Rides to remember: The roads less travelled in Idaho
Our Rides to Remember series highlights two-wheeled adventures that when you look back will always stand out as more than just another day on the bike – they are the ones you’ll never forget. The ride could be an event that is so innovative it is locked into your ride calendar every year, a gorgeous route to discover when visiting somewhere new, an iconic ride with historical significance or a completely different style of challenge on the bike.
Monika Sattler wrote about her Alp d’Huez ride in July and in this edition, Anne-Marije Rook talks about a 100-mile gravel race she recently conquered in Idaho. We hope that sharing these rides will inspire you to add them to your Rides To-Do list.
When I received an invitation to ride the third annual Rebecca’s Private Idaho (RPI) in Ketchum, Idaho, last year, I was stoked to try my first gravel race –and a brutally cold and challenging 100-miler (160 kms) at that!
I was immediately hooked, and I was keen to return this year because I couldn’t stop thinking about those Idaho roads and Sawtooth mountains, which are well worth the four days of roadtripping from the West Coast.
Located in the northwest region of the United States, Idaho is a mountainous state of more than 83,500 square miles (216,440 square kilometres) yet has a population of only 1.6 million. As such, vast parts of the state are nothing but wilderness and, in addition to potatoes, Idaho is well known for outdoor activities.
The irony is that I used to live in Idaho and my parents still reside there. Yet as a young transplant from Europe –who hadn’t fallen in love with the sport of cycling yet –I got out as soon as I finished my University degree. Several years on I find myself thinking that my visits to Idaho aren’t often enough because among the state’s best kept secrets is that it’s absolutely fantastic for cycling.
Just ask three-time Olympic time trial champion Kristin Armstrong, who resides in the Idahoan capital of Boise, and lined up at Rebecca’s Private Idaho over Labor Day Weekend alongside fellow Olympian Evelyn Stevens and former US road race champion and last year’s RPI winner, Robin Farina.
The daughter of a military officer, Armstrong grew up in several states and countries but started calling Idaho her home while attending the University of Idaho. Having lived there ever since, Armstrong credits her residence as one of the secrets behind her long and successful career.
“People often don’t understand why I live here, but after riding here you understand why I, as a professional cyclist, choose to live here and why it is so special to people like Rebecca [Rusch] and myself,” said Armstrong.
Dry climate, low crime rates, family-friendliness, low cost of living, the great outdoors –there are many reasons why people are choosing to live in Idaho but for a professional cyclist like Armstrong it’s all about access.
“We have roads that we can access right from our front doors,” said Armstrong. “My house is just half a mile from trail access and I don’t many how many miles of singletrack.”
At RPI, Armstrong revealed a little known fact that she loves dirt riding.
“Riding the dirt would be my choice first and foremost. I haven’t been on my roadbike since the time trial in Rio,” she said, nearly a month after her gold medal ride at the Olympic Games. “In fact, I am trying to figure out how I am going to do the team time trial at the world championships without actually getting on my road bike in preparation.”
The dirt craze
“What I love so much about this kind of gravel grinder event is that to me it’s peaceful,” explained Armstrong. “It gets you out, away from cars, and off the roads. To me that is what cycling is all about: I like to go out in nature and go out to where I can be free.”
And she’s not alone in that feeling.
Born on the endless miles of unpaved farm roads of the Midwest, “gravel grinding” was a fringe activity up until only a few years ago. Today, however, the popularity of riding the road less travelled has sparked a whole new subset in the bicycling industry –one that manufacturers are increasingly catering to with adventure-ready bikes and bombproof gear that emphasise comfort and sturdiness.
The reason behind this popularity? Car-free roads and adventures in nature without the technicality of mountain biking.
“I think we are all getting a little tired of the dangers of the road and interacting with cars. Gravel events are appealing to road riders because you don’t necessarily need the technical skills or gear needed for mountain biking. Mountain bikers like it because you’re still on dirt and in nature,” said Rebecca Rusch, professional mountain biker and organiser of RPI.
And with a record number of 550 riders in its fourth year, the trend looks like it’s here to stay.
“I’m blown away by how many people come out to ride with me,” said Rusch, who is especially encouraged by having 30 percent female entrants.
Rebecca “The Queen of Pain” Rusch
Rebecca’s Private Idaho is the brainchild of endurance racer Rebecca Rusch. Nicknamed “The Queen of Pain”, Rusch is an exceptional athlete and all around badass. She’s been a professional athlete across various sports for the past two decades as well as a firefighter.
On the bike, she’s a seven-time mountain bike world champion in several disciplines. Off-the-bike, she’s got additional national and world titles in whitewater rafting, adventure racing, orienteering, and cross-country skiing.
Yet, despite being a racer at heart, Rusch’s reasons behind launching Rebecca’s Private Idaho isn’t competition but rather to showcase her chosen home in central Idaho.
Rusch, like Armstrong, didn’t grow up in Idaho but fell in love with state on a trip and never left.
“A big goal of RPI is to show everyone this beautiful place, my training ground, my home and to build community. This is a pretty special place and I want to share this beautiful place with you,” said Rusch.
And how better to see a new place than on two wheels?
Rebecca’s Private Idaho is a race or a ride, 100 miles or 50 –rider’s choice. Regardless of what you choose, you’ll be rewarded with jaw-dropping views of towering mountains, miles and miles of car-free unpaved roads, a physical challenge, and one hell of an after-party (more on that later).
But the festivities start the day before as the small town of Ketchum welcomes thousands of people for the annual Wagon Days parade –the largest non-motorised parade in the country. In fact, Wagon Days and RPI combined make Labor Day Weekend Ketchum’s second busiest time of year, with the first being the Trailing of the Sheep festival. Yep, this is the country, folks! And if you’re not sporting lycra, you’d better get some cowboys hats, boots and belt buckles to fit in.
Packet pick-up and a welcome party follows the parade and then it’s off to bed for an early 8 a.m. race start. The competitive side of RPI has grown every year to where now there were several professional athletes at the start line with Armstrong and UCI world hour record holder Evelyn Stevens among the biggest names, though both set out to enjoy a day in nature rather than staring at their stems all day.
Participants roll out of town together but with the biggest climb of the day coming almost as soon as pavement turns to dirt, you’ll soon find yourself riding with small groups or solo.
When Rusch mentioned solitude, she wasn’t kidding. The ride count of 550 people might seem like a lot but it’s amazing how these long, empty roads can make people disappear until it seems like you’re completely and totally alone.
Trail Creek is a long, sustained climb (and a wicked-fun descend on the way back into town), which is followed by a windswept valley before you reach the Copper Basin loop. For me, this loop is the highlight of the course and the reason why the 100-miler is worth doing. The rolling terrain, surrounding mountain and warm coloured grass is just stunning. You may not have any cell phone reception but this is a good place to snap a few pics to #latergram.
For most, the 100-mile route takes well over six hours to complete. Luckily, there are aid stations along the way fully stocked with sports nutrition, candy and –of course – Idaho potatoes!
The gravel ranges between rough and rocky to smooth and fast. Flats are a common nuisance and so most riders opt for cyclocross or gravel specific bikes with (tubeless) tyres of at least 40mm. Mountain bikes are a common choice as well. The route covers around 6000 feet (1800 meters) of climbing so easy gearing is an asset.
Being in the mountains, weather can be unpredictable. Last year we started in temperatures well below freezing and while it was a few degrees warmer this year, it sprinkled a bit and we woke up to snow-capped mountains the following day.
But the sun came out as I rolled back into town, where food trucks, a cold beer and the after-party awaited.
The biggest competition of RPI, however, isn’t won on the gravel, it’s won drinking. The grand finale of the event is the annual Galande Quaffing tournament – a highly entertaining, spectator-friendly drinking game involving stein-sliding and catching, some serious hand-eye coordination and all-around laughter and chaos.
Even if you can’t make it to Rebecca’s Pirvate Idaho, Ketchum and its neighbouring Sun Valley is a must-visit riding destination. Bring your gravel and mountain bikes, and go enjoy endless unpaved roads and nearly 700 miles of winding trails and singletrack through mountains and farmland.
There are plenty of outdoor retailers to rent bikes from if you don’t want to bring your own, and the towns are filled with bike-friendly breweries and eateries.
After two years, Rebecca’s Private Idaho is quickly becoming a Labor Day weekend tradition for me, and one I am already looking forward to for the coming year. Only 354 days to go, but who’s counting?