July 24, 2005
The hottest day of the year is destined to be a race day. Happens every
time. I left my apartment “home” at 7:30 a.m. and it was already 85
degrees. Later in the day, the temperature would climb to 104.
Bloomingdale, home of the Dutch Sport Park and host of Round 6 of the
National Hare Scrambles Championship, was a more reasonable 96
degrees, but it was certainly not a dry heat. My best estimate of humidity
on a given day is usually the stench of my shirt, and on this day it was
comparable to Patrick Ewing's jersey after 40 minutes on the basketball
court. My guess: 90%. Actual humidity: 88%.
Along the drive to Dutch Sport Park, I noticed something odd: green. Most
of the grass in the Chicago area had been browned crisply by the
combination of heat and drought, but the Bloomingdale area was lush with
greenery. Rain came over the weekend, as evidenced by standing water
along roadsides and a very wet motocross track. After signup I walked
across the track to check out the woods and nearly lost a sandal. Inside
the woods was slippery clay covering a stretch of heavily used trails.
After my brief walk through the woods, I had an odd feeling that those
around me knew something I didn't, like when you walk through a crowded
Chicago train station with toilet paper hanging out of your pants (by
announcing these things to the masses, the homeless do, in fact, add
some value to society). At first it was just a hunch, starting with the PA
announcer warning that signup would end in a few minutes. Strange…it
was only 10:30 and the race wasn't set to start until 1:00. As I lounged
around my truck and chatted with the suburban Tinley Park guys parked
next to me, I noticed a disproportionate number of guys in full-on race
gear. Why anyone would want to be fully dressed in 96-degree weather
90 minutes prior to the start was unclear to me, but hey, maybe that’s
what they do in Michigan. After I dropped off a gas jug in the pit area,
guys were now riding around the staging area warming up their bikes.
Back at the truck, the helpful Tinley Park guys reminded me that we were
in the Eastern time zone. Oh, yeah...that. So I scrambled to get dressed,
making it to the starting line with time to spare.
On the starting line was the usual crop of big-name riders including Jason
Raines, the Garrahan brothers, Chuck Woodford and Shane “Knees are
Highly Overrated” Watts. All were fully shaded by a crop of umbrellas
while most of the rest of the racers baked in the hot sun. Talent and
speed, that’s all it takes to stay cool. When the greed flag dropped, I sped
to the first turn in the middle of the pack. We curved through a short
grass track before entering the muddy motocross track. During the pre-
race interviews with selected fast guys, some expressed disappointment
that the “big jumps” had been taken out of the course on account of its
wetness. For me, the jumps that remained were plenty big. Whatever the
fast guys were talking about, I didn't want any part of to begin with. Even
under challenging conditions, the Dutch Sport track was a joy to ride. The
jumps were practically manicured, with each face perfectly groomed. The
table tops had fairly steep angles, and each time I launched my KX over
the top, I sailed high and landed softly.
Inside the woods, I was hot, immediately. Within five minutes, every part of
my body was warm. Adding to the heat was tight and muddy trails – hard
work under normal conditions, excruciating under a scorching sun. Other
than a few short sections linking up the woods, I didn't use third gear.
Come to think of it, since moving east of the Mississippi, third gear inside
the woods is a distant memory, like 10 miles on an expressway without a
The first lap was the same jockeying for position that is the typical start of
most hare scrambles, with the fast guys disappearing from sight quickly
and the moderately fast guys also disappearing rapidly. Then there’s me,
the wannabe A rider still adjusting to tight woods after 7 years of honing
my rock-riding skills. Just when I was beginning to feel moderately
competent on some of the roughest courses in the Midwest, I traded it all
for a regular regiment of deep, fertile loam. On this day the course was
sometimes enjoyable, sometimes rutted like a Spring hare scramble in
Illinois. None of the course was particularly hilly, but a couple of short
climbs were already challenging on the first lap. Most began with a 90-
degree turn, then 20 feet straight up.
After a couple brief runs through the motocross track, I was scanned in at
the scoring barrels, unsure whether or not I would do more than 2 laps. It
was that hot and I was that out of shape for the heat. My lack of heat
tolerance was mostly a product of 70-minute commutes to work and few
evenings pedaling the mountain bike around the hot streets of Naperville.
Some might say heat is heat, but Chicago’s is tame by St. Louis
standards. I didn't want to stand, even on the motocross track. A series of
wimpy doubles made me look even wimpier as I rolled them, then grabbed
a handful of throttle on a straightaway just to show the crowd of onlookers
that I knew how to make the bike sound fast.
Back inside the woods, the trail was becoming tackier in some spots and
more rutted in others. While none of the ruts appeared to be of the bike-
swallowing variety, the effort of bobbling through them was enough to
steal precious energy from my heat-taxed body. In explaining the mud-rut
phenomenon to the non-riding layperson, the reaction is usually along the
lines of “But doesn't the front wheel steer itself through the ruts?” Yes,
Einstein, it does. For about 1.3 seconds. Then it’s a combination of body
contortions, clutch control, and sheer will that takes a person through the
rest of the rut.
Near the end of the second lap, racers were already pulled over,
searching for anything resembling shade. The fast guys were still going
fast, seemingly oblivious to the heat. Jason Raines flew by me in an open
field as if it were a cool spring morning. At this point I was reaching the
level of exhaustion where bladder control becomes secondary. I wanted to
pee in the worst way. Resisting the temptation, I soldiered on for another
lap but could wait no more on the fourth lap. I pulled over, turned my back
to the trail and let it all out. I hadn't felt so relieved since Lebanon in 2001.
In full-on spode mode, I finished my fourth lap and limped back to my
truck after two hours in the heat. Could I have done another hour?
Probably, but the days of torturing myself in the name of pride appear to
be winding down. I cranked up the air conditioning, cruised home, took a
long shower and went to bed. Old people need their sleep.
August 7, 2005
4th of 8 in Vet A
A funny thing happens when you drive through the countryside around
Ligonier, Indiana. The power lines go past houses without stopping.
Highways have wide shoulders blanketed with long lines of dried-up horse
dung. The people dress funny – and that’s just the Amish folks. Kickin' it
Old School has a slightly different meaning in these parts. There’s the
Amish, kickers of Old School long before it was cool. Following close
behind the Amish, very nearly in a literal sense, are old people. They
drive Cadillacs and Buicks at nearly the speeds of horses pulling buggies,
visiting Amish furniture shops, overnighting in Amish bed and breakfasts
and dining on authentic Amish cuisine. It’s big business.
Nestled within this Amish paradise is a nice little piece of wooded ground
serving as host to the 14th round (as I calculated it) of the District 15 hare
scramble series. As I walked part of the trail after signing up for the Vet A
class, the course reminded me of White City, Illinois. The woods were well
established with relatively large trees spaced far enough apart to make
for some fun trails. As with much of northern Indiana, elevation changes
were moderate. The junior class was finishing its race while I inspected
the course, and the dirt looked perfect. After battling dust and heat for
most of the summer, these conditions were welcome relief.
We lined up to start in a small sandy field that was a little narrower than it
needed to be for the size of the A-class row. By the time I got myself to
the line, the only open spaces were far to the left or right. I squeezed in
on the right side of the first row and aimed my KX250 for a patch of brush-
covered ground that would take me off the sand for a brief instant. If all
went as planned, the extra grip of the grassy dirt would propel me past
the guys struggling for traction in the center of the sand. As it turned out,
it almost worked. Of the 25-or-so guys on the front row, I arrived at the
first turn in about 10th place (success, in my book). From there, things
didn't pan out as planned. A couple guys ahead of me, one on a Honda,
tangled and went down. I squeezed by both bikes, using at least one of
them as traction but several other guys went past me in the process.
Later I would discover a line of red coloring on the top tube of my right
fork, proving that rubbing is, in fact, racing.
The next two hours were some of the most fun riding of the summer.
Hardly any dust, no mud to speak of, just moderately tight trails in a nice
loamy soil. With no idea who was in my class, I tried to ride aggressively
and shake off some arm pump on the first lap. The Kawasaki screamed
up some short, sandy hills, rear wheel bouncing off tree roots. Once
again I was reminded that the 14/50 sprocket combo was probably a bit
tall for these types of trails. In Missouri, with faster trails and the
occasional WFO blast through open fields, I felt it necessary to keep up
with the big four-stroke thumpers with taller gearing on my close-ratio MX-
style transmission. It did work, as evidenced at Newark last year with Todd
Corwin and his KTM thumper on my tail through a quarter-mile stretch of
pasture. The KX held him off that day but now the gearing was keeping
the KX250 just outside its preferred screaming range of RPM’s.
One of the more interesting features of the Ligonier course was a pair of
dried-up swamps, each a deep bed of peat that rivaled Morrison’s Moose
Run. The first time I blasted through it, I could have sworn it was wet. It
sucked away horsepower like Paris Hilton and a [edited for family-
friendliness]. One pass by the field of racers was enough to whoop it up
and dig out some serious trenches. Had the swamps actually been wet, I’
m not sure the promoters would have run us through them at all. It was
the fastest section of the course but also the most demanding.
The club grounds contained a homebuilt motocross track used sparingly
within the marked course. Though my oft-professed dislike for moto-style
jumps is well known among my regular readers, I actually enjoyed this
short section. One of the tabletop jumps was just moderate enough to be
enjoyable. The track doubled as the setup point for entering the second
of the two swamps and shortly after that, re-entry into the woods. The
bikes ahead of me kicked up a moderate dust on the track and a little
inside some parts of the woods, but it was mostly an enjoyable course
with plenty of visibility. I did make a few minor goofs, each of them slide-
outs around corners and one coming just after making a difficult pass in a
tight section of woods.
Because of the heat (moderate, in my opinion), the promoters shortened
the race to 90 minutes plus one lap. For me, this brought me into the
scoring barrels for the final time at about 5 minutes shy of two hours. After
several tough races during a very hot summer, this day kicked up the fun
factor. Ligonier has now made it onto my highly selective must-do list.