March 11, 2007
The half-full soda can flew through the air in front of my helmet, falling
harmlessly to the ground below its intended target, contents slowly
emptying into the sand. The aluminum projectile had left the hand of Mr.
Bill Gusse a half-second prior, a message to riders that no one – not a
soul – would be permitted so much as a half-wheel-length advantage over
anyone else on the starting line. When Mr. Gusse sacrifices a perfectly
good beverage to express himself, people listen. The line remained
Hibernation was over.
Between December 2006 and February 2007 we had, in Northern Illinois,
what is called Winter. Or as I call it, Three Months of No Riding. The
theory of global warming seemed an impossibility during that time, as I
awoke one February morning to minus-8 degrees Fahrenheit and
hallucinated my way to the train station a ½ mile down the street. I
shoveled three-foot snowdrifts inside city limits. I witnessed snowfall when
the outside temperature was 5 degrees…but how?
Both my bikes sat idle during this time, as my one chance to ride in the
milder climate of Missouri came and went when an ice storm hit St. Louis
the weekend I’d been contemplating the 300-mile drive. Even though the
spring thaw was still in process, it was time to race.
The last time I'd raced on frozen ground was 11 years before near the
town of Washburn, Illinois, where my parade lap took so long that the race
had already started when I finally made it around the course.
Prophetstown was much more forgiving. After a 2-kick start, I was
comfortably in the middle of the pack of Pro's and various A classes,
eating bits of sloppy grease (is there any other kind?) and the occasional
silty sand that makes P-town rideable in most conditions. Less than half a
mile from the start was a sharp right hand turn which cut across a small
berm forming the outline of the beaten path. All dirt was solidly frozen in
this area, one of the lower spots of the course. While walking through this
section during the C-class race, riders were banging into each other here,
spinning tires while going nowhere, and generally cursing their way up a
very moderate incline. Scoping out this section was my single act
intelligence for the day, gaining me a couple positions as I squared the
corner and cut to the inside for a more direct approach to the frozen berm.
One of the more unusual sights in my pre-race scouting was remnants
from what appeared to be piles of snow cleared inside the woods,
presumably by a Bobcat or similar device. As usual, Mr Gusse again
proved what great lengths he will go in order to make a race happen. Too
much snow? No worries, says Mr Gusse, we'll just clear it out a bit. I'd
wanted nothing to do with the previous weekend's race in 30 degree
temps, instead focusing my productivity on adding ridiculously loud air
horns to my Chevy Blazer. Today, what remained of the snow had been
cleared earlier by the previous racers.
While the snow wasn't a factor, sections of frozen mud kept the back end
of my KX250 swinging side to side like drunk Germans on the dance floor
of the Chicago Brauhaus in Lincoln Square. At one point early in the race,
the rear wheel, performing its drunken dance, slammed into a tree on the
chain side. Following this was grinding noises in the chain/sprocket
region. I backed off the throttle and by some miracle these unpleasant
sounds disappeared a few seconds later. Later in the race I would
discover what really happened.
The riders spread out quickly on the first and second laps, and I found
myself in a small group alternately passing and re-passing each other as
we all tumbled in various slippery sections. My best show for the non-
spectators in the woods was a 4th gear high-side in a wide trail just after
the tricky frozen berm. Overconfidence kills, or at least makes you wish for
more throttle control while you're wondering if you'll ever stop sliding on
your hands and knees. Thirty feet later the KX and I came to a halt, me in
front thanks to a forward ejection; the bike behind me with a slightly bent
A few solid laps later, the trail had changed very little. Photographer John
Gasso was on hand to capture a few of my awkward moments in the sand.
Thankfully, John avoided the short motocross track, which after a couple
days of direct sunlight was rapidly turning to soup. I rolled through there
with the speed of Bill Slowski and the coordination of Eddie the Eagle.
My race was shortened by one lap when my chain jumped off the rear
sprocket. Naturally this occurred in the most inopportune spot on the
course, a short off-camber climb out of a ravine. Riders behind me could
barely squeeze by, where just ahead was road kill along the trail. The
exact species of animal was unknown, but its spring thawing was well
underway. After a minute of fiddling with the chain, I climbed out of the
ravine, dumped the clutch in a sandy straight section and felt the chain
jump off the sprocket again. This time I could see that the bent chain
guide had ground off enough of the sprocket teeth that any aggressive
use of throttle would be futile. I eased the KX through the rest of the
course, finished the lap and called it quits. The thought of one more lap of
finessing the bike through sand and frozen ground wasn't all that
appealing. But it was a good tune-up after one long, cold winter.
March 25, 2007
2nd of 8 in Vet A
Lined up as one rider in a row of 40, finding your place in the first corner
of a hare scramble is not easy. At Hooppole, the starting line was located
in one of several barren fields of which we’d see plenty during the race. I’d
chosen a direct line to the first corner and arrived safely in what I thought
was the top half of the row of riders. Then came the second wave. These
were the racers who lined up far to the left and made the right-hand
corner a wide, fast sweeper, flying by me on the outside and tearing a
path towards the woods. So much for decent starts.
Five minutes before, #401 Will Heitman showed up on the starting line with
a new KTM four-stroke and a message: roosting on the parade lap is not
cool. Apparently I had thrown a few mud cakes his way during practice, as
about 100 other guys had done to me. By the time I’d reached the starting
line, my #407 on my front number plate was barely readable.
Inside the woods, I fell in line with about 15 other guys in a slow train
winding through narrow trails. Like much of the terrain in this part of
Northwestern Illinois, black dirt was intermixed with sandy sections. We
soon found some deep sand and whoops, then more tight woods, and
finally a full-throttle field in front of the staging area. Bystanders cheered
the first wave of riders to dump clutches and open throttles. I’m sure a 70
mph pass across a flat field looks simple enough from a distance – just
turn the throttle all the way to its stop and hang on, right?
The first complication in this simple concept is the fact that at these
speeds the rear tire hops from one dirt clod to another, never really
planting itself on much of anything. The front wheel would probably jerk
the handlebars all the way to the steering stops in about 1/10th of a
second if not for strong arms and assistance from a steering damper.
Then there is the sheer force of a 70 mph wind against helmet and
goggles. In these instances, the goggle’s foam compresses from half an
inch thick to about half a millimeter and I can usually feel my eyelashes
against the inside of the goggle lens. And finally, there is the varying
terrain of sand and black dirt. The first half of this run next to the staging
area was sandy, which caused the engine to struggle a bit to reach a
compromise with the rear wheel in its attempt to reach top speed. When
sand turned to black dirt, the KX gained 10 mph in about half a second.
Like hyper-drive in the Millennium Falcon, three words always come to
mind in these situations: “Punch it, Chewy!”
Next up was a 90-degree left turn into a grass pasture and another full
throttle dash to the other side. Once again inside the woods, the trees
narrowed to one of the tightest sections on the course. One downside to
my fancy new Fox knee braces was my right handguard kept bumping
against the thigh extension part of the guard whenever I turned the
handlebars fully to the right. Naturally, this was due mostly to my lack of
bike maintenance, as over the last couple years the metal handguard has
gradually bent itself downward to the point that it doesn’t really protect
much at all. Now the handguard’s primary purpose was to annoy me, and
it this was surprisingly effective.
Eventually the woods ended with another series of open fields that led us
back to where we’d started. While the first full-throttle field had been a
soybean field last year, these fields were formerly corn. Today they were a
chisel-plowed, rutted mess that was claiming many bikes and bodies.
Mixed in was a mud hole and a wet gully crossing. Somewhere here, #401
Will Heitman’s rear wheel found an old piece of fence that halted his
progress for a couple minutes. Little did I know, he’d handed over the
+30A lead to me while he and a spectator unwrapped the fence wire.
Several laps later, Will caught up and passed me in the pasture. In the
process, he paid me back for my parade lap roosting by kicking up a piece
of dirt that smacked me in a place where an athletic cup would have done
a lot of good. It was the first time in my racing career I’d wished I was
sitting instead of standing.
At this point my lack of riding during the frigid Chicago winter was starting
to hurt. I was tired. Along with unseasonably warm temperatures, I was
also a bit warm. The open fields continued to be scary throughout the
race, particularly the rough one leading up to the starting area. Near the
end of the race, I was overtaking two riders while pinning the throttle to its
max, one guy on my left and the other on my right, hoping to beat them to
the woods. The closer I came to passing the riders, the more they both
converged into my path. Like Han Solo piloting the Millennium Falcon
through the asteroid-monster’s teeth in The Empire Strikes Back, I
squeezed through before the gap closed, then threw the KX into hyper-
drive and shot into the woods.
The last few laps, the gully separating two corn fields was deteriorating
badly. Course workers had thrown down a pallet in the center, which
became slick as ice but remained the best line. The only option was to line
up straight, gather more speed than seemed safe, skate across the pallet
and slam the bike into the slimy clay bank on the other side. It worked
each time – barely.
When the race finally ended, I was as tired as I’d been on a motorcycle in
long, long time. Will Heitman took the class win and I somehow mustered
enough energy to hang on for second place. All I could do was load the
bike and gear into my truck and drive home with a Mountain Dew to keep
me awake. The course was fast, choppy, and fun as ever.