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Hundreds of gravel enthusiasts travelled to Ketchum, Idaho, over Labor Day weekend for the annual Rebecca’s Private Idaho gravel race.
Now in its fifth year, 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 main reasons behind launching Rebecca’s Private Idaho is showcasing her chosen home in central Idaho.
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. It also offers miles and miles of unpaved roads perfect for gravel adventures.
| Related: Riding the roads less travelled in Idaho
A challenging event, it’s a race for some, a ride for others and a great party for everyone. Rusch’s event has attracted big names over the years, with American (ex-)professional racers including Kristin Armstrong, Evelyn Stevens, Neil Shirley, Alison Tetrick, Jonathan Page and Ted King all seeing what the gravel craze is all about.
New this year was the addition of The Queen’s Stage Race, an invite-only gravel stage race consisting of a hill climb and two groad stages – the final stage being the 100-mile Rebecca’s Private Idaho ride.
In the men’s category, the stage race was won by retired Cannondale–Drapac rider Ted King. For the women, it was Alison Tetrick (Cylance Pro Cycling) who claimed yet another belt buckle after having previously won Gravel Worlds and the Dirty Kanza 200 this season.
Jenn Luebke was all smiles after the three days of racing were done.
Giving Alison Tetrick a run for her money was Visit Dallas-DNA Pro Cycling’s, Jennifer Luebke. We asked the Oregonian to pen a diary for us. Here’s how she fared.
I don’t know how I snuck my way into the test event for the Queen’s Stage Race but I’m thankful I did. Rebecca Rusch (a.ka the Queen of Pain) invited about 50 people to her home of Sun Valley / Ketchum, Idaho to showcase the beautiful area and ride some gravel for the inaugural stage race. Day 1 and 2 were invite-only and then the real masses (over 800 people!) arrived on Saturday for the Sunday race, making it the best attended “Rebecca’s Private Idaho” event yet.
Going into the stage race, I was told that there were only a couple of rules. Firstly, “be good” and secondly, you had better load the route into your GPS device of choice. I was doing this in the dark on Wednesday night while my boyfriend, Matt, did the driving from Bend, Oregon, to Ketchum. We rolled in at 1 o’clock in the morning to a locked campground so we camped out on BLM land instead.
Morning came really fast and we woke up to find out we’d accidentally picked a badass campsite, and we’d stay for the remainder of the week. But the late night plus early morning meant that I barely made it to the start in time.
And so started my first Rebecca’s Private Idaho experience…
Luebke suffering alone on Harriman Trail.
If that headline makes Day 1 sound kind of brutal, it’s because it was. But it was also pretty spectacular, and I nervous-laughed my way through the whole thing.
At the start, I lined up on the front, right beside Ted King, and we all took a few selfies, giggled excitedly until Rebecca shouted us off the line. Double-track quickly turned to quicksand and river rock beds, splitting up the group really fast. We were riding the Harriman Trail, which had a ton of pea gravel (“marbles)” and was really slippery in the turns and wherever the gravel got deep.
Some groups took wrong turns and had to backtrack and rejoined other groups, and so the race dynamics were constantly changing. The route would have been nearly impossible if it hadn’t been for my Lezyne beeping furiously at me every time I veered off course. My favourite course navigation episode was when we arrived at an aspen grove where the trail seemingly disappeared and the GPS told us to go straight into a creek. I started running through the aspens while other racers laughed at me and took the trail beside the creek that I didn’t see. To the back of the line I went!
Not counting any detours and navigation errors, the course consisted of around 60 kilometres on the Harriman Trail and a 5.6-kilometre loop of sweet singletrack. I was riding with Dirty Kanza and Gravel Worlds winner Ali Tetrick firmly in my sights. There was another belt buckle up for grabs and I was eying it!
Ali and I were swapping back and forth for most of the day. She’d motor in front of me on the power straights and I’d sneak in front of her if she bobbled on the technical bits. When we hit the singletrack lollipop, I wanted to try and get a little time on Ali because I knew her time trial power would be hard to beat on the way back down to the start/finish. I exited the singletrack solo, but I know Ali doesn’t give up easily so I stayed on the gas the whole way back. I managed to stay clear of Ali and so stage victory was mine. Two more stages to go!
Rebecca Rusch leads out the pack.
Riders in the distance.
Despite the title, day 2 was my favourite for the chill, group ride aspect. We got to chit chat and ride for the first 32 kilometres of river grade up to the start of the uphill TT. Like everywhere in Sun Valley, it was gorgeous and got progressively more so the further out we rode. It took us a little more than an hour to get out to the start of the real climb, which was just 7 kilometres long but had an average grade of 6 percent, and was, of course, on gravel.
The fastest men were sent off first, in 30-second increments, Ted being the very first. The fastest ladies started about 5 minutes later. I led the charge, being the carrot for all the other ladies. I think I’d rather be the bunny.
I was feeling great about my effort (despite the climb started at over 2430 meters of elevation, and not being able to breathe) until Ali came motoring by me. I kept her as close as I could for the rest of the ride, thinking that if she cracks even a little, it’s feasible I could put some time back into her. But, she didn’t crack. And so we were now tied in the belt buckle stage race standings.
After the climb, the rule to not exceed 32km/h (20 mph) on the descent. While the temptation to go fast was certainly there, it was actually way more fun to go slow and cheer for those still racing on the way up. After the start, brakes were let go and we flew down the gradual descent chatting and whooping. Racing was done for the day and it was time for lunch and several coffees.
Sun Valley offers a gorgeous backdrop.
Rusch and Tetrick enjoy the social time.
A social ride out to the start of the hill climb.
Ali Tetrick powering up the hill climb time trial.
Stage two was short, but a pure sufferfest.
A rider winds his way through an Aspen Grove
I was getting a little haggard from camping and early mornings, and was stoked that we got to sleep in on day 3. Once we were up, we made a huge breakfast, fiddled with our bikes, and made our way into town to grab coffee and register for the final stage, the “Big Potato”. As hundred of riders had gotten into town for the Sunday event, I loved visiting with my fellow Visit Dallas – DNA Cycling peeps and other friends.
The last part of the day I reserved for a short and easy spin followed by a pretty rudimentary “shower.” I didn’t know it yet, but I was on my way to setting a personal record for days without a real shower, and after Ali ‘complimented’ my greasy hair the night, I felt inspired to figure out how to wash it a little better. Apparently, the creek wasn’t cutting it. Thank you salon strength campground hose…greasy hair, be gone!
Rest day is for yoga.
Rebecca’s Private Idaho coincides with Ketchum’s famous Wagon Days parade. Rusch and her guests take part.
It was a chilly 8 a.m. rollout for the 150-kilometre Rebecca’s Private Idaho. Since over 800 people were racing, getting in the start corral early was clutch for a good position. Going into the last race of The Queen’s Stage Race, Ali and I were tied for the lead. Whoever crossed the line first would ride away with the coveted belt buckle, and we all know how much Ali loves belt buckles!
The race starts with an hour-long climb, and I wasn’t feeling too spunky on the way out. I know what happens to me if I red line early in a race at elevation: I’ll go backwards the rest of the day. So I kept it manageable and went over the top of the climb with a large group of men and the super speedy Laura Spencer. The descent was fast and smooth but then we got onto the ‘flats’ of the lollipop course and boy was that bumpy. The gravel was loose with some big rocks hidden in there, and there usually were just two good tire tracks to ride. Our group was rolling well and I felt comfortable, especially near the front. When I was in the back of the group, I couldn’t see much and wasn’t as comfy.
About 64 kilometres in, I nailed a big rock and heard the dreaded hiss. I had come to the gunfight with a water gun, a.k.a tubes in my wheels. I got it changed relatively quickly and loads of friendly people rode by asking if I needed anything. But I was set…or so I thought.
Turned out that my new tube had a hole near the valve and wasn’t holding any air. Luckily, a buddy from Portland saved the day with another tube and Co2 cartridge so I changed my front again.
I hopped back on my bike only to notice that my rear was flat, too! That was when I really got sad and a bit down. After the first two flats, I thought that a bunch of others would be dealing with my same bad luck, but three?!
I didn’t have enough supplies so I waited until someone offered help. A gentleman finally stopped and gave me his pump and another tube – A big shoutout to rider #185!
As I finished pumping, my teammate Cathy Fegan-Kim rolled up (and skidded to a halt) so I got to ride with her for a bit. I changed my mindset from “race” mode to “I’m going to have as much fun as I can” mode. I was still riding hard but I talked to every single person I passed, whether they wanted to talk to me or not. There were times I was riding in groups and times I was solo. But the entire race I had been looking for Rebecca Rusch’s red jersey to try and catch her. I mean, how cool would it be to ride the event with Rebecca herself? Sure enough, that wish was granted eight kilometres from the finish when she caught me.
We crossed the finish line hands held high, huge smiles on our dirty faces, and I was even adorned with my hard earned bolo tie by Rebecca herself! I can’t imagine a cooler way to finish out the stage race.
Wait, yes I can – the belt buckle!
Ali rode her butt off. Despite a flat, she finished second on the day, beating me and earning the Queen’s Stage Race belt buckle. I thought I’d be sadder but, honestly, I had so much fun during the race that it was fine. Plus, nobody can get as excited as Ali to win a belt buckle. Well done, Ali!
That doesn’t mean that I’m not going to try and take it next year though. Idaho, I’ll be back.
Rebecca Rusch welcomes 800+ riders at the start of the ride.
The early morning roll-out.
An hour-long climb at the start means the field breaks up quickly.
What goes up…
Luebke with her bolo tie and Big Potato finisher’s patch.
Women’s stage race podium: 1. Alison Tetrick, 2. Jen Leubke,3. Muddy Ritz.
The coveted winner’s buckle.
Men’s stage race podium: 1. Ted King, 2. Chris Gander, 3. Eric Chizium.
Big Potato winner Breanne Nalder.
Big Potato and Queen’s Stage Race winner Ted King.
The after-party includes a Gelande Quaffing tournament.
Rusch, a champion at Gelande Quaffing as well.