March 19, 2006
2nd of 7 in +30A
Experienced racers, over time, usually develop some sort of weekend
ritual during the racing season. Up until a year ago, mine was
remarkably uncomplicated. On Saturday morning, I’d walk into my
spacious, well-lighted garage, roll my motorcycle over to an organized
workbench, turn on the radio, open the tool chest and start
wrenching. When thirsty, I walked back inside the house and grabbed
a Mountain Dew from the refrigerator; maybe even relieved myself in
one of the two bathrooms (it’s nice to have a choice). Sunday
mornings, I opened the garage door, loaded my motorcycle into my
pickup truck and went racing. Simplicity at its finest.
Things have changed.
The ritual still begins on Saturday mornings, but now I drive 25 miles
from my urban Chicago domicile to my suburban rented 10x20
storage unit. It has no electricity, no refrigerator, no indoor plumbing.
A 50-foot extension cord solves the power predicament, but the lack
of restroom facilities requires some creativity (let's just say it involves
an empty bottle of Mobil 1 and a steady hand). About one-third of my
time is spent searching for things – tools, parts, another empty bottle
of Mobil 1. Once the bike is ready for racing, my Hummer-yellow
Blazer trades spots with the red pickup truck inside the storage unit,
and the bike and truck go back to my condo for a sleepover in the city.
Such was the ritual for my first race of the year, Round 2 of the United
Off-Road Racing Association’s MXC series near Prophetstown, Illinois.
Bill Gusse, of Moose Run fame, organizes this competitive series
along with the quasi-national OMA cross country series. My only
experience with Mr. Gusse’s sadistic philosophy on course design
was the 2005 Moose Run, which even in nearly perfect conditions was
treacherous at best. I was expecting the same when I prepared my
new KX250 for its inaugural competition, but for unknown reasons
decided the bike must be prepped with a new number plate and side
panels and their fancy custom graphics. Actually, I do know the
reason and it was purely based on pride. I would never have believed
it possible, but I reserved the same number – 407 – for District 17, the
Missouri Hare Scrambles Championship, and Mr. Gusse’s OMA/MXC
series (it shall be called The Trifecta). In celebration of this profound
achievement, I paid serious money (by Stichnoth definition) for a set
of custom graphics from Decal Works. Of all the many custom
graphics companies to choose from, I chose Decal Works for one
simple reason: for no extra cost, they apply the graphics to the side
panels. Anyone who’s ever seen my attempts at side panel graphic
installation should understand this decision completely. My 4-year-old
nephew could do it better, using only his left thumb and eye teeth.
The race site, as the crow would fly, is only a few miles from Morrison,
the Peat Capital of the World and home of the Moose Run.
Prophetstown soil has a sandy flavor uncommon to most of Illinois.
Judging from the pair of 4-wheelers parked next to me, each having
ventured into the woods at some point during the morning, the soil
was dry. But knowing his habits, lack of mud in Mr. Gusse's woods
was about as likely as me taking home any part of an NCAA
basketball pool. After registering for the race inside a school bus that
serves as both race headquarters and a food stand, I strolled over to
the small motocross track. The junior class race was in progress and
the pre-teens were attacking the jumps on assorted 65cc and 85cc
motocross bikes. The Dad Patrol was out in force, ready to upright
fallen riders and help restart engines. In a show of tough love, one
small racer was told to get back going after stopping next to his dad
and asking for some water. It was an early lesson of off-road racing:
our sport is not for the meek or the thirsty.
In a departure from typical race formats, Mr. Gusse gave the A
classes their own separate race in the afternoon. Although it meant
waiting 90 minutes for the B, C, and Schoolboy classes to compete, I
was happy to oblige and avoid the mid-race lapped traffic that is so
common in smaller courses. My fancy number plates matched colors
with a handful of riders in the front row, so I lined up there initially
until noticing that most of the front fender cards read “Pro” at the top.
I asked the 20-something racer next to me how the MXC starting lines
are organized, and with complete seriousness he said “Front row is
the Pro’s; old guys are behind us.” I moved to the second row.
The new KX sprang to life with relative ease when the flag dropped.
In un-Stichnoth-like fashion I opened the throttle as wide as it would
go and sprinted to the first corner with only 4 or 5 guys ahead of me.
In a tight corner just after the first turn, I made an outside pass and
fell in line with just a few riders in front. We rode as a pack for several
minutes, in which time I passed one guy and got passed by another.
Ahead of me was a guy with a vanity motorcycle license plate zip-tied
to the back of his chest protector. It read “DISCO”. I followed Disco for
much of the first lap, through unending whoops, loamy singletrack
and a very wide, 4th gear section of sandy loam. The small motocross
track was next, a sure crowd pleaser as I rolled the first two jumps
and bravely “doubled” a jump that may have started out as a true
double, but the space in between was mostly filled in with sand.
Barely a double; not quite a tabletop.
Somewhere between the motocross track and the starting area, I
stuffed a guy in a corner when he tried to pass me. The old guy
(read: me) didn't really want to be passed at that point in the race. I
also was not in the mood for logs or mud, which was good because
logs and mud were remarkably absent. In fact, the purposefully
placed log a few feet ahead of the scorekeeper duo at the finish line
was one of less than a handful of logs on the entire course. The
Moose Run it was not.
What it was, however, was a punishing race for my upper body. And
lower body, and everything in between. The combination of a general
lack of physical fitness, City Boy Hands (blisters) and arm pump was
keeping me from riding as aggressively as I liked. About halfway into
the race my forearms finally loosened up, just in time for my clutch
hand blisters to crack open. Through all of this I had just one
stumble, a minor tip-over in a narrow off-camber section.
A major stumble was narrowly avoided on the motocross track. The
second of two hybrid double/tabletop jumps nearly bit me hard when
the KX cross-rutted on the face of the jump and flew through the air
sideways. The front wheel planted firmly in the sand upon landing,
but somehow I kept the bike on two wheels. Even so, the impact was
heavy enough to rattle my jaw. I’m sure it was a crowd-pleaser.
Lap times were 12-13 minutes, which put me on pace for 7 or 8 laps.
During that time I never touched my roll-offs and only took a few
gulps from the Camelbak. When the race ended, my tires had bits of
sand stuck between the knobs but the bike was otherwise clean. So
clean, in fact, I didn't have to wash it afterwards. In Illinois, in March,
I'm confident that was a first for me. I finished in 2nd place, which was
satisfying in light of my lack of riding over the winter. But the next day,
I felt like an old guy. A really old guy.
March 26, 2006
2nd in +30A
In these parts, racing during the month of March is much like a Cubs
game in April: most days, you’re going to get cold or wet (or both).
Although in the technical sense much of March qualifies as spring,
most of the time you’d have to look at a calendar to prove it. And
since dirt around here turns to mud on Columbus Day and stays that
way until Memorial Day, my expectation of the Colona hare scramble
course was a cold, continuous 3-mile rut, just like last year in May.
My expectation was wrong. This year the course was moist but not
particularly muddy, and WFO Promotions added another mile or so of
trails that weren't part of the May ’05 race. The result was a 3.9-mile
course made up of equal parts singletrack and four-wheeler trails,
and even a Missouri-style, top gear sprint across a flat field. On this
day, my KX250 would use all five of its gears and beg for a 6th.
After the parade lap just before noon, I joined a few other A riders in
the starting area without returning to my truck. The turnout was large
and I wanted to stake out a good spot somewhere in the middle of the
A class row. Eventually, 42 other riders joined me on the first row,
including #26 Rick Kinkelaar who hasn't learned the fine art of
sandbagging and is now advanced to the AA class. Together, we
aimed our bikes at an A-frame construction barricade about 100 yards
ahead in the grassy field. The barricade would serve as the first turn,
a 180-degree right-hander, and head back toward the woods next to
the starting area. Needless to say, 43 riders attempting this
simultaneously was not going to work very well, so the “old guy” A
classes were separated and moved to their own row behind the AA
and other A classes.
In Illinois, we like our firearms. So much that we sometimes use a gun
blast to signal the start of a hare scramble. One pull of the trigger and
our race began. I reached the construction barricade at the same time
as about 10 others, went wide as I rounded the turn and made
contact with another rider. As with Steelville in 1999, we hooked
together for a second and I yanked my handlebars to the right,
separating the two of us. This time, I didn't look back.
Behind the starting area, the entry point of the woods was clogged
with several bikes. Eventually we all found ourselves in a single file
line and made our way to an old foundation from some abandoned
structure. The course curved across a concrete driveway, which gave
me a taste of Supermoto-style riding for about 2 seconds. Each time I
passed through this section I better understood why Supermoto
riders’ tire choices usually sacrifice dirt hookup for road stiction: on
pavement, knobbies corner as if the concrete was greased. The trail
bounced us out into a high-speed grassy area next to the pits, then
back into the woods for some off-camber singletrack. The pack was
still together through the tight trails, but I briefly lost sight of them
while hanging myself up on a log at the top of a small ravine. Within a
few seconds, I caught up and fell in line with the lead group.
The muddiest section on the course was next – a wide, rutted creek
crossing. I charged into it with plenty of speed and made it up the
other side, then navigated a tight turn at the top. Two natural jumps
followed the creek, the first a 5-foot dip with a steep exit on the
opposite side. The angle of exit reminded me of the manicured jumps
at the Dutch Motosports motocross track in Michigan, capable of
launching the bike as high as I dared. The second jump was on the
topside of a downhill, created by a root across the trail that had held
back trail erosion to that point. Below the root, a couple feet of trail
had eroded and a nice drop-off remained. The trick was to hit the
jump with enough speed to clear a very soft, tire-sucking landing
area, which I accomplished each lap with a healthy dose of throttle in
3rd gear. Fun stuff.
At the bottom of this hill was the start of a wide, rough 4-wheeler trail
with Missouri-style whoops. With these whoops were a random
scattering of old tires and a very large, low-hanging tree that was
perfectly capable of removing riders from bikes with little effort. Each
time through here reminded me of Westphalia, Missouri and I was
glad to see the rough whoops on just a quarter-mile of the course,
rather than 80% of it. After this section was another quarter-mile of
wide-open field, then back into the woods for an observation check
and the trickiest logs on the course. Two sets of 18-inchers were lying
across the trail with about a bike length of space between them. Just
when the front tire was firmly planted in the dirt after the first log, it
had to scale the second. The racers ahead of me navigated the logs
without much trouble, then led me through another series of smaller
logs before spreading out over “clean” trail. More tricky off-cambers
were next, followed by another short blast across a field. We quickly
made it back to the original point of entry to the woods, near the
starting area, and then checked into the scoring barrels for the first
The laps clicked by, about 13 minutes each, and I focused on
minimizing stupidity. Each time through the wide-open field, the KX
showed enough headshake to put some fear into me. The nasty logs
got nastier as the race went on, until course workers routed the trail a
few feet to the right. About halfway into the race, lappers became
challenging, especially in the muddy creek crossing. The approach
was down a hill with a left hand sweeper that took us to the base of
the creek, where riders were struggling to scale the rutted opposite
bank. I took a line on the left side to get around a rider and ended up
on my side. I picked up the bike and restarted as a guy I’d just lapped
came up behind me. After I was back on two wheels, the guy yelled
“Hey!”, as if he was going to pass, and I yelled back “Hey what?” and
left him in my roost.
With about 2 laps to go, a Kawasaki KDX came up on me in a hurry
and I let him by. For a brief moment I thought this was Jeff Fredette,
overall winner of last year’s May race at Colona. But I was able to
hang with him too long and it quickly became apparent that this was
not Mr. Fredette. Had it been, he would have disappeared in about
half a minute. The KDX was just a fast B rider who caught me from
behind. The two of us rode together for the rest of the race and
eventually settled in with a freight train of 4 or 5 bikes. I had a chance
to pass the KDX when it struggled around a rutted corner, but only
managed to whack the guy’s arm with my handguard.
After two hours, the race ended and I finished behind Shawn
Minnaert for 2nd place in +30A. The overall win went to +40A rider
Phil Converse, still riding fast after a long, successful off-roading
career. Expectations for Colona were wrong, gloriously.
The new 2004 KX250, in race form, set
up exactly like the '03 KX250.