Rebecca Rusch: ‘What can the boys say?’

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Rebecca Rusch is stoked. She’s stoked at winning the Leadville 100 for the second year in a row. She’s stoked at winning the Cascade Creampuff 100, Trans Andes, Tour of Patagonia and the Galena Grinder. And taking silver in the Sea Otter Classic pro women’s Super D, fourth in the Ashland Super D and Whiskey 50 Miler, and 6th in the Firecracker 50.

All in 2010. Remember that Rusch, who started out as a rock climber and dominated adventure sports before moving to endurance mountain biking in 2001, is a three-peat 24-hour solo world champion. Her full list of accomplishments makes you want to sit down and take a breather just reading them.

Then again, Rebecca Rusch is the kind of person who would be stoked at meeting you or me, or walking down the street, or watching paint dry. She’s stoked at everything life has to offer. That’s just one reason why she’s everybody’s favorite champion.

Climbing at 2010 Leadville 100. Todd Meier photo.

“I just love to ride,” she said in a telephone interview after her Leadville win.

Notably, Rusch finished a remarkable 22nd overall at Leadville, passing half a dozen guys on the fearsome Columbine climb up to the race’s highest point at 12,550 feet. Rusch is matter-of-fact about it: “For the most part the guys are super cool. Especially in an endurance race, everyone is working super hard — everyone’s in their own little suffer fest.”

Women racing in male-dominated mixed events has come a long way from the early days, when just a couple of female names would show up in mountain biking competitions. Back then, a lot of guys weren’t particularly keen about getting passed by someone like Jacquie Phelan, winner of the first three NORBA nationals who had to endure a lot of pushback and ostracism on the trails.

With trophy next to men's winner Levi Leipheimer. Todd Meier photo.

Today, “I think the guys have changed,” Reba said. “What can they say? You’re beating them fair and square, they have to kind of take their hats off to you and say, OK, good job! Nobody likes to be chicked maybe, but people are more used to seeing fast women. The overwhelming majority of them are willing to shake your hand and give you a pat on the back.”

They call her the Queen of Pain, but it’s unclear whether the reference is to her own threshold or what she inflicts on the competition. At last Saturday’s Leadville, Rebecca not only won for the second year in a row, she beat by 11 minutes the course record set in 1997.

She credits women’s silver winner Amanda Carey with pushing her early and often.

“For the first 40 miles I couldn’t shake Amanda. I was thinking OK, OK, gotta keep at it. We were in the Top 25 of the men so obviously both pushing it.”

Then, after the Twin Lakes Dam aid station and start of the 3,200-foot Columbine ascent, she “decided to put the hammer down and mini-time trial. It was make or break at that point for me. I put six minutes into her on the climb up and another few on the descent, so by the time of the Twin Lakes return I had about 10 minutes on her.” She ultimately finished 25 minutes ahead of Carey, who was 42nd.

It wasn’t a cakewalk. She was cramping on the Columbine descent and almost slid out on a couple of corners. “I was like, OK, OK, take it easy,” she said. “It ended up being a clean, solid race for me.”

It helped that the crowd this year knew her name. “You hear people shouting out your name all along the course, it’s definitely super inspiring.”

As strong as Rebecca is, she admitted you always need a bit of luck to win an endurance race. No flats. No mechanicals. No bonking.

“I was prepared, but you have to have a little luck to get through 100 miles without something going wrong.”

Crediting the 29er. Todd Meier photo.

Rusch rode a Specialized S-Works Stumpjumper 29er hardtail. Although she’s “barely 5-foot-7, I’m sold on the 29er, especially on that course with its fire road sections.” All Specialized riders, including men’s bronze medalist Todd Wells, were on 29ers, she said.

She arrived 10 days before race day to get acclimated and meet the locals.

“What’s really cool about Leadville (race) is the sheer amount of people there. They all love to ride bikes, it’s definitely the biggest mountain bike race I’ll ever attend. It’s hanging out with your tribe.”

Rusch is a bit of a jill-of-all-trades on the racing landscape. Asked to characterize her forte, she answers, “Endurance.” “I’d get really bored doing just one thing (discipline),” she said. “I think it comes from my adventure racing background and doing other sports, like skiing in the winter. I like to mix it up.”

Asked which male counterpart comes closest to her style, she says Adam Craig. “He does Super D and World Cup cross-country stuff. He hasn’t done 24-hour racing but he’s a really good technical rider as well as an endurance guy.”

Another one: Mark Weir. “He’s super technical too and loves the downhill.” We would love to see Mark and Reba sit down together over a couple of beers. He Stoke meets She Stoke.

As for her goals, Rebecca says she accomplished 2010’s No. 1 with her win at Leadville. She’ll be back in sky country in a couple of weeks for the 24 Hours of Leadville (Sept. 4-5), but beyond that she’s still mulling over the rest of the racing season. And 2011? “That’s too far away to plan,” she said with a laugh.

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