BY ANDREW HARTSOCK
They call her the Queen of Pain, but don’t be misled.
Though the moniker is a tribute to her melding of passion and profession, Rebecca Rusch is no whip-wielding kinkstress. Outfitted in Lycra, not leather, Rusch saddles up and puts the hurt only on fellow mountain-biking masochists.
The nickname is both a nod to her ability to spank the competition and endure the agony that goes along with riding a bike for ridiculously long distances and times.
“It makes me laugh,” Rusch says of her nickname. “You don’t necessarily choose your nickname. Other people choose your nicknames for you.”
True, but many an outcast elementary schooler has been saddled with “Smelly McBooger-eater” but doesn’t make it his Twitter handle.
“I don’t want to inflict pain on myself,” said Rusch (@thequeenofpain on Twitter). “Maybe it’s more the Queen of Pain Management.”
Whatever the case, the QOP — who will be in town tonight to speak to at Sunflower Outdoor and Bike Shop — has become awfully good at what she does, which is pedal a bike longerfasterbetter than just about anybody around.
Just a few of her jaw-dropping bicycle results:
• three-time winner of the Leadville Trail 100 MTB and current record holder
• national cross country single-speed champion
• world masters cross country champion
• three-time 24-hour solo mountain bike world champion
• and 24-hour team mountain bike national champion.
“I have an affinity,” she said, “to go long distances, to put my head down and be in that pain cave. Everybody knows somebody who has done something super-hard, something where you’re thinking, ‘I can’t do it,’ and you do it. You finish something like that, it’s a very addictive drug. I guess I’m just chasing that reinforcement over and over again.”
Rusch, 43, didn’t always do it on a bike.
Her first taste of endurance racing came in high school on the cross country team. Then came skiing and adventure racing, and she was crazy-successful at all of them.
Then she lost her adventure-racing sponsor and, with a year left in her deal with Red Bull, Rusch looked around and wondered just what would fill the void.
“I hated cycling,” she said. “I was lousy at it. I was uneducated and unskilled, and you never like to do things you’re lousy at. That’s the last thing I would have chosen. But I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I was always in endurance. I was a lousy sprinter. When adventure racing folded, I racked my brain. Ultra-running came to mind, but you see those races and they seem to brutally painful on the body. The only other thing was mountain-bike racing.
“But I didn’t think I would start a cycling career. I was just doing something to fill time for the last year of my Red Bull contract. I did one, and it all snowballed from there and became a cycling career. It really was unexpected.”
That career has taken her around the world.
Rusch, who still marvels that she can call herself a professional athlete, rules Leadville, the brutal 100-mile Colorado race contested at altitude and has competed in the Moroccan dessert and Costa Rican jungle.
Next up is Saturday’s Dirty Kanza 200, a 200-mile gravel-road sufferfest beginning and ending in Emporia.
“Dirty Kanza has a cult following,” Rusch said. “Registration fills up in a few minutes. Lots of people don’t finish. Call me a glutton for punishment, but those things appeal to me. I was in Morocco. The next most exotic locale I could think of was Kansas.”
Rusch, who lives in Ketchum, Idaho, said tonight’s visit to Sunflower was a culmination.
She rides for Specialized Bikes, and Sunflower is a Specialized shop. Occasionally, Specialized lets its athletes and dealers get — and ride — together, and Rusch thus came to know Sunflower owner Dan Hughes.
Hughes is an accomplished racer himself — he can pedal what he peddles — and so caught Rusch’s attention.
She had heard of Dirty Kanza (of which, incidentally, Hughes is the reigning solo-division men’s open champ) and was intrigued by the challenge. She counts Olathe-based Garmin among her sponsors.
And then there’s Hughes.
“We have a friendly competition,” Rusch said. “He doesn’t like to get ‘chicked,’ that’s for sure. … But he’s a super-strong rider, and he loves what he’s doing. I always wanted to visit his shop and Kansas, and since I’m racing there, there were just a lot of good reasons to go there.”
Her talk, tentatively titled “Commitment and Reaching Your Maximum Potential,” will start at 7 tonight at Sunflower (804 Mass. Street). It’s free and open to the public.