August 26, 2007
Wedron, Illinois
2nd of 5 in Vet A
I will admit, I was skeptical when Gerhard “Wardy” Ward advertised a
rideable hare scramble course just two days in advance of Round 4 of
the Fox Valley Offroad series. He also advertised free T-shirts for all
racers and even challenged motocross riders to harden up and put
some mud on their pristine rides for 90 minutes, all in time to be home
for Denim Hour on QVC. Something was fishy. Being the farm kid that
I am, I've seen what five inches of rain can do to the lowlands of
Central Illinois over a period of a week. And with a decent portion of
those five inches coming only three days in advance of the race, it
had ugly potential.

Thursday’s storms leading up to the Sunday event were fierce – the
kind that turn trickling streams into raging rivers. As evidence, the
creek through the center of the property, always a highlight of any
Fox Valley hare scramble, was rearranged a bit. A three-foot diameter
log in the center of the creek had laid waste to a pair of Wardy’s tow
straps, neither strong enough to do anything but shift the log so bikes
could fit on either side of it. Another spot had a pool of water deep
enough to produce a resounding “ker-PLUNK” when I tossed a 5-
pound rock into its center.

The rains held off on Friday and Saturday, leaving the Fox Valley
grounds mostly devoid of the kind of standing water that cancels
races. On hand to enjoy a slippery course was #104 Jeff Snedecor,
gracious enough to park beside my pickup truck and share his pop-
up awning. Tony Smith also made the trip from Warrenville and
stopped by to introduce himself to Jeff as his dirtrider.net handle,
Dist1740b, to which Jeff responded, “I’m jsned.” It’s the world we live
in, folks.

As for the racing, the start was eventful for me for the sole reason that
I actually got a good one, following the surprising holeshot of #401
Will Heitman and #418 Paul Mitzelfelt. Paul’s been riding pretty well
since I took him out at
Prophetstown back in April. He passed Will
shortly into the first lap, while I followed the pair in the third spot
through the flat trails on the northeast side of the riding area. The
transition out of this section was an open field, next to which was a
water-filled trench that Wardy had warned us to avoid. Naturally, the
front end of my KX250 was pointed straight at it in 3rd gear as I
rounded a sweeping corner. My rear wheel had a particularly strong
attraction to the water. As the wheel slid down the side of the trench, I
could do nothing but crack open the throttle as far as it would let me
and hope for the best. As luck would have it, my front wheel stayed
dry and somehow the rear tire chewed its way up the side of the
trench. Disaster averted.

Later in the lap I missed a turn and stalled the engine while
attempting to duck under ribbon meant to keep me on the marked
trail. Paul and Will were long gone, as were most of the rest of the
riders on my row. Shortly after, an odd sight appeared ahead of me:
lappers.
On the first lap? Did I cut off part of the course where I’d
ducked under the ribbon? Granted, it wouldn't have been the first
time (see
Wedron, May 2007), but I wasn't in the mood to start that
kind of trend. I felt a little better when I caught up to some of the
same riders who’d passed me earlier, and felt lots better when the
second lap appeared to be exactly the same trail as the first.

The scoring system would show me as being ahead of Paul for nearly
the entire race, but inside the course was another story. After a
miscue early in the race, he slowly narrowed the gap until passing me
like a AA rider with about 30 minutes to go. Jim Wancket in the +40A
class also passed me at about the same time, then got caught up in
some lappers inside the creek. I got back around him by taking the
long way around the 3-foot log. Later, I saw Paul again, held up
behind several lappers trying to climb a steep hill. I bullied my way
through the single-file line of bikes, performed what Elston Moore
once coined as a “sucker pass”, and took off around Paul and shot up
the hill.

On the last lap, Paul was right behind me as I waited for a guy move
out of the way while stuck at the bottom of another steep hill. On my
way past, ISDE-bound #27 Dan Janus screamed around both of us
and disappeared quickly from sight. A few minutes later, I came to
Wardy’s familiar log ahead of the finish line and saw Dan Janus
pulling off the track. The checkered flag was out. My race was over.

My performance was good enough for 2nd place behind Will Heitman,
who pretty much smoked the +30A class on his way to 7th overall.
Jeff Snedcor followed #100 Mike Armstrong’s rear wheel for all but the
second half of the last lap, then tried a shorter route across a nasty
gully and saw Mike ride away to the A class win and 2nd overall
behind Dan Janus. In the end, Wardy was not baiting anyone into
riding. My bike was only moderately muddy and I was home in time to
buy some new denim drawers on QVC.

September 16, 2007
New Berlin, New York
Grand National Cross Country
8th of 37 in Vet B
It’s a rare occasion that I make a New Years resolution. Until 2007 I’d
made exactly two: beat my brother at Donkey Kong (an impossibility)
and consummate my non-existent relationship with Debbie Kinsey in
college (turns out I’d actually wanted to date her roommate but got
their names mixed up). I made another resolution this year, a promise
to do a better job of combining business with pleasure. The Unadilla
round of the
Grand National Cross Country (GNCC) series, the
NASCAR of my sport, gave just such an opportunity. A business
client in upstate New York was conveniently located just 90 miles
from the
Unadilla Valley Sports Center, home to the legendary
Unadilla AMA Pro National Motocross race for more years running
than most folks can calculate without an algorithm. Turns out there's
some woods surrounding the mostly natural-terrain track, and with
the ability to host many thousands of spectators and off-road
vehicles, Unadilla makes for a great GNCC venue.

It's a long drive from Chicago to New Berlin (744 buttock-numbing
miles, to be exact), fresh off its 200th birthday in the rolling hills of
central New York. The motocross track rolls throughout those hills a
few miles north of town. New Berlin sees more than its fair share of off-
road vehicles and spectators, for sure a contributor to its economy
when 20,000 show up for the national motocross race and another
5,000 or so attend a weekend of GNCC racing. The official number of
racers competing over the two day GNCC event was 1,600. Think
about that: ATV's on Saturday, bikes on Sunday; all ride on more or
less the same course, and 1,600 guys, gals, kids and adults show up
to race.

With those numbers, the course was predictably choppy. The talk
over the huge PA system was of last year's terrible mud, but this year
the weather cooperated very well and some of the Pro class
interviews reflected appreciation for the excellent course conditions. I
had a slightly different opinion. Just before the morning race began
for the C classes and various others who would not be racing with the
A and B classes in the afternoon, I took a walk through the woods.
Only the ATV's had ridden the course the day before, along with the
kid's bike classes first thing Sunday morning, and already the course
was similar to what a typical local hare scramble course looks like
after everyone is done racing. Beat up, rutted, whooped-out, alternate
lines everywhere, and nothing even remotely resembling singletrack.
And 474 more riders would be spending two hours on the course
before my tires touched even a square inch of it.

On my way down a gravel road leading to the back side of the
motocross track, I paused for a half-hour to watch the first groups of
riders tackle a special obstacle called
The Wall. Conveniently situated
next to the road, The Wall was the manmade result of dirt removed for
what was presumably the sculpting of the motocross track, into the
shape of a large half-bowl. A winding, slightly longer but easier route
around The Wall would get most riders to the top just fine, but the
fast line was straight up its 20-foot face. I took a closer look at the top
of the wall and saw its main line had a slight lip at the top, which
suggested that if a guy were give his bike a blip of throttle just before
sailing over (as many would surely do), the rear wheel would kick up
and force the front end down. Remarkably, this is exactly what
happened - to the first few riders in each class. The ensuing carnage
would slow down the rest of the group, but the first guy to hit the wall
with a healthy twist of throttle at the top was always the most
entertaining.

For the afternoon race, I signed up in the Vet B class. Consistent with
most other average guys at GNCC races, I dropped down a class
mostly to avoid being run over by aggressive riders looking for
national glory in the form of a 12x14-inch plaque. My class was
positioned in the very last row and would depart 14 minutes behind
the Pro's. As such, I had 13 opportunities to observe guys racing
around the first turns of a grass track. After the 375 riders ahead of
me had their way with the grass, it was mulch. I two-kicked the KX
and took off near the back of our 37-bike class.

Passing at the beginning of a heavily attended race is as simple as
keeping your bike on two wheels. The first tightly rutted corner on the
track was littered with bikes and riders on the ground. I gained several
spots before arriving at The Wall a mile later, where the morning
classes had shaved off the lip at the top and it was now a much less
entertaining obstacle for spectators. I bounced my way through the
wide trails to the first stretch of motocross track, then headed back
into the woods. The 9-mile course was set up in a cloverleaf shape,
where we would spend some time in the woods, loop back to the
track, do a short section of it, and then head back into the woods
again. The track itself was the highlight of the course. For anyone
who's watched national motocross races at Unadilla, it's as cool to
ride as it looks on TV. The approach to the Gravity Cavity looks
innocent enough, until you drop down into it and realize if you'd taken
it in 3rd gear instead of 2nd, you'd have been a mess of broken bones
40 feet below.

With my late start and the fact that the Pro class was turning laps 10
minutes quicker than me, overall winner David Knight passed me on
his KTM about 2/3 of the way through my first lap. The Pro's make it
look easy, but not necessarily 10 minutes per lap easier. Somehow,
though, they churn through the choppy trails and the lappers
effortlessly. The faster guys of the A classes were close behind, and
in GNCC racing, these are the racers to clear a path for. In most local
off-road circuits, the leaders of Unadilla's 200, 250, and Open A
classes would challenge for overall wins. Here, however, they were
riding their collective asses off to see how they ranked with the top
dogs of off-road racing in the United States. At one of the checkpoints
inside the woods, a bike emblazoned with Monster Energy graphics
tried to shove his way around me while I was in line to get my helmet-
mounted bar code sticker scanned. The scanner guy yelled at him to
get back in line, but the message was clear: move or you will get
moved.

After the Pro and A classes began lapping me, I battled constantly to
get out of the way. Every so often I'd come up to slower B riders and
work my around with a complete understanding of why GNCC
courses must be designed as they are. Guys like
David Knight will
usually lap almost everyone at least once and some of the B classes
will get lapped twice. Odds are, Knight is passing close to 500 riders
every time he takes to a GNCC course. A tight course couldn't work -
the best riders simply wouldn't race.

About two hours into the race, I was finally figuring out some of the
trouble spots and rode a couple of laps without hang-ups. The woods
were relatively free of large rocks, but the small round ones made hill
climbs challenging. At my first pause on the side of a hill, waiting for
traffic to clear out, I thought I'd just ease my way up a side route.
Slight problem: the clutch released, yet I went nowhere. The round
stones wouldn't let me spin my way up the hill. Abundant alternate
routes eventually got me past all of these obstacles, but not without
some effort.

I stopped for fuel just after the two hour mark and tried to ride a
decent pace for the rest of my 6 laps. The sight of the checkered flag
felt good, but half an hour later my body felt bad. Three hours at a
race pace is just plain hard. The guys who do this regularly are
fantastic athletes, and the athletes who win these races are freaks of
nature –
glorious freaks.

Epilogue:
The overall results had an international flavor, with Isle of Man,
Australia and New Zealand represented in the top 5 (in the runner-up
spot, Jimmy Jarrett was the lone American to fill out the first five).
Once again I was bested in the overall results by a guy named Jeff
Smith of Fraziers Bottom, West Virginia, who two years ago finished
ahead of me in the
Crawfordsville, Indiana GNCC race. The Alton,
Illinois version of Jeff Smith considers the Fraziers Bottom version of
his namesake to be his alter ego and surely took some enjoyment in
beating Chicago Boy. The Unadilla race was the first I’d attended with
the
Blazer and its Ultimate MX Hauler. If you don’t have a trailer or a
pickup truck, it’s the real deal.
Wedron, Illinois
New Berlin, New York
8th Place, Baby!!!!
(yeah, they had trophies all the way to 10th)