How will U.S. market respond to Canyon’s arrival?

Inside a nondescript warehouse perched on a hill outside Koblenz, Germany, an alarm beeps and green lights flash every few minutes. A line of bicycle frames hanging from a conveyor belt jolts forward with each buzz. Frames move down the assembly line, stopping at workstations along the way, where workers install cranks, shifters, cables, and other components. Each time the green lights flick on the conveyor sends the frames ahead. Station by station, frames are transformed into bikes, and then packed into boxes, loaded onto trucks, and sent out across Europe.

This warehouse is the home of Canyon Bicycles, one of Europe’s fastest growing bike companies. The brand has become synonymous with its innovative consumer-direct sales model, in which bikes are purchased online and shipped directly to customers. The model has proven to be successful across the globe, in part because retail prices are sometimes 25-30 percent less than those of equivalent bikes sold in retail shops.

After several years of false starts, Canyon finally crossed the Atlantic and began delivering bikes in the U.S. in August, with big plans to take a bite out of the $6 billion U.S. bike market.

It also arrived with plenty of controversy. Canyon’s business model cuts independent bike shops out of the bike buying process and, as such, will take dollars out of the pockets of U.S. shops.

It’s a controversy that extends beyond the bike industry — support local businesses or pay less online — reflecting an evolving economy, industry, and mode of commerce generally. Canyon’s executives believe it is an inevitable seismic shift for the industry.

“This is what has to come. If Canyon does not do it, it will be someone else,” Canyon owner and CEO Roman Arnold says. “It is just the right time and it is what the customer is asking for. The whole industry is changing. We are not the enemy of the industry.”

Courtesy Canyon Bicycles

Canyon says its sales model is better for the consumer in the long run. The price tag is smaller, and the bike buying process is streamlined, the company’s executives say. Why fight the future?

Bike shop owners are not so sure.

“Canyon coming to the U.S. put a bit of fear in dealers’ minds and in the brands’ minds,” says Nelson Gutierrez, owner of Strictly Bicycles in Fort Lee, New Jersey. “Shops are thinking about what they’d have to do to combat or confront the consumer to create a better experience so they don’t buy online.”

Of course, Canyon has already driven change through the bike industry. It’s success overseas convinced some U.S. manufacturers, including Trek and Giant, to launch modified consumer-direct models in recent years. Now, the brand’s aggressive U.S. plans could create tensions between other brands, bike shops, and customers.

So, how will the bike industry work itself out? And who will be the winners and losers?

ROMAN ARNOLD LACKS THE power suit and haughty corporate speak that one might expect from the chief executive of a global cycling brand. Sitting in Canyon headquarters, the German wears a plain long-sleeve shirt with athletic pants and sneakers. He sits low in his office chair and sips a cup of tea.

“We really like cycling and we want people to have fun on the bike,” he says. “But we also want to bring new people into the sport and say, ‘Have a look, this is a cool thing you have to do.’ We want to give the rider the tools to do what he wants to do. It doesn’t matter what rider it is. We want to deliver the right bike and the right experience.”

Arnold recounts memories of racing as a teenager and young adult and how that led to a family bike business. Arnold and his father traveled to races across Europe, hauling a large metal trailer behind them. As the young Arnold raced, his father sold bike parts out of the trailer.

After retiring from racing, Arnold and his brother Franc transformed this mobile bike part business into a bike shop that quickly grew into one of the biggest Trek and Specialized dealers in Germany. The company later shifted from supplier to manufacturer of bicycle frames in the mid-1990s, laying the groundwork for the Canyon Bicycles of today.

From the start, Arnold embraced the consumer-direct model via the Internet. As Canyon grew with the online sales platform, so too did the resistance against Canyon from bike shops and dealers across Europe.

Arnold recalls one particularly frustrating struggle with Canyon’s initial expansion into France.

“There was a decree from the president [of France] that said if you want to sell a bike in France, it has to have pedals attached,” he says. The new rule blocked the sales of Canyon bikes in France since their bikes could not be packed with the pedals attached when shipped directly to consumers. It was a devastating blow to the growing company.

Canyon fought back, spending over €100,000 to reverse the order. Arnold says he later found out that the French bike dealer’s organization was behind the issue, and was trying to insulate itself from this new threat against bike shop sales.

“We had a lot of pushback in the beginning,” Arnold says. “We had to believe that what we were doing was right.”

Canyon’s Ultimate CF SLX 8.0 was one of the best race bikes we tested this year. Photo: Brad Kaminski |

CONSUMER-DIRECT SALES ARE nothing new to the U.S. bicycle market. Large online retailers such as Competitive Cyclist and offer a huge assortment of bike components, equipment, clothing, and nutrition at low prices, a function of each company’s bulk purchasing powers. Smaller regional brands such as Franco Bicycles, Fezzari Bikes, and VeloVie also sell imported Asian frames to U.S. consumers over the web.

“The consumer-direct market has been a thorn in the brick-and-mortar retailer’s side for a long time,” Gutierrez says. Losing customers to online sales has been a factor in the steady decline in the number of independent bike shops in the U.S. According to the National Bicycle Dealer’s Association, the number has dropped over 13 percent since 2010, with an estimated 3,700 shops still operational.

There are other factors at play in this drop, of course, from the sale of bikes in big box stores to the growth of the second-hand market. Canyon executives say the statistics prove that consumers crave the service that they provide.“The industry has to leave their comfort zone,” Canyon global communication manager Thorsten Lewandowski says. “We are taking a look at what the customer really needs and not what the industry needs.”

“The industry has to leave their comfort zone,” Canyon global communication manager Thorsten Lewandowski says. “We are taking a look at what the customer really needs and not what the industry needs.”

The debate over what’s best for the consumer is intense, complex, and has compelling arguments from both sides. There are three major factors at play within the discussion: price, purchasing process, and the sustainability of the bike shop model.

Canyon’s sales model does lower prices by cutting bike shops out of the buying process. Retailers often sell an item at a 60-100 percent markup from the price they paid a manufacturer. For example, Canyon’s Aeroad CF SLX Disc 9.0 LTD bike with SRAM eTap retails at $7,500, while a comparable aero bike and build by a competitor retails at $11,500.

Of course, price isn’t the only factor in a bike purchase. Retailers argue that a shop’s follow-up service can tip the scales in their favor. Jason Fenton, owner of Halter’s Cycles in Skillman, New Jersey, says his store takes customers through a thorough bike-buying process that includes correct sizing, a bike fit, and follow-up service after the purchase.

“I think that buying a bicycle is a highly personal experience,” Fenton says. “From front to end, we find that our prices are competitive, if not better, and we give a hands-on experience that they can’t get online.”

Canyon believes it offers a better purchasing process. The age-old reputation of the grumpy bike shop employee has made its way into the mainstream, driving customers online, Canyon representatives say. Of course, that’s not the only reason why customers flock online. All industries have seen the shift. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, e-commerce sales account for approximately nine percent of all retail sales in the U.S., amounting to over $400 billion in the last year.

It’s hard to argue with the ease of clicking a button from the comfort of your home, especially when you know exactly what product you want.

Lewandowski also argues that shops can complicate this process. “Bike shops can influence the customer’s decision based on what they have available or what they may need to still sell that season,” he says. “Even if the customer knows the exact bike they want, a bike shop could try and change their mind.”

Fenton, on the other hand, believes bike shops can offer a better purchasing experience, especially for novice customers. “Lots of people buy mountain bikes online that aren’t applicable to the area that they ride,” he says. Shops provide local advice on the trails, the roads, and the terrain nearby, and what bikes or products are best suited for the area.

“People are like, ‘Great, I got a good deal and saved a couple hundred bucks or a thousand maybe,’ but their only point of contact is someone who is on the phone or on the Internet,” Fenton says.

Whether or not the traditional bike shop model is sustainable in the long run is open to debate. Canyon employees believe their model actually helps bike shops. The traditional business model between manufacturers and bike shops has created endless headaches, they say.

Inventory requirements put a strain on small businesses. A slow season or an inaccurate estimate of the number of bikes to have in stock can lead to financial anxiety, leading to the sale of last season’s bikes at a discount at little to no profit (or sometimes at a loss). When the new season’s line of bikes rolls in, the cycle continues.

Arnold says that Canyon removes all of these tensions by letting bike shops do what they do best: service.

“This will be a great chance for the bike dealer, by providing service,” he says. “He is so close to you. It’s a big chance for the dealer to service these bikes that are bought online. Canyon will bring new customers to the dealers.”

VeloNews spoke with multiple independent bicycle dealers, and the majority agreed that service holds the key to the survival of shops, with or without Canyon.

“We view it as an opportunity to essentially try to win that person back over as a customer, and hopefully get sales from them in the future,” says Brian Zeck, of River City Bicycles in Portland, Oregon.

How many shops will remain open based on service profits alone remains to be seen. The sale of bicycles still accounts for a sizable percentage of revenue. The industry has already begun to see a shift toward a service focus, with the rise of mobile bike shops such as VeloFix, Beeline Bikes, and others.

“The bike shop has so much value in terms of service,” says Matt Heitmann, Canyon’s chief marketing officer. “This is what they will always do better than we can do as a website.”

Canyon’s frames are manufactured in Taiwan, then shipped to the company’s factory in Germany where they are assembled. The factory can produce up to 400 bikes per day. Courtesy Canyon Bicycles

A LARGE WORKSHOP BUILT into Canyon’s consumer-facing headquarters in downtown Koblenz is lined with bikes, mostly Canyons, waiting to be serviced. The bikes have come from Germany, the U.K., and across Europe. They’ll soon come from the U.S. as well. They are bikes that shops have refused to work on because they were purchased online. It’s one of Canyon’s biggest growing pains, and the company is uneasily waiting to see if it’ll happen in the new U.S. market as well.

“Everywhere you go, you wear this scarlet letter,” Fenton says about bike customers who go the consumer-direct route. “You’ll be shunned by bike shops… We’ve seen it in the past.”

While Fenton says his shop will work on any bike that comes through the door, the service might differ between types of customers. He says his shop would not give lesser service, but it’s possible that customers who buy bikes through his shop would get preferential treatment, faster service, or more inclusive service.

Most of the shops we spoke with agreed that a flat-out refusal to service Canyon bikes is counterproductive, a missed opportunity.

“It’s very short-sighted,” Gutierrez says. “Shops should service anybody’s bike. You should never say no. You could win that customer over, and maybe their second bike purchase isn’t going to be a Canyon, it’s going to be a bike that you stock.”

Other shop owners wholeheartedly agreed that the U.S. market would likely be more open to servicing Canyon bikes. “I don’t see that flying in the U.S.,” says Jason Woznick of Fairwheel Cycles in Tucson, Arizona. “It’s just not the way things are done here. I know there are a few shops that refuse to work on department store bikes, but I think there are enough shops, it’s competitive enough, and shops are struggling enough that they’ll work on almost anything.”

Shops are rethinking how to connect with customers and how to put themselves back on the map in this new type of bike economy. Gutierrez believes shops should focus on creating a community, rather than relying on the old way of selling.

“Retailers shouldn’t be scared,” Gutierrez says. “Make it more of a communal experience and they’ll see a return on investment.”

For some shops, highlighting its services is nothing new; Canyon’s entry into the U.S. simply reiterates the importance of this component of the retail experience. Zeck, for one, encourages his staff to focus on the basics of customer service. By doing that, he’s seen success in competing with online retailers that have been in the U.S. market for years.

Canyon’s arrival in the U.S. is driving change in the industry — with a sales model that isn’t entirely new. Consumer-direct sales likely will not kill the independent bike dealer, so long as shop owners are willing to adapt.

“It’s a normal evolution,” Arnold says. “Industries develop. There will be room for everyone if we all work hard and try to adapt to the customers’ needs.”

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Stephen Hyde’s remarkable path to the top of U.S. cyclocross

Stephen Hyde was stuck in Hartford, Connecticut, this past January. It was the day before the 2017 U.S. national cyclocross championships, and Hyde had driven to Hartford to pre-ride the course. Midway through the day, a blizzard roared across New England, and Hyde knew that his two-wheel drive truck lacked the traction to get back to his home in Massachusetts.

Hyde, 30, had no hotel reservation, and his usual race arsenal — various kits, two sets of shoes, and cold-weather gear — was back at home. He was the favorite to win the race, and his plans had gone completely sideways.

“I was like, ‘Man I can’t drive home. I’m going to be a nervous wreck,’” Hyde remembers. “‘I’m going to be shot, it’s not going to be relaxing at all, and it’s going to take two hours.’”

Hyde didn’t panic. Instead, he did what he has done throughout his career in cycling: He asked for help from the cyclocross community, and then adopted a flexible, anything-goes attitude toward the situation.

Over the last half-decade, this strategy has helped Hyde progress from a talented regional racer in the Mid-Atlantic and New England scenes into one of the top American ’cross racers of his generation. Throughout his progression, Hyde has relied on assistance from coaches, riding partners, bike shop owners, and even other racers. These individuals have, in turn, provided Hyde with jobs, housing, sponsorships, and even therapy when he was injured. The relationships have had a lasting impact: Steven Hyde is, truly, a product of the American cycling community.

In Hartford, Hyde asked his friends at Cannondale’s development team if they could spare a bed. Team manager Chandler Delinks agreed, deciding to share a bed with newly minted masters national champ Dan Timmerman to make room. Hyde found a thermal skinsuit in his bag and some other gear. By the time the gun went off, Hyde was ready to win, which he did in dramatic fashion.

“Something being so close to fruition and then being taken from you is… for me that’s the number-one way to make me fight for it even harder,” Hyde says.

Stephen Hyde
Hyde grew up in Florida riding BMX with his friends. Photo courtesy Evan Butts

THE BICYCLE HAS PLAYED an integral role in Hyde’s life. He grew up in Pensacola, Florida, and rode BMX bicycles alongside a friend, Tyler Sparr, who is now a professional BMX rider. BMX quickly became the center of Hyde’s life, and he traveled to races across the Southeast. Hyde lacked the talent to make it to the pinnacle of BMX. While Sparr went on to win a U.S. championship, Hyde raced more for fun.

“We’d just ride all day until dark,” Hyde says. “This gang of ratty little BMX kids riding around.”

Hyde also showed a knack for fixing bikes and began working at a local bike shop, Bikes Plus, at 17. He began racing mountain bikes, with his shop as his primary sponsor. He tried out alleycat races in Florida and completed a 3,700-mile cross-country bike tour with a girlfriend.

College education was never part of his life plan. He always struggled in school and was diagnosed with a learning disability. Hyde changed schools often and was even home-schooled for a time.

“I felt so alienated. I was out,” Hyde says. “I didn’t care, I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want anything to do with the rest of the classes.”

He tried a vocational school but dropped out after his classmates teased him. His parents urged him to graduate, but Hyde pursued life away from higher education. He says he is comfortable with his level of education and does not regret missing out on college.

Instead, Hyde worked at bike shops and bounced around. He briefly lived in Portland, Oregon, and shared a one-bedroom apartment with a girlfriend and a buddy. Everyone slept on the floor.

He raced mountain bikes and picked up road racing in 2009 with the West Florida Wheelmen cycling club. The nomadic lifestyle stretched through his 20s. He lived in Martha’s Vineyard, where a local bike shop owner, Frank Jennings, tutored him on racing. His natural talent was apparent.

Various cycling mentors took Hyde under their wings. He moved to Washington, D.C. and quickly progressed through the Mid-Atlantic Cyclocross series, graduating through USA Cycling’s category system there. In 2012 he made the jump to the elite ranks at DCCX, still riding a loaner bike from a customer who frequented the bike shop where Hyde worked.

“Every time I upgraded I had that anxiety about whether I could do it,” he says. “That drives me so hard.”

Stephen Hyde
As a member of the JAM Fund team, Hyde raced at the national championships in Boulder, Colorado in 2013. Photo: Brad Kaminski |

IN 2012, HYDE MADE an ambitious plan: He wanted to earn a spot on a professional team. Through his friend Rodrigo Moraes, Hyde reached out to Alec Donahue, who operates the Massachusetts-based JAM Fund development team. Co-founded by multi-time U.S. national champion Jeremy Powers, JAM Fund is a nonprofit aimed at helping young talent rise through the ranks.

Hyde launched himself toward his goal, working 70 hours a week at the bike shop and training with vigorous intensity. He faced an immediate setback. That August, he contracted Lyme disease from a tick on Martha’s Vineyard.

The sickness knocked Hyde off of his bicycle. He spent a month on debilitating antibiotics and waited to recover. With racing on pause, he returned to Oregon to earn his mechanic’s certification from the United Bicycle Institute. In late 2012, Hyde returned to ’cross racing, earning a few promising results on the local New England circuit. Through another friend, he reconnected with Donahue, who gave Hyde an informal tryout at the Cheshire Cross race in November.

Hyde was so nervous he forgot to pin on his race number. Yet midway through the race, he rode in the front group, alongside cyclocross stalwart Adam Myerson. On the last lap, Hyde attacked the course’s tricky descent.

“Hyde absolutely ripped that downhill like he was on a trail bike,” Myerson recalls. “I still don’t even know how he did it. He was just a puppy off the leash and going for it.”

The performance helped Hyde earn a spot on the JAM Fund team. He dove into the 2013 season with energy, winning his first UCI event at Baltimore’s Charm City Cross, and landing on the podium at three more UCI events. Hyde had finally achieved his goal: He was a professional cyclist.

Stephen Hyde
Stephen Hyde crossed the line on foot with a flat front tire and sheared derailleur for his first cyclocross national championship. Photo: Wil Matthews

HYDE’S CHEERFUL DEMEANOR AND talkative personality belie a darker side of his psyche. He has suffered from depression since 2008 — the condition has sapped him of his motivation on and off the bike.

In 2013 Hyde’s depression began to impact his racing. He was living in Northhampton, Massachusetts, solely focused on training and recovery. The monastic lifestyle left little room for a social life, and Hyde missed regular companionship. In years past, he would ride with friends, go out at night, and meet more friends for lunch the next day. Suddenly, he found himself riding alone, focused on his strict racing program.

“I was out on a ride, and I’m like, ‘I love riding my bike, but I feel so sad right now and I don’t know why. I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t know if it’s being on the bike; I don’t know if it’s being off the bike,’” he says. “It’s like when you stub your toe — I don’t know if keeping it still will make it feel better or moving it around violently will make it feel better — I just want it to stop. That’s kind of how I felt a lot of the time. I went through these waves.”

He had originally gotten into cycling because he loved spending time with friends. Bikes wove his social network together.

“When I had made the jump out here, it was a lot. I wasn’t making much money. I didn’t know how to plan. I didn’t know the psychological toll it would take,” Hyde says. “Going from being a super-social person to all of a sudden riding all this time by myself. Even when I started riding I did it to have people around me. I didn’t know it was depression.”

On one of those solitary training rides, when he wished he’d stayed in bed, Hyde realized it was time to address the matter head-on.

He talked with Donahue, his coach, about his depression. Donahue told Hyde that there was an easy solution: He could always quit.

“I was like, ‘Hang on, no, no, no, I don’t want to quit,’” Hyde says. “I just don’t know what to do with these feelings.”

Instead, Donahue helped Hyde recalibrate his goals any time he rolled out for a training ride. Hyde would stop several times on some rides to do breathing exercises and push away the dark clouds.

“Sometimes I was annoyed I was stopping so much,” he says. “It’s like that ride where you have to pee all the time. But I realized those were the most productive rides.”

Donahue also gave Hyde a key piece of advice: He had to give his personal happiness the same priority as race results and training sessions.

“It’s difficult to do, and you have to persevere through it,” Hyde remembers his coach saying. “You have to figure out how to make yourself happy doing that. You need to decide to make that part of your goal: Be able to do this and be happy.”

He started opening up to friends in the community, many of whom were similarly experienced with the difficulties of a pro cyclist’s lifestyle.

“I realized that I don’t need to hide how I’m feeling or mask how I’m feeling,” Hyde says. “I need to actually confront them and find people that can help me and relate to that.”

Hyde also faced physical struggles that season. Midway through the autumn, he was forced off the bike by patellar tendonitis. At times he couldn’t even bend his knee.

The cycling community again came to Hyde’s aid. Former criterium national champion Brad Huff (Rally), who knew Hyde through the JAM Fund team, invited him to Springfield, Missouri, to see a team of physical therapists with the local Mercy Hospital. The staff had helped Huff recover from a similar injury in 2008.

Working pro bono, therapists Jim Raynor and Karen Rakowski made quick progress with Hyde. Within a couple days, he was walking down staircases, which he’d been avoiding due to the pain it caused.

“From walking down the stairs he got a spring in his step,” Huff says. “He couldn’t wait to get back in the therapy room and do those little tedious exercises that feel like baby steps. His smile came back. He was just himself again.”

Huff then connected Hyde with bike fit specialist Chris Norrington, who worked an entire day with Hyde to improve his position. Hyde’s first race back was the 2013 U.S. national championships in Boulder, Colorado. He finished a distant 16th, but his body and motivation were intact.

Stephen Hyde
Hyde rode to 16th place at 2013 national championships. Photo: Brad Kaminski |

HYDE FIRST MET JEREMY POWERS in 2012. He was a bit star-struck having watched the “Behind the Barriers” videos featuring the ebullient Connecticut native. As Hyde’s career progressed, his contact with Powers became invaluable to his career trajectory. Even as Hyde got to know Powers, he was still in awe of the national champ.

Hyde and Powers became friends and began to travel to races together starting in 2014. Hyde was immediately impressed by Power’s dedication and professionalism.

“I showed him the level of attention to detail but also work ethic — how hard I was working to go after it,” Powers says. “Food, sleep, rest, massage, taking care of my body, kind of the attitude I was bringing to it. I think he learned a lot.”

Hyde was a quick study. He remembers how calculated Powers would be in approaching a race, how detail-oriented he was in preparation and planning. The two traveled to Europe, and Hyde soaked up knowledge from Powers.

“It was life-changing for me. I respect him for being able to grasp that this is just how he is,” Hyde says.

The friendship also carried a rivalry, and in a few years, Hyde drew even with Powers. They battled each other at domestic races and abroad. In some races, Powers had the upper hand, while in others, Hyde took the advantage.

Powers likened the relationship to one he shared with retired pro Tim Johnson. As teammates, the two men battled for several years on the domestic circuit.

“Tim and I have a good relationship now,” Powers says. “But the power of the competition and desire to win is real.”Hyde says his relationship with Powers is based on mutual respect.

Hyde says his relationship with Powers is based on mutual respect.

“Okay, you can beat me; I’ll be happy for you, and when I beat you, you’ll be happy for me,’” Hyde says.

His progression reached a new level in 2016. Powers was injured for much of the autumn, and Hyde won seven races at the national level. Hyde also proved himself against the world’s best, riding to 10th place at the Jingle Cross World Cup and finishing in the top-15 four times at European races. Powers finished well behind.

When the duo prepared for the 2017 U.S. national championships, the roles had become reversed. Hyde was the favorite, and Powers was the dark horse. Of course, that was before Hyde became stranded in the blizzard.

As Hyde looks back on the near calamity, he sees it as a metaphor for his career. Sure, the blizzard presented a challenge, but Hyde has spent his life overcoming tougher ones.

“Every time I’d get to the point of everything being together, it would come apart,” Hyde says. “You know what, I’ve dealt with worse than this. Whatever.”

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How the Vuelta a España became cycling’s most dramatic grand tour

IF RIDERS BLINKED, THEY MIGHT HAVE missed it. Barely two kilometers into the opening stage of the 2017 Vuelta a España, teams roared straight through the center of a 2,000-year-old Roman arena that once hosted gladiatorial battles. On a hot, sticky afternoon in late August, squads of cyclists, dressed in Lycra and riding carbon-fiber stallions, blasted through the middle of the circular stadium over some hastily laid tarmac in the opening day team time trial. It was a pure Vuelta moment.

“That’s what’s pretty cool about the Vuelta,” says Canadian veteran Svein Tuft (Orica-Scott). “I’m not sure the Tour could have done that, but the Vuelta takes you to some pretty cool places.”

Before this 72nd edition of the Vuelta was over, Tuft and the other nearly 200 racers would be in for one surprise after another. This year’s course featured nine summit finales. The second week had at least one first-category climb in every stage, except one. The feared and fearsome Alto de l’Angliru was back. Los Machucos — this year’s new discovery featured on stage 17
featured ramps as steep as 28 percent.

That wild parcours reflects what we have now come to expect from the Spanish grand tour, which throws one crazy finish after another at the pack. La Vuelta Ciclista a España — the cycling tour of Spain — has emerged as the most unpredictable and most entertaining grand tour on the international calendar. Every year race organizers make sure that every stage delivers something to remember — be it a steep goat path up the side of a mountain or a Roman arena. By most counts, their efforts are paying off.

“We made a big bet on the spectacle, and it’s paid off for us,” says Vuelta director Javier Guillén. “We search out the ‘epic’ moments — these explosive climbs, these impossible ramps — so that the race comes down to an honest, brutal rider-to-rider battle.”

Every grand tour has its own distinctive flavor. The Giro d’Italia is renowned for its tifosi and the Dolomites. The Tour de France boasts the Alps, the tradition, and the prestige. The Vuelta? It packs unpredictability, unconventionality, heat, and, more than anything else, the sense that you’re watching one hell of a bike race.

“Why do I love the Vuelta? Easy,” says Australian Adam Hansen (Lotto-Soudal). “No one knows who is going to win.”

Vuelta a Espana
The 2017 Vuelta began with a team time trial that raced through a 2,000-year-old Roman arena in Nimes, France. Photo: Tim De Waele |

THE VUELTA WASN’T ALWAYS the most exciting grand tour. For a long time, the Spanish tour was a snooze-fest, the perfect excuse to have a siesta on a hot, lazy afternoon. Before 1995, when organizers moved it from April to September, it was almost entirely a race for Spanish riders and teams to focus on.

“Before, the Vuelta was a preparation race, for the Giro, for the Tour. Not anymore,” Jesus Gómez Peña, a Bilbao-based journalist who has covered 18 Vueltas. “All the big GC riders are coming now.”

This year’s Vuelta includes a who’s-who of the peloton; that wasn’t usually the case. How many Vueltas did Lance Armstrong race once he became Tour king? Nada.

Spanish riders and Spanish teams always targeted the Vuelta. It made sense because it was their race. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, there were literally a dozen top-level pro Spanish teams in the peloton, so the Vuelta had a heavy Spanish accent. In 1985, when it appeared Robert Millar (now Philippa York) was on the cusp of becoming the first British rider to win a grand tour, the entire Spanish peloton ganged up on him and colluded to allow Pedro Delgado to take the overall title. La Vuelta es nuestro! The Vuelta is ours.

For just about everyone else in the peloton, the Vuelta was a training race. Eddy Merckx raced only one Vuelta, in 1973, when he won six of 17 stages, as well as the points and combined jerseys, and placed second in the climber’s jersey competition. He never returned.

“Cycling was different in those days,” says BMC sporting manager Allan Peiper, who raced one Vuelta in his career. “No team did three big grand tours then. The Vuelta was a Spanish race.”

During several editions, the Vuelta hardly stretched two weeks long, and there were few mountain stages. It was sprint after sprint, with plenty of time trials. Sean Kelly, a sprinter and classics rider, won his lone career grand tour at the Vuelta in 1988. In 1984, a neo-pro named Eric Caritoux won by the Vuelta’s smallest margin of victory: six seconds. It took the race jury 30 minutes to decide he won.

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Vuelta almost became a paid holiday for many of the big stars. Those were the days when the Spanish economy was booming and there was plenty of money sloshing around. Running parallel to the race was the infamous “Vuelta de la Noche,” a nightly bacchanal of sponsor parties after every stage across Spain. Podium girls, soigneurs, sport directors, mechanics, journalists, race officials, and even the odd cyclist would be partying until the wee hours.

In 2010, Stuart O’Grady and Andy Schleck were both sent home before stage 10 when team boss Bjarne Riis found them sneaking back to the team hotel at 5 a.m. after an all-nighter at the bars.

Then a few key things happened that would forever change the Vuelta and its place in the hierarchy of cycling’s international calendar. Enter Guillén and “La crisis.”

Vuelta a Espana
Vuelta director Javier Guillen is constantly in search of ways to heighten the drama and spectacle at his grand tour. Photo: Tim De Waele |

VUELTA RACE DIRECTOR Javier Guillén takes a deep breath as he sits down to chat with VeloNews a day before the start of the 2017 Vuelta. As can be expected, he’s very busy. Tall and slim with drooping eyes, Guillén has led the Vuelta since 2008. That’s the same year that Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO, owners of the Tour de France and other major cycling properties), bought a 49 percent share of Unipublic, the Madrid-based events company that took over the Vuelta in the 1980s.

If it wasn’t for ASO, which took over complete ownership in 2014, there might not even be a Vuelta today.

“ASO gave us financial stability,” Guillén says. “It’s the best company in the world at putting on bike races, so we gain so much by being a part of that organization.”

The pro peloton was flying close to the sun in the mid-2000s, and so was the Vuelta. There was no shortage of sponsors or host cities lining up to be part of the Spanish grand tour, but it was a facade. All that came crashing down in 2008, just as the world economy cratered. Spain’s booming economy suddenly went bust. Unemployment shot up to 25 percent, and the government introduced an austerity program to keep a rein on rising deficits. That might have saved Spain from bankruptcy, but it was a death knell for Spanish cycling.

Regional governments, which had been the main source of funding for bike races and bike teams across Spain, didn’t have money for such indulgences. The Spanish peloton went from nearly a dozen top pro teams to just two today (Movistar and Caja Rural), and its burgeoning racing calendar shrunk. The Spanish cycling federation faced a 50-percent budget cut, and couldn’t afford to fly riders to major events like cyclocross or mountain bike world championships.

“The crisis was very hard for us,” Guillén admits. “What it did, though, was make us stronger. So we made a bet on the Vuelta, and now that Spain is growing again, the Vuelta is well-positioned to make that investment pay off. We are now on very solid footing.”

A lawyer by trade, Guillén admits he leaves the finer details of route design and road selection to his technical team, led by former pro Fernando Escartín. Instead, Guillén plies the boardrooms across Spain as he tirelessly pitches the Vuelta to sponsors and government bodies looking to use the race to promote their regions as tourist destinations.

Before anything, bicycle races are businesses. And Guillén realized that the Vuelta needed to find its niche. To do that, he took the race away from the big flat roads, and into the Spanish heartland.

The Vuelta used to roam almost without purpose, or narrative, from one major city to another. The stages were often run through an uninspiring series of traffic circles and along boring flat straightaways. Local residents would complain about road closures. No one was happy.

With the big cities pinched for money, Guillén found interest in secondary towns and off-the-radar regions looking to boost tourism. The Vuelta reached out to España profunda — rural Spain — with surprising success. After the Angliru climb came stages to such places as Bola del Mundo, La Campera, Ezaro — all ridiculously steep ramps that guaranteed fireworks.

The perfect example of a new Spanish host town is Valdepeñas de Jaén, a small village of 4,000 surrounded by an ocean of olive trees that hosted its first Vuelta stage in 2010. Locals packed themselves 10-deep on the brutally steep finishing ramp of 25 percent as if it was a summer block party. It was back in 2017 for a fifth time as part of stage 14.

Guillén also realized that the Vuelta came at the end of a long and demanding racing calendar when riders were tired. With only three grand tours in the world, he figured if he polished the Vuelta, he might be able to draw the big stars. His vision was as simple as it was engaging: shorter stages, lots of climbs, and a GC battle that would go down to the wire.

“We try to make every stage count. We try to make every day a mini-movie,” he explains. “The Vuelta changed the model of what a grand tour can be. We do not have a dogma. What works for the Vuelta might not work for the Giro or Tour. We are happy where we are.” Guillén isn’t complaining. After some financially lean years, the Vuelta is booming again. The world’s top GC riders are flocking to Spain.

How much have the French had a hand in the reinvention of the Vuelta? According to insiders, the French are leaving the Vuelta to the Spaniards.

“The French have let Guillén do his job. They don’t want to be seen as Napoleon,” says El Correo’s Gómez Peña. “The Vuelta really suffered in 2008, ’09, ’10. They could barely find host cities for the race. Now, they have more than they can handle.”

Vuelta a Espana
Chris Froome made a name for himself at the 2011 Vuelta when he bested team leader Bradley Wiggins, finishing second overall by 13 seconds. Photo: Tim De Waele |

THE VUELTA DISCOVERED THE magic formula. For Guillén, the perfect Vuelta is a race decided on the penultimate stage on the very last climb. He wants the race to unfold like a soccer match coming down to penalty kicks.

The emphasis on tough climbs did have a consequence. From 1995 through 2013, all but one world champion raced the Vuelta to prepare for the end-of-year road race. By 2014, the Vuelta was getting too hard. Michal Kwiatkowski didn’t race the Vuelta in 2014 because of the demanding course. Sagan raced the Vuelta in 2015 but skipped it in 2016. Sprinters don’t even bother coming anymore. Why? There are almost no sprints.

“Our sprinters don’t want to come to the Vuelta,” says BMC’s Peiper. “It’s too hard. Now it’s a GC battle.”

Another key moment came in 2011. A relatively unknown rider from Kenya named Chris Froome came within 13 seconds of winning the race that year. Ever since then, Froome put the Vuelta on his radar, racing every year except in 2013. The battles between Froome, Contador, Nairo Quintana, and Esteban Chaves have converted the Vuelta into the most interesting stage race of the season.

“It’s a race I really enjoy competing at,” Froome says. “I wouldn’t call it an obsession. I’ve been second three times. I would simply like to win it one time.”

Froome won this year’s race, so he can check that off his list.

Short is the new long. While professional cycling, at its core, will remain about suffering, endurance, and sacrifice, the Vuelta helped usher in a new era of wild, dynamic, shorter, unpredictable stages.

Remember the stage to Formigal at the 2016 Vuelta? It was arguably the best stage of the decade. Froome lost the Vuelta that day. Team Sky remembers. They tweaked Froome’s training schedule for 2017 to have something left in the tank after the Tour for a shot at the Vuelta title.

Stage races are rarely decided in one singular moment. The Tour is all about control and calculated power. The Giro often comes down to a battle between two or maybe three top riders. But it’s at the Vuelta where the race can turn on its head. It’s at the end of the season. Riders are racing on fumes. Their ambitions often outstrip the gas they have left in the tank.

“The Vuelta is a funny race,” says BMC Racing’s Nicolas Roche. “Everything can change at any moment.”

Like Hansen says, we all but know who is going to win the Tour de France. Team Sky has won five of the past six Tours. The only one the team didn’t win was in 2014 when Froome crashed out. There’s no drama in that. Yet Sky has struggled to control the Vuelta. More than anything, that is an endorsement that the Vuelta is the season’s most fickle race. “The thing about the Vuelta is that it’s at the end of the season, and everyone is tired,” says former pro Joaquim Rodríguez. “You can have a bad day, and lose it all. Or hit a good day, and win it all.”

Why do all the top riders keep coming back? There are a few reasons: teams want more, riders want more, and, most importantly, because it comes after the Tour, there’s nothing to lose. But the main reason is that the Vuelta has found the right amount of difficulty.

“The Vuelta today doesn’t have those big, long six-col climbing stages,” says Cannondale-Drapac sport director Juanma Garate. “They know the riders are tired, and don’t want to make the stages too long because it would kill the race.”

In 2013, Chris Horner became the unlikely winner of the Vuelta. He hit top form early, nursed a slender lead, and fended off Vincenzo Nibali on the penultimate stage up the Angliru. He later told VeloNews he had eaten his favorite meal — a McDonald’s Big Mac and fries — the night before the brutal stage.

It’s that kind of anything-goes ethos that continues to gyrate through the Vuelta even though it’s harder than ever. Spain is a relaxed country, where family, meals, and vacation are still more important than how much money you make. The Vuelta reflects that. The racers, sport directors, bus drivers, and journalists agree it is their favorite grand tour of the year. Sure, the Tour is more prestigious, and the Giro is more passionate, but La Vuelta is La Vuelta. Venga!

Who is going to win? No one has the slightest idea, and that’s why we love it.

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Rusch rides Ho Chi Minh Trail to find fallen father

Forty-three years after his plane was shot down during the Vietnam War, Stephen A. Rusch met his daughter.

She came searching and found him beneath a curious-looking tree in a thick Laotian jungle, far from her Idaho home. She rode her mountain bike over more than a thousand miles of gnarled landscape, across three Southeast Asian countries, to get there. She meticulously assembled a team of people to help her do, and film, it all. She had pondered for years about who this man was, how she could ever find him, if she could ever know him.

Somehow, she found the very spot where he had been waiting all this time. For the first time in her life, she felt her dad. She felt whole. Tears filled her eyes, the crunch of leaves beneath her feet and her gentle sniffles the only perceptible sounds in this jungle.

To understand what it took for that daughter, consummate endurance athlete and mountain biker Rebecca Rusch, to find the very spot where her father was buried, beneath that special tree, would be to believe in destiny. At least that’s how Rusch sees it.

“I wouldn’t have told you I believed in destiny until … now,” Rusch says. “I can look all the way back through my career — it was all leading me there. I was meant to go to that tree and find that spot.”

Rusch’s emotional and physical journey is documented in the feature-length film “Blood Road,” which won the Audience Award at the Sun Valley Film Festival in March and was released online in June. It is screening at festivals and events through the fall.

We go behind the scenes of the making of “Blood Road.”

Rebecca Rusch
Rebecca Rusch’s father’s plane was shot down when she was three years old. Photo courtesy Red Bull Content Pool/Josh Letchworth

THIS STORY BEGINS ON March 7, 1972. On that day, U.S. Air Force pilot Carter Howell and weapon’s systems officer Stephen A. Rusch were flying an early morning mission over Southern Laos in their F-4E Phantom II fighter-bomber, Gunfighter 61.

Below, sprawled across more than 12,000 miles of roads, footpaths, and waterways, was what Americans dubbed the Ho Chi Minh Trail, after the North Vietnamese leader. The Trail was the main supply route constructed and used by the North Vietnamese to move soldiers, equipment, and ammunition during the war. Starting in Hanoi, the main city in the north, it stretched thousands of miles to Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City). The U.S. wanted it destroyed and launched a five-year operation of covert bombardment.

According to the account of the crew of Gunfighter 60, which flew beside Rusch’s plane that day, it wasn’t long before muzzle flashes lit up the jungle and tracer bullets from anti-aircraft guns flashed through the air.

Then came an explosion. Gunfighter 61 dropped, crashing through the thick jungle canopy, gouging the hillside below as it came to rest near the village of Ta Oy. There was radio silence.

Rebecca Rusch was three years old.

For 35 years, Stephen Rusch was considered Missing In Action. And Rebecca lived life not knowing her father, or if he perished. For years she had recurring dreams that one day she’d meet him while he was playing music in a coffee shop; they’d sit down and talk about their lives.

In 2002, Rusch traveled to Vietnam to compete in the Raid Gauloises adventure race. She found herself wondering if the brutal jungle conditions she faced with her teammates were similar to what her father and his fellow soldiers encountered during the Vietnam War.

Later that same trip, she visited Da Nang Air Force Base, where her father had been stationed. Her mother, Judy, accompanied her. She visited the demilitarized zone and Khe Sanh, site of one of the bloodiest battles of the war. There, on what is now a beautiful coffee plantation, Rusch’s tour guide pointed out the Ho Chi Minh Trail, across the border in Laos. Knowing that her father was shot down over the trail, Rusch’s mind began to turn: “It was a fleeting moment. I took a photo, but I said, ‘I want to go there someday,’” she recalls.

She didn’t think about it again for many years.

In 2007, a search and recovery mission finally identified her father’s remains at the crash site. She received its GPS coordinates. The news confirmed that he had died in the crash that day in 1972. He had never been a prisoner of war. Rusch was relieved to find out he hadn’t been tortured or suffered in any way.

The discovery sparked her curiosity yet again. She contemplated planning an expedition. Around this same time, though, adventure racing was quickly drying up, and Rusch made the leap to mountain biking. She immediately began to dominate the sport. She was focused on winning the Leadville Trail 100, Dirty Kanza 200, and setting records. Though she was again inspired, an expedition remained just a thought.

It all changed in 2013. As a Red Bull-sponsored athlete (something she’s been for over 15 years), Rusch is asked to pitch the company with ideas for amazing adventures. During a long bike ride, a friend suggested she pitch them the idea to ride the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Suddenly, it all became clear.

Rusch first approached her Red Bull athlete manager, who typically helps with reviewing and planning expedition ideas. Initially, Rusch wanted to do this for the adventure of it, and she needed logistical support.

She was turned down.

It’s something she’s glad happened in retrospect. If they had accepted the idea when she first pitched it, she believes, neither she nor the production team would have had the skill to take on the journey’s challenging logistics. “I’m glad they turned it down, because it made me think about it more, made me want it more,” Rusch says.

After further research, and building a better pitch, Red Bull Media House (RBMH) became involved. Eventually, the project made its way to Nicholas Schrunk, the creative director of the RBMH production company. He loved it.

“When I heard that logline for the first time, it gave me goosebumps,” says Schrunk, who became the film’s director. “In the sports world, there are so many great stories, but a lot of them fall into doing the unknown, or the bigger-faster-stronger type films. This pitch caught me off-guard: something that hadn’t been done before, but also had an emotional journey, something that brought in the idea of war, of family, while still being this incredible expedition, on a bike, through the unknown.”

In 2014, “Blood Road” was a go. Rusch’s attitude about the project, says Schrunk, sealed its fate.

“She came to us saying, ‘This is a story I’m willing to tell; I’m willing to open myself up; I’m willing to make myself vulnerable; I’m willing to share this journey because I want and need the support of a lot of people to put this together,’” Schrunk says.

FOR THE NEXT NINE months, Rusch, Schrunk, and the Red Bull Media House team got to work researching how to execute on such a daunting and thrilling plan.

Crucial to that research was finding Don Duvall, an American cartographer, sailor, and adventurer who has made it his life’s mission to map the braided network of trails that comprise the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Duvall began mapping in Laos in 1999, after sailing to Southeast Asia to explore the area. Using Department of Defense maps produced in the late 1960s (the most detailed topographic maps of many of the areas) and his own GPS data — and extreme amounts of time — Duvall has created something that proved crucial to the success of the project.

“Collecting data, organizing it, and making a final product is a monumental task that would normally take a team of people. And has taken me years,” Duvall says. The extensive research laid the foundation for deciding what could and couldn’t be ridden on mountain bikes, how best to access the crash site while sticking to the most historically accurate route, and choosing a portion that could be completed in a month’s time.

The team decided to follow the historical trek from North to South, and begin the route outside of Hanoi in the small town of Tan Ky, where the official start of the trail once was. (A Zero Kilometer monument now marks the spot in the center of town.)

The 1,200-mile route comprised a mix of all types of terrain, from paved roads to remote jungle footpaths where machetes would be needed to break trail. It traveled through Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The crew would end the expedition in Ho Chi Minh City on the grounds of the Independence Palace, which at the time of the war was the official residence of the President of South Vietnam.

Duvall’s devotion to mapping the region, as well as his determination to guide the team to the crash site despite breaking his shoulder along the way, was not lost on the team or himself. As he states in the film, it was one of the most important projects he’s ever worked on.

“It was a dream come true to have Rebecca and Red Bull Media House do this documentary so the world could see this little-known and very important part of history — how the war changed the lives of so many people and is still impacting everyone living in the area of the Ho Chi Minh Trail today,” Duvall says.

A second critical element to the expedition was finding a teammate for Rusch. The prevailing feeling was that riding with someone from the region would help Rusch better understand the country and experience the ride with a completely different perspective. Through research and word of mouth, they discovered Huyen Nguyen, one of the most decorated cyclists in Vietnam’s history, a four-time winner of the Southeast Asian Games.

Typically Rusch knows her expedition partners. Going on the biggest ride of her life with a complete stranger was concerning. Little did the team know that Nguyen’s athletic achievements, though important, would pale in comparison to the companionship she provided Rusch during the challenging expedition.

Having lost her mother when she was eight years old and her husband seven years before the expedition began, Nguyen possesses a deep understanding of loss. Her kindness and empathy toward Rusch’s emotional journey are strikingly apparent on film.

“I feel blessed to be able to ride alongside Rebecca to the place where her father fell in the war,” Nguyen says. “And with that, maybe I can partly share her agony and sorrow.”

Though well decorated, Nguyen had been retired from mountain biking for a decade.

She raises her children, son, Huu Nhat Thanh, and daughter, Nguyen Bao Ngoc, as a single mom while working at Ho Chi Minh City University and coaching the junior Vietnamese women’s cycling team. Yet the chance to ride the Ho Chi Minh Trail carried great meaning. She jumped at the chance.

Rusch was the great beneficiary of Nguyen’s addition to the team. Most importantly it helped the American learn to slow down and express her emotions more openly.

“What was my biggest fear going into the expedition turned out to be my biggest gift,” Rusch says. “While I was teaching her on the trail, physically, she helped me grow emotionally. I wasn’t always recognizing it in the moment. But I look back now and read the full translations of her interviews and see, ‘Wow, she really was devoted to me, devoted to my cause, very patient with me.’ It warmed my heart to know she was doing and feeling and saying all those things without me even knowing it or being able to say those words to each other.”

Rebecca Rusch
Rusch and Nguyen started the expedition as complete strangers and quickly grew close. Photo courtesy Red Bull Content Pool/Josh Letchworth

METICULOUS PLANNING WENT INTO how to film an expedition of this scale, through jungles and remote villages, with delicate modern film equipment, all while dancing around a pair of incredibly talented endurance athletes.

Schrunk allowed Rusch to detail the expedition from an athletic standpoint on her own. For that authentic experience you see on screen, it had to be a true expedition, he believed. Yet, for the purposes of catching it all on film, Schrunk and his crew couldn’t take such chances.

“We needed a cheat sheet because there’s no way you stay in front of one of the world’s best endurance athletes by accident,” Schrunk says. “We didn’t want to leave things unto chance. As a filmmaker, you want to be able to capture all of it: the villages, the streams, the rivers, the jungles, while capturing the story in a genuine and real way.”

Thus, for three months, over two trips, Schrunk scouted the route. On his second and third trips down the planned course, he, Duvall, and director of photography Ryan Young established GPS waypoints where they could film the two riders coming or going, beautiful shots of the landscape and villages, as well as places to charge batteries, get water, and so forth. The giant bank of waypoints became their cheat sheet.

“In any documentary, the pre-production process is where the genius lies,” Schrunk says. “It’s how you get more chances to get more creative elements.”

The crew was never in the same place twice — there were no do-overs. Furthermore, most of them had never seen these places before. Most importantly, they had high aspirations for the cinematography and storytelling. And the one thing they couldn’t ever replace was Rusch’s reactions and her discoveries for the first time.

The ask was high: Rusch and Schrunk shared a strong but sometimes conflicting desire to succeed. While her concern was to respect her family and fully address the unexplored, both physically and emotionally, Schrunk’s ultimate responsibility was to document all facets of the journey, and in particular to capture the raw human emotion.

It didn’t always work out the way they hoped.

The small crew Schrunk directed — a team of six, including two cameramen, an audio specialist who doubled as the drone pilot, a gimbal operator, a producer, and himself — could only shoot one scene at a time.

They were often constrained by their small size.

One morning the crew awoke in camp to witness a beautiful golden sunrise — light rose in the jungle, reflecting off a river while a nearby waterfall cascaded down. They couldn’t resist shooting what Schrunk describes as a once-in-a-lifetime moment. They sent the drone into the sky. (Little did they know at the time the footage would be used to open the film.)

Meanwhile, Schrunk looked over to see Rusch embracing a teary-eyed Nguyen. The two women were deep in conversation about Nguyen’s late husband’s tragic death. It was a cathartic moment. Meanwhile, the drone flying above destroyed any chance of capturing quality audio from the touching scene.

“It’s like you’re handcuffed watching hundred dollar bills fly in front of you on the ground. You can only really grab one of them,” Shrunk says.

It wasn’t the only time the film crew missed an opportunity to capture a human moment.

Filmmaker Nicholas Schrunk went to great lengths to scout the route. Photo courtesy Red Bull Content Pool/Josh Letchworth

ONE SCENE THAT WASN’T missed, and the film’s most surreal, was the encounter in the village of Ta Oy. As viewers of the film, we watch as an aghast Rusch learns she is sitting across from the son of the former village chief who discovered her father’s fallen plane. Mr. Ayr is now the village chief.

The chance meeting took the air out of the room.

“Complete shock,” Rusch says. “I was saying to myself, ‘How is this happening? How did we find this person?’ He welcomed me into his home. My dad was dropping bombs on his family, and for him to still have the kind spirit and openness to welcome me and be glad to see me and say that we’re family, it made me sad for what we’ve done in our wars and all the f—ked up things that happened, but it also made me realize how good humanity is, how forgiving they are.”

In the eyes of Rusch and Mr. Ayr, they are family. Off camera, Mr. Ayr told Rusch, “We’re brother and sister. You’re part of me.” That’s because Mr. Ayr’s mother was pregnant with him at the time of the plane crash. The village shaman told his family the spirits of the dead American soldiers were born in him — when one spirit dies, another is born. She was floored.

As a filmmaker, moments such as these are what Schrunk dreamed of capturing. He moved his cameras back and let the scene unfurl.

While Rusch believes it was destiny, Schrunk has a more pragmatic view of the outcome. “I remember calling my editor and saying, ‘You’re going to think I’m lying but I swear to god this just happened.’”

He reasons that if you analyze the situation, it doesn’t appear to be so miraculous. The region has changed little in the past 40 years — people still grow rice, live with their families, remain in the same villages, live a life similar to the way they did during the war — you start to understand how it could happen. If you were a village chief and a plane fell out of the sky, of course, you would go out and see what would be there. And a village chief’s son would, of course, likely become the village chief once his father passed away. With coordinates in hand, perhaps it was only a matter of time before Rusch found Mr. Ayr.

It sounds so simple now. Yet, there is no denying the moment bears a tinge of the miraculous.

THE LOGISTICS OF FILMING in rugged jungle terrain while constantly on the move presented a serious challenge. Doing so with such a small crew was grueling. That meant the entire team adopted a fluid production style — everyone had multiple jobs. The gimbal operator also managed equipment and drivers, while the drone pilot arranged audio equipment, and the cameraman maintained the motorcycles.

Those motorcycles, specifically dual-sport dirt bikes, were the only way the team could traverse the terrain. On singletrack jungle roads, everyone’s bikes were loaded with survival equipment, supplies, and camera gear. This, of course, created an element of danger that required the team not only be talented in filmmaking, but also skilled moto riders.

Audio was incredibly challenging to capture within the harsh environments. It was made more difficult because the film crew couldn’t be with Rusch and Nguyen for most of the day. They used audio equipment to record the riders in order to capture more than 150 hours of conversations.

Moisture and heat were the two main enemies in the jungle. Both variables struck with little warning. Moments after clouds would clear, the temperature often rose 20 degrees, pushing the crew’s equipment to its limits. If any moisture made its way into the RED Dragon 6K cameras or lenses it would take days to fix. They had to waterproof all their cases and gear, and shelter everything before the sun came up. Then there was the most crucial task: not falling off a motorcycle into a river with 60 pounds of delicate, expensive, and irreplaceable gear.

Of the many challenging moments the team faced, none tested them as much as the nine-hour traverse of the Xe Bang Fai River cave.

When the teams’ senses were taken away and the element of the unknown introduced — how long is this cave, how long will it take to get through it, do we have enough battery life in our headlamps — every emotion was exaggerated.

The team was late entering the cave, for many reasons. Rusch, a seasoned veteran of adventure races in extreme conditions, was accustomed to being more in control. Her default mentality of pushing even harder didn’t get them anywhere faster. They had arrived during the dry season, which meant the river was low. It led to five portages over sharp and slippery rocks, hauling bikes, camera gear, and rafts, in eerie darkness. When they turned on headlamps, strange white bugs swarmed them. To top it off, this was just before the halfway mark of the trip — there was still a long way to go.

Rusch broke. She lost her composure. The typically poised veteran of such situations unleashed a tirade. (Viewers catch only a brief glimpse.) The team was cracked.

But sometimes it takes being broken in order to rebound and know where everyone stands as teammates. When the protective layers are removed, the experience becomes something more genuine and real, says Schrunk.

It was a pivotal moment in the making of the film. For Rusch, it was an educational moment. Soon after her outburst, she felt embarrassed. She apologized to Nguyen and the crew who had seen her at her worst.

“While I’m not proud of how I was in the cave, I think it was a good lesson for me,” Rusch says. “I knew I had to communicate better, slow down. It took us to another level in our friendship and working relationship. We started as strangers and now we’re like brothers and sisters.”

WHILE THE MOMENTS WITHIN the cave were raw and unfiltered, there was no more touching and poignant scene than when Rusch stands at the very tree where her father was buried.

The film crew knew this was going to be a powerful moment no matter how it played out. They wanted to avoid dictating anything about how Rusch experienced it. Schrunk chose camera angles that were purposefully set back so that she wouldn’t have any distraction. There could be no moving around; there could be no pressure on her to do or say anything in particular.

“This was her moment,” Schrunk says. “I told her, ‘We’re going to get it, and no matter what you feel or how it goes about, it’s going to be great because it’s going to be genuine to you. This is your moment. You live it how you want to.’”

Father and daughter were reunited. After so many years, Rusch felt her dad. It was the crux moment of an incredible journey. The true meaning of it all, however, wouldn’t immediately strike Rusch.

A few days later, she and the team visited a dusty, drab temple, one of hundreds along their route. Rusch opened the door to the sanctuary and entered another world: like going from a black and white movie into Technicolor, she says. Incredibly vibrant Buddhist scenes covered the entire room, some 50-feet square. It glowed. Across the back wall was a hand-painted scene of the Buddha sitting beneath the Bodhi tree, where he is said to have attained enlightenment.

“That’s when it struck me: My dad’s tree was my Bodhi tree. That tree in the middle of Laos was…finding myself, finding enlightenment, finding a purpose.”

The messages had been coming at her for years. She hadn’t been listening. Finally, her father broke through.

“In his letters, my father laments over having to drop bombs and not understanding why. Why did he bring me here? In order to help heal, close these wounds finally. He’s brought me there to try to fix it.”

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Diagnosis: How to fine-tune diet for racing

Ellie was a 23-year-old professional triathlete who was preparing for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in 2016. Like many athletes, Ellie believed she could improve her race performance by refining her body composition and pre-race fuel strategy. Both of these goals meant she’d need to change her diet. Ellie was unsure of how to do this without hurting her training or her taper for the big day.

Ellie posed this challenge to Ryan Kohler, manager of sports performance at the University of Colorado Sports Medicine and Performance Center. Kohler had already worked with Ellie for 1.5 years and knew she possessed disciplined eating habits.

How does an elite athlete refine her diet without impacting performance?

The two needed to devise a hyper-focused diet that maximized glycogen stores leading up to her race, without negatively impacting body composition or weight. The pair also needed to determine the appropriate timing and amount of carbohydrates to include in her diet, while allowing for her caloric needs and adjusting for her taper.

“It was just a matter of including additional objectives to focus her nutrition around specific times of the season,” Kohler says.


Kohler and his team initially performed a skinfold body-composition measurement and gathered body weight and food-log information. Then, they used MuscleSound software to accurately and non-invasively determine Ellie’s stored carbohydrate. MuscleSound was co-developed by Dr. Iñigo San Millan, the director of the Performance Center and a prominent physiologist with decades of experience working with professional cyclists.

It works in conjunction with a portable ultrasound device to calculate relative glycogen concentration, tissue thickness, body fat percentage, and lean mass. It does this by automatically detecting fat-muscle boundaries. If you imagine your muscles as fuel tanks, the ultrasound allows you to see how much gas is in the tank.

The rectus femoris muscle was used as the measurement site. Studies in endurance athletes have shown this muscle provides a good assessment of lower-body storage, and can reflect small to large changes due to nutrition, training, or recovery interventions.

The MuscleSound test revealed Ellie was approximately 70 percent “full,” meaning she was adequately storing carbohydrates for her daily training needs, and she had additional room to super-compensate — in this case for the priority event.


Kohler prescribed a carb-rich diet, slightly above what Ellie was accustomed to eating. She tried the new meal plan for one week, and combined specific food suggestions. For example, she ate things such as oats, yogurt, and egg whites for breakfast; lunch might include a deli sandwich and salad; and dinner could be fish, sweet potatoes, and broccoli.

Then, Ellie spent a week eating whatever she wanted, so long as it supported her training, was low in fat, and allowed for maximal carbohydrate storage. She ate 2,600 kilocalories per day, broken down into six grams per kilogram of carbohydrates and 1.7-1.9 grams per kilogram of protein.

Ellie maintained her total caloric intake (while reducing fat intake) by consuming additional calories from (1) carbohydrates, to support training and provide additional substrate for glycogen re-synthesis; and from (2) protein to support recovery and increase satiety in the absence of additional fat. Kohler focused the timing of Ellie’s carbohydrate doses to provide the additional energy when necessary.


Ellie followed the experimental diet for one week. Then her glycogen stores were retested under the same conditions. The ultrasound revealed that her proverbial fuel tank was at 90 percent of its glycogen capacity (which Kohler considered to be near the maximum attainable), and she reported having increased energy levels. Over the one-week trial, Ellie also experienced a one percent decline in body weight and five percent decline in body composition.

Because the test was conducted five weeks prior to worlds, Kohler returned Ellie to her usual training diet to allow carbohydrate levels to return to normal.

The week before her big race, Ellie went back on the carb-rich diet. She finished 11th at the world championships.

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