July 8-9, 2006
Walsenburg, Colorado
ISDE Qualifier
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 hour.

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
that’s camping.

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 jump.

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 bike.

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 second lap.

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 disqualified.

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 bed.

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.
Walsenburg, Colorado