Women Involved Series: Rebecca Rusch

I am an athlete, author, adventurer, part time firefighter/EMT, dog-mom, wife, homeowner. Mostly, I’m just someone who likes to explore, challenge myself, be outside and share the lessons I learn with others. I’ve worked super hard to build a career around those passions. It’s important for me to make a difference in the work I do.

This includes constantly pushing myself to be better and continuing to learn, but also going beyond just my own development and making an impact in a bigger way. The bike and sports, in general, have been my vehicle for change and the tool I use to accomplish these things.

Tell us about the introduction to your current #bikelife and how has it changed your life?
As an adult, I wasn’t very fond of bikes. In adventure racing I was terrified of mountain biking but when adventure racing ended, I had to make the decision to either focus on mountain biking or get a real job. To capitalize on my biggest strength—endurance—I started looking around for the longest things I could find. My friend and fellow adventure racer Matthew Weatherley-White suggested I try 24-hour mountain bike racing, where you race around the clock. Even though I’d done a fair share of biking in adventure racing, this seemed like a stupid idea. I’d never learned to love it; in fact, I hated it more than any other sport I’d tried. Bikes were complicated. They always broke. And I wasn’t any good on technical terrain, so I’d end up pushing or carrying the damn thing.

It didn't seem like the best option but at that point it was the only option and I took it. What else was I suited to do? I really couldn’t come up with any other ideas. The more I thought about it, the more I thought maybe I could make it work. At this point I had a nice race bike and, since living in Idaho, I had met some other women who rode. I actually had been on some pretty enjoyable rides with them. As an adventure racer, I was well trained to stay awake to race for days on end with no sleep, let alone just one 24-hour period. I could hold a steady pace when it wasn’t too technical. The checks in the plus column were adding up. I figured I had one year to dabble in some sort of sport to fulfill my requirements to Red Bull. It was going to be a bit of a celebratory lap at the end of a great athletic career.

At 38, I decided to start racing mountain bikes at the age of 38. Now, at 46, I’m a multi-time world champion in the sport that was once my biggest weakness.

What do you love about riding your bike?
Freedom, exploration. The work to go up and the fun of coming down. You can choose to make a ride super challenging or hard…expanding your skills and fitness, or you can just spin casually with the dogs and friends. It’s a universally accepted and understood form of transportation and movement. It brings people together.

What inspired you to start competing in cycling events?
I had just moved to Ketchum, Idaho and When I was still mulling over the cycling thing when I decided to hop into a local 100-mile unsanctioned race in Idaho, a grand tour of the local mountain bike trails. It started in nearby Hailey and made a giant loop through the surrounding mountains and valleys, including Ketchum. There are all kinds of strong riders in this area, many of whom would be on the ride. I figured it would be a pretty good test to see if I could ride 100 miles straight, much of it singletrack. I had no visions of being able to stay with the group, but I wanted to see how I would do on a big ride. I was also excited about exploring unknown territory around my new home, and it’s tough to pass up a free event.

Though I bumbled over the technical stuff, I loved the challenge, the exploration, and how far the bike could take me. I was awakened to what there was to love about riding. The Pioneer, Boulder, and Smokey Mountain ranges we rode through went on farther than I could see or fathom. I didn’t have to travel to an exotic country to find adventure. It was right outside my back door. I craved to see what was over the next mountain, up the next drainage, and beyond.

Any suggestions that you can give folks who have yet to attend an event?
I’m living proof that it’s never too late to learn a new sport and take on a new challenge. I recommend getting educated and using your experience to help you take on the new challenge. Getting started is just that. Get started. Sign up for races, get involved with your local club, shop and let it grow from there. The opportunities to ride and race are out there, you just need to go grab them.

Can you take us back to your first few mountain bike rides? What were those first introductory rides like for you?
When I first began adventure racing I hadn't ridden a bike in years and had never touched a mountain bike. This was my first personal encounter with mountain biking—and it was a reluctant meeting, to say the least. I had zero interest in the sport, but there was no getting around it: I had to learn to ride if I was going to do the race. I purchased a used bike from a woman who used to race downhill and was much shorter than me. It was a heavy bike, and no one educated me on how to adjust the suspension for my body weight. It was a chore wrangling it where I wanted it to go, but I just assumed it was my lack of experience that made it so hard to ride. I never considered the possibility that it was actually the wrong tool for the job, and no one told me otherwise. I trained with my team for every sport and it was a crash course in cycling, with virtually no instruction except “Follow me” and “Get your weight back behind the saddle for the downhills.”

In the first race, the my team reached mountain bike section just before midnight and all I could see was that it went up and up, forever, and he told us we’d be riding uphill for many hours. I braced myself for the inevitable. We rode in silence, and I entered my own world of steely concentration. I rode a bit ahead of the team to gain my focus and make sure I didn’t fall behind. I had never ridden or seen a hill this big. I started playing little counting games to keep me motivated. First, I just focused on counting 10 pedal strokes at a time. I told myself I wouldn’t stop until 10, then 10 became 20, then I began to count to 100. I have no idea how much time passed climbing that hill, but finally in the middle of the dark night, I could see the road flattening out and there was nothing above me except moonlit sky. We were at the top of the hill—I’d made it on my own power.
When you started out riding, what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
There were so many things I didn’t really know how to do in this new discipline and it showed as my bull-in-a-china-shop technique was a liability on such a technical course. After 24 very intense hours of racing, I came in second, I vowed to work on my technical skills. Over the course of the next year, I did just that. I dedicated myself to training on my mountain bike with an intensity I had not tapped before. With my coach’s help, I worked until I was in the best shape of my life, and Greg, who grew up riding on the technical trails in Virginia, showed me how to be a better bike handler. I also got some tips from mountain bike legend and Specialized teammate Ned Overend. He didn’t hesitate to tell me everything I was doing wrong within 30 seconds of riding with me. “You’re too stiff. You brake too much on the downhills. You’re not flexing your knees and elbows to float over bumps . . .” It was hard to hear the laundry list of everything I was doing wrong, but if I was going to live down my reputation for “winning ugly,” I had to make some changes.

Have you had any biffs that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?
Overcoming- It’s really as simple as the old saying, you just have to get back on the horse. Everyone experiences fear while riding. I mean, everyone from the newest beginner rider to the top, elite racers.  We ALL have uncertainty and fear. Start slowly with terrain that is easy for you and comfortable and just have fun. Slowly build and challenge yourself when you’re ready. Don’t delay, just get back on the bike. The longer you delay, the more the fear will build. You said it yourself, you’ve not fallen off your bike in 30 years. Your friends are not you. Give yourself a pep talk and remind yourself of why you love riding. Focus on the positive, not the fear and stay within your comfort level.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
I ride for Niner Bicycles and what I love about them is they are family and they are innovators and risk takers. The company was founded on the crazy idea of 29 inch wheels when it wasn’t popular or accepted yet. I’m aligned with them in that I’ve never taken the easy or predictable path. Niner fits with who I am, what I stand for and embodies all of the things I love about cycling: freedom, access, trails, acceptance for all riders and innovative risk taking.

I have different bikes for different purposes:
My XC race bike is the RKT 9 RDO…voted best lightweight XC race bike by Bicycling Magazine in 2016! I didn’t need to wait to hear that vote because I already knew how fast, light and nimble this bike is. I use the RKT for endurance races, multi-day MTB bike packing events and lots of my training at home. It’s an awesome race bike, but also with beefier Maxxis tires and a Rockshox Reverb, it performs really well as an all around bike that’s great in almost any situation.

The Niner RLT (Road Less Traveled) 9 RDO (Race Day Optimized) is my gravel bike for endurance races like Rebecca’s Private Idaho or Dirty Kanza and also bike packing events that have more dirt road than single track. This bike is the new carbon version of the RLT. It’s super light and also the lower bottom bracket and geometry changes make it way more stable and comfortable for the long haul than the cyclocross bike from Niner (BSB 9 RDO). This is a race bike for me, but also a stable in the training fleet and a great bike for going long distances.

The third bike I’m riding now and really excited about is the new Niner JET 9 RDO. This bike is a awesome trail bike with the capacity to put 27.5 plus wheels or 29 inch wheels on it. It was my first experience with plus wheels and when I got on this bike for the first time, I could ride almost anything! There’s something about this bike that makes me feel invincible on technical trails and I couldn’t stop laughing because I was having so much fun. This is my new trail bike and has me thinking perhaps I should race an enduro or two this year. It has opened up so much terrain for me that I wasn’t confident riding before. This is the super FUN bike in the quiver.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking?
I’ve asked this question to many women during the 5 years of hosting the SRAM Gold Rusch Tour women’s clinics. I launched this program precisely to address this issue and help women feel more comfortable getting involved with cycling. The biggest barriers are lack of knowledge with the equipment, lack of confidence in their skills, lack of a supportive community or group to learn from. One of my main missions with my business and reach is to get more women cycling by taking away those barriers. With a little education, some instruction and a group of like minded women, the intimidation factor diminishes and everyone is out riding and having fun. It’s really not that complicated. If you just crack open the door for women and make them feel welcome, they’ll soon kick it down and charge ahead. I will continue these efforts with everything I do during the #JoinTheRusch events and clinics this year.

What do you feel could happen industry-wise to encourage more women to become involved with riding and the industry itself?
The good news is that things are changing and that there is still a ton of room for improvement, so we can have a big impact with not too much effort.

5 years ago when I launched the SRAM Gold Rusch Tour, there were few women’s cycling programs. Now they are popping up everywhere. There is a collective energy from female cyclists and now instead of complaining that there aren’t women’s rides, we are just starting them on our own. More women are working in the industry, becoming mechanics, applying for management positions because we now have mentors and visionaries who’ve paved the way. The most important thing is that women keep speaking up and putting their name in the hat and keep joining the discussions. Men and women are different and I do feel that representation from both makes for the most creative ideas, the most cohesive teams and the best working environment. For all of us, it’s important to change the language we use in the media, among our friends and in public. While it’s important to have support networks for all types of groups, including women…we also need to realized that we are all human and part of the same group. We have that in common. So, I don’t refer to myself as a female athlete, female firefighter, female author. Instead I’m simply and athlete, firefighter, author. It’s important to celebrate and support differences, but also equally important to celebrate and support our similarities so that we can start to erase gender biases and get on with doing great work in the cycling industry.
Photo Credit: Linda Guerrette
What inspired you to do what you can to help women have a positive introduction to off-road riding?
As a cyclist, I want everyone to experience the joy I get from being in the saddle. As a female mountain biker, I want other women to tap in to the confidence and innate capability that can be produced with just a few pedal strokes. Many women are timid to get on the trail and often feel intimidated to ask questions in a testosterone dominated world.

After the 2010 Leadville, I was officially climbing, and I wanted to make sure I was doing some lifting too. It was my turn to share, provide opportunity, and give nudges that bring out the best in other people. As I lined up at races around the world, I kept wondering where all the women were and why I was in such a minority. I’m very familiar with the barriers that keep people from riding, because I’ve struggled with them too, things like intimidation with the equipment, a lack of technical skill, a shortage of other women to ride with, or uncertainty regarding where to ride. But if I could learn to ride, become a pro cyclist at 38, and improve my skill to the world champion level, then anyone could eliminate the barriers for entry. I wanted to help facilitate this and erase some of the excuses.

What inspired you to take to writing to share the story of your #bikelife?
Well, for years, people have been telling me, ‘You should write a book, you should write a book!’ But I was always just like, ‘Nah, I don’t want to write a book, no one wants to read about me …’ That said, I had been blogging for a while and sharing my stories that way, but it wasn’t until VeloPress approached me about writing a book. So it really just sort of landed in my lap. Selene Yeager and I had chatted about it a few years earlier, so it had been tossed around for a little bit, but it wasn’t until VeloPress asked me, and I started thinking that it was either now or never.

I consider writing my book the toughest endurance event I have completed. It was honestly the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was much like a long race – while I was in it, it felt really difficult, but at the finish line, you’re just happy and proud.

What has been the most humbling thing you have experienced since you published your book?
The most humbling thing since publishing Rusch To Glory is that people actual read it and liked it. Honestly, I had no idea how it would be received or if we would sell even one copy. It’s done well and I get really nice comments all the time from people who found inspiration and motivation in the stories. Getting a note from a young girl or a new racer or a seasoned pro or even a non-cyclist that they could relate, makes all of the hard work it took worth it. Through this book, my other writing and speaking engagements, I’m realizing how important it is for us as a community to tell our stories.  It’s what brings us closer and makes us better.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I’m a part time firefighter / EMT with Ketchum Fire Department. Going on 11 years.
Doing a TEDx talk was probably the 2nd hardest thing I’ve done recently (book is the first) .

Thanks go to Rebecca and her team for the photos used in this piece and for making this interview happen in general! Also, a hearty congrats to Rebecca on her 2017 DK 100 finish! 2nd overall and 1st female!