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Leadville winner Rusch takes on Trans Andes with Smith

Jennifer Smith and Rebecca Rusch are teaming up to race the Trans Andes mountain bike stage race, which kicks off on Monday, January 25 and runs through January 30.

Smith, 36 hails from Westport, New Zealand, but has called Gunnison, Colorado, home for the past 10 years. The 41-year-old Rusch, winner of last year's Leadville 100, resides in Ketchum, Idaho.

The pair will race under the team name La Diosas, which means "The Goddesses". Rusch explained the team's name, "I am not one to regularly call myself a goddess, but this is what all the locals were calling my mostly female Eco Challenge team in 1999 when we raced to a historic fourth place finish amongst mostly male teams. This is the first time I will be returning to the Lakes district of Patagonia since that race."

Fondly recalling her experiences of Patagonia, Rusch said, "It is one of my all time favorite places in the world, so I wanted to honor the name I was given so many years ago by the locals. Also, Jenny and I agree that no matter what bike we're riding, our collective goal is to encourage and inspire women in all parts of the world to ride, race and explore on a bicycle."

The race will give Smith her first opportunity to travel to South America, but that doesn't mean she's lacking travel or stage race experience. She raced the Cape Epic with then Trek/VW teammate Sue Haywood in 2008, and also raced the short-lived American Classic Mountain Bike Race in Utah that same year.

Smith jokes that she might be able to get in shape by chasing Rusch around, but Rusch points out that Smith beat her previously in both the Cape Epic and the American Classic Mountain Bike Race. The pair should be well-matched, and Rusch's multi-day adventure racing background will serve them both. "Adventure races are similar to stage races in terms of preparation, team racing and planning," said Rusch.

Smith is excited to race with Rusch - for the first time together as teammates. "I've had great experiences racing endurance events with other teammates, and I have heard from mutual friends that Rebecca is an excellent teammate," said Smith. Friendships are a huge part of the reason I ride and race, and it's neat to have a shared experience with someone else."

Smith is coming off a tough 2009 season during which she balanced starting a coaching business, Snrgy Multisport, with a partner; buying a house; and health issues. "I had a health issue prior to Xterra World championships and a bit of a running injury so my 'A' event for the year was a flop," Smith said. "I worked hard to find my motivation and form racing and came into great form at the end of the season." She finished fourth at the European Xterra Championships and fifth at the American version.

The year challenged Smith to look differently at her competitive ventures. "It led me into this place where I am have a grateful and celebrative attitude toward my athletics and this event fits exceptionally well with that."

The pair's accommodations throughout the race will be camping rather than hotels. "I've been packing, knowing I'll be camping, and it puts a whole new spin on things. Aside from being a challenge of flying (with all the gear), it's motivation and it's simple. I like that."

"We get so tied up in what we need for events, and this time I can't take extra so I won't. I've been telling myself well, so what if I wear the same thing every day. I'm going to race an event, not go on a fashion show."

Rusch is looking forward to more than just the racing. "It's an incredibly beautiful place with mountains and lakes and condors and super friendly people. It will give me super good early season miles of training that I cannot get at home. And maybe I'll get a little of the well known Argentinian beef and red wine too!"

The training should be just what Rusch needs to build on her 2009 season, during which she met her goal of winning her third 24-hour solo world championship. Three weeks later she won the Leadville 100 - after having gone into the event not knowing what to expect of her body. "It was a magical day and a super good result for me. The sheer volume of people and energy at that race was intoxicating. So I guess the three-peat was the cake for the season and Leadville Trail 100 was the icing."

Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for a daily Trans Andes race blog from the pair.

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Sue George is an editor at Cyclingnews.  She coordinates all of the site's mountain bike race coverage and assists with the road, 'cross and track coverage.