I had been pedaling for over four hours, relentlessly turning the cranks and forcing my 29-inch knobbies to eat mile after mile of dirt. With at least another hour of saddle time ahead of me, my lonely thoughts revolved around one question: how had I managed to get myself into this wonderful mess of a gravel grinder?
Two weeks ago, I was offered an entry to Rebecca’s Private Idaho, a fondo-style bicycle ride hosted by multiple time national and world champion ultra-endurance mountain biker, Rebecca Rusch. A quick internet search revealed the details of the event in Rusch’s hometown of Ketchum, Idaho. Participants could choose between two options. The Small Fry measured roughly 50 miles; the Big Potato boasted well over 90 miles.
Both courses began and ended on the same short stretch of pavement. All the miles in between were dirt and gravel roads with washboard sections, fist-sized rocks, and pot-holed surfaces that would make even a low-budget county highway seem posh.
Also, there were big climbs and big descents.
Since my longest mountain bike ride to date was only three-and-a-half hours, I did what any sane and seasoned roadie would do. I chose the Big Potato. And then I began planning my Labor Day weekend in what is arguably Idaho’s most famous mountain town.
The event coincided with Wagon Days in the Ketchum-Sun Valley area, so my first stop was a parade downtown on Saturday afternoon. Residents and visitors packed three bodies deep along both sides of the entire parade route, as horses of all sizes marched down Main Street either carrying riders or pulling carts.
When the World Bicycle Relief “float” passed by, I couldn’t help but smile. There was the famed athlete herself, decked out in cowboy boots and hat, with a handful of folks on bikes. This reminded me that the proceeds from Rebecca’s Private Idaho ride support WBR, People For Bikes, and the Wood River Bicycle Coaltion—all worthy two-wheeled causes.
Later that evening, I got to meet Rusch in person at the packet-pickup and rider meeting. Since my anxiety level was creeping upward as the hours before the start of the ride dwindled, I expected a serious mood to pervade the info sesh. I should have known better—Rusch is way too much FUN for that!
While I did manage to learn that Gu, Red Bull, PBR and more would stock the aid stations on the following day, I also drank a few Lagunitas brews, rode in a horse-drawn wagon, and procured a signed copy of our host’s just-published book, Rusch to Glory.
If my anxiety vaporized the night before, it returned with a vengeance at 7:30 am on Sunday morning.
For starters, it was an unseasonably chilly 37 degrees. Somehow the physiology of goosebumps has a psychological component, too—I was cold AND a little scared. Secondly, although the competitive aspect of the ride had been deliberately underemphasized (participants can consider it a “ride” or a “race”), everyone lining up at the start had not one, not two, but THREE timing chips attached to various places on body and bike. There was no way the timing of this event was going to get botched.
And finally, the Voice of Bicycle Racing, Dave Towle, was at the start line, calling up notable riders for front row starting positions.
Wait a second. This was a RACE?!? My competitive fire was lit. There was no going back now. Before I knew it, I was squirming my way towards the front of the roughly 350-deep field and sizing up bikes left and right. Bad idea. I started to question my steed, a carbon hard-tail 29-er with a pretty aggressive tread pattern on her tubeless wheels. I was surrounded by sleek and skinny cyclocross bikes, but to be fair, the mix of mountain bikes and ‘cross bikes was healthily balanced. It wasn’t as if I had a choice in the matter since I don’t own a ‘cross bike.
My mental wrestling ended abruptly when we began counting backwards from ten in unison, ready to kick off the 8 am start.
What followed was an unforgettable journey into the Pioneer Mountains, shared by a diverse group of cycling enthusiasts ranging from full-time professional racers to newcomers in our sport. Our common bond was forged through an appreciation for the outdoors and our ability to tackle it with our human-powered conveyance.
Thanks to our host, Rebecca Rusch, and her incredible group of sponsors and volunteers, we never wanted for fluids or calories. We also had moral support from this uber athlete who began the ride with us, engaging us in conversation while posing with us in selfies, and later staffing the aid station at the mid-point of the ride to offer encouragement and advice for navigating the second half.
While I describe the journey as “unforgettable,” much of my experience was solitary and internal, making it difficult to put into words. Although I began with the intention of simply enjoying the ride, somewhere in the first 30 miles, I realized I was enjoying a race. And then, without meaning to, I realized I was enjoying leading the women’s race. And just as I was getting close to not enjoying anything anymore because my legs were so tired (SO tired), it was over.
My victory was a small piece of the day. The real victories were as diverse as the crowd of participants—take, for example, the announcement that very day that Idaho became the 14th to have a high school mountain biking league with the National Interscholastic Cycling Association.
Or the fact that in its second year of existence, Rebecca’s Private Idaho nearly doubled its number of participants. I suspect that if what I’m about to report next gets out, participation will soon be in the thousands, and eventually a lottery system will determine who gains entry because the field size will have reached a sustainable limit.
Two words: after party.
Think live music, food trucks, bike valet, and beer—all included for a relatively nominal entry fee when you consider the level of support and organization. Think Patron plus Red Bull plus lime juice equals Head Rusch, our hero’s signature cocktails, flowing freely and limitlessly into the evening. Picture the best summer block party you’ve ever been to, and then amplify that by an entire order of magnitude, and maybe now you’re beginning to understand how much fun it was. I won’t go into detail about the prizes I won, but here’s a hint: I want to thank Garmin, Specialized, Gu, Buff, Smith Optics, Patron, King Estate Vineyards, Sole, Camelbak, and more.
Will I be back next year? You bet I will. And will I go with a hardtail 29-er again? Who knows. Maybe I’ll try a road bike with 23c tires like Smart Stop pro Josh Berry who laid down the fastest time on the day!
By Sarah Barber, DNA Cycling p/b K4, Boise, ID