Rachel Gutish is the longest-running WXC bike competitor still racing GNCCs full-time. The 24-year old from Terre Haute, Indiana, first started racing GNCCs at 15 years old, competing on a supermini against the other women’s pro riders. Now, after long nine years, she finally took her first pro class win at the inaugural Buckwheat 100! In addition to her exploits in the WXC class, she also won the 2020 Women’s eMTB championship for the Gear Cycles team.
GNCCRacing.com: How does it feel to finally earn your first pro class win?
Rachel Gutish: I’m obviously thrilled, but more than anything I feel an overwhelming sense of relief. I’ve been so close, so many different times, that I was really beginning to wonder if I was ever going to get a win. I’ve managed to do a lot in my career – I have an X Games medal, two ISDE metals, and a couple of national championships in Extreme Enduro. I’ve won plenty of National Enduros and EnduroCross races, but despite nine years of trying, up until last weekend I’d never won a GNCC. It took nine years to get the job done, and at this point, I’ve been in this class longer than anyone else still racing.
Wait, you’ve been racing GNCC’s how long now?
This is my ninth year. I went back a couple days ago and checked just to be sure. My first full season was in 2011. Becca Sheets did one race that season, and Brooke Cosner did a handful at the end of the year, but they didn’t start doing the full series until 2012. Things were a lot different back then though and it’s not like I spent nine years actually being a threat to win. I spent a lot of my first year getting smoked and sometimes lapped, mostly because there was only one women’s class. From the very fastest pro to the slowest amateur, we all started on the same row, with Maria Forsberg on her factory KTM 250, lined up right next to Rachel Gutish on her supermini, racing her first-ever GNCC. It’s been crazy to see how much faster the class has gotten – I remember it was a huge deal when Maria won the morning race overall for the first time, and now if we aren’t on at least two of the three podium spots everyone wonders what happened to us. I’m also stoked to see how much women’s participation has increased – across all the women’s classes, we’ve had over 100 entries several races this year. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s much more than we’ve had in the past. So many of them are youth riders too, which makes me optimistic about the future and excited to see where things go over the next ten years.
Starting so young, racing against the adults like that, did any of them mentor you or otherwise help you along?
Yes! Mandi Mastin and Maria Forsberg were both huge role models of mine, and even though we were technically competitors, they helped me out and offered me advice whenever they could. That first GNCC when Maria pulled up next to me, I wanted to go back to the pits, crawl underneath our van and never come out again (laughs). But then she stuck out her hand, introduced herself like I didn’t already know who she was and made me feel welcome. Not just that race, but the whole season. She was the top dog at the time, and the fact that she would care about or even notice some little kid in tenth place made such an impression on me. Just because we compete doesn’t mean we can’t be friendly until the helmets go on. And that’s why whenever I see a new rider on our row I almost always go over and chat with them for a bit, because I remember how much a friendly face meant to me all those years ago. Mandi and my dad had known each other from the ISDE, so I wasn’t quite as terrified or awestruck by her at first, the way I was with Maria, even though Mandi was just as fast. Mandi, her boyfriend Dave, and my family would always park near each other and hang out at the races. They helped me to understand what it means to have a race family, and despite our busy schedules, the distance and the fact she’s been retired from racing for quite a while now, we still manage to see each other a handful of times a year.
Out of all the things you’ve done, what accomplishment means the most to you?
If I had to pick, it would be my X Games medal. Like this GNCC win, I chased that for a long time and was beginning to think it just wasn’t in the cards for me. It’s also the only accomplishment on my list that’s mainstream enough I can tell a non-motorcycle person about it, and they know what the heck I’m talking about (laughs). But as far as things that are meaningful, this is going to sound incredibly corny and everyone always says some version of it, but at the end of the day it’s always been about the experiences I’ve gotten to have, the places I’ve gotten to see, and all the people I’ve met and befriended, all because of racing.
Did you go into this race thinking it would be the one where you finally got the job done?
You want to go into every weekend believing it is going to be the one. If you don’t think that, you’re already racing for second at best. At the same time, I like to inhabit a reality-based universe, and I know some places and races will be better for me, and some will be worse. All along, I always thought my first win would be at either Ironman or Snowshoe, my home track and my home-away-from-home track. I hadn’t even heard of CJ’s Raceway until like three weeks ago, but you bet I’ll remember it, even if we never come back again! But it seemed like the stars kind of lined up for me on this one. There’s been a lot of injuries in our class lately, so while I still had to beat the 2020 champion and some other very talented riders, mathematically speaking it’s simple fact and doesn’t take away anything from the accomplishment to say that the fewer riders there are, the better your odds of a win. My results have been steadily improving all year, I’ve found ways to compensate for my artificial elbow, the bike setup is dialed, and I loved the track. So, yes, I really believed going in that this would be my race.
Take us through the race itself. What do you think you did differently this time?
I took another holeshot, just barely edging out Prestin Raines. About a mile in, I hit a tree root I didn’t see and bobbled a bit, stalling the bike. I managed to get the moving again before anyone could pass me. I took off and was feeling the flow, not thinking about it, just having fun. My bike is super quiet, and usually I can hear the other riders behind me. But this time I couldn’t. When I rounded the corner in the grasstrack after the pond, I looked down over the hillside and couldn’t see anyone in the whole section behind me. That was a pretty cool feeling! I did try to push a little harder that first lap or two, so I’d have a cushion when the inevitable third-lap disaster struck. Usually the third lap is where we hit the most lappers, and I tend to have trouble with the traffic. The horn helps, and since the rule change, I haven’t been unintentionally taken out by lappers who couldn’t hear me nearly as often as before. Which is nice, for them and for me. (laughs) Towards the middle of lap two there were some fast sportsman guys that caught me and I was able to pace off of them a bit before losing them in one of the bottlenecks – there were a couple, and I ended up on the ground once, but I made it through lap three with about forty seconds to spare. The last lap was smoother. A lapper did fall on me near the nine and as I was pinned under him I was convinced the next thing I would see was an obstructed view of Becca shooting past like a blue missile, but he got untangled from me pretty quickly, and I came through the finish line with my forty seconds still intact.
How did you get started riding and racing?
My dad owned a motorcycle shop as I was growing up. He was a good local A rider, and went to the ISDE on a club team in 2002. He passed his love of riding and racing on to me. I’m the oldest kid in our family, and from the time I was little, I always wanted a dirt bike like his. For my fourth birthday, I got a little quad. I liked it and had fun, but I still wanted one with two wheels like his. My parents agreed we could sell the quad and I could have a KTM 50 from his shop once I learned how to ride my bicycle with no training wheels. Before that moment I had expressed no interest in doing so, but by the end of that day I had taught myself to ride a bicycle, and a few weeks later I finally got my dirt bike. A year or two later, after he talked my mom into it, I got to start doing the same AMA District 17 Hare Scrambles that he did. It’s kinda funny – she was so nervous and reluctant to let me start racing at first, and now she’s my biggest supporter! In fact, she’s actually driving us home right now as I’m typing my answers up. There weren’t girl’s classes at the District races, or at the OMA Nationals, which is where we went next. I grew up racing against boys, and my dad used to make me ride up really technical terrain, even on little bikes. He always told me that it didn’t matter how hard I trained, the boys would always be bigger and stronger. If they fell on a hill, they could pick up their bikes and move on. It might be five minutes before I got my bike upright and going again. So, I couldn’t afford to fall or get stuck, which meant practicing stuff that was even harder than we could expect to see at the toughest races. I think that background is why I enjoy EnduroCross and Extreme racing so much. After two seasons racing OMAs, we switched to GNCCs because that’s where all the fastest women were. And we’ve been there ever since.
Switching up topics a bit, tell us about your eBike championship. How did you end up getting involved in that?
Funny story. My eBike broke at the end of last season. I too, was broke, and couldn’t afford a new one (laughs). The Specialized guys at Gear Cycles were willing to give me a sweet discount on a new bike… but only if I raced the eBike series for them, because their team needed a women’s rider. I decided to go for it, and I’m glad I did. The competition was much tougher than I expected, between Emily Opplinger, a former pro downhiller, showing up at round one, Suzanne Bishop, who is old enough to be my mom but an incredibly fit and talented racer dropping in occasionally, and of course the ever-present 2019 champion Ashley Hendershot. But I got the job done, own my bicycle free and clear, and brought the Gear guys a championship. I’m grateful for their help and the opportunity I had to give eBike racing a try. Thanks Steve!
Do you plan to race the eBike again next year?
Racing the bicycles is really fun, don’t get me wrong. Everyone should try it at least once! There were even a few GNCCs (Burr Oaks, cough, cough), where I had significantly more fun on the bicycle than on the actual dirt bike. But when paying my bills depends on me performing well on Sunday, I can’t really afford to keep doing something that physically demanding the night before I race. In a lot of the races my average heart rate would be well above 180 for almost the entire hour of racing. After my last epic battle with Ashely at Burr Oaks, I pretty much fell off the bicycle at the finish line. That’s just not sustainable.
On top of the eBike racing, you manage to keep pretty busy with other series and disciplines too, right?
Yes – even with the COVID break I did 31 National or Regional races this season. The full GNCC series, the NEPG series minus the one round that conflicted with the AMA East Extreme Off-Road series, plus most of the AMA East Hare Scrambles, the Tennessee Knock-Out National Championship, and if EnduroCross hadn’t gotten rescheduled on top of a GNCC weekend at the last minute, I probably would have been out there for that too. Something I really pride myself on is being a well-rounded rider – historically, I may not be the best at any one thing, but I’ll be competitive almost anywhere I go.
At this point in the season you have to be pretty worn-out, right?
More than anything, it’s the travel that gets to me. I love racing, and never get tired of that rush when the flag or the gate drops. But at this point in the year, there’s always some lingering injuries and fatigue – your body and mind both need a good rest, and that’s what the off-season is for. I know most riders prefer to focus on one or maybe two series in a year and feel they are better rested and get better results that way. But for me personally, I feel like all the racing keeps me sharp and actually makes me stress and worry about each separate race a little less. When you race that much, no individual race really has that do-or-die feeling – if I have a bad weekend at the GNCC, I can redeem myself at the NEPG next weekend, or Tough Like RORR the week after that. If the National Enduro points standings are pretty hopeless, there’s always the Extreme races. I still give each race everything I have, but approaching it like this relaxes me a bit, and the more relaxed I am, the better I end up doing.
Tell us something interesting about yourself that has nothing to do with motorcycles.
I pole vaulted in high school and my first two years of college. Like most GNCC racers, I enjoy being outside doing stuff, but I can also spend hours completely lost in a book. I love weightlifting, but once I retire from racing I will probably never do cardio ever again, besides the hour a week that’s supposed to keep you from having heart attacks or whatever. Speaking of retiring from racing, I want to race professionally until I can either no longer support myself or my body can’t physically do it. Post-racing, I plan to go to law school, and would like to eventually work in the industry somewhere, because I can’t imagine a life outside of this community. If I hadn’t ended up racing motorcycles I would probably be super into rock climbing because even as a 24-year old adult, if I have an excuse to climb anything, whether it be a tree, a basketball goal, a rope, a ladder up onto the roof of a motor home, literally anything – it’s the highlight of my day.
One more quick question – don’t you do some of the race reports for GNCCRacing.com, and the Tuesday Toolbox interviews also?
That’s right. I started doing a little work on the side for GNCC my senior year of college, but I plan on giving up the role at the end of this year to lighten up my schedule a bit.
So… this means you’re interviewing yourself right now?
Yep, easiest interview I’ve ever done! There was very little background research and I didn’t even have to set up a phone call (laughs)
Who would you like to thank?
First, I want to thank my dad, mom, grandparents and my sisters Bridget and Erin. My family has been so supportive of me all these years and I wouldn’t be here without them. My dad has devoted as much of his life to the pursuit of this as I have, and we share the triumphs and disappointments. It’s not always been a smooth or easy road, but I’m glad we’re on it together. A lot of people have helped me out over the years, whether it was with advice or sponsorships – far too many to name here. You all know who you are, and from the bottom of my heart, thank you for helping me get to where I am today. Everybody over the years who has ever had my back or been rooting for me, thank you! There were a lot of people out there clapping for me Sunday, and in a wide variety of shirt colors too. My teammates Cody Barnes and Thorn Devlin – I had the privilege of training with each of them for six weeks or so at various points this year. Their aid and advice has helped me improve a lot this season. My trainer, Steven Squire, who in a long and exhausting four-year process has taken me from being a wildly out of control rider that terrifies everyone within two bike-lengths to being … well, a much faster, less out of control rider who still seems to somehow terrify everyone within two bike-lengths (laughs). My fellow WXC rider and training partner Korie Steede, always there to help keep things fun and remind me not to be so uptight about basically everything. Brooke Cosner, another WXC racer and friend, we’ve raced together since almost the very beginning and had a blast along the way. My mentors Mandi Mastin and Maria Forsberg. All the other WXC riders I’ve competed against over the years, who through competition helped me become better. Steve at Gear Bicycles and Specialized Bicycles for their support, plus Brooke Lyman, Rhys Louis and The Endurance Collective for ensuring I didn’t crash and burn in my short-lived bicycle-racing career. And last, but most importantly, short of my family – Beta USA. The company itself, but especially Tim Pilg, Rodney Smith, my mechanic Jamison Gryder, and the other mechanic Sam Gaines. Beta supported me when I was at a low point and literally nobody else would. We’ve done some cool stuff together, and I sincerely hope to finish out my career with this company. They’re an organization I’m proud to be part of! A quick shout-out to my personal sponsors as well – Moose racing, Arai Helmets, Mobius Braces, Sidi Boots and EKS Brand Goggles. A big thank you as well to all of our Beta USA Factory Sponsors: Kenda, Motul, FMF, Beta Factory Suspension, HBD Graphics, ARC Levers, Twin Air, Bulletproof Designs, Rekluse Motorsports, IMS Products, Innteck USA, Samco Sport, Billet Racing Products, Works Connection, Enduro Engineering, Seat Concepts, G2 Ergonomics, Motion Pro, Evans Coolant, Maas Brothers Powdercoating, Acerbis USA, DP Brakes, Presicion Racing, Pro Moto Biller, Mika Metals, and Regina Chains.