Gravel Dispatch: Happy solitude at Rebecca’s Private Idaho

Rebecca's Private Idaho combines stunning mountain scenery with a tough route and plenty of celebration once the 92-mile gravel race is over.

Editor’s note: News director Spencer Powlison raced Rebecca’s Private Idaho on September 2. This gravel coverage is sponsored by 3T, Mavic, Bell, and Roka. Spencer will ride a 3T Exploro on Mavic’s Allroad Pro UST Disc wheels and Yksion Allroad XL tires and was equipped with a Bell Z20 MIPS helmet and Roka GP-1 sunglasses.

Idaho is the kind of place you’d go to be alone, and in the middle of a gravel race of 1,000 people, I somehow managed to do just that.

Granted that was not my intention. Not really. I needed to take a nature break and underestimated how fast our group of about 10 was riding into Big Lost River Basin. I also overestimated how quickly I could chase back to them as the breeze kicked up dust on the dry roads.

So I was alone. But it wasn’t so bad. I marveled at the Pioneer Mountains — Idaho’s second highest range. I waved at some cowboys who were wrangling cattle in the vast sagebrush valley.

Rebecca’s Private Idaho serves up all the scenery you can ask for, and maybe a little more suffering than I planned to stomach.

Rebecca's Private Idaho
Photo: Wil Matthews

I should have known better. I should have known I’d be dropped if I stopped on the windy, high plateau. And really, you know you’re in for a tough day on the bike when a race is organized by a woman whose nickname is “The Queen of Pain.”

Over the last six years, Rebecca Rusch has developed a gravel race that delivers on the promise of a difficult day in the saddle. But like all good gravel events, Rebecca’s Private Idaho keeps things fun and welcoming, with a post-race party unlike any other.

The race started off as a modest one-day event in 2013. Now, the activities start Thursday and run through Sunday before everyone heads home on Labor Day. Those looking to do a mini tour of Sun Valley can start Thursday with the three-day Queen’s Stage Race. Most riders stick to the one-day event on Sunday with three distance options — Tater Tot (19 miles), Small Fry (50 miles), and Big Potato (92.5 miles).

Bright and early on Saturday morning, Rusch hosted a casual group ride that previewed most of the Tater Tot course. Although it’s a laidback spin, this ride has grown in size to the point that it sees more participants than the event’s first edition.

On that chilly 8 a.m. spin, I couldn’t help but notice something out of place. The Ketchum streets were lined with folding camp chairs. The locals were already staking out their spots for the afternoon entertainment: the Wagon Days Parade. They told me it is the largest non-motorized parade in the U.S., and I believe it. The procession has everything from political candidates to a funeral home to a Native American Tribe represented. And it culminates with an old-fashioned covered wagon train.

Photo: Spencer Powlison |

Although the Big Potato course is hard on a bike, traveling through those mountains must have been terrible in a narrow, cramped wagon.

Pacing was a little tricky on this route. Ideally, you ride with a group after the major climb to Trail Creek Summit at 8,000 feet. The upper part of the course can be windy on a high plateau. Even aboard a bike with an aerodynamic design like 3T’s Exploro, drafting can make a big difference.

However, it is risky to put in a hard effort so early in a 92-mile day. And if you were generous with the bacon on your burrito — like I was — it doesn’t feel great to ride at threshold right after breakfast.

It’s also not advised to sit up out of a well-established group to water the sagebrush — like I did.

Eventually, as the gravel got a bit loose and rough on the loop around Copper Basin I began catching stragglers. The 40mm Mavic Yksion tires I had mounted up helped me chug along through the rough.

As we left Copper Basin, a group of us formed a paceline that cooperated nicely into the headwinds. By that point, it was heating up without a cloud in the sky. I tend to sweat profusely, so the ventilation provided by my Bell Z20 helmet made a big difference. Also, the combination of superior ventilation, unobstructed field-of-view, and lower-rim protection on Roka GP-1 sunglasses perfectly handled the terrain and conditions of the day.

Our group finally came apart on the final kicker before the downhill to the finish at Festival Meadows. We couldn’t help ourselves and sprinted for minor placings.

Rebecca's Private Idaho
Photo: Wil Matthews

If you were fast enough — under six-and-a-half hours — you got a special prize. Despite my tactical blunders, I pulled it off and took home a snazzy Rebecca’s Private Idaho bolo tie for my efforts.

But no matter the finish time, a party was in store on the large green just outside Ketchum.

Like many great gravel events, Rebecca’s Private Idaho celebrated a big day on the bike with live music, food, and local beer from Sawtooth Brewery, which brewed a special lager just for the race — the “Queen’s Kolsch” for the Queen of Pain to quaff.

Once the awards were over, though, this party kicked into high gear.

Rebecca Rusch showed perfect catch form in the gelande quaffing event. Her team, however, did not survive the first round of the high-speed beer drinking contest. Photo: Wil Matthews

Northwestern ski towns have a drinking game that is very regionally specific: Gelande Quaffing. As you might expect, it was created by ski bums, reportedly in Jackson Hole in the 1980s. And Rusch saw fit to add it to the after-hours festivities starting with the first edition of her race.

You’re probably better off watching YouTube videos to understand Gelande Quaffing, but in a nutshell, it’s a team game where you slide beers along a table. Your teammate at the other end catch them in midair, drink them as fast as possible, and run around to switch places and slide the next beer down, repeating the process.

Suffice to say that it is fun, hilarious, and downright impressive as the final rounds of the competition bracket incorporate 360-spin moves, under-the-leg catches, and the “freestyle” round.

Rusch set out to share her hometown of Ketchum by hosting Rebecca’s Private Idaho. By incorporating ample local flavor (even if it sometimes tastes like PBR), she has succeeded. Before the start of the ride, she read a quote by Ernest Hemingway:

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.”

We then rolled out and rode past the Hemingway memorial — he’s buried in Ketchum.

Photo: Wil Matthews

Another Hemingway quote came to mind as I looked back on my 92 miles of gravel riding in the wilderness beyond Ketchum:

“The only thing that could spoil a day was people.”

I’d say he’s partly right. Having a little time to suffer in solitude gave me a chance to absorb the experience and not fixate on someone’s rear tire.

But you do need a team for Gelande Quaffing, once the ride is over.

What I rode:

Rebecca's Private Idaho
Photo: Wil Matthews