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Full Immersion by Bike, Boat, and Foot in Utah’s Most Contested Public Lands

Rebecca Rusch is a full-on legend among us. The “Queen of Pain,” as she is known for her relentless commitment to lung- and quad-busting feats, has been a pioneer of mountain biking and endurance racing for two decades. So when Rebecca approached us this spring about her desire to explore Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments on the ground, up close and personal, we were all in. She recruited underground backcountry genius Steve Fassbinder, affectionately called “Doom,” to hike, bike, climb, and packraft in these contested public lands, which were drastically reduced in size earlier this year. Filmer Trenton Pasic joined to capture the adventure.

Here Rebecca tells us about why she wanted to explore these public lands, what they found, and how she approaches fitness, gear, and nutrition.

ROAM: Full Immersion by Bike, Boat, and Foot in Utah’s Most Contested Public Lands
The team rode portions of the historical emigrant trail near Lake Powell and the famous Hole in the Rock section that Mormon setters in 1879 traveled through in wagons. "It was some of the most remote and best mountain biking I’ve done in my life," says Rebecca. "I can’t imagine traveling through this rough and remote terrain in a wagon." Photo by Steve Fassbinder

So much of what’s special is below the surface, deep in the canyons and river beds. You have to go deep inside to really see what’s there. — Rebecca Rusch

THE MOTIVATION

What did you do on this adventure and how did it help you fulfill your larger mission?

This adventure had a few goals:

To explore Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments by bike—with some climbing, hiking, and packrafting thrown in—because there’s nothing I love more than a backcountry expedition.

To learn more about these previously protected places.

To spread awareness about their plight (recent shrinking of Bears Ears National Monument to 16 percent of its previous protected size and Grand Staircase Escalante to 50 percent of its previous size. The result is many of these previously protected areas are now open to extraction for oil and gas and previous habitat protections are also rolled back.

My goal is to showcase these stunning natural areas in hopes that by seeing them and learning of the current threat, more people will speak up for their protection.

THE ADVENTURE

Who was part of the team and why?

Steve Fassbinder (also known as “Doom”) is a friend from my ultra endurance racing days. I’ve raced alongside him during 24-hour solo mountain bike races and knew that he had great endurance experience. He also lives in the area and has spent a good portion of his life exploring the Utah desert, so I knew he’d be a fantastic resource for putting a route together and sharing his vast knowledge of the place. He’s also really fun to hang out with and a great storyteller. I knew we’d get along, and I’d learn some things along the way. He’s one of the best teammates I could imagine: super skilled, completely at ease in the backcountry, really knowledgeable, and a super chill guy.

Trenton Pasic is a photographer, videographer, and turned out to have amazing four-wheeling abilities, which ended up being crucial. We wanted to document the journey because it’s impossible to explain the magic of the Utah desert. We knew we had to show it. Trenton became a great teammate who would move the truck to various campsites, carry supplies, and even do much of the hiking, canyoneering, and paddling with us.

What did you discover that was impressive?

This area of Utah is so spectacular because really so much of what’s special is below the surface, deep in the canyons and river beds that are not visible from above. You have to go deep inside to really see what’s there. Driving through in a car, you would miss it all. But get out, go on foot, by boat, by bike, you are truly part of the terrain. There is nowhere else in the world like it. Also, the ruins and remnants of life before us that are there really hit home that this world is so much bigger than our generation or our life span. This impressed me to see the art and ruins from so long ago and also made me realize how important it is to preserve this land for generations to come.

Why is it important to you to share the story of this part of our country?

Because once we destroy this landscape with mining and extrication, there is no going back. We will never be able to recover what is lost if we allow our public lands to be destroyed.

ROAM: Full Immersion by Bike, Boat, and Foot in Utah’s Most Contested Public Lands
During an overnight canyoneering and paddling loop near Davis Canyon…the arch was lit up by the morning sun. Rumor has it that explorer/writer Everett Ruess mysteriously disappeared around here in the 1930s and might have carved an inscription somewhere near this arch. "We scrambled around looking for remnants of a time before us but found only ancient pictographs and no trace of Everett," says Rebecca. Photo by Steve Fassbinder

To see the art and ruins from so long ago made me realize how important it is to preserve this land for generations to come. — Rebecca Rusch

FITNESS AND GEAR

What’s your routine to stay physically fit for your lifestyle and professional needs?

My coach, Dean Golich, likes to say “stay ready, so you don’t have to get ready.” Being active is part of my lifestyle, my career, my social outlet, and my mental health and wellness. I do use a coach to keep me on track and sign up for events regularly to keep me honest.If I have something on the calendar, I’m much better at staying on track. Living in a place that’s inspiring and draws me outdoors also helps.

How do you approach nutrition both day-to-day and when on an adventure?

Food is fuel and it’s easy to see the benefit to energy level, performance, and just feeling good when you fuel well. Day to day, my strategy is simple: less packaged foods, more food that’s in its natural packaging, more cooking, drink more water. You can get really deep into the science of nutrition, but basic good practices like I mentioned go a long way.

On an adventure, planning and managing food so you have enough for the days out there, but also types of food that is easy to carry and light to pack. I’m a big fan of GU nutrition and bring Roctane drink mix with me on almost every adventure. Doom carried the beer and the coffee!

What are your five essential pieces of gear in your gear kit?

– Garmin InReach mini personal tracking and satellite messaging.his is my go to safety item that’s always with me.

  • – Niner bike! My bike has become my vehicle for exploration, change, inspiration. I do a lot of sports, but my bike is the favorite tool for getting out there.
  • – Camelbak: for carrying the necessities for various adventures. I rarely leave home without one.
  • – Red Bull: gives you wings…seriously, yes I do drink it. Keeps me awake for super long, multi day expeditions.
  • – A great attitude and gratitude for being able to be outdoors.

WHAT’S NEXT

What’s the coolest thing going on in mountain biking right now?

Bikepacking is by far the coolest thing going on in mountain biking right now. People are discovering that there is no tool more suited for exploration than a bicycle and riders are tending to go longer, more off the beaten path and go exploring either in their own back yard or around the world. Here in the U.S., that means spending more time in public lands. For me, I’ve been doing expeditions and going long for most of my career and now my desire to take on bike expedition riding feels like a culmination of all of my expedition, navigation, and cycling skills.

You’ve had a celebrated career as an endurance athlete. What projects excite you now?

On the tails of Blood Road, which was the biggest and most important expedition of my life, I’ve been inspired to do more expedition cycling. This is the culmination and combination of all of my skills as an adventure athlete and a cyclist coming full circle. Future projects are going further and exploring more on my bike on other iconic trails at home in Idaho and around the world.

ROAM

Mountain Biker

Rebecca Rusch

Sun Valley, Idaho, local Rebecca Rusch’s national and world titles in whitewater rafting, adventure racing, orienteering, and cross-country skiing certainly impress, but they only set the stage: it’s the two-wheeled victories that really lengthen her resume. Just the act of reading Rusch’s mountain bike accomplishments would make most want to take a nap. National wins across multiple off-road formats top the list, as well as record-setting victories at storied ultra endurance races like the Leadville Trail 100, Dirty Kanza 200, and 24 Hour MTB World Championships. Not content to wait for the race to come to her, Rusch also claimed the record on the 142-mile Kokopelli Trail, coming in more than an hour and a half faster than the previous champion. It wasn’t her idea, but it doesn’t take a professor to see why she earned the moniker “The Queen Of Pain.”