Q&A with Legendary Mountain Biker Rebecca Rusch—Part One

Rusch talks her unexpected start in cycling and what made her successful

In the world of competitive mountain biking, there’s no one like Rebecca Rusch. “The Queen of Pain” is a dominating force with a seemingly endless win record—but she doesn’t just win the toughest races in the world, she breaks records. Some of her finest record shattering was done on Leadville Trail 100, Dirty Kanza 200, and 24 Hour MTB World Championships and she also beat the record on the 142-mile Kokopelli Trail—by more than an hour and a half. We caught up with the soon-to-be author to discuss her vast success, advice for beginner cyclists and what she’s working on now.

The Active Times: How did you get into cycling?

Rebecca Rusch: I got into cycling because I lost my adventure racing sponsor. Adventure racing was dying, this was probably eight years ago. I had been adventure racing for 10 years and captain of a team racing eco-challenge all around the world. I got the call that said, you know, “the party’s over, there’s no more funding for any of this.” And this was in October when we were already planning for the next season and so I was like, “oh OK, plan B.”

I had Red Bull as a personal sponsor, not a team sponsor, and I had one year left on their contract. I called them up and they’re like, “well, find something else to do for a year, we’re not going to take the money away.” So I was like I have all this endurance experience what am I going to do for a year? 24-hour mountain biking was kind of taking off at the time and it was the longest thing I could find. Eco-challenges and adventure racing, those are like 7 to 10 day-long events, and so I had tons of endurance, not a lot of skill, and ironically mountain biking was my absolute worst event.

In adventure racing you have to run and kayak and rock climb and navigate and do all this other stuff and cycling—I hated. It was the worst of all of them, I was terrible at it but it was the longest thing that could play up all my endurance. So I entered a 24-hour mountain bike, solo, [on] the encouragement of some friends. I won the whole thing and beat all the guys even though I was riding my bike. I couldn’t—I couldn’t ride, I was terrible, that’s how bad I was at riding. But I could go all night and that was ok and I could pace myself and, you know, I was like one night that’s no big deal, that’s so much easier than seven! I’ll take a shower tomorrow morning.

So mentally I had the endurance to do that, I didn’t have the skill, but that launched a whole mountain biking career. [It was] totally unexpected, I thought ok I’ll play for a year then I’ll get a real job once this Red Bull money runs out. But it launched a cycling career, I started doing well and that was eight years ago. Now I’m three-time 24-hour World Champion, four-time Leadville Winner and “a cyclist”—which is kind of a big joke. All my friends who knew me through adventure racing are like, “you were so bad! Like I can’t believe you became a cyclist!” But it’s kind of funny because now, most fans and stuff know me as this cyclist. Even your question, how long have you been cycling? I kind of like laugh because I wasn’t supposed to be a cyclist. But a lot of people don’t know I have a longer background as part of adventure sports and tons of other things.

It was super unexpected, launched a whole second career, and it’s actually really exciting. I’ve been able to parlay all that into teaching women’s programs and now I’m writing a book and doing all this other stuff that was launched because on a whim I tried cycling, going “OK, I guess I’ll do that.” The thing I was worst at became my career. At 38 I became a professional mountain biker.

What would you say are the biggest factors in your success?

I think not being afraid to work on your weaknesses, and saying yes instead of no. Someone’s like, “do you want to go do this thing?” all my best adventures have been like, “well OK I’ll do that.” So I think [signing] up for something that seems scary, just kind of trying to say yes to stuff…Sort of swallowing your pride and your fear and those things and accepting cool opportunities that might be waiting around the corner. I can look back and every cool trajectory change has been because I tried something different. So yeah, taking a little risk, that’s one of the main things for success.

Then lots of failure, I think that’s the second thing is accepting failure and dealing with it. People think, “oh well you win all the races—you win every race.” For every win there’s, you know, 15 losses, or more. And I don’t think people realize how much failure goes along with success, so be OK mentally with that. Even though your ego takes a beating, you failed repeatedly five times and then on the sixth time you finally get it, so I think that kind of patience has been important.

The third big thing for success is friends and passion. Following a passion and doing something that seems exciting or fun, and surrounding myself with people who are doing those kinds of things, as well. I couldn’t have done any of this alone; I had to have buddies to prop me up or go do hard intervals with me. We all need somebody, we can’t do it alone—it’s too hard.

Which race was the most challenging for you and why?

Trust me they’re all hard. From a seven-day eco-challenge in Morocco to a 45-minute cycle cross race, they can both feel just as hard, and one just lasts longer than the other.

In recent memory, last year’s Leadville race was probably my hardest one. I had a really good friend hit by a car on her bicycle just a few days before the race in my hometown, right in front of our bike shop and she was killed. I found out while I was over there trying to defend my title and I really wanted to just leave and come home. I lined up anyway, because I felt like—you know, my boyfriend Greg said to me, “look you have to get out and race, you tell all these other people to do what seems hard and to conquer their challenges and that’s exactly why you need to show up tomorrow morning and go do what you can.”

So I hadn’t been sleeping, I was really upset and had spent the whole week basically in a depression. So trying to line up and be at [my] physical best was pretty impossible, but I raced and I finished third. I was only six minutes slower than my fastest time, even though I was carrying a huge burden and I was really proud of that. That was really hard for me to do, but a lot of people came up to me afterwards and said thank you for racing and we know how hard that was.

It’s interesting the physical pain and suffering, I mean those things are all really hard but once you stop they’re over, they’re done and then they’re stories that you talk about later. It was so hard but then for some reason, human nature, we sign up to do it again. And so I think physical pain is a measureable thing that stops when you stop. I think emotional pain is one of those other things, when people are dealing with, they’re even bigger achievements.

This article is part one of a two part series, click here to see part two.