New film follows mountain biker on Ho Chi Minh ride to find her father’s grave

Mountain biker Rebecca Rusch has ridden up Mount Kilimanjaro, won the 24-hour Mountain Bike World Championships and set speed records on long-distance trails. Endurance and suffering are what she’s known for. But in the new feature-length film “Blood Road,” produced by Red Bull Media House and premiering March 15 in Sun Valley, Idaho, Rusch takes on a mission unlike anything she’s done before. 

The film documents Rusch’s journey to ride 1,200 miles on the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in an effort to find the crash site where her father, a U.S. Air Force pilot, was shot down and killed during the Vietnam War, when Rusch was 3 years old. Excelle Sports spoke to Rusch about the film, mountain biking in southeast Asia and why philanthropy and sports go hand in hand.

Excelle Sports: What inspired you to do such a grueling ride on the Ho Chi Minh?
Rebecca Rusch: My dad, Stephen Rusch, was shot down over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos in 1972. They didn’t identify his remains until 2007, so we never really knew what happened to him until they found his remains. I was just 3 at the time and I don’t have any of my own memories of him, but I remember being told stories as a kid. It wasn’t until recently that I wanted to find out more about him, to connect with him. Wanting to get to know him and connect with him in the only way I knew how—that was the reason I wanted to do this ride. This trip was never about mourning his death, but instead understanding his life and finding a missing piece of myself.

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ES: How did you come up with the idea for the Blood Road trip?
RR: I was in Vietnam in 2003 doing a long expedition race in the jungle and it was the first time I was in the places where [my dad] served and in the southeast Asia jungle. I felt his presence and I knew then that I wanted to come back and go to the Ho Chi Minh Trail where he was shot down. The idea to ride the whole trail as an expedition and go look for the crash site took more than 10 years to formulate. I know I’ll go back again because it’s one of the friendliest places on earth and it’s where I feel closest to my father and in touch with myself.

ES: What makes Southeast Asia so spectacular for mountain biking?
RR: Laos, where most of the Ho Chi Minh Trail is located, is a very remote country. The area right along the Vietnam border is very undeveloped, so most people are traveling by foot, bike or motorcycle. This makes for a stunning network of narrow paths and trails. The jungle is thick with giant, dense foliage and the paths change and erode dramatically with every rainy season. The most shocking part of the scenery is the constant visual reminder of the Vietnam War. Everywhere you look, scrap metal is used for houses, bomb casings are garden planters and bomb craters litter the landscape. The jungle is alive with the sounds of insects, monkeys and birds. It’s so rare to be able to ride somewhere so beautifully remote and so perfectly designed for travel on two wheels.

ES: What did the local people think when your team biked through their villages?
RR: The bike is such a universally recognized tool, so it’s often an icebreaker when traveling. I felt like we were instantly accepted and welcomed into the villages by the locals. They could see from the sweat and dirt on our faces that we were on a long journey by bicycle. Even though there was curiosity because they’d never seen anyone like us before, there was always an easy acceptance, wide smiles and enthusiastic waves. They could also tell that we respected their beautiful landscape. We were welcomed into some of their homes and got to experience some of the local customs like giving a few drops of alcohol to the house to keep the spirits happy. We were wished good luck with that same alcohol and sent on our way.

ES: Was it surprising to see so much  lingering debris from the Vietnam War?
RR: One of the most shocking discoveries for me was to find out that Laos is still littered with unexploded ordnance, bombs that never detonated during the Vietnam War. Many of the villages along the historic Ho Chi Minh Trail still cannot farm their land and are in constant threat from these bombs. The estimate is that at the current cleanup rate, it will take another 100 years to clear the country. After I discovered this, I realized one of the bigger purposes for me riding the trail and looking for my dad’s crash site was to be part of the cleanup process. I can now use my reach as an athlete to help bring awareness and activate a faster rate of bomb removal. In order for the country to heal and move forward, I feel like it’s part of my responsibility to be involved in the clean-up.

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ES: How important is it to you to give back to a place you ride through?
RR: Being a professional athlete has allowed me to travel the world and meet so many people. It would be impossible not to be affected by the places I visit and the people I meet. It might be as simple as teaching a young girl to ride a bike in Idaho or as complex as trying to help clean up bombs in Laos, but the motivation to share the skill and knowledge I have to make a difference is still the same. And being part of something bigger than myself is immensely rewarding and just feels like the right thing to do. No one accomplishes anything alone, so we all need to ask for and also generously give help. One of my mottos is the more I give, the more I get. I’ve always found this to be true.

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