An interview with Rebecca Rusch, February 16, 2008
When Rebecca Rusch lost her sponsor for her adventure racing team late in 2005, she had no idea her next career would be in endurance mountain biking. In 2006, she finished second at the 24 Hours of Adrenaline World Solo Championships in Conyers, Georgia. In 2007, at Laguna Seca she won her first title. Cyclingnews' Sue George spoke with Rusch about her rise through the ranks of endurance mountain bikers and her plans for 2008.
Coming from adventure racing, 24 hour races are a whole different kind of experience. "The intensity is way higher - it feels hard for me," said Rusch who calls Ketchum, Idaho, home. "The pace and speed are so much faster than a seven day adventure race. A winning team in an adventure race often goes from five to seven days, so you're really pacing yourself. You're also changing sports."
On the other hand there are some advantages. "It's almost easy because a crew takes care of my food and equipment. All I have to do is ride my bike and help them get there. In adventure racing no one clean your dirty socks or lubes your bike chain. You do it yourself. Even though it's solo mountain bike racing, there is so much of a team. I feel like a princess."
Referring to the many racers who transition to 24 hour races from Olympic-distance cross country racing, "I come to it from the opposite end. I tell myself, 'It's just one night and I can sleep in a bed tomorrow night and take a shower - that's so cool.'"
"I don't think I need to practice riding in circles any more - I've got that down I think." -Rebecca Rusch explains why only one 24 hour solo race is on her calendar for 2008.
The Red Bull / Specialized rider will show up to defend her title at the 24 Hours of Adrenaline World Solo Championship this summer in Canmore, Canada.
Making the leap
"I lost my team sponsor at the end of 2005 for adventure racing. That was a big blow. I had managed a team for years and we had it dialled, but the sponsor got bought out by another team and all the sudden I was out of team in November," said Rusch.
"It ended up being a blessing in disguise. I asked what I could do - I thought maybe I'd be a free agent in adventure racing."
But thanks to a positive experience with some girlfriends racing as a team at the 24 Hours of Moab the previous month, Rusch thought she could try some solo mountain bike races. "I ended up being fastest on my team and got the fastest women's lap overall. It was a huge boost of confidence. I went there for fun and I had a great time."
"I knew I wasn't ready to not be an athlete any more. I knew I was good at endurance and I had to figure out what to do. I thought about ultra endurance running." But her friend Matthew steered her toward bike racing. He told her "You have the engine for it, you can learn how to ride the bike."
"He was right," said 39 year-old Rusch said two years later of her new career. Before adventure racing, Rusch had been a rock climbing gym manager in Los Angeles. "I ended up enjoying the cycling. A race in Spokane was my first 24 hour race that spring [in 2006] and I won the overall."
"My next race was nationals [which she won - ed.]," said Rusch. A few months later she was chasing Sue Haywood (Trek / VW) around at the World Championships, in Conyers, Georgia, where she took second.
"Sue beat me, but I was still ecstatic about how I did," said Rusch, who was flattered to have the opportunity to learn from a more experienced bike handler. "When I was riding behind her, I was aware that I was expending 50% more energy than she was. It was so cool to have a visual example. People say to let go of the brakes and do this and that, but I'd ride the same corner as her and be like 'wow, that's what all these years of bike riding will do for you.'"
"It hammered home that I have a lot of work to do and that I can always get better technically and get better pedal stroke."
2007: A different approach
With Rusch stumbling into 24 hour racing in 2006, there was little time for planning, but in 2007 she took a more methodical approach to her training.
Referring to her 2007 win at worlds, Rusch said, "That was my first real example of periodization in a sport [cycling] that's more measureable. In adventure racing, there are so many variables - it's really hard over a week to say if you were well trained or peaked."
"The cycling is more interesting that way. It was cool to watch the process over the year. I'm still pretty new to it - I'm going into my third year of bike racing."
At Worlds, Rusch defeated Linda Wallenfells, Louise Kobin, and Monique Sawicki among others. "For some reason, I thought before the race 'Holy cow, this will be a tough race, but it wasn't.' The conditions were hot and I changed my training. If you do the preparation the results just happen. That's how I felt at Worlds."
"It happened exactly how it should have. It's so rare in a racing atmosphere, it was great. I'm a little afraid I won't be able to relive that experience, but it's making me really want to work hard now because I had a distinct example of how the training works."
"Before nationals, I felt awful and I got second and I had no fire. I don't know what happened, but I just didn't have it," said Rusch remembering her concern prior to Worlds. "I talked to my coach and he said he wasn't having me peak for nationals, but for worlds. And to have the periodization really work was fascinating."
During the winter off-season, she took what she called a "healthy break" from cycling and trained much of the time on Nordic skis, in the weight room and rock climbing. Rusch works part-time as a firefighter and EMT. She also does backcountry rescues. "It's still athletic, but it's different friends."
Planning for 2008
"I don't think I need to practice riding in circles any more - I've got that down I think," said Rusch, who only plans to do one 24 hour solo race this year. "It's been a whirlwind. I think it's great because it's still fresh and new and exciting," and she said she'd like to keep it that way.
Instead her racing calendar will be filled with events like Cape Epic (riding with either Christina Begy or Moniquie Merrell) and a few adventure races. "I feel super strong about not being one-dimensional and I still feel strongly about adventure racing and the travel for it."
"I have a peak race, but the rest will be filled in with fun trips and races that will support that goal."
"The endurance part of endurance racing I have dialled from years of adventure racing. Like the nutrition. What I'm still learning is the cycling part of it - pedal stroke, technical riding. This winter I've been doing some training and some pedal stroke work."
She'll head to Australian for a 100km race in February called the Otway (NEED TO CHECK NAME) for some early season race training and then she'll travel to the 12 hour Dirt Sweat & Gears race in the Eastern US. She said she's not really going for the USA Cycling Ultraendurance series, but she'll compete in a few of the series' events.
Referring to racing her bike, Rusch said, "It feels fresh and new and like I'm reinventing myself as an athlete. As long as sponsors are behind me and I'm not pulling up the back of the pack," I'll keep racing.
"A lot of people said 'You won worlds and you should retire now on top. There's nowhere to go but down.' But I said not yet."
While some racers are calling it quits at age 40, Rusch has other plans. "On my 40th birthday, coming up this summer, I will do Montezuma's Revenge. Most people don't finish."
Though some racers take a very scientific approach to every minute of a 24 hour race, Rusch prefers to live in the moment and lose herself in the race experience.
"In the first few hours, I feel a bit crazy going around in circles. In the end and the middle I lose track of time."
"It goes very slowly in the beginning (the time) but in the middle I don't even think about it. I don't know what lap I'm on in the middle. I just know where the next person is in front and behind me. I like to forget where I am lap-wise. I know the lap time I'm shooting for to maintain consistency. My crew keeps track of it for me."
"I try not to look at the concrete numbers because they would bum me out," she said. "Others are super techy and know their heart rate the whole time and how far they've gone. I'm not that sort of a person during the race."
Although Rusch travels with two bikes plus spare parts and a mechanic to every race, she feels like she's travelling light.
"For me that's a small amount of gear. I'm not bringing kayak paddles, life jacket, bike and kayak jacket. I'm not packing for four sports - just one."