2005 Race Reports
September 4, 2005
Eugene, Missouri
3rd of 10 in A Sportsman
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. It’s an oft-repeated theory,
generally conjectured to a college girlfriend as justification for that month-
long trip overseas where you plan to screw your way through Eastern
Europe but only manage to get to third base with a Hungarian named
Borbala. This theory could not have been more true than in my 6-month
absence from the Missouri Hare Scrambles Championship. My return to
the MHSC was made courtesy of its scheduling the Eugene event over
Labor Day weekend. With an extra day of recovery for the return trip to
suburban hell, I planned a long Missouri weekend with old friends along a
familiar theme: abuse of body in the name of fun.

On Friday I met up with former MHSC #85 Jeff Wendel at the Berryman
Trail in the Mark Twain National Forest. Now a bicycling specialist, Jeff
schooled me in the art of mountain bike endurance. He is insanely fit. The
kind of fitness where you figure he leg-lifts Volvos before breakfast and
squats pool tables over Happy Hour. After three hours of thrashing, I
wondered if I would be able to walk the rest of the weekend while Jeff
sipped a Corona. From there it was on to the Lake St. Louis Triathlon on
Saturday. Make no mistake, I am not a triathlete. If the running portion
could be substituted for something a bit less strenuous, like competitive
horseshoes or Scrabble, I might consider abusing myself to the levels
seen that morning. My friend Jodean, completing the 10K running leg of a
three-person relay team, looked to be having as much fun as a
Superdome refugee and she was only doing one-third of the race.

On Saturday night I hooked up with #791 Matt Sellers in Wentzville, took
advantage of Wendy’s home cooking and loaded up for Eugene on
Sunday. Most of the usual suspects were on hand, including the
Ruckdeschell clan from Texas who looked $3.20/gallon gas prices
straight in the eye and said Screw you, we’ll just get ourselves a second
mortgage. Parked next to us was a guy on a poorly running Honda XR,
racing for the first time and asking the usual questions like What happens
if my ungodly heavy pig of a dirt bike doesn't make it up the off-camber
climb up the creek bank, and Why is that guy on the #32 Kawasaki being
so insensitive to me and my motorcycle?

I lined up in the center of the A Sportsman row, which was a straight-line
approach to a hole in the trees where we would enter the woods. My
exceptionally slow reflexes made the Yamaha to my left seem to explode
when the 15-second board dropped. He was a bike length ahead of me
before I even moved. The Pythagorean Theorem was developed more
quickly than the time it took me to arrive at the woods. Not helping matters
was being pushed to the outside and entering at the back of the pack.
This narrow section of tightly spaced trees ran beside an old railroad
grade before dumping us back out into the pasture. Inside this section a
couple of guys tangled, allowing a few of us to pass.

After a brief grass track in the pasture, we dropped down into the
infamous Creek from Hell for a quarter-mile of what should be officially
named
Opportunity for Disaster. There are two general line choices here:
through the center or along the edge. Most riders chose the latter,
figuring the Opportunity for Disaster was lessened by hugging the right
bank. Anywhere else was filled with generous portions of foot-deep black
water. Like a Bush Administration agenda, from the surface it appeared
relatively harmless but you just knew there’d be something unpleasant
below. But the line of choice presented its own unique challenge. The
right side was mostly slimy, traction-less, flat rock. Grab some throttle
through here and the rear wheel would slide in more random directions
than the tequila-inspired Twister contestants at Bill Hanley's apartment
back in ’91. I let #94 Kevin Ruckdeschell lead me through this section and
followed him to the off-camber climb up the creek bank. Stranded on the
hillside was #370 Ray Osia, and on my back tire was #26 Todd Corwin.
With Todd behind me, I managed to stall the engine while climbing the
winding, rocky off-camber trails that doubled back in the opposite
direction of the route we’d just taken down the creek. I lost just enough
time to see Kevin disappear and hear a very annoyed Todd behind me.
We all caught back up near the end of this section, the toughest of the
course, and promptly cut about a minute off the course. We all went
straight ahead when we should have made a hard right. An honest
mistake, but one that none of us felt like correcting.

Todd worked his way around Kevin and I and eventually #553 Steve
Dean. I followed Kevin and Steve for most of the first lap, which was just
the right combination of moderately tight trails and faster, open woods.
The third gear trails flowed easily and made me remember how much fun
racing can be. Not that the tight trails east of the Mississippi aren't
enjoyable, but there were times I’d suspect that, given the chance, my
KX250 might forget that it had three more gears. The Eugene course
gave the transmission a full workout while reinforcing the point that I was,
in fact, riding a dirt bike in Missouri. Rocks they were aplenty.

Kevin was visible through most of the first lap, and we checked into the
scoring trailer just a few seconds apart. After a sprint past the pits and a
few cheers from the Ruckdeschell & Co. clan, we dropped back down into
the creek for our first complete run through nearly the entire length of
creek on the property. I seized the moment and blasted by Kevin in a
rocky section, hanging on just long enough to make the pass stick.
Another quarter-second of throttle and I just may have bathed the KX in
the murky water, most definitely blessed with some level of bovine fecal
matter (that’s cow turds to you and me).  On my next passes by a
particular section of the creek, the smell was evidence enough that our
tasty multi-stomached friends had been frequent visitors.

The small gap between Kevin and I grew to the point that I couldn't hear
his big KTM thumper, but this silence was no comfort. In the years we've
raced together, I've grown to expect him lurking somewhere behind me
like Elston Moore and Steve Crews used to do back in the day, just
waiting to capitalize on the smallest of mistakes. After finishing the second
lap without any major mistakes, I began the third lap in 3rd place. But fast
closing the gap was #373 Derek Kemp, who picked up the pace in the
second half of the race. Just after the nasty off-camber section, he flew
by with ease and pulled away quickly. At the front of the A Sportsman
class, Steve Dean took over first place on the previous lap and was now
leading to begin Lap 3. Todd Corwin dropped out after an overheated
rear brake ended his day.

On hand as always was John “Crazy Jesus” Rohleder to document our
misadventures and give us all some extra encouragement. His best video
perspective was surely in the creek, perched a safe distance from what
must have been many cases of
Bikes Gone Wild! I did my best to not
provide any highlights for the year-end video. Midway through the third
lap I could hear a 4-stroke rapidly closing in from behind. Was this Kevin?
If it was, he had caught one heck of a second wind. I summoned as much
aggression as I had in me, charged ahead and listened as the thumper’s
exhaust note became louder. Finally I pulled to the side and was
surprised to see #76 Gary Mittleberg on his familiar Yamaha. Gary was
advanced to the A Intermediate class this year, which means he started a
minute ahead of the A Sportsman class. I tailed him for a couple miles,
following his every move except those which made him go faster than me.
But eventually Gary slowed his pace and let me lead again.

All throughout this lap I was very interested to know the time. The
wristwatch I’d duct-taped to the handlebars was moving around too much
as I slammed through the rocky course, rendering the display unreadable
at any speed. Even though the course was 10.7 miles in length, I was
spending enough time in third gear to suspect I had an outside chance at
5 laps. Eventually I slowed enough to see that I was about 1:55 into the
race with at least 8 miles to go. So I hammered down, tried not to do
anything more stupid than reading a shaky wristwatch in 4th gear and
finished up with what appeared to be a very good ride. No crashes, just
one stall and only a minor whacking of my hand against a tree. All told, it
was as close to a flawless ride as I’m capable.

After the race, Gary Mittleberg suggested that I might have finished inside
the top 15, which seemed a bit optimistic. The best I’d ever finished at
Eugene was 20th overall. Considering the length of time I’d been out of
the Missouri racing scene, I was just happy to ride well and have an
exceptionally fun race. Ultimately, Gary’s prediction was correct. I held on
to my 3rd position in A Sportsman and finished 13th overall. Half a minute
behind me in the 14th spot was 200B class winner #149 Ryan Rohleder,
making a strong case for a spot in the 3rd row in 2006. Steve Leivan held
off Caleb Wohletz to take the win and lock up yet another MHSC overall
championship. Will this guy ever slow down? The smart money says, don’t
count on it.

September 18, 2005
Ottawa, Illinois
1st of 9 in 30+ A
Racers, ask yourselves: What makes a perfect hare scramble course?
Before you answer, it must be related to the actual course and not, say,
the pit girl who accidentally slipped out of her tube top while mastering the
art of the dry break gas system. Very impressive, yes, but I believe most
racers’ responses to this question would gravitate towards one common
theme: if after two hours it takes a crowbar to pry the smile off your face
and you’d do a couple more laps if they’d let you, that’s perfection. I've
seen it in places like White City, Illinois and Newark, Missouri and such
was the case at the Variety Riders summer hare scramble near Ottawa,
Illinois.

Ten years had passed since I last visited the Trumbo farm along the Fox
River, and the main difference between then and now was that this time I
was racing. In 1995, I’d broken my foot in Michigan and was hobbling
around in a walking cast, wishing I hadn't wasted half the summer trying to
heal. I’ll never forget the reactions to the cast, mostly simple glances at
the hardware attached to my left leg and knowing nods in my direction. At
some point in racers’ lives, all will share in this type of pain. Mine at that
point was more psychological than physical, and the best I could do to
deal with an intense urge to ride was watch District 17 racers tackle the
woods on both sides of I-80. Soon I would be back on the bike, four
weeks premature of my doctor’s recommendation for returning to two
wheeled adventures. When the addiction hits, you just can’t shake it.

But today was race day and I’d spent half of Saturday prepping my tired
but capable KX250 for a couple hours of tight woods. Following the
Eugene, Missouri hare scramble two weeks prior, I changed the gearing
back to the stock 13/49 sprocket combo. East of the Mississippi, 14/50
just wasn't working. I no longer needed the raw speed to keep up with big-
bore four-strokes in wide open Missouri pastures. The tight trails I’d
ridden most of the summer barely required more than three gears.

On the south side of I-80, directly across the road from a fine
entertainment establishment called the Brown Bag Video store, was the
Variety Riders staging area. Had this minor directional detail had been
included in the AMA’s American Motorcyclist event description, I’d guess
that few of us would have driven past the staging area entrance (“I-80 to
IL-23; right trn @ PORN SHOP” would be hard to miss, no?). As it was, I
whipped a U-turn and backtracked to the naughty store. In the signup line
I stood behind MX Tech owner and minor off-road celebrity Jeremy
Wilkey, who bears a striking resemblance to cousin-by-marriage and
Whistler ’04 partner-in-crime Jeff Murray. By its nature, Jeremy’s business
is as much sales oriented as technical, which required him to patiently
listen while a fellow racer peppered him with suspension-related
questions that could have been answered with a five-minute web search.

After signup I walked down to the long culvert under I-80 that would return
us to the south side of the interstate. Long was an understatement. I’d
been through some Gusse-style culverts at the Moose Run, but nothing
like this. It ran under the entire width of I-80 and then some, about 100
yards of blackness. A small trickle of water flowed through the 6-foot
square concrete, making the surface slicker than snot on a rock. At the
exit of the culvert were Missouri-style rocks in a creek we would follow
another 100 yards. So much for a rock-less Illinois hare scramble.

The 30+ A class lined up on the second row and blasted around a grass
track before turning sharply into the woods. Several riders overshot the
turn and were attempting to spin back around to the narrow opening as I
edged myself in just ahead of all but one rider. Inside the woods I was in
second place, sandwiched between a pair of guys named Tim - Farrell
and Ryan. We stuck together through most of the woods on the south
side of I-80 until one Tim passed me and I got around the other. Still
sandwiched between Tim’s, I cruised through the singletrack with a bit of
arm pump. Loosening my kung fu grip on the handlebars was difficult
while navigating narrowly spaced trees, but eventually I didn’t notice my
arms anymore.

About four miles into the six-mile course I blasted through the gravelly
underside of the I-80 bridge to negotiate the course on the north part of
the Trumbo farm. The tightest sections of the course were on this side,
some trails cut through thickets that most people wouldn't attempt to walk
through. If there’s such a thing as tiptoeing through the woods on a
motorcycle, a couple of extremely tight turns were just that. The turning
radius of the KX250 was heavily challenged here and I thought for a brief
instant of the good old days of racing my sharp-turning KTM full time.
Then I remembered the crappy front brake. And the harsh front fork. And
then I got whacked in the head by a low hanging tree and forgot about
the whole thing (no harm done).

Eventually I came to the long culvert and gently eased the KX into the
concrete square. As expected, it was slick in there and I couldn't see the
sides. All I could do was aim straight at the small square of light at the end
of the tunnel. After I popped out the other side, I steered my way through
some wet, basketball-sized rocks littering a 90-degree turn in the creek
bed. It was Missouri all over again, except it ended about 10 seconds
later when I climbed up the bank and back into the trees. From there it
was on to an off-camber hill climb that could be cleared cleanly in 2nd
gear by a skilled rider. And that rider was not me. Only once in my 6 laps
was I able to make a mistake-free run up the side of this hill. And for the
spectators lining the hill, I’d like to think it looked pretty darned
impressive. The other five attempts I’d like to think I looked as if I had
ridden a dirt bike sometime during the last 5 years.

Laps two and three were basically repeat performances of the first, all of
which were taking about 23 minutes to complete. The course was in
beautiful shape with just enough moisture to keep down the dust. A small
group of C class riders appeared near the end of the second lap, just
after the long concrete culvert, and I made an attempt at passing a
couple of them in the worst of the rocks. It was one of those moments
where you could swear some sort of divine intervention kept the bike on
two wheels, because it certainly felt like I would be taking a rough spill in
the creek. This happened again on the fifth lap, and how I was able to
keep the bike on two wheels through there was just dumb luck. More
divine intervention, apparently. Another near-miss with a lapper came on
the 4th lap in a section running parallel to the Fox River, high up on a
bluff and about a foot from the edge. One bad decision would lead to a
nasty tumble down the bluff, with only trees to stop a rider and its bike. As
I came through here, a guy on a 4-stroke was parked just off the trail after
either falling or resting. To my shock and horror, he chose to restart the
bike and jump back on the trail just as I was about to pass by. I usually do
my best to not shout vulgarities at lappers, but in this case I couldn't hold
back. He came about 12 inches from ending my day in a painful heap at
the bottom of a steep bluff.

On lap five I began a long, interesting game of Follow the Leader with
#109 Kiel Mueller. He began the race a row ahead of me in the A class,
and over the course of 90 minutes I caught up to him. In the next 10 miles
we would pass and re-pass each other about a dozen times. Kiel clearly
had more speed than me but he also explored a lot more of the trail than I
did, particularly while on the side of his bike. He’d catch up and I would let
him around, only to see him fall behind again. On the 6th lap he finally
sustained a long enough streak of mistake-free riding to put half a minute
between us. At the finish, the scorers told me I was the only person in my
class to get in 6 laps, which was good enough for 1st place and about 4th
overall. The Variety Riders put on a gem of a race, thanks in part to
fantastic weather and some of the best trails in northern Illinois. I will be
back.
Eugene, Missouri
Ottawa, Illinois