Gravel Less Traveled

Deep in the serene and isolated mountains of Sun Valley is Idaho’s best gravel cycling event. Ketchum, ID is home to the Wood River, the Copper Basin’s towering peaks and rolling grasslands. Its a regular wild west with purple mountains majesty. It’s home to skiing in the winter, and biking in the summer with over 400 miles of singletrack, and every year for the past 4 years it has been the home to Rebecca’s Private Idaho, a 100 mile (or 50 mile) gravel biking race event that is a test of strength and a show of beauty for cyclists who want to enjoy the ride as much as they push themselves to perform. This event is coordinated by the “Queen of Pain” herself, Rebecca Rusch. She is a 7-time World Champion, including  3-Time 24 Hour Solo Mountain Bike World Champion (2007, 2008, 2009,) 3-Time Dirty Kanza 200 Women’s Champion (2012, 2013, 2014), and World Gravel Champion (2015) Just to name a few.

Rebecca Rusch created this event to show her love for cycling, for Ketchum and to provide for the multiple charities she believes in including World Bicycle Relief, International Mountain Biking Association, PeopleForBikes.org and the Wood River Bicycle Coalition to name a few. The best part of this race, however, isn’t the scenery or the hard push over mountains in cold early September weather, the best part of the ride is the amazing townspeople and the spirit of camaraderie from the 500+ riders who attend every year. Oh and for the record, this was my very first bike race, and I wasn’t disappointed at all.

Four of us from Jenson USA with varying backgrounds in road, mountain, and gravel cycling piled into my Honda and hit the road Friday afternoon to check out the event, push ourselves, and enjoy the federal holiday headed our way. Splitting the 16-hour drive from Jenson USA HQ in Riverside, California was a good call, and the lack of sleep and cramped conditions were totally worth the sacrifice.

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Rebecca Rusch rocking a Jenson USA Keep Pedaling hat! She is a true athlete, and a super cool person

This event is coordinated by the “Queen of Pain” herself, Rebecca Rusch

 

Saturday, the day before race day was also a holiday in Ketchum. Wagon Days celebrates the spirit of the west and the days before motorized transport, it seemed like a fitting holiday for a bike racing event. A parade of wagons, horses and locals ran down the main street while a flea market and art fair was bustling across town. Cyclists in town for Rebecca’s Event where hitting the singletrack getting warmed up for the long day ahead and preparing for the event registration later in the afternoon. The tourist town held onto its charm even while maintaining a busy holiday weekend, even while spotting big name celebs out of the crowded local bike shop like California’s own Governator.

Ketchum, Idaho.

After settling into our Airbnb in Hailey, ID we rode 11 miles into Ketchum for registration. We grabbed a few free beers from Lagunitas Brewing Company, which helped to sponsor the event, got our race numbers and instruction for the race. We hung out with the locals for a few hours and even had the good fortune of meeting Idaho native Kristin Armstrong, 3 time Olympic Time Trial gold medalist who came out for the event, as well as talked with Rebecca Rusch and thank her for the great hospitality Ketchum had shown us. Then a few dips around the local pump track to warm up as the temps began to drop and a chill ride back into town for a great Thai dinner at Dang’s in Hailey.

The start of the race on Sunday was a cold 39 degrees outside when a pack of hundreds broke out from behind the Red Bull arch in the town square. Riders cruised out of town led by Rebecca Rusch, a slew of other guest pro cyclists and the Sheriff. The four of us had elected to stick with the buddy system the night before but only miles out of the gate we had separated. I chose to just keep moving and meet up with the crew at one of the 3 aid stations along the course instead of hanging back and impede other cyclists who were actually competing for a place on the podium or a custom RPI bolo tie.

The course wound up and out of town towards the Copper Basin gaining 2,000 feet in the first 10 miles. Three miles in, the asphalt stopped and the Gravel began. While not overly rough it was still a challenge as the pack of riders began to thin and the smoothest lines crowded. You were forced to pass in rougher washboarded sections of road. Casual conversations filled the air and riders passed each other in a friendly manner, always saying hello and asking if you had done this ride before and of course remarking at the view. I stopped occasionally to take photos and revel in the green glacial valley that stretched down towards the town. It almost became a habit and I immediately gained friends as I played leapfrog with the riders around me, stopping and being passed, then catching up and passing the friendly group again. They joked that I might have a hidden motor in the Shimano Pro tool bottle in my 3rd bottle cage.

I passed Aid Station 1 at the summit of Park Creek and got a hand up from GU Energy Labs. Then I headed down a rocky fire road into the valley on the other side of the mountain, I was too excited by the view and stoked on the ride to wait up for my crew, certain they would catch me later on. The next leg to Aid Station 2 flew by with the help of the scenery and good conversation with the other participants. A cold river flowed along the side of the road and trees dotted the landscape. Some riders I spoke to had never participated at RPI before, but even more explained to me how they were drawn back to ride this event every year after falling in love with the Sun Valley. Even Rebecca Rusch explained the day before at registration how it was the beauty and feeling of the area as well as the people who made up Sun Valley that drew her back enough to stay put and call Ketchum “Home.”

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Getting ready to roll.

At this point, the packs of riders which had massed in clumps of 10-20 riders at the beginning had thinned out to individual riders off in the distance.

 

I briefly considered stopping for a Rosemary baked potato at Aid Station 2, where the course split for the 50 and 100 mile courses but was still too pumped on life, I figured I had lost my team back at the beginning I might not even see them again until the end of the ride so I pushed on down the washboarded gravel road through the valley crossing into Copper Basin, oblivious to the 40 degree weather. Pushing on past mile 30 the valley opened up, the road paralleling a small meandering river of snow melt and rain from the storm that was scheduled to blow into the valley. A 70% chance of rain. I really didn’t want to get caught in the middle of nowhere in freezing rain, that would only make for a miserable time in an otherwise wondrous valley, especially if any mechanical popped up along the way.

Finally after grinding away for about 2 and half hours I reached Aid Station 3 just under the halfway mark and broke down to refuel. I hydrated with water, GU hydration mix, ate baked potatoes, PB&J sandwiches,  and everything the body needs. There was even a small fire in a barrel to keep warm while our bodies cooled from inactivity. I kept an eye on the distance for my team while chowing down but there was no sign of them. After my 10-minute break, Rebecca Rusch rolled into the Station and I had to be that guy and get my photo taken with her. I was stoked. Then with a mouthful of M&Ms, I pushed out back onto the road before my knees got any colder and pushed uphill for the hardest part of the course.

At this point, the packs of riders which had massed in clumps of 10-20 riders at the beginning had thinned out to individual riders off in the distance. The only sound was a breeze rushing through the grass and the crunch of gravel under my tires, the new WTB Riddler 37c which I had swapped from the Nano TCS 40c just for this ride. I caught up with another rider towards the middle of the loop and leap-frogged with him for a while as I would push ahead, then stop again to take photos of the valley, eventually culminating in a 10-mile descent with him right on my tail. We shared a laugh when we reached a short climb about the speed and the good pull and then he was gone while I stopped again for another quick photo op. Before I knew it I had reached Aid Station 3 again, the ride was more than halfway finished, Yess! After another quick snack, I was outta there, determined to stay ahead of the weather and keep my body warm through activity.

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Rebecca spreads the stoke with everyone she meets.  This time it was me!

The road back floated by even if it was the long slow climb back up the valley. At least there was a bit of a tail wind for the moment. I heard the crunch, crunch, crunch of the gravel under tires and the barely audible clicking creak of dusty chainring bolts as I pedaled. The ride stretched mile by mile and I began to gain on a small group of riders I approached Aid Station 2 again. They were still in good spirits as I passed by and urged them to “Keep Pedaling” although a husband and wife team that I had seen earlier in the ride seemed a little worse for wear, of course, we were almost 70 miles into the ride at 7,000 ft in elevation. As I rolled into Aid Station 2 for a snack I said hi to a few friends I made the day before at registration, locals who had volunteered to support the ride. I couldn’t stay long though I was so close to being finished with the race, and some of the other riders I had leap frogged with were rolling right past the station.

Still no sign of my team…

So I kept on rolling pushing along with no trouble until the winds began to change. As I rolled into a new valley the tail wind became a head wind and the false flat up and out began to grind away at my knees. The mind game began. Nothing steep, just long and straight off into the distance. The sunlight broke out for a few moments of encouraging brilliance but was soon replaced with a darker cloud and a few sprinkles which lit a fire in me to finish before the storm really hit.

Then in the distance I spotted a blue jacket and an orange vest. I had finally found Ivan and Brandon, 2 of my teammates who had stopped to stretch on the road. They were feeling good but tired, having just missed the cut off for the full 100 miles at Aid Station 3, and had been turned back by Rebecca Rusch. I chatted with them for a while and ate a snack before we all headed out together, but soon I had to pull away to keep my pace up. I promised to celebrate with them at the finish line.

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The view looking back down before the final descent. 

The wind blew steadily and I joined up with a small group of riders who suggested we take turns pulling and drafting to keep up speed. It helped a lot and it was great to talk with a few new people and see how they had heard about the event and how their rides had been going. Soon though the small group of 7 riders had thinned out to me and another gentleman on a mountain bike who had paced along with me, and as we approached the last climb up the rocky fire road which we had bombed down only hours before he dropped back. Then just before the top of the climb the wind died and tall pines greeted us again. The Red Bull DJ had Queen’s Fat Bottomed Girl blaring, odd compared to the quiet peaceful landscape I had been experiencing all day… I grabbed another handful of M&Ms and decided to kill the last descent, quickly remembering how rocky and washboarded the climb up it had been.

The descent was a whirlwind at high speeds, maybe 35-40mph? I’m not sure since I don’t use Strava often but It was fast enough to pass 2 motorcyclists on enduro sport bikes and catch up to a large truck 5 minutes in. I stopped to give the truck some time to speed off and to avoid the dust cloud it had been producing. Then I hopped on again and in minutes reached the split where the pavement abruptly began. It was quite smooth after being tossed around for the 10 minutes of rough fire road I had been descending on a bike with skinny tires and no suspension. It was all downhill from there. And just a matter of pushing back down the road towards the finish.

Another group of riders joined up with me as I coasted along and we pulled and drafted with each other for another few minutes before zooming through the Red Bull Arch set up just outside of town with the final timing mat. We laughed and high-fived each other as we eased the pace back and cruised back into town for the main celebration in the town square. Before I knew it it was all over and I had a huge smile on my face, now that I think about it though I think the smile had been there all day and had never left. There had been no rain, no mechanicals and I was so ready for a recovery shake and a beer.

I searched around for Adam, my unaccounted for teammate at the finish, but it looked like was still on course with Brandon and Ivan. I was bummed to finish without the team but excited to cheer them on as they crossed the finish line.

As I waited I hung out with the good folks from GU Energy and cruised around the square catching up with riders I had talked to on the course, I got a Head Rusch, Rebecca’ Signature drink of Patron and Red Bull and before I knew it Brandon and Ivan rolled across the finish line. We celebrated a bit by the food trucks and crashed hard over more drinks, resting right there on the ground. We didn’t care. We also  got to hang out with some locals and new friends from our rides. I even got to hang out with an awesome local from the ride and her dog and got some recommendations on the singletrack around town, a ski report, local food and really got a sense of why she loved living in Sun Valley. I will definitely have to return with my mountain bike and a snowboard some other times of the year.

Before I knew it it was all over and I had a huge smile on my face

 

Soon Adam rolled in, finishing his 100-mile ride and we all crashed and hung out over Burritos, Corn Dogs, Beer, and any other food we could find. The team had made it through! I made a point to hand out some Jenson USA swag to the awesome people I met on the ride and soon enough the celebration really started with live music and the awards ceremony. The winner, Nate Whitman killed the field with his time of 4:55:54.29 and an average speed of 19mph, an impressive time, especially compared to my time of 7:04:06.77 and average speed of 13.3mph. Of course, I wasn’t expecting to win or even trying to, I was just excited to finish under 8 hours after having an awesome ride. Also, my boss told me that if I didn’t win I shouldn’t come back… punishment for taking a half day on Friday to drive all the way to Idaho. All jokes aside the 4 of us had a great time, and as the night wound down we gingerly rode our bikes across town to the car and drove back to our Airbnb in Hailey, ready for showers, ices for our knees and another round of food and beer.

The next morning we packed up and got outta dodge at 9:00am. Ketchum to Riverside is a looong drive.

We elected to cut Utah out of the equation and take Highway 93 down through the no-man’s-land that is Eastern Nevada. Even so, it only probably cut an hour off of the tedious drive. The day rolled by in a cacophony, of indie rock, hardcore, and terrible 80’s music as we floated down the state. There really is nothing to see out there. We hit Las Vegas close to sundown almost 11 hours later, stopping briefly in Primm, NV for gas and a visit to the trashy parking lot that had the last food between Vegas and Barstow. Thankfully we ate because it still took 3 hours to travel that 100 mile stretch of highway due to holiday weekend traffic and a flipped Toyota in the center divider.

Final Thoughts

Soon enough we rolled sleepily into town and back to the Jenson USA HQ unpacked the gear and headed home, just to be back at work in 6 hours at 8:00am for a meeting we all had to go to at 8:30am. It was a great weekend, I would do it all again.

Steven

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My little Honda, the defacto adventure-mobile for the long journey to Idaho.