Mountain Bike Style
By Rebecca Rusch
Photo by Charlotte Sport Photos.
My 24 hour mountain bike racing career started in 2006. A long-term adventure racing team sponsor bowed out and I was left with the task of redefining myself as an athlete or getting a real job. Fortunately, my sponsors Red Bull and Specialized were supportive in my quest to avoid a nine-to-five existence. For lack of a better idea, I decided to take my endurance experience into mountain bike racing. I knew I could race for days on end from my adventure racing career, but had no idea if I was fast enough or good enough on a bike. I had never actually entered an official mountain bike race or ridden against any women. I won the first 24 hour race I participated in that year in Spokane, WA. It was my test run and I beat everyone in the race, including the men. I took it as a sign. Nine to five would have to wait.
The 24 Hour Solo Nationals in Wisconsin was my second 24 hour race. I went in as a complete unknown and with a lot of trepidation. This was a huge step. The reigning female champion from the previous year was there with a gigantic motorhome parked right on the course and a host of professional-looking assistants and more bikes than I could count. There were other pros in big trucks with their names painted on them and lots of logos. In contrast, I had brought my mom, my uncle, and a bike-mechanic friend from home. The intimidation factor was huge. What was I thinking? How could I possibly make a proud showing against all these pro badasses? I cried during my practice ride and figured I’d made a huge mistake in coming to nationals this soon. The course felt very technical. My self-doubt multiplied.
We staked out camp, bagged the idea of sleeping outside, got a hotel and clicked on the Weather Channel. There were severe thunderstorm warnings for the weekend. The radar showed a big red blob right over Wausau, Wisconsin. We knew we’d get rained on, it was just a question of when and how much.
The next thing I remember was the starting gun. For the first couple of laps, I was ecstatic to realize that I was not very far off the lead rider. I figured it would take a while, but I’d try to reel her in over the next 24 hours. When you have all day, you might as well use it, right?
My confidence increasing, I was shocked to see the back of her uniform on a small climb during the third lap. I felt a surge, passed her while trying to act as if I wasn’t working hard, and promptly fell off my bike right in front of her. A wave of embarrassment and another surge of adrenalin got me back up. I rode away frantically and never looked back. From that point on, I rode like a hunted animal.
I crashed hard shortly after dusk. Trying not to scrub speed through a tight section of trees, my handlebar nicked one and the bike started to wobble. Like a slab of meat I collided with a large oak to the left of the trail and was thrown to the ground. I didn’t have time to brake, so the smackdown was hard and fast. Trying to get back up, I knew my shoulder was in trouble. But desperate to stay in the lead, I raced off into the night.
About 4 am, the wind started howling, the air turned cool, and it was clear that we were about to get absolutely hammered with rain. Sure enough, the downpour came fast and furious. With visibility drastically reduced, the pace slowed immediately. I squinted and focused on staying upright, trying to ride by feel. Soon after, race officials waved me down and forced me to stop at an aid station about half way around my lap. About 30 riders were there and officials were handing out trash bags for us to wear. As we all crammed under one tent, lightning cracked and boomed around us at regular intervals. Curled up in a fetal position inside my trash bag and shivering, I tried to relax my cramping, seizing legs. I huddled with total strangers and wondered how much of my lead I was losing. I kept scanning the tent for another female rider to arrive. My biggest fear was that they’d restart the race from here and I’d have a head-to-head battle for the last six hours. I could barely stand, let alone race a bike.
We were held there for about 45 minutes before a chaotic re-start was attempted from various stop points around the course. I finished my lap wearing the trash bag, turning the pedals like molasses.
At 9 am, with just one hour to go in the scheduled race time, I pulled up to my transition area, ready to swap bikes and head out on my final lap. The balls of my feet were numb, my wrists felt like they’d been jackhammered, and my eyes were crusty with mud. However, I was machine-like in my determination. As far as I was concerned, I still had one hour to ride and one more lap to complete to seal the deal.
Approaching the pits, my crew was lounging around and my second bike was not ready to ride. I was a bit delirious and confused. Turns out the officials had stopped the race again due to the rainstorm and had given everyone an official finishing time from the first stop. It meant I’d ridden an extra two hours that I did not get credit for. But I didn’t care. It also meant I was officially the new National Champion!
I didn’t have long to enjoy my victory when the pain set in. I could not lift my arm. My legs were beginning to swell and I felt my body and mind shutting down. I needed help changing my clothes and had to be directed where to go and what to do. I was too tired to take a shower at the venue and fell asleep in a chair before the awards ceremony.
The nap must have done me well because I bolted awake when they announced my name. I went up and was presented a new stars-and-stripes jersey. I needed help putting it on over my injured shoulder, but it was like a healing salve once it was on. As I stood on the top step of the podium at my first National Championship, all the pain, the doubts, and the fatigue melted away as I raised my good arm high above my head.
Yes, nine to five would have to wait.
Rebecca Rusch has been a professional ultra endurance athlete for over 10 years. She has raced at the elite international level in adventure racing, outrigger canoeing and most recently mountain bikingShe has finished 1st or 2nd in every 24 hour mountain bike race she has entered. In two short years as a 24 hour racer, she has earned the titles of 2006 National Champion, 2007 USA Cycling Ultra Endurance Series Champion and 2007 24 hour solo World Champion. When she’s not racing, Rebecca is a part time firefighter/EMT and cross country ski coach in Ketchum, Idaho.