Rebecca Rusch has proven her longevity: She’s evolved her career to become one of the most recognised women in cross-country mountain biking, a world champion in multiple disciplines, a record setter, a book author, and a female innovator who’s showing no signs of slowing down.
Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Rebecca Rusch’s illustrious endurance career began when she joined her high school cross-country team for the free tracksuit. After college, she got into rock climbing while working at a health club in Chicago that had an indoor climbing wall, and eventually, she moved west to pursue a life filled with outdoor sports.
For years, she lived out of her car, roaming the mountains in search of walls to climb and rivers to paddle. In the 1990s, she discovered adventure racing and became a participant in TV producer Mark Burnett’s Eco-Challenge, which enabled her to travel from Argentina to Morocco to Fiji to navigate hundreds of miles of rugged wilderness terrain via foot, bike, boat, camel, and more. She picked up mountain biking as a necessity for adventure racing, but it was never her favourite discipline.
During her adventure-racing career, Rebecca also competed in events like the US Whitewater Rafting National Championships, the 24-Hour Orienteering National Championship, and the Adventure Racing World Championships. In 2003, Outside magazine named her one of the top 20 female athletes of the year, and in 2004, Adventure Sports magazine dubbed her the “Queen of Pain,” a nickname that stuck.
When Eco Challenge went off the air and the sport of adventure racing lost support and funding, Rebecca had a tough decision to make. She was 38 years old and could either figure out how to keep her career as a professional athlete alive, or go find a so-called real job. She moved to Ketchum, Idaho, and got a part-time job as a volunteer firefighter, which she still does today, and then a friend recommended she try 24-hour mountain bike racing.
“The only downside was that mountain biking was my worst discipline,” Rebecca says. “I ended up having to take my weakness and make it my strength. I wasn’t fast, but I could bike all night long. That ended up launching this ultra unexpected mountain bike career.”
She signed up for a 100-mile mountain bike ride in Idaho and was hooked. In her first solo race, a 24-hour race in Spokane, Washington, she took first place overall, beating all the men and women solo competitors. Her second solo race happened to be the 24-Hour Mountain Bike National Championships, held in Wisconsin, and she won there, too.
In 2009, Rebecca made her first appearance at the Leadville Trail 100, a legendary mountain bike race in the high country of Colorado. She had to walk the more technical portions of the trail and yet she still won, sharing the podium with men’s winner Lance Armstrong. She returned to Leadville, defending her title four years in a row, from 2009 to 2012, and setting a new course record along the way.
“The first year nobody knew who I was, so I could go in under the radar,” Rebecca says. “The pressure just escalated every year. That event highlighted and launched my cycling notoriety.”
Rebecca went on to win three 24-hour solo mountain bike World Championships, the Masters XC and National XC single-speed mountain biking championship titles, and Idaho’s Short Track state championship and a state Cyclocross title.
She won a Master’s Cross Country Skiing World Championship (because, as she says modestly, the race happened to be held close to her home in Idaho, and Nordic skiing makes up much of her wintertime training). She has taken the top prize at the Raid Gauloises’ Adventure Racing World Championships and she’s been profiled by the likes of Sports Illustrated, Outside, and Adventure Sports magazine.
In 2011, Rebecca spearheaded a series of female rider initiatives she dubbed the SRAM Gold Rusch Tour. The tour, which includes race and training clinics at Sea Otter Classic, an all-girls mountain bike camp, races and a gravel event in Sun Valley, Idaho, continues to build momentum under Rebecca’s guidance. “It’s about getting more women on bikes and also building a network and giving them a voice,” she says.
She also launched a bike race in her hometown of Ketchum called Rebecca’s Private Idaho that raises money for charitable organisations.
In 2013, Rebecca set out at midnight on the 229km Kokopelli Trail, from Moab, Utah, to Fruita, Colorado, riding alone. Despite a crash that dislocated her finger, she finished in 13 hours, 32 minutes, beating the existing women’s record by an hour and a half.
“There was no prize money or fame. It was a personal goal,” Rebecca says. “It gave me a record to chase in the middle of the night to keep me focused and motivated.”
The toughest endurance event Rebecca has completed? Writing her first book. In 2014, her autobiography, Rusch to Glory, was published by VeloPress.
“It was honestly the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Rebecca says. “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.”Read more