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: Could you tell us how you got your nickname “Queen of Pain?”
Rebecca Rusch: [Laughs] That was given to me by the media, most nicknames you can’t choose yourself.
It was a magazine; I think it was called Adventure Sports. It was in the heyday of eco-challenge and they put that on the cover and gave me that marker. In the article [they] talked about how I don’t quit and, you know, I captain my own team of guys, that’s kind of where it came from.
It’s funny; I look at it as more the “Queen of Perseverance” instead of the “Queen of Pain.” Some people are like, “oh you love to be in pain, you love suffering,” and it’s not really that, I love who I become by doing those things. I’m not a glutton for punishment; I guess I’m a glutton for self-improvement.
If you had downtime and could go anywhere in the country, where would you choose to ride?
Idaho—my hometown. It’s where I live, it’s where I want to be and I’ve been able to build a little life here. I lived out of my car and I traveled all around the world and all around the U.S., kind of looking for where to land and this ended up being the place that felt like home. So any chance I get I want to be here, because I think it’s the best place on earth.
For those who haven’t been there, what would you say is the best part about Sun Valley?
It’s a beautiful mountain town, people think, “oh Idaho, yeah you grow potatoes there,” and you don’t really realize we’re in the Rocky Mountains; it’s a ski resort town. There’s wilderness and backcountry right outside the door. The mountains are just amazing and beautiful, but the main thing, I mean I’ve been a lot of beautiful places, what really struck me when I pulled in here was the sense of community. I mean the first week I was here people were asking me to go on rides and saying hi at the grocery store and after living in California for a while—and I’m not banging on California—but this just felt so much more welcoming. You weren’t just a person in a big crowd of people, people knew your name and said hello. It’s portraying that sense of community here.
And because it is a resort town, we have some of that art and culture that you wouldn’t find if it were a really [far] out mountain town that didn’t have the resort atmosphere. We get some really good culture and good music and things like that here, too. There’s some really cool stuff that you wouldn’t get in a normal small town.
How do you train when you’re not on two wheels?
I do a lot of backcountry skiing here in the winter, cross country and backcountry skiing. I don’t really take the chairlift, even though I live in the ski area, I make a point of hiking uphill and skiing down. I run with my dog, I have a new dog and he likes to go running. Yeah I mix it up, I still climb a little bit, and I believe that it’s pretty healthy to get off the bike for part of the year, doing some cross training and some other things for mental and physical breaks. I actually feel for the people who live in California, or a year-round climate because it would be really easy to over train and spend too much time doing one thing. I get a forced break in the winter here, which is super nice.
What tips or advice would you give to someone just starting out cycling?
Finding a friend is really important. I think that really shortens the learning curve, if you have somebody who’s like “don’t leave the reflectors on your tires,” or “don’t wear underwear under your bike shorts.” Somebody, a friend, who has a little bit of experience, is going to make it more fun for you and it’s also going to keep you from hurting yourself.
I believe in enlisting a small army to help you. If you don’t know any friends who ride, any good bike shop should have a group ride or recommend you to a club and even if you’re not like a club sort of person, getting started, that’s a really good way to meet some other people and check out some of the gear.
When I got started cycling, the reason I hated it [while] adventure racing is because I was super intimidated by the gear. I didn’t understand it, it seemed to always break, you need so much stuff and I didn’t know what to do if I got a flat tire or the chain broke or the gears didn’t shift. It’s really not that big of a deal once you educate yourself just a little bit but that was my initial resistance—all the gear.
I think breaking down the intimidation of the gear is super important early on. Go learn about it, you know, we’re all smart people, it’s not rocket science. And then getting the right bike, I had the wrong bike for a few years and I didn’t really know it was too small for me. I just bought it from a friend, I had no idea. So I was battling against the wrong equipment, lack of knowledge and riding with a bunch of guys that were way faster than me. All three of those things were a recipe for disaster, which is why I didn’t enjoy it.
So having a supportive group of friends, having the right gear and a little bit of knowledge are the main things.
What are you working on now, and what’s ahead for you?
What I’m working on now is probably the biggest challenge of my life. The biggest endurance event I’ve ever done—I’m attempting to write a book. Well I am writing a book, I’m attempting to write a good book.
I’m writing a book of adventure stories and inspirational stories of things I’ve done in hopes that people will read that and be motivated to step outside their comfort zone themselves and go do a little exploring. But its foreign territory for me, sitting in a chair so much and really trying to search the cobwebs of my brain and tell these stories. What’s really hitting me is the insecurity of doing something I’ve never really done before. I’m thinking about my long rides and I go through the same emotions of feeling confident and felling really down, you know, confident than not feeling confident. And so it’s a very similar process, except I’m sitting in a chair instead of on a bicycle seat, so that’s what I’m working on a lot right now. And hopefully I’ll have initial copies the week of Leadville, which is the first week of August.
For a few years now, I’ve been on what’s called the SRAM Gold Rusch Tour, which are all different women’s and girl’s cycling events. I’ve done some in Arizona and I just did one out in California, we’ll have a couple here in Idaho. About once a month or so I do a different event that’s for women and girls. And I also have my own signature event, Rebecca’s Private Idaho, that is Labor Day weekend, and it’s going into its second year so I’m doing the planning for that.
And the last thing is I’m on the local fire department here, I work part-time as a firefighter and an EMT so I squeeze in that training when I can too.
When do you find down time?
There’s not a lot of it, that’s why I bring friends on my bike rides and I ride with my boyfriend or we go on a dog run. That’s another reason to get friends involved with your workouts, so then it’s a little bit social too, and you’re not just going to the motion of "ugh I need to burn so many calories today so I can pie tonight" instead it becomes a social and more fun thing. But yeah, I don’t see my friends unless they want to do stuff like that with me.