If you see one mountain bike movie this year, make it “Blood Road.” Sure, the current crop of shred edits filling our feeds is entertaining for one to three minutes, but Rebecca Rusch’s gripping journey through the jungles of Southeast Asia to find the site where her father’s F-4E Phantom crashed during the Vietnam War is something altogether different.
Rusch and her riding partner, Huyen Nguyen, a decorated Vietnamese cross-country cyclist whom Rusch had never met before the trip, became the first pair to pedal the entire length of the 1,200-mile Ho Chi Minh Trail, in order to reach the remote location where U.S. Air Force fighter pilot Stephen Rusch’s plane was shot down in 1972.
Rebecca was just three years old when her father disappeared and she doesn’t remember him, but has long connected with him through his old letters, songs and nomadic spirit. It was only after his crash site was pinpointed in 2003 that she started to consider a trip to Southeast Asia. A few years later, she took the idea of riding the Ho Chi Minh Trail—a vast network used to clandestinely move military troops and supplies during the war—to longtime sponsor Red Bull. After several years of discussions, Red Bull Media House made “Blood Road” as its first all in-house production, hiring an 18-person crew to shoot, direct, produce, edit and score the 96-minute film.
Rebecca’s journey included constant physical challenges like an open-water crossing in Laos, a nine-hour claustrophobia-inducing cave traverse, endless humidity and complicated route-finding through the dense jungle, and many more emotional challenges that are much harder to define. It’s a moving film that ends with an entirely new mission for the Queen of Pain, as she transitions away from endurance racing.
We spoke with Rebecca last week just before the Dallas stop of an intense U.S. tour to show “Blood Road.”
How are you feeling?
This is the gnarly endurance challenge of my life right now. It’s pretty intense, but it’s good. There’s not enough time with my dog, or at home, or riding my bicycle. It feels like important work for me and it’s a good reason for me to tell a bigger story instead of how many bike races I won.
You’ve said that the impetus for the trip was in 2007, but you didn’t go until 2015, did it take that long to put all the logistics together?
No. It kind of marinated. 2003 is when I first went to Vietnam and did an adventure race over there. I went with my mom to visit some war sites like the DMZ where my dad was stationed in Da Nang, and that just kind of opened up a bit more curiosity about the history of the war and realizing there’s still so much living history there. I kind of got into more at that point, reading more books and seeing more movies, digging in a little deeper.
Then 2007 is when they found my dad’s remains finally. So they let us know that he died in the crash—you get a letter that has map coordinates in it. I’ve always loved maps and adventure racing, that was an exploration thing for me. There was something about those numbers that just, ‘Wow, I should go there.’ But it wasn’t like, I want to go on my bike and ride the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I was a cyclist at the time, but I was still racing really heavy. It was just different. And it kind of took a few more years.
What Red Bull does is they push athletes every year to pitch different projects, and every time I’m like I’m going to do Leadville, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that. My career’s been morphing more toward adventure riding and expedition riding anyway, like Kilimanjaro and some of those other things. This just kind of was an evolution. I started to kind of think of iconic trails and cool trails and cool things I could do that nobody’s done and it was like, Of course, the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It’s almost like, why didn’t I think of this sooner in this way?
But I think I wasn’t ready, Red Bull wasn’t ready. They’ve really grown as a media company, and this is a new venture for them to see this kind of storytelling. I pitched it for a little while, the first two times it didn’t get approved. I just don’t think they were ready and the budget wasn’t there. It’s like OK, didn’t get approved, didn’t get approved, then finally my athlete manager was like we really need to pitch this again. I was like, ‘OK, if you think we can do it.’ Then all the sudden it was like yeah, we’re going, we’re doing it, then it just kind of gained momentum.
At that point had you mentally moved on it from it?
Yeah because I knew the undertaking of logistically trying to plan that, that there’s no way to do it alone. It had kind of taken a backseat, like, ‘God it’d be a really cool thing to do but I don’t even know where to start, how do I even find maps?’ Maps don’t even exist for that part of the world, so it was something I wanted to do but it felt too big for just me. If I didn’t have Red Bull as a partner, if I didn’t have that kind of help, I don’t know if I ever would’ve been able to tackle it.
How many trips did you take over there before you actually did the journey?
I took one and the film crew took four and by the time I got there, they were on their fifth trip and they were really conscious of—which is one of the most frustrating parts of the planning—they were really conscious of shielding me from a lot of the information because they wanted me to be discovering it in real time on my own and make it an authentic ride, so I didn’t know really anything until we were going in there.
I didn’t have the maps I wanted to have, I didn’t know much about Huyen, they didn’t even tell me her name for the longest time. So normally I would plan a big expedition with a lot more knowledge of where I was going, and I just kind of had to trust and let go and be like, ‘Ok, if this is the only way I can do this journey, I’ve got to make a compromise and trust that they’ve got my back and trust that we’ve got it planned out well.’ And it turned out to be great because I’m not in the film world, and I can see now those experiences during the trip, at Mr. Airh’s house (Spoiler Alert: Mr. Airh is a Laotian villager whose father found Capt. Rusch’s wreckage in 1972), those are one-take only. If I had known what was coming up, you can’t help but have a different reaction.
So the film crew had done a lot of on-the-ground research, then?
They had gone to the tree (where the wreckage was found), they had met Mr. Airh, they had prepared, gotten a lot of permits, they got arrested at one point.
I wanted to ask about that.
Yeah, well you don’t just go walking around the jungle in Laos. It’s like what are you guys doing here? It’s a bunch of Americans, riding around on motorcycles with camera equipment. You know, what are you doing? So they really did have to go and form relationships and talk to people and make sure there was trust and that they knew we were coming with a pure intention, and that we weren’t making a Vietnam War film, for example. So they had to pave the way really.
Given your background, it seems like one of the hardest parts of this trip would be going into something with no planning and just being able to see where every day takes you.
It’s not my normal M.O. I’m a control freak, I’m type A, I like to know what’s going on, you know, control what I can and it was really hard for me to let go. It was definitely one of the biggest lessons and I’m like, ‘It’ll be OK.’ That was super hard for me. As you could imagine it would be. It was really important and I wanted it to be successful—not that I needed to be in control—but I needed to make sure it was going to be as well planned as possible.
I want to ask about Huyen. She added such a different dynamic to what the trip would’ve been like had she not been there. Was it always part of the story line that you were going to ride with a local partner? Did you think about having someone you normally ride with, or your husband, do it with you?
Yes, absolutely. And that probably would’ve been my choice personally if I were going on the ride to do the ride. I would’ve ridden with my husband or my teammate that I already knew to take out some of those variables, so it was a creative decision with a film crew and me. They met Greg (Martin, Rebecca’s husband), and we talked about another Red Bull athlete. Obviously it would’ve changed how this story unfolded if it was a bunch of American elite athletes coming in to rip out this fast ride, that would’ve been a totally different story. With Huyen, that was one of the biggest variables that I was most nervous about, it’s like who am I riding with? It turned out to be one of the most compelling parts of the story and one of the biggest learning experiences for me was having her and having her show me her world.
Early on, Huyen commented that most of the time on the bike she spent pondering how to be a good friend to you. You two were obviously quite close by the end, but was there a point you feel your relationship changed?
She was always in support of me and I was definitely helping her. She’s never used a Camelbak, she’s never set up a tent, she’s never ridden multiple days in a row, so I was looking after her in that way and supporting her in that way. What I didn’t realize is how much she was supporting me emotionally and just being a backup for me, and being there and listening.
It took me most of the way down the trail to actually understand how supportive she was because I was definitely focused on my mission and my thing, and I’m going to get to this place, I want to do this ride. Then two-thirds of the way through, it became a lot less about me and more about the group. Even our camera crew on dirt bikes, I realized, yeah, I had set this goal for myself, but I could see everyone changing along the way, and talking about their dad and thinking about their dad so probably two-thirds of the way through, my eyes were open a little bit more. Instead of a goal-focused thing, it was turned right, turning left and looking around a little bit more and that’s what I elude to in the end when I thank her for slowing me down. Because that’s what it took to realize it was a lot bigger than just me, and the trip was bigger than just me and I was slowly having that realization along the trail, but it wasn’t just one moment.
You completed the journey two years ago, so how does it feel to be reliving it now?
It’s taken over my life, I came back a totally different person. Yeah, we’ve been back two years, but I’ve been in the project this whole time, meeting people who served with my dad and doing interviews with the pilot in the other plane. The trip is still going, now this next layer of showing it to people and talking about it to people and hearing their stories is so powerful.
I’ve already said this but it’s the most important thing I’ve done in my life. It’s not something like a normal ride or race, you’re like, ‘Ok I’ve done that one what’s next?’ It really is going to permeate the rest of my choices and what I do and who I am. And it’s cool to share it and to have the blessing to be able to. We all know what it’s like to come back from something really impactful and try to explain it just even to your friends or your husband. There’s no way to put anyone in that place without showing them and to be able to do that’s pretty cool.
Speaking of that, what is next for you?
When I came home, I was afraid initially: Am I done? How do I follow this up? What will ever inspire me again? It’s taken me a while to think about it. I did go through a post-trip depression, like, what is my life all about? What’s been really cool is I figured it out. One is the film tour and telling this story, spreading my message of forgiveness and acceptance. Also just my bike riding, natural evolution to expedition rides, coming full circle back to these big, huge exploratory rides. Building on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, I’m piecing together trips to go explore iconic historical trails. I’m doing the Lewis and Clark Trail next, then the Silk Road.
Rebecca has teamed up with the Mines Advocacy Group to raise money to help remove unexploded ordnances from Laos, which became the most heavily bombed country per capita on the planet during the Vietnam War. Approximately one-third of the three million tons of bombs dropped on Laos failed to detonate on impact, and since the end of the war in 1975, more than 60,000 people have been killed or injured by the unexploded ordnances. Visit BloodRoadFilm.com and click on ‘Support’ for more information.
Trailer: Blood Road