July 8-9, 2006
Imagine you've driven 18 hours to an off-road motorcycle race, along the
way enduring a shredded trailer tire in the middle of Kansas and having
to break into a house to snag a (free) place to sleep. You arrive at the
race site, squarely in the middle of nowhere, to find a cattle ranch mostly
devoid of trees, hills and any other terrain mildly entertaining to off-road
racers. A twelve hundred mile journey to ride cow paths? I was bummed.
But not for long.
The terrain on the east side of I-25 can be deceiving. The interesting
riding seemed to be on the right side of the highway as Matt and I drove
south from Colorado Springs, but that’s not where we were headed. We’d
started our journey at 5:30 a.m. on Thursday, aiming for Colorado
Springs and a night at Matt’s brother Brad's house. All was according to
plan until one of the 16-year-old trailer tires shredded itself in the middle
of Kansas, taking out a taillight in the process. Ridiculous luck was on our
side, however, as the tire had expired just two miles ahead of Hays. In my
St. Louis banking days, I’d visited Hays many times along the way to a
hog company near the Nebraska border. Two things I knew about Hays: it
has a commercial airport and it has a Walmart. And the Walmart was
within shouting distance of I-70. We limped along the interstate, pulled
into the tire center and were on our way with fresh rubber in about an
Brad’s house was another adventure, mostly because Brad and his family
were not home when we arrived. They were not even in the state of
Colorado. We’d been given the garage door code and assured that a
spare house key awaited inside. The code worked; the key wasn't there.
We scoured the place. I climbed into corners of Brad’s garage that were
nobody’s business but bugs and fleas. This went on for some time before
Matt resorted to breaking and entering. Three seconds and a laminated
ID card were all it took. We were in.
Friday morning we drove south to Colorado City and checked into a KOA
Kampground. My Walmart tent saw its first duty in about 10 years, which
was just long enough for me to forget that I don’t really care for camping.
At least not in a tent. The $200,000 converted bus parked next to us, now
In the afternoon we unhitched the trailer and loaded the bikes into Matt’s
truck. Twenty-five miles down I-25 was the town of Walsenburg, where we
drove another 16 miles east on a paved highway. From there, it was 6 or
7 miles on dirt and gravel roads and cattle guards, flat and straight like
Illinois, with trees as sparse as people. The campers and RV’s parked in
the staging area were visible from miles away. I was convinced we would
be spending the next two days riding cow paths and scrub brush.
The Stroh ranch was host to the fourth and final qualifying round for the
International Six Days Enduro (ISDE). Anyone remotely involved in off-
road racing knows this event, but for dirt biking lay people, it’s an
international race designed to test the skills of enduro riders around the
world, sort of the Olympics of our sport. Each participating country sends
its top riders to a different host nation each year. A limited number of
riders are accepted, so the U.S. qualifying races determine, for the most
part, who goes (the top team, a 6-man Trophy Team, is hand-picked). In
2006, New Zealand will host the ISDE.
Leading up to the entrance of the staging area was a large grass track
with what seemed like 10 miles of ribbon laying out the course. Just
across a fence was the most intimidating obstacle I've ever seen at an off-
road race: a 40-foot flatbed trailer, tilted upward. It was part of the
course, making a ramp about 6 feet off the ground at its peak. "No way," I
said. "They can’t be serious." Maybe it was a Whistler-style bike stunt,
where the trailer would tilt back to horizontal with the weight of bikes and
riders. A six-foot jump to a flat landing? A single thought came to mind: I
will die tomorrow.
Before testing our jetting, Matt and I chatted with the Leivan's from
Missouri, along with Zach Bryant and Lars Valin. From District 17 were
Jay Hall and Dan Janus, both attempting to qualify for the ISDE. I kicked
over my KTM's engine about 30 times without success, then turned it
over to Matt and he had the engine running two kicks later. But watching
Matt change carburetor needles reminded me of reason #354 why I’ll
stick with two-strokes until they are outlawed. Each needle adjustment on
the 4-stroke’s carb was a removal of the gas tank and in the end, he was
unable to solve a bogging issue and lean condition until our last day in
the mountains of Taylor Park. I made one change to my main jet and
called it good enough.
With jetting complete, we searched under the big white tent for
information on how the next day’s racing would function. All we found was
a nice lady who told us the race would start at 9:00 a.m. Other than that,
we knew nothing. No idea what row we were assigned to, no clue of the
time schedule. So we checked our bikes into the impound area and
headed back to the Kampground, still pondering that ridiculous trailer
Saturday morning the race details came together with the posting of rider
minutes (I was 29) and check-in times. We would have 55 minutes to
arrive at the first test, a terrain test somewhere out in the ranch, and 2.5
hours to complete the course. At some point the A and AA riders and
those with intentions of qualifying for the ISDE (called “Letter of Intent”
riders or LOI) would split off into a difficult 3-mile section with a tough hill
climb. My first thought was, Where in the heck are they gonna find a hill?
My second thought was, Why are there so many attractive women under
this large white tent? To my right was a signer-upper gal who shall be
named Sporty Blondie, dressed in sporty summer clothes and properly
ab-toned for display of yummy-tummy (described by my good friend in
Chicago, Mountain Bike Chick, as “getting hot” for the summer). To my
left was a Whistler-style six-foot blond named Annell Allen, who would be
attempting to qualify for the U.S. women's ISDE team and was already
qualified as the most attractive gal I've ever seen throw a leg over a dirt
We were assured the time deadlines would be easy to meet and since the
long course was 23 or 24 miles, I assumed I was capable of maintaining a
10 mph average speed or thereabout. That part I got right. The cactus
was a different story. The race promoters warned us to stay away from
the big bushy cactus growing at leg and arm level. Sparsely populated,
like the trees, how hard could it be to avoid them? As it would turn out,
more difficult than I thought.
An hour later I was suited up and ready to retrieve my bike from impound.
Qualifiers are run with pseudo-international enduro rules, where each
rider can enter the impound area 10 minutes ahead of his starting time.
Inside the impound area, you can work on your bike but not in the spot
where it’s parked. After the riders on the minute ahead of you leave, you
must push your bike up a ramp onto a stage. When a signal is given, you
start your engine and must ride the bike under its own power for 30
meters, in the period of one minute, or else assume penalty points. I’d left
the fuel petcock in its “on” position overnight and, given my problems
starting the engine the day before, I was a little nervous. But the engine
came to life on the first kick and I eased down the other side of the stage
ramp to start my race.
I shared the row with a local guy from Colorado and he quickly jumped
ahead and out of sight. The first part of the course was run in and out of
scrub brush and gullies, then very rocky terrain with almost no dirt in
between the boulders. About every 100 yards was a sharp-edged rock
ledge screaming “I will flatten your tires with the swiftness of great swift
things moving swiftly!” I was only moderately concerned, as my
Bridgestone Ultra Heavy Duty Titanium-Alloy tubes seem to have the
puncture-resistance (and approximate weight) as steel.
A few miles into the course was one of those “Holy Sh!t” moments we all
experience in riding and racing. To my left appeared a large canyon,
about 100 feet deep and 300 yards wide. It was beautiful and not like
anything I’d ridden before. For the rest of the course we would ride in and
around this canyon and inside its smaller “feeder” canyons. The first of
the smaller canyons came just before the terrain test, about a mile along
the canyon’s left side and another mile down the right side. My first taste
of cactus came here, when I tried an alternate route around Annell Allen,
her dual-silencer CR250F hung up on a tricky rock. It stuck me in the leg
and left a piece of cactus attached to my pants. None of the needles
lodged in my skin, but the promoters’ earlier warning was heeded.
Thirty-four minutes into the course, I arrived at the terrain test and had
nearly 20 minutes to kill. One of the first few sweeping corners of the test
was placed next to an area where riders waited for their turns to come.
The LOI riders, assigned to the early rows, had already started the test
when I arrived, and I spent several minutes observing how they attacked
the visible turn. A small berm was all the riders could use at that point to
dig into the corner, which caused most to take a somewhat upright stance
around the turn. Crashing is not an option in the tests, as they’re not
particularly long and the times of the fast riders are often within seconds
of each other, so most riders took a conservative approach.
Then came Wally Palmer.
Wally found a berm nobody else knew existed at that point. His Suzuki's
engine was one continuous scream from the instant he was sent into the
test. He tore into the turn with speed like no one else, leaned the bike at
an impossible angle and was gone in a flash. “Wally never learned the
concept of slowing down to go fast,” said one rider. “He’s a time bomb
waiting to explode,” said another. He was, undeniably, fast.
My turn came at 10:24 a.m. I was slow through Wally Palmer’s turn, slow
through the rocks and sand, and slow right up to the second I exited the
test. Though I’d like to blame it on a KTM tuned for low-end grunting
through 100 miles of extreme terrain, it was pretty much me. The only
thing I did right was not crash.
After the test I continued trail riding, eventually winding my way to a
difficult drop down into the big canyon. How the race promoters found the
tight route to the bottom of the canyon, I’ll never know. From the top, I
could only see 50-foot drop-offs. The trail had a very sharp turn at the
beginning of the steepest part of the decline, requiring a dismount. As the
bike straightened itself, there wasn't enough time to plant both feet firmly
on the pegs before squeezing by a rock ledge and being fully committed
to a quick descent into the canyon. I hung on, barely. Some of the more
technical sections of the entire course came in the next two-miles
alongside a small river. Tight squeezes between rock ledges, boulders
the size of houses and just a small taste of mud were all present.
Near the end of the canyon was the long course split-off. This section
took us up the left side of the canyon, while the B and C riders continued
straight ahead. The climb up the canyon required scaling a two-foot rock
ledge and then an immediate 90-degree left turn. Two routes were
available, one a more direct shot straight up the ledge and another, more
roundabout path to the right. Upon arrival, the right side was
bottlenecked with riders (including three of the four LOI women a couple
rows ahead of me), so I took the direct route. A couple of tugs from
course workers got me up and over the ledge, but not without some
wheel spinning and coolant boiling. The rock ledge was the hardest part
of the long course, but the rest of the section was no trail ride. It just kept
beating me to a pulp. I saw not a single patch of soil until we dropped
down a set of switchbacks and back into the canyon. The rocky climb
seemed to go on forever.
Down in the canyon, the trail followed a creek and wound its way back to
the long course cutoff, where an easy climb returned me to the top of the
canyon. With the amount of rock on the trails, course markings were
mostly with colored ribbon tied to whatever was available. There just
weren't enough trees to staple arrows. In fact, the only arrows on the
course were used mostly to indicate a sharp change in direction.
Next up was the grass track, the final portion of the course. This early in
the race, the corners were mostly flat, but by Sunday afternoon every
corner would be adequately bermed. As with the terrain test, I was slow.
The KTM just couldn't give me the motocross-style burst of power that
helps me explode out of corners. And I suck at grass tracks. When the
trailer jump appeared with spectators, I faked like I was jumping and then
swerved into the chicane that served as the Scared Rider route.
Back at the truck, Matt put the finishing touches on a flat front tire he’d
suffered about 4 miles in. He started down the dirt road to go back to
where he’d left off, only to return a minute later with another flat, this one
courtesy of his tire irons. I gave him my Bridgestone Ultra Heavy Duty
Titanium-Alloy tubes and that was the last he’d see of flat tires for the rest
of the week. Meanwhile, I had about 40 minutes to kill before starting my
The second loop was easier than the first, as the trail was broken in
better, although “broken in” is a relative term since most of the course
was solid rock. Some of the loose rocks had been pushed aside to
produce a somewhat smoother ride, although “smoother” is also relative
term. The terrain test was a bit easier to ride the second time around,
although I was only able to shave 2 seconds off my first attempt. Each
time through, one or two guys who’d started the test at 20 second
intervals behind me would catch me and pass. Most of the better, non-
LOI guys in the various A classes were doing the terrain test 30 seconds
(or more) quicker than me.
At the long course split-off, I tried the long way around on the right side
and again needed the assistance of course workers to tug me over the
ledge. Near the top of the climb, unlike in the previous loop, I was able to
keep up enough momentum over the rocks to avoid steamy radiators. In
the switchbacks on the way down I encountered the same KTM rider as
the previous lap, gingerly inching his bike down the hillside. He had the
fearful look of a flatlander out of his element, like me.
The second time through the grass track was even slower than the first.
Off-road legend Fritz Kadlec checked in 20 seconds behind and passed
me at the halfway point. In the LOI class for seniors, the old man still has
it. At the truck I made myself a turkey sandwich and once again had 40
minutes to prepare for my 3rd and final loop of the day.
Three of the four ladies competing for ISDE honors continued their quest
a couple rows ahead of me. All of them were fast, aggressive and cute.
Nicole Bradford would best my times in all but the second terrain test,
where she apparently fell. On the grass track, every one of them was
faster than me. As LOI riders they were required to ride the tough long
course section, same as the guys, and did so with success. No small feat,
considering they were riding primarily 125’s and 250 four strokes.
At the terrain test, the last of the day, I again watched the LOI guys
navigate the sweeping corner. By now a berm was well established
through the entire turn. David Pearson observed a few riders and
decided to displace a handful of offending rocks inside the berm. When
his turn came, I witnessed textbook cornering technique: hard charging
into the turn, four-stroke engine on the gas, using every available square
inch of traction inside the berm. He was gone in the same flash as Wally
Palmer earlier in the day, but David’s effort was smooth and flawless.
Somehow I was 17 seconds slower in my third attempt than my first. In
typical Colorado fashion, afternoon storms moved in, but also in typical
Colorado fashion, the dark clouds produced little rain. While waiting in
line for the third and final grass track test, I talked to a guy on a Yamaha
who, like several I would meet over the weekend, used to live in Illinois but
moved west. He had been a trials rider in the Rockford area and was now
trying his hand at enduros. It was working very well. He passed me about
halfway through the grass track, then launched his Yamaha over the
trailer jump. Impressive. Even more impressive was the following week
when Matt and I ran into him at Taylor Park, riding alone on a high
mountain trail. In retrospect, it wouldn't really matter if he slid off the side
of the mountain while riding alone -- the only help needed at that point
would be a body recovery effort.
Inside the big white tent, another form of body recovery took place with a
pair of girls performing free massages to weary dirt bikers. I've seen a lot
of unusual things at races, but the Spanish Peak club outdid themselves
with the massage girls. Also on hand was an outfit barbequing what could
have been hundreds of burgers and assorted meats, given the size of the
wood-fired grill. It was large.
Day 2 began an hour earlier and on a later row, thanks to a number of
riders participating only on Sunday. My body, and by that I mean my ass,
was predictably sore after 65 miles of punishing rocks on Saturday. The
classic Stichnoth sit-down riding style had to go, so I used my legs for
something besides a buffer between the bike and boulders: I stood on the
pegs most of the way to the terrain test (shocking, yes). The promoters
had shaved 10 minutes from the terrain test check-in deadline, but I still
had plenty of time to arrive. They also dropped the whole-course
deadline to 2 hours, which was also more than enough time. Instead of a
20-minute wait at the terrain test, I only had to kill 10 minutes and at the
end of the loop I was left with around 20 minutes to spare.
The special tests were completely cut in on Sunday, but that didn't help
my times. The best I could do was come within a second or two of the
previous day’s results. The berms on the grass track were piled so high
and loose that each time I tried to throw the bike into a corner, it almost
came to a stop. Eventually I gave up using the berms altogether. At the
terrain test on Lap 2, Nicole Bradford’s broken clutch lever didn't keep
her from giving up at all. She approached a group of guys on Yamahas
who were waiting for the test, asked each one for a spare clutch lever
until she found a guy with a lever in his fanny pack. Soon enough, four
guys surrounded her bike, tools in hand, to help get her back on the trail.
Unfortunately, Nicole rode about 100 feet backwards on the course to
find herself a clutch lever, and even though the area was wide open and
her backtracking posed no risk to anyone, rules are rules and she was
My second attempt at the terrain test resulted in nothing more than a
cactus in my arm. I saw it coming but didn't make much effort to move out
of the away. After the test I could understand why the promoters
recommended tweezers in the fanny pack – the needles are hard to
remove. Throughout the course I would see the results of many close
cactus encounters. When struck by riders and their bikes, the bushes
seemed to explode. On Saturday I had thought about extending my boot
while flying down the trail and making a few cactus explosions of my own,
just to keep things interesting, but that was before spending 5 minutes
removing needles from my arm. I gave the cactus a wide berth.
The promoters decided to make only the AA and LOI riders attempt the
long course on Sunday. I breezed through the course without much
trouble except a cedar branch caught in my front wheel. The effort of
untangling the branch was enough to leave me breathless in the 6,000-
foot air. Back at the truck, Matt’s bike was parked again, this time with
rear brake problems still unsolved from the previous lap. He had called it
a day and was ready to enjoy watching the fast riders on the grass track.
I treated the final ride to the terrain test as a full-on hare scramble, mostly
to have some fun and see if two days in the insanely rocky terrain would
make any difference in my quality of riding (it didn't - I arrived at the final
terrain test one measly minute sooner than the previous five times). Once
again, I was slow in the test and rode cautiously back to the grass track.
Matt was waiting to take my fanny pack before I checked into the test for
my sixth and final attempt. At this point I was tired and sore and ready to
be done with the race. The helpful motivator he is, Matt mentioned that
the massage girls were back under the tent and were giving each other
massages. I jumped ahead a couple spots in the check-in line.
Dark thunderclouds were moving in, along with thunder and lightning. A
crack of thunder and an immediate lightning strike pierced through the
air. My throttle hand snapped back from the shock of the scary-close call.
Matt felt it in his feet; I felt it in my right hand, like the worst static
electricity shock I've ever experienced. For a brief instant I wondered if
the lighting strike would trigger some hidden speed in the grass track and
send me tearing through the course like Wally Palmer. The check-in guy
counted down to zero and sent me on my way and one turn later, it
became obvious that the lightning had changed very little. Mostly I wanted
to get off the grass track before another lightning strike, which
contributed to the final run being my best time of the day.
I was very satisfied to finish 125 miles in two days without injury and with a
flawless bike. The KTM even looked clean. Matt and I didn't waste any
time packing up as some very cold, fat raindrops began falling. The
ensuing winds would eventually take down the big white tent and
prematurely end the free massages. We were on our way just in time for
steady rains to escort us out of the Stroh ranch. I was beat and ready for
The next week we headed up into the mountains to ride the beautiful,
vast trails of Taylor Park. If you've not been to this area of Colorado,
make it part of your summer plans. This riding, along with the enduro,
made for a very complete week of dirt biking. I will be back.
(click on images for full
|Much of what we saw
on the way to the ranch
|Nothing better to do at
the Kampground than
repair some tubes.
|Here's how most
riders did it...
|...and here's how
Jordan Brandt did it.
|A little more scenery
than this flatlander was
|The whole Colorado
experience (click on photo)