Rebecca Rusch is a force of nature. A multi-sport seven-time world champion who found her true home in mountain biking at age 38, her passion for the outdoors is almost physically palpable when you meet her.
She’s been a professional athlete for more than 30 years, and her résumé is stacked; she made a first female rock climbing ascent on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, rode her bike to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and is a four-time Leadville 100 mountain bike champion.
But collecting records isn’t where it ends. From the beginning, Rusch has sought to expand opportunities for women to become involved in outdoor spaces by offering herself as an example. She’s run women’s-specific bike clinics through the SRAM Gold Rusch Tour and her #JoinTheRusch movement; had a column in Dirt Rag magazine, “Rusch Job,” for a stretch; wrote her autobiography, “Rusch to Glory: Adventure, Risk & Triumph on the Path Less Traveled;” and put out a full-length film last year, “Blood Road,” which documents her journey to become the first person to ride the entirety of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Rusch is the kind who befriends strangers instantly, doesn’t need a mic on stage, is firmly enmeshed in her community and uses her position and platform to fundraise for several bike-related charities. Six years ago, she founded her own event, Rebecca’s Private Idaho (RPI), as yet another way to reach current and would-be riders and to support the bicycle community at large. (The event collected more than $20,000 for four nonprofit partners this year.)
Rusch started RPI mostly out of her deep love for the Sun Valley, Idaho, region and her adopted hometown of Ketchum, and while you might expect a pro mountain biker to organize a mountain bike race, a gravel grinder just felt right.
“A big part of it was inclusion and being able to [have the course be] less intimidating for somebody who maybe is new to mountain biking and doesn’t want to go on singletrack,” she told ASN over coffee. “I mean, we have more dirt roads here than pavement. I really do feel like gravel is this great equalizer for roadies, mountain bikers, really experienced people, new people. There is something for everyone on that road.”
Rusch believes so deeply in the power and freedom of bicycles, and lives that truth so vibrantly and infectiously, that she inspires without trying. She showed up to the kickoff party for RPI this year in a cowboy hat, boots and a red dress. Her nickname is “Queen of Pain,” and if you follow her story, guaranteed you’ll aspire to the same status.
That’s how I found myself in Ketchum a few weeks ago, shivering in 40 degrees at a start line 6,000 feet above sea level. It was 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday, and I was about to ride the new Tater Tot division of her namesake event.
I wasn’t exactly trained up for what lay ahead: a 20-mile mix of paved and unpaved roads that gained 1,171 feet of elevation along the way. I’d never entered a bike race, and had spent the last 18 months out of the saddle while recovering from a couple of foot surgeries. Adding to that, I was coming from sea level and was atop a demo bike that still felt foreign. I’d never been on a gravel grinder before coming to Idaho and I had signed myself up to pedal it farther than I’d ever ridden – at altitude.
I mentioned as much to a local who’d rousted himself out of bed before the sun was fully up just to cheer on the racers. He was sitting this one out, but he’d ridden RPI before. He chuckled, looked at me reassuringly and said, “You’ll be back next year for the 50, I guarantee it.”
While a rider like me might sound out of place at an event that has grown 20 percent every year since its start, drawing more than 1,000 racers in 2018, in a way, I’m actually the target demographic. Rebecca’s Private Idaho wasn’t conceived solely as a means of getting more women into cycling, but it has attracted an impressive number of female racers that bests just about any mixed-gender bike event around: A stunning 35 percent of the entrants were women in 2018 – a 5 percent increase over what has been a 30 percent standard every year since RPI’s inception.
And there were plenty like me, who were curious enough to try something new in their 40s; a woman I met and rode with came with her husband all the way from Tulsa, Oklahoma. RPI was a bucket-list event for her spouse, but she felt supported enough by him and the race environment to sign up for the Tater Tot and ride it on a bike she’d gotten just a week prior.
Stories like these make Rusch’s eyes light up. Growing female participation in the race has always been important to her, and she sees something uniquely special in the women who are flocking to the event. “I find there’s a really cool segment of women that [are in their] 30s, 40s, who have children, and their kids are a little older now.
“I meet a lot of moms who are like, ‘I shouldn’t go do this for myself,’ and it’s like, ‘You’re a better parent if you go on an hour bike ride and you clear your head and you come back.’ If you take that time, you’re actually going to be a better version of yourself for the people around you and for your family.”
Barriers to entry into the sport do exist, however, and Rusch has refined RPI over the years to lower those obstacles for new riders while also offering challenges to keep more-experienced riders interested. The race has always had 100-mile and 50-mile divisions (the Big Potato and the Small Fry – yes, they’re all potato themed). But this year Rusch added the Tater Tot for those just getting started with gravel riding, as well as the Queen’s Stage Race – a four-day option with a ratio of female participants even higher than the overall event’s (50 percent of the field was female). She envisions each distance as a stepping-stone to the next – a natural extension of her years mentoring women through camps and clinics.
“The women’s clinics that I started a while ago were because I was intimidated to mountain bike ride and I didn’t understand the equipment. I was like, ‘Well, if I feel intimidated, other women must too,'” she shares. “That’s been part of me for a long time, whether I was climbing or adventure racing: If women are scared and they don’t understand the equipment, I’ll just show them.”
Actively demonstrating is something Rusch has carried over into her own event. She’s out there in the mix during the race, riding alongside participants, encouraging them, handing out water at the aid stations, sharing a laugh and reinforcing that once you get started, you can go farther than you ever thought possible.
“I think with me being the race director, it made people feel comfortable, made women feel comfortable,” she says. “I’ll have dads come up to me and just be like, ‘I wanted to get your book for my daughter’ or ‘I’m riding more with my wife now because of you.’
“I’m not doing anything special other than just being here, being present and trying to set a really good example,” she continues. “It really is just kind of that simple.”
The ripple effect from growing RPI’s female participation reaches wide. New racers carry a sense of accomplishment home with them; it strengthens communities across the country and empowers women to invite others to swing a leg over the saddle. Says Rusch of the event, “It’s growing outside of Idaho because somebody is going back to Minnesota, or somebody’s going back to Chicago. The effect they had here is going to be in their own community, and that’s really important to me – that’s growing cycling, and people, and health and wellness in a bigger way than just the 1,100 people that can fit on the course, right here on this weekend.
“When I was doing the SRAM Gold Rusch Tour, I’d have people ask me, ‘Will you come do an event in Bellingham, Washington?’ or ‘We don’t have a women’s ride group there.’ And I’m like, ‘I can’t be there, but you should start one,’ and then the next year they would come back and be like, ‘I started a women’s group and there’s 100 people now.'”
While Rusch doesn’t see growing RPI in terms of field – she prefers to keep the intimate, just-for-fun vibe over doubling the entrants and sees instead a lateral expansion by adding more activities in the same weekend – she does see the event as an example other race organizers can follow to help bring more women into the fold.
“It’s all about messaging. I specifically don’t call this a race very often. I call it a ride, but people do race it,” she explains. “It’s what you want it to be, and every person is going to challenge themselves. It ends up being a race for everybody because you push yourself when there’s that energy around you.
“If you really want to attract more women, I think you have to [get] some women involved in your marketing, put some women in the pictures. It’s just really not that hard, I don’t think,” she smiles. “You crack the door open and then women are like, ‘OK,’ and they push it the rest of the way open.”
Turns out Rusch and that local guy were right. My new friend and I rolled the last 7 miles of the course side by side, sweating and smiling and making plans to tackle the Small Fry in 2019.
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