Written by Senta Scarborough
Photos above by Adventure Scout Media & Steve Fassbinder
Rebecca Rusch never expected a bike to become a healing vehicle.
In fact, she only found biking when she thought her career in adventure sports was ending.
At 38, she'd already won multiple national championships as an adventure and endurance sports racer—running, hiking, rock climbing, cross country skiing, and whitewater rafting.
But all that came to a halt after a good friend and fellow adventure racer died in front of her in a tragic rock slide during competition.
That's when some close friends from Idaho talked her into a 24-hour camping and biking trip to Moab, Utah.
"They said, 'Let's just go camp in the desert and do this thing.' It was a community-building thing for me," Rusch said. "I can't emphasize how bad I was on a bike. I was a good athlete, but ride... get off... run the bike... jump back on weren't so easy."
Still, she participated in the mountain bike competition.
"I ended up having fast lap times—the fastest of any woman on the course. And I'm just like, 'Are you kidding me?'" she said. "I found the bike at a time when I thought my sports career was ending. I started to realize that these wheels, this tool was a kind of a gateway for me to see more."
The bike took on new meaning and a mission for Rusch.
The bike has become the mainstay really because of where you can go and where you can take it. It's just globally embraced as a journey. We do it when we're kids. We can do it until we die, Rusch said.
"That little ride with friends launched my cycling career, which has become the more successful part of a career that I thought was ending. So it opened a lot of doors for me."
Photo by Stellar Media
Pedal to Purpose: Rebecca's Private Idaho 10th anniversary
Rusch, now 54, is celebrating the tenth anniversary of Rebecca's Private Idaho (RPI)—a large-scale gravel event that has grown from 20-mile rides to a 40-stage race. Nearly 1,500 riders and their families each year come to Sun Valley, Idaho, to experience the great outdoors on wheels.
This year, RPI is held over Labor Day Weekend from August 31 to September 4. Registration is currently open.
"We're excited. It's going to be special this year. Ten years is a long time. I never thought we would have this little seed become this world-class event. So it's pretty cool," Rusch said.
Rusch, a cyclist and mountain biker, wasn't a gravel cyclist when she started RPI.
She attended some gravel events, including Levi's Granfondo, where she experienced the benefits of community and the festival atmosphere.
"They had different distances, and everyone could come and participate, and that really inspired me to do a gravel event myself," Rusch said. "I started riding places I'd never been in Idaho, and I was like, 'This is perfect.'"
So she created RPI as a way to have the best of both worlds—mountain, road, and gravel—inclusive for everyone.
"The mission for hosting the event initially was to support my local community and the cycling community," Rusch said. "I could hire locals, support my local community and show cyclists the beauty of Idaho. Then, it was about inviting people into my backyard, hoping they would want to protect the places where we ride."
Photo by Steve Fassbinder
Her mission // Her mantra: Be Good
"Be Good" is how her father signed letters to Rebecca and her family while he was serving in the Vietnam War.
In 2015, Rusch rode the 1,200-mile Ho Chi Minh Trail to find where he died when his plane was shot down. The Emmy-award-winning documentary, Blood Road, depicts her personal journey.
On that trek, she learned about unexploded ordinates still left in communities along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Three years later, Rusch created the Be Good Foundation inspired by her father's message as a call to action to live with "purpose, explore with passion and create lasting change" and to enrich communities by using the bicycle as a catalyst for "healing, empowerment, and evolution."
"Bikes and endurance sports have been healing and empowering for me, and I really felt my dad was sending me a message to pass that on," Rusch said. "I felt like that was where I needed to start. I had no idea about the bombs and unexploded ordinates. So the Be Good Foundation was launched with that as our initial project to help clear bombs along the Ho Chi Minh trail."
They have worked with the Mines Advisory Group, which has cleared nearly 115,627 landmines and unexploded bombs.
"They train local villagers, giving them work they're proud of, that they can count on, and then in turn, they're clearing their own land in their own country," Rusch said. "We collaborate with them, and it's expanded to include other bike projects. The foundation work focuses on the places people ride, those who ride or haven't had access to riding, and the healing power of the bicycle."
Photo by Steve Fassbinder
The Be Good Foundation has also partnered with the company, Article 22, which creates jewelry from the aluminum in the bombs removed and made by Laos villagers. The bracelets are engraved with the words, Be Good. Funds from the sale of the bracelets are reinvested to clear more bombs.
For this year's RPI anniversary, Fierce Hazel is collaborating with Be Good to create co-branded pouches with a percentage of sales going back to fund new Be Good projects.
"Each year, we choose different beneficiaries in the local, national and global cycling community," Rusch said.
Locally, they've worked with a high school mountain bike team and trails coalition.
Nationally, they've worked with the Conservation Alliance, Outdoor Alliance and Public Lands Solutions; People for Bikes, which provides infrastructure for cycling and transportation; World Bicycle Relief, which provides bikes for students in Africa; and Protect Our Winters, a non-profit which works on climate change.
"The beauty of our foundation is we look for people already doing amazing work in the space of protecting the places we ride and expanding more communities to ride," Rusch said. "We have a merchandise program, we do community rides, and we're always looking for other project ideas."
In 2021, $176,146 was provided to 26 separate entities working on a wide range of issues.
RPI has evolved over the years too. It includes an eight-week training program. They also host digital remote rides where a group anywhere in the world can design a course and ride on the same day with a leader board.
"Through COVID we used digital platforms. For example, last year we had 11 groups ride remotely even though we were also in person," Rusch said.
"It shows that people need to move. They find community in their own backyard. That is something that the pandemic has helped people do—really move outside, right outside the door."
Each year, the event has added different race distances and expanded to make it available to everyone.
"Gravel is such a welcoming space. Last year, we added—and were one of the first gravel events to add—para-cycling podiums in categories, and we've expanded those this year to include nonbinary podiums," Rusch said. "We've kind of been trailblazers in that area, which is great because I've always wanted tons of people to come ride."
This year, RPI added more para-cycling categories and plans on continuing to offer more. And they launched a scholarship program for BIPOC, para-cycling, and non-binary people through the Be Good Foundation.
"We want to make sure everybody feels welcome to ride a bike whoever you are, whatever skill you are, and wherever you come from," Rusch said. "We are gathering people and community in a beautiful place to ride with purpose. It's pretty simple, but it's magical."
Senta Scarborough is an award-winning journalist and Emmy-nominated producer. She is the founder of Sentamatic Media focusing primarily on screenwriting, journalism and non-fiction projects. Her clients include KCET-SoCal PBS, Emory University, Stanford University, Fenning Marketing Group and Fierce Hazel. Her work has appeared in Adweek, Into, USA Today, E! News, US Weekly Magazine and Asheville Poetry Review, among others. She is a lifetime member of the National Gay and Lesbian Journalist’s Association where she served as a board director for two terms. She holds her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California Riverside/Palm Desert. Find her on social media @sentascar.
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