.
If you were there last year, you would have seen several world firsts, including the moment when American Chelsea Kimball became the first woman to land both giant “Rocket Launchers” at the end of the course. These two jumps are globally recognised to send riders soaring the highest, and have been the scene of many a crash and visit to the emergency room.
No holds-barred woman rider Vero Sandler (Great Britain), who will be pushing the limits at Hellsend again this weekend, last year landed a “Nothing Air” on the 24 foot (7.5 metre) Step-Up ramp, which earned her the Best Trick and Best Whip award. The event follows a rider-driven “jam” format with little in the way of a contest structure or external judging. Prizes are rider-voted and will be given to the winners after the week’s riding.
Sandler says she has already fulfilled her two goals for this year, which is to land the 90 footer and to pull off a “No Foot Can”. “Anything else will be a bonus!” she said.
For the men, the massively talented and unhinged Spaniard Adolf Silva will be eyeing an unlikely improvement on his redemption double flip on the Rocket Launcher, the same place where he incurred multiple fractures of his wrist in 2021.
DarkFEST, founded by UK rider Sam Reynolds, began as a video project called “Pure Darkness” by Reynolds and his crew, and has grown into one of the top three free ride events in the world. Reynolds spends several weeks before each event to tweak and improve the course to ensure the jumps are bigger and better than ever.
Comments from the crew busy hitting the jumps is that he has reached that goal once again.
“We can’t wait to welcome the world’s best free riders back to Stellenbosch for DarkFEST 2023, after what we witnessed last year from the girls, I definitely see them going full send next week. Every year, we push the limits of what’s possible, and the riders never fail to amaze us. We’re looking forward to bringing together another incredible line-up of riders and a new speedier line that boasts a gravity-defying 110ft jump to showcase the best of the sport.”
Fans of extreme sports can mark their calendars to attend. The public can access the grounds at the Hellsend Dirt Compound at Vuurberg farm near Stellenbosch on Friday April 21 and Saturday 22, from 8am to 5pm. There will be merchandise stalls, music, access to the riders, and food and beverages on offer. Tickets available from Quicket at https://www.quicket.co.za/events/210395-darkfest-2023.