June 22, 2008
Park Hills, Missouri
4th of 9 in A Sportsman
My annual pilgrimage to the Missouri Hare Scrambles Championship
(MHSC) took me back to
St. Joe State Park for the second time in as
many months, the earlier trip being the
Leadbelt Enduro. The riding
conditions were nearly identical, which is to say even Jim “Rocket”
Walker may have approved of the dry-but-not-dusty dirt and sunny
skies.
Big Bird and its Ultimate MX Hauler made the drive to the
Sellers Estate in Wentzville, by way of St. Louis to visit some old
friends on Saturday. One of those friends will be accompanying me at
RAGBRAI, the sure-to-be epic bicycle ride across Iowa next month
that has required a training regimen which now competes heavily with
my dirt biking time. In St. Louis we discussed the possibility of
maintaining speed averages somewhere in the vicinity of
Alejandro
Valverde on the road from Brest to Plumelec. Either I’m not taking this
whole bicycling thing seriously, or I have friends with some seriously
skewed training routines. But that is a story for another time.

On this day, Matt and I would try out the practice portion of the course
in the morning and find some choppy singletrack. One of the key
differences between this year’s and last year’s MHSC is the absence
of 4-wheeled ATV’s in the series. Although the MHSC series has
always had a few bike-only races, most venues were combined with
ATV’s, and most race courses shared a considerable amount of
mileage with wide trails designed for fat-tired farm utility vehicles. For
2008, however, the two-wheelers get mostly singletrack at each race.

Following the practice lap, I visited with Kurt “Pizzaman” Mirtsching,
renowned owner and operator of
Shakespeare’s Pizza in Columbia,
Missouri. Kurt’s cranium was covered with a baseball cap asserting
ties to
Northwestern University (hence the colorful rabid feline logo or
whatever it is) and noted that one of his daughters was attending this
fine institute of higher learning. Just up the lakefront from me in the
leafy North Shore suburb of Evanston, Northwestern is a bona fide
Big 10 university. “More expensive than Harvard,” Kurt casually
mentioned while panhandling inside the pits.

On the starting line, Joe and Kim Rosier checked in with their son
Kiefer, now back on track to regaining the promising form he
demonstrated prior to a horrific car accident last year. Kiefer staked
out a spot a couple bikes to my left in an open field of sand. To our
right was a 20-foot sand berm where spectators were perched with a
high view of the nearly 200 riders lined up in rows. When the starting
board dropped, we would hammer through sand whoops, blast
through a series of high speed turns, and then head straight into the
woods.

After the first two rows of AA (Pro) and A Intermediate classes
converted the flat area into a 100-foot wide sand storm, the silence of
a dead engine start had my full attention. Another procedural change
to the MHSC this year is a return to the traditional dead engine start
where riders sit on their seats, rather than straddle the front fender as
was done last year. This year my start was a whole lot better than last
year’s (dead last), as my KX250’s engine burst to life on the first kick
and I held the throttle wide open in 2nd gear. Brian Blauvelt quickly
maneuvered to the lead position in the sand, with Shannon
Kenworthy close behind. I found the third spot as we braked hard for
a 4-foot wide opening into the woods.

Brian was out of sight almost immediately, but Shannon and I stayed
close the entire first lap. In the first three miles of singletrack, we were
never more than a few feet apart. When undisturbed by the wide tires
of ATV’s, the St. Joe terrain is only moderately rough. The singletrack
bore little resemblance to the loose, rocky trails frequented by 4-
wheelers in the public area of the park. The initial singletrack loop
that made up the practice portion of the course took us back near the
staging area, where speeds increased. In this mile or two of wide
open sand flats next to the public area of the park, Shannon steadily
pulled away. But when the trails narrowed inside the woods, so did
the gap between us. Along a nicely routed section of virgin
singletrack, Shannon overshot a turn and I took over 2nd place. For
several miles we carved through some of the same trails used in the
previous month’s enduro, then finished the course with about a mile
of wide-open sand. Again, Shannon erased my lead and found a way
around me just before the scoring checkpoint.

On the next lap, Derek Kemp caught up from a mid-pack start and
wasted no time charging past me. I later passed Shannon Kenworthy
again to take back 3rd place at the end of the second lap. But by then
I was beginning to pay for a minor oversight that would slow me down
near the end of the race.

About an hour into the race I noticed my hands feeling a bit tender.
Fast, choppy courses always tend to work up some blisters, but these
were coming on too fast, too soon. The reason? I’d forgotten to wear
PalmSavers. These neoprene glove inserts are usually the difference
between usable hands and raw meat. For a guy with City Boy Hands,
PalmSavers are an absolute necessity. Midway through the third lap,
my throttle hand stung like forty or so angry African killer bees were
constructing a hive inside my glove. My clutch hand begged to remain
firmly glued to the handlebar. Any attempt to actually use it to work
the clutch lever was met with the kind of sting normally reserved for
close encounters with box jellyfish. I was fading fast.

Somehow I held on to 3rd place through the end of the third lap, but
Shannon Kenworthy was riding strong and catching up rapidly.
Despite Joe Rosier’s pit board sign suggesting I should
Haul Ass, the
amount of ass I was able to haul did not prevent Shannon from
passing me near the end of the 4th lap. As I exited the last of the
woods before the wide open sand that took us to the end of the
course, the sound of an approaching two-stroke engine became
steadily louder. When you’re being chased, sometimes it’s hard to
know who’s doing the chasing, but in my old age I treat this in the
same way as an opportunity to use a restroom at an interstate
highway gas station: I don’t take any chances. It could have been a
fast B rider or someone else in my class (I assumed the latter).
Turned out it was fellow A Sportsman Pete Sebelski. He did his best
to put his Yamaha ahead of me, but I held him off and finished in 4th
place. I was never so glad to see “A Sportsman” on the finishing
board at the scoring trailer. My race was over.

Steve Leivan took the overall win just ahead of Caleb Wohletz. Brian
Blauvelt easily took the A Sportsman win, followed by Derek Kemp
and Shannon Kenworthy. My hands looked like raw meat afterwards,
but I had a great time racing and chatting with old friends. I do miss
the MHSC.

July 6, 2008
Morrison, Illinois
DNF
Every couple of years I scare just enough bejesus out of myself to
make me think, for more than a brief instant, that what I do on the
weekends doesn't really make logical sense. Sure, I sort of know this
already, but a good hard crash sometimes makes me actually ponder
the consequences of racing motorcycles for couple milliseconds
longer than it takes to shake it off and get back on the bike. I had one
of those kind of crashes at the Morrison round of Bill Gusse’s
2008
MXC series.

The race was held at the Bike Barn, where past Moose Run’s have
been staged. Once again I brought
Big Bird and the Ultimate MX
Hauler, as my faithful GMC Sonoma’s air conditioner wasn't quite up
to par on a relatively warm day. After spending much of the spring in
wet conditions, June and July brought on sunshine and dusty dirt. As
I walked over to the signup area, Mr. Gusse announced over his PA
system that if anyone hadn't already started a practice lap, they
wouldn't get one. I slept in, what can I say…no practice lap for me.

Those finishing up a run-through on the motocross track were kicking
up storms of peat clouds. The junior class race produced enough
dust to stress my eyes as I strolled down to the northernmost edge of
the Bike Barn grounds. To get there, I passed by the long rows of
peat bogs where men become men by piloting loud, overly tractioned
vehicles through makeshift swamps. The motorcycle course would
take a few turns through the motocross track before heading off to a
bridge over a wide drainage ditch, just beyond the peat bogs. Mr.
Gusse engineered this bridge by turning several 30-foot steel I-beams
on their sides and laying them across the ditch. The challenge for
each racer was to pick an I-beam, line up his wheels with the
horizontal channel between the “I’s” and hope like hell to stay on a
straight line. The youngsters on 85cc minibikes were doing just fine.

As the race start time approached, I lined up on the second row with
A classes for old guys. When the dust cleared from the first row’s
start, Mr. Gusse set us loose. Building on what I accomplished at the
start of the St. Joe hare scramble two weeks prior, I charged to the
first turn in the third position. After the guy ahead of me overshot a
turn where we exited the track, I took over second place as we neared
the I-beam bridge. With relatively clean air, the bridge was fairly easy
to navigate. Those crossing in a cloud of dust would have seen it
differently, if the bridge could be seen at all.

Following the bridge was a quarter-mile sprint next to a field of row
crops, then a 90-degree lefthander and another half mile sprint to the
next 90-degree turn. We finally entered the woods, where the guy in
first place left me in his dust. Without a practice lap, the course was
all new to me. But in a sense, it wasn't completely new, as I’d ridden
these same trails in Moose Run races from 2005-07. They were wide
and fast, and continued that way for about 3 miles. Mixed in were the
infamous peat whoops, which even when dry were about the deepest,
meanest whoops on the face of the earth. The remainder of the
course was about a mile of wide open, full throttle stupidity that took
us back to the motocross track. A few turns later, we were scored to
finish the lap.

Clean air was a clear advantage on that lap, and I maintained my
position until a KTM rider held open his throttle longer and braked a
bit later at the entrance to the woods. I followed this person for a mile
or so, then found myself aimed at what appeared to be a small peat-
induced hole. Most of the higher ground (in relative terms…it was all
pretty flat) was “regular” dirt/clay which held a pretty good
consistency and was fairly firm. But in a few spots, peat had invaded
and caused small random depressions resembling miniature
sinkholes. I hit one of these in 3rd gear, thinking my suspension
would soak up most of its 12-inch depth. That was a very incorrect
assumption.

My first thought as I sailed over the bars was that I should have been
separated from the KX250 by about 50 feet. Then I noticed that the
bike was still almost attached to me, although I was eye-to-eye with
the front fender and my legs were about 4 feet higher than my head.
Half a second passed, then I separated from the bike like a torpedo,
headfirst into the dirt. It wasn't the worst crash I've ever suffered, but
the angle of my landing caused a new kind of pain.
WebMD, the best
resource for a guy who doesn't like to visit doctors because they only
want to talk about things I’m not supposed to do for awhile, would
later diagnose it as whiplash. At first I was afraid of something worse,
but my critical parts all seemed to be functioning properly. I got back
on the bike with the intention of heading straight for my pickup truck,
but more bad luck was just around the corner. A couple turns after I
remounted on the KX250, I steered it straight into a 2-foot-deep rut
that nearly swallowed my bike whole. All I could do was sit for a while
and observe the natural phenomenon I like to call Shaking Peat. I
noticed this last year at the Moose Run, where the vibration of
motorcycle engines actually transmits through the peat. You can feel
it in your feet when standing; or, you can sit down and feel it through
your entire body. The ground was literally shaking as bikes flew by.

Eventually, and painfully, I lifted my bike out of the rut and rode
slowly back to the staging area, wondering if I still stood 5’11” after
compacting my spine with the headfirst dive. Wise men would have
visited a doctor shortly thereafter; I, on the other hand, visited
Michigan’s trail system 4 days later. Yeah, it still hurt quite a bit.  
Park Hills, Missouri
Morrison, Illinois