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 toll booth.
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
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.