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