By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)
Rebecca’s Private Idaho (RPI) is built upon making cycling accessible for people who might otherwise avoid the sport. For nine years now, professional mountain biker, Rebecca Rusch has been building RPI in her hometown of Ketchum, Idaho to help people enjoy the beautiful Idaho mountains on two wheels.
“I’ve always wanted people to feel welcomed to come ride here,” Rusch told Bicycling. “From year one that was the mission, whether they were a pro or someone new to cycling, so that hasn’t changed.”
One of the pioneers in “Gravel Biking”, Rusch has focused on how to make people feel included in the event. Including adding shorter distances for beginners, implementing a stage race and offering different options for people of all levels to find a challenging and rewarding experience. The 2021 event included three different distances, “The Baked Potato” at 102 mikes, “The French Fry” at 56 miles and “The Tater Tot” at 20 miles. In addition, ambitious riders could participate in “The Queen’s Stage” which consisted of three stages over 196 miles.
For the 2021 event, Rusch also added new categories for competitive classification, non-binary/FTW (Femme, Transgender, Women) category and para-category. The inclusion of these categories is important to Ruch who feels its crucial for representation of such diversity to help encourage more people to join and take up the sport.
“With my platform as an athlete, I feel responsible to use it for good. The name of my foundation is Be Good, and that really has become a mission of mine. I want to use the platforms that I have to affect change.”
The importance of adding these categories also includes the opportunity to create discussion around why the categories exist and help bring awareness and education about the athletes who participate in these categories. Rusch reports that the 2021 event was “overwhelmingly positive” and that people found a lot of common ground in cycling itself.
“Historically we’ve had really high female participation — 30% and above every year. And that wasn’t a program — it wasn’t like we set out to invite more women. But I think because I am a woman and an athlete, naturally more women came. Typically, at these endurance events [especially 9 years ago] participation by women was more like 10%.”
For Rusch, encouraging participation of transgender and non-binary athletes through representation is very important. That athletes who see examples of themselves participating will be more encouraged to participate themselves, feeling that the sport is for them. In the next years, Rusch plans to build upon this and reach out to more underrepresented communities, including indigenous and people of color.
“I’m a white woman, and so I know my experience, but it’s been amazing to learn from so many others. So many people have been so open about helping to educate,” Rusch said. “[My friend, renowed bikepacker Alexandera Houchin, and I] had a lot of conversations about word choice, and she said something to me that stuck. She said, ‘there’s power in an invitation. Invite them with open arms and an open heart.’ So, she was a great resource in teaching me about indigenous territories and where we are.”
Of course, Rusch can’t do it all by herself and hopes to see more people step up and organize their own inclusive events to expand not just Gravel Cycling, but opportunities for more sports diversity in general.
“You don’t have to have a 1,500-person event to make an impact. You can take a neighbor bike riding and have an absolute impact on them. You may not think you have a platform that’s big enough, but if everyone took one person on a bike ride, just imagine how the world would change. Instead of complaining that things don’t exist where you are, think about what you can do about it.
“We had a full podium of non-binary athletes and para athletes. This was the first time that’s happened in gravel biking. But, it won’t be the last. And that makes me really happy. The world is watching, and not just in gravel—in all sports.”