October 21, 2007
White City, Illinois
4th of 9 in Vet A
If there’s such a thing as an exasperating enduro, then the Cahokia
Creek Dirt Riders have one in their annual Big Red Enduro. It’s been a
White City, Illinois tradition for about a decade longer than I've graced this
planet with my existence. I’d previously attempted the Big Red four times,
each a failure due to weather-related conditions (houred out twice), bodily
injury (broken ribs) and bike problems (once). After four consecutive
DNF's from 1999-2002, I took a four year break from the Big Red
because it kept conflicting with my annual weeklong practice of breaking
my dad’s farm equipment in October, otherwise known as the Farm
Vacation. But this year, harvest wrapped up early and the Big Red was
back on my racing schedule.
As is common with any race whose level of enjoyment is directly
proportional to the amount of rain in advance of the event, I was pretty
much glued to Doppler radar for six days in a row. Most parts of Illinois
had been extremely dry in September and October, so the two inches of
rain that fell on White City during the week was soaked up like a lamb’s
wool sponge. Upon arrival at the club grounds on Sunday morning, a less
informed person might have assumed no rain had fallen there in weeks.
My own arrival was by way of Rolla, Missouri, where I had picked up Jeff
Wendel’s Gas Gas 300EC on Saturday and loaded it alongside the KTM
in my pickup truck. His keen observation that I was carrying a load of Euro-
trash (Spain and Austria, representin’) made more sense than owning
three motorcycles with only enough space at home for two. Warrenville’s
very own Tony Smith came to the rescue with an offer to host a bike until I
could deliver one to its new temporary home down at the farm.
Jeff Smith (no relation to Tony) met me at the club grounds with
congratulations that I’d rejoined him in a semi-exclusive society called
Dudes Who Own Three Dirt Bikes for No Logical Reason (Jeff is also a
member of a more exclusive subset of this association that is reserved for
married guys). In my own mind, logic suggested the Gas Gas would
replace the KTM, which was today competing in possibly its final race with
me onboard. The venerable 300MXC was decked out in its usual
timekeeping attire, as the Big Red is a traditional timekeeping enduro.
The 18 mph speed average was a bit of a surprise, although it really
shouldn't have been with my past experience here. The woods are tight
and the pace is usually moderate, especially if mud is a factor, and it’s
entirely possible that a more typical 24 mph average would have some C
riders houring out before the halfway point. A set of multi-colored
Sharpies got my 24 mph roll chart modified well enough to work for an 18
At signup, I chose the latest row available: 26. The old-school nature of
the Big Red tends to turn off enough would-be competitors that only 30
rows are necessary, so I was near the back of the pack. With a large
portion of the course run through woods that are only ridden during this
race, choosing an early row virtually guarantees that you’ll be connecting
the arrows with new trails for most of the day. I wanted none of that.
Within the first mile of the trails around the club grounds, young gun Kiel
Mueller used his AA skills to quickly put himself out of sight of me and the
rest of our row. I fought arm pump and the nagging feeling that my throttle
hand was way too close to the brake lever adjuster bolt. Halfway through
the first test section I glanced down at my throttle and observed the result
of what is commonly referred to as the Stichnoth Maintenance Plan: fix
something, mess up something else. This time it was front brake bleeding,
which required loosening the throttle housing brackets. Some would just
go ahead and snug them up again, but not me. I like challenge of rubbing
my fingers against foreign objects for 30 minutes at a time while battling
an intense urge to release my aching hands from the handlebars.
The test ended at the opposite side of the staging area, where I tightened
the throttle housing and gassed up. We took another ride through the
woods to the south boundary of the club grounds and headed down a
country road to the site of my 1999 crash that snapped a rib or two. The
A riders would ride this section twice, consecutively, while the B and C
riders would take a long break after their first pass. It started poorly.
Somehow I misread the flip cards and checked in a minute early, which I
always figure is only a one-point mistake since in theory I’d be checking
out of the section a minute earlier. That theory was trashed when I
misread an arrow and took a longer, lower route into a swamp. Seven
exhausting minutes later I was unstuck and back on the trail.
Even with 75 or so riders clearing a path ahead of me, the trails were
tight, twisty and somewhat treacherous in places. Every so often a series
of Moose Run logs would show up around a blind corner, or a deep gully
with only one nasty line to plow through. And just like the dry Moose Runs
of past years, at each 18-inch long lying diagonally across an off-camber
uphill or a particularly steep creek bank I thought My god, this would be
torture if this place was wet.
A couple miles later I heard the telltale flopping of the plastic
taillight/fender combo, my way of making a two-stroke smoke-spouting
motorcycle appear street legal (not even close). The words of Matt Sellers
came to mind from our summer vacation in Taylor Park, the last time my
zip-tie method of securing the end of the fender extender failed. He
suggested a screw would do a better job. I said Oh no, these zip-ties last
about two years. I had some time to reflect upon that on the side of the
trail while pulling out a couple new zip-ties from my fanny pack. Three
more minutes lost. I kept the KTM on two wheels through the rest of the
section and was greeted by Jeff Smith at the check.
The second pass through this section was much smoother than the first,
mainly because I avoided the swamp. Sort of. In what is becoming a bad
habit of late, I accidentally cut off part of the course, some of which
included the same mud hole I’d stuck myself in the first go around. It all
started with a guy stuck on the side of a creek bank, same as my first
pass. I could see him from a distance as I was blasting down the center of
a 30-foot-wide creek. Instead of waiting my turn, like I did on the previous
loop, I spotted another way up the creek bank about 100 feet ahead of
the guy blocking the exit. At the top of the creek bank I pointed the KTM in
the general direction of the stuck bike ahead and found myself
dangerously close to a big mud hole. Another guy behind me had
followed my lead and kept going straight instead of turning in my
direction. He yelled at me to follow and I did (note to self: stop listening to
people). A minute later I realized that mud hole was oddly similar to the
one I’d earlier spent 7 minutes pushing my way out. Evidently my shortcut
converged with the mud hole. How much I’d cut off the course, I had no
idea, but I wasn't alone.
The rest of the loop was some of the best riding of the day, now that the
trail was well broken in. Jeff Smith again marked my score and I headed
down the road to the remote gas stop. Mileage markers showed a 0.4-
mile difference from my odometer, so I’d missed less than two minutes of
riding. I was still on track to meet my endlessly repeated goal of “Just
Finish”, but doing it without those 4 tenths would be just a little less
The most interesting part of the course came in the 4th test at a spot we’d
been warned about at the riders meeting. Instead of using a road to cross
over I-55, the club decided to go underground by way of a culvert. As
interstate drainage goes, civil engineers don’t mess around when it
comes to limited access highways. This was one serious culvert, the
Mother of All Culverts, if you will. From end to end was about the length of
a football field, approximately 10 feet square. Despite the near drought
conditions, somehow, someway, the entire length was filled with mud and
water. And not just a light coating of mud, mind you, a 20-inch-deep layer,
based on my own estimation of how far my front wheel was diving into the
ruts. Club members were on hand to point out the best line to enter the
culvert, but from there we were on our own.
I dropped down into first gear, jerked the throttle all the way to its stop,
and held on. Twenty feet in I couldn’t see anything except a distant light. I
felt the KTM struggling for traction, the rear wheel churning through the
water and the front end occasionally dipping down into a deep rut. A
hundred feet in, I could make out the reflection of the wake left behind
from earlier riders and waves of water pushed ahead of my bike by its
front wheel. At two hundred feet inside the culvert, the front wheel began
a series of dives that ended with me stuck in water up to the airbox.
Instead of killing the engine when it began bogging, I let it run just long
enough for the carb vent hoses to start sucking up water like a 5-horse
shop vac. There I was, standing in water up to my knees, the roar of
engines echoing through square concrete, water from other riders’
screaming bikes splashing my left side, one guy falling over on his way
past me and frantically righting it before the airbox filled with water. Ahead
of me was the sight of half a dozen guys peering in at the end of the
tunnel, laughing off their collective asses. They weren't about to walk 75
feet through the muck to pull me out.
The rear end lifted surprisingly easily from the hole I’d helped create. The
carburetor vent hoses were still submerged, so I pushed the bike forward
to slightly higher ground, then began kicking. With a splash of water now
inside the carb and headed for the cylinder, I knew I had no choice but to
keep on kicking over the engine until the moisture worked its way out.
Twenty kicks was all it took for the engine to gurgle to life. I held open the
throttle for a half-minute until it ran smoothly, then spun my way out of the
Somewhere in this loop I glanced down at my odometer and read 58.9
miles. A few minutes later I saw the same thing. At the end of the loop I
discovered why: the odometer cable had been yanked from the gear drive
at the wheel. So much for timekeeping. Actually, it’s not a complete
disaster as long as mileage markers are posted periodically. But what you
must know is when to enter woods if you suspect a check may be just
inside. That’s not so easy without an odometer. Luckily for me, Ryan
Moss was killing time on the side of a gravel road just ahead of the next
woods section. He told me when to go in and was spot-on. The course
workers were flipping the 26 card just as I approached.
This 10-mile section ended up being the last, as the interstate tunnel
became impassable. We were sent back to the staging area without
completing the final loop, and that was fine by me. I drove back to
Chicago with my load of Euro-trash and the satisfaction of conquering the
Big Red for the first time in my history. It was more than good.
Here’s a word of advice: don’t try on the expensive boots. Trust me, just
don’t do it. On the Saturday before the race, I left Chicago without my old
AXO mid-level boots, and instead of calling anyone and everyone I knew
who might have a spare set of size-11’s, I decided my old boots were
pretty worn out anyway and made a detour to Donelson Cycles in St.
Louis. Just for kicks I tried on Fox’s latest Forma boots
and…OH…MY…GOD. If you’re old enough to have owned a pair of
Moon Boots for the winter season, it was like that. Form-fitting to the max.
I had no choice – the credit card came out quicker than an Al Gore
acceptance speech and in short order I became an owner of the most
expensive, albeit most comfortable, set of boots ever to grace my beat up
feet. The entire race I never even knew they were there. There’s no going
back, of course. Mid-level boots just won’t suffice anymore. So I’ll say it
again: leave the expensive boots on the rack. Don’t touch them when
tempted, just back away slowly and exit the bike shop immediately.
White City, Illinois
November 4, 2007
6th of 12 in Vet A
These words are commonly (and accurately) used to depict Regis
Philbin, but another man fits this description as tight as an Isotoner glove:
Agus MacGuyver. Back in his days of freelance work for the Phoenix
Foundation, Mac could build a supercomputer out of wing nuts, dental
floss and used French fry grease. In his image, I took every last bit of
mechanical improvisation within my cluttered brain and used it to pass
tech inspection at the Turkey Creek Enduro near Goshen, Indiana.
The Goshen event was my first attempt at an enduro, in 1995, when I
rode a 1994 Suzuki RMX250 with a blown shock seal and didn't even
know it. I was a bit less experienced rider back then. On a cool, windy
November day I showed up without a roll chart, grabbed a couple long
sleeved shirts, threw on my riding jacket and winter gloves and then
wondered why I was so dang hot inside the woods. I wondered why guys
on dirt bikes were crouched in the woods as if to hide (or lie in wait?). I
wondered why my rear suspension was so bouncy and why I was so dang
hot inside the woods.
Those mysteries would eventually be solved in the years leading up to
2007 and my return to the venue that launched my desire to figure out
what all the fuss was about with enduro racing. The fuss is this: 4-6 hours
of riding in the woods with occasional breaks to catch your breath. All
one must do to enjoy this is learn a bunch of odd rules about riding not
for speed, but for speed average. There’s also a rule or two about
various functions your bike must perform prior to the race, such as the
ability to produce light in various forms and to not be a loud, obnoxious,
spark-spewing pig. These requirements vary by location. Some enduro-
hosting clubs have no exhaust decibel limits and most only require the
appearance of street legality, so anyone mounting a headlight and
taillight and carrying a motorcycle license plate (could be from a Honda
scooter or a Harley; nobody seems to care as long as it’s a license plate)
is generally good to go.
Not so at Turkey Creek.
To receive the standard AMA signup form for entering the race, passing
tech inspection was mandatory. No pass, no race. I’d read the event flyer
on the Riders Motorcycle Club website and knew the club required
working lights, but I thought maybe they were just talking about the
headlight. That was an incorrect assumption. The guy manning tech
inspection on the edge of the New Paris industrial park, the staging area
for the race, nodded as I connected the 9-volt battery to my KX250’s
headlight and gave me a thumbs-up on the sound test. “Looks like your
taillight’s not working,” he said. “Gee, that’s odd,” I replied, knowing full
well that the only way it would produce any light was if it were set afire. I’d
stripped the internals from inside the amber lens – no need to subject a
perfectly good light bulb and wiring harness to the abuse of off-road
racing, right? But now I was in a bit of a pickle. The tech inspector
ordered me back to my truck to make the taillight work.
What does one do when faced with such a challenge? MacGuyver-ize, of
course. I yanked out a small bulb from under the dash of my pickup truck,
pulled the battery out of my digital camera, snipped two pieces of wire
from my torque converter shut-off switch, duct taped the wires to the
battery and the light bulb, stuffed the bulb inside the taillight lens, zip-tied
the taillight assembly to the rear fender and hoped it would continue
producing light until I made it back to tech inspection (this required a
bumpy ride over a levee between a couple of the industrial park’s waste
water holding ponds). All was acceptable to the inspector guy and I
rushed over to the signup building.
By this time, the latest row available was 14, in part because the Turkey
Creek Enduro was a two-day affair. Those racing on Saturday had
already chosen their rows for Sunday, which left me with an earlier row
and about 30 minutes to gear up and program my new Watchdog enduro
computer for its maiden voyage. The Watchdog installation needed some
of its own MacGuyver-izing over the weekend, in particular the mounting
of the magnetic pick-up sensor at the KX250’s front brake caliper. The
pre-testing had gone off without a hitch, but a mile into the course the
odometer quit counting. Without enough time to do my usual enduro
ritual of duct taping two LDC clocks and a roll chart holder to my
handlebars, I was relying totally on the Watchdog, which now wasn't
After the second reset, following about 5 miles of singletrack, I fiddled
with the sensor wire. No luck, still dead. I yanked the camera battery off
the taillight before it became trail junk, then followed a guy who I thought
was on my row. Turns out he was in the row behind me, so for several
minutes I put myself further behind schedule by trying to key off a slower
guy. Once I realized my mistake, I jumped out ahead and rode hard, but
still dropped 3 points at the next check. No other Vet A riders would drop
more than 2 points here, including Upland row buddy Bryan Marsh who
was several minutes behind me on row 31. I had some time to make up.
The next timed section was the longest of the day, with generous
helpings of logs, leaf-covered singletrack, and remnants of past creek
dredging. As would be evident throughout the race, the Goshen area
natives do a lot digging. Creek straightening, gravel excavating, strip
mining, you name it, it’s been dug. Row 14 turned out to be a pretty good
choice for trail quality. By the time my KX arrived in the woods, the course
was mostly broken in by the 30 or so riders ahead of me and the soil was
still fairly smooth. I dropped only 13 points here, with only the top three
Vet A finishers making it through quicker.
At the next reset I chatted with Vet B and Illinois rider Neal Haarman, who
was sporting a Watchdog like me. We compared notes on the Big Red
Enduro at White City two weeks prior, where Neal enjoyed the course so
well he decided to ride about 10 miles of it a second time. His computer
had us right on time leading up to the next set of woods, where by divine
intervention (or enough fiddling with the sensor wire) my Watchdog finally
began counting miles. At last, I could tell exactly when I needed to enter
the singletrack. No more staring at vibrating 16-point Times New Roman
font on a roll chart and cross-referencing the numbers with the time
displayed on the LCD clocks, all while trying to avoid crashing into trees.
It almost felt like cheating.
After a remote pit stop for gas, the A and AA riders were given about 4
miles of trail all for themselves. Neal continued down a road while I darted
into an old strip mine, engulfed in thick brush, trees and hills. Jason
Roerig, the other A rider on my row, took off ahead and disappeared.
The trail arrived at an active gravel pit with a well placed sign noting a
drop-off into the pit. Without that warning, I would have sailed over the
edge like an Al Gore corporate jet on its way to an energy conservation
I dropped another six points at the checkpoint following the gravel pit,
then rejoined the B and C riders on a road section. It was here that I first
doubted the Watchdog. I knew I’d passed a reset but the computer told
me I was still late. That didn't compute (get it? Compute? Enduro
computer? Oh hell, just keep on reading). Thing was, the reset was only
five minute’s worth and I’d been later than that at the last check. Indeed, I
was behind schedule and would stay that way until the final test.
At the final reset before the last 14 miles of the course, Fred Thompson
(no relation to Fred Thompson) on row 18 pulled up behind a group of us
pausing next to a road. The end of his pinky finger appeared to have
been severed. The sight of it was enough to make anyone a bit more
cautious on the trail. Down the road, we were checked into a woods
section that would eventually take us back to the staging area. I dropped
6 points there to finish with a total score of 47, good enough for 6th place.
If you've ever reached the point where you’re a little burned out with the
intensity of hare scrambles or GNCC-type racing, enduros are a great
way to rediscover why we all ride dirt bikes in the woods. It’s just a lot of
fun. The hosting clubs put out Herculean efforts in staging these
enduros, and the Riders M/C should be commended for the Turkey
Creek Enduro. Great job, guys.
|His mind is the ultimate weapon.
For him, saving the day is all in a day's work.
He acts fast and thinks faster.
Part boy-scout. Part genius. All hero.
|Enduro riders kickin' it Old School
|Trials tire in the woods: why, just why?