At 8 am, about 550 cyclists gather at the wind-chilled starting line to spend the next 100 miles riding not on switchbacks and features, not on smooth paved roads … but gravel, the new frontier in adventure cycling. And not only is the race a serious test of endurance, but navigating the unpredictable course on thin tires means you might not make it through the downhills in one piece.
Rebecca Rusch, the acclaimed Queen of Pain and 4-time Leadville champion, began Rebecca’s Private Idaho in 2013 with the hopes of uniting elite riders with weekend warriors to grind gravel on Idaho’s remote fire roads. The event taps into a new discipline in cycling that allows people to push their limits on a bike without extensive technical training or advanced gear. It also provides a middle ground between the drudge of endless road miles and the intimidating terrain of mountain biking.
“What gravel does is it brings together on one playing field some of the best aspects of road and mountain biking,” said Rusch. “It’s technical and you’re looking for lines on the gravel like in mountain biking, but it also brings in the community aspect of road racing where you can have a lot more people on a course.”
Rusch’s event offers riders the option to choose between the 100-mile and 50-mile courses set against the breathtaking backdrop of Sun Valley’s Trail Creek Canyon in the Sawtooth National Forest. This year’s record-breaking turnout included elite riders like two-time cycling gold medalist Kristen Armstrong, Olympian Evelyn Stevens and the king of courier-style street races, Austin Horse.
But these types of events aren’t about spotlighting the pros. They are about the 550 other riders that span everyone from the enthusiast who rides for her local bike shop to the retired firefighter looking for a challenging way to spend the day.
Gravel offers an accessible adventure to anyone. You just need to want to dive in and grind. “It’s a great venue for everyone from an elite rider to a totally new person to come in. You can ride any bike on gravel,” said Rusch. “People want to get off the beaten track and get away from traffic. They want excitement and a technical aspect that gravel adds. It offers the best of everything.”
After a quad-busting 2,000-foot ascent, the pack is sent straight up the stairway to Idaho’s backcountry where mobile phone reception drops as soon as the course turns from pavement to gravel five miles out of town. The next 90 miles are where rider, bike and trail dig deep into the rocky terrain to find rhythm with lush forests, expansive valley floors and willow-draped creeks framed by the White Knob and Pioneer mountain ranges. The more trying test will be the way back home, where the steep descent will challenge handling skills when the uneven terrain turns dangerous at high speeds.
Missing from the day was the pretense that much of the spandex-clad cycling community brings with it. “The gravel community doesn’t have the same air as the road community. It reminds me of the early days of mountain biking,” said gravel-grinding legend and 4-time Dirty Kanza winner Dan Hughes. It offers the opportunity to ride far into nature, soaking in the surroundings at bicycle speed. “There’s a lot to be said for just looking into the distance and seeing your destination and trying to get there. You only get that from wild mountains and these types of rides,” said Horse.
For pros like Armstrong, the event offers the opportunity to get back to the roots of their sport, a sentiment that’s hard to come by at cycling events where tire pressure, power meters and the latest aerodynamic gear rein supreme. “I have spent many years in a sport that has been focused on competition, so I have to challenge myself to go out there and be okay with not having everything I do be competitive,” said Armstrong. “I want to be able to look up and enjoy the scenery. I look forward to just riding my bike.”
At the end of the day, though, Rusch’s event is about one thing – elevating your mind above the pain. “In any endurance event there are periods when everything is awesome and clicking right along and there are times when it just sucks,” said Hughes. “You can have a crappy ride or a good ride, but if you have a ride that has all of it you come out the other side a changed person. No matter how hard it is, remember to always ask yourself: is riding your bike better than going to work or sitting in class?”