2008 Race Reports
East Moline, Illinois
Lakeview Heights, MO
August 31, 2008
East Moline, Illinois
2nd of 5 in +30A
Promoters of hare scrambles have a unique dilemma in meeting the wants and
desires of racers. On the one hand are riders who prefer fast, wide trails where speed
and courage usually produce winners; others, such as yours truly, enjoy twisty,
technical singletrack. But in a racing environment with 100 or more riders navigating
the same course at the same time, course layouts sometimes favor wide trails that
minimize bottlenecks. For a race promoter, happy racers are the best kind, but clogged
trails can make for a little less post-race exuberance on the part of the riders (read:
whining). So it’s easy to see why a promoter might defer to a more open and less
technical course in exchange for fewer headaches during and after the race. Ron
Whipple, however, is not one of those promoters.

Don’t misunderstand, Ron is no
Bill Gusse. Most of the time you’ll go home from a
WFO Promotions race feeling like you had a good time, whereas after a Gusse race
you may not feel anything at all, on account of numbness. But a WFO hare scramble
can still make a guy have to work for every mile. With motorcycles and ATV’s being part
of the WFO racing series, Ron has a tough challenge in trail design. The ATV’s need a
wide path, but the motorcyclists usually want some singletrack. His solution: lay out an
ATV course, then overlay a motorcycle course sharing portions of the ATV route (or vice
versa, depending on how you look at it). This widetrack/singletrack compromise was
executed at East Moline about as well as I've ever seen.

Not executed so well was my start of the race from the second row, made up of the “old
guy” classes for A riders (+30A and +40A). All seemed well enough for the 2.5 seconds
it took us to drag race to the first turn. I’d watched the Pro class round a tuft of tall grass
left un-mowed to mark the turn, with all racers successfully finding their way to a grass
track carved out of a shallow ravine. I was somewhere in the middle of the pack when
our row departed, but my line of approach made for a very tight right-hand turn. A guy
on my left banged his handlebars into mine, and down I went. I looked up to see a
cloud of dust and several more riders blindly riding through it, straight towards me. All I
could do was assume the fetal position and hope for less pain than
Mike Alessi at Red
Bud. The remaining riders were able to avoid me, but my KX250 suffered a few scars
from its use as traction for tires, including scrapes to the left radiator shroud and an
oddly bent bolt securing a fork guard.

A concerned spectator ran toward me as the dust cleared, and I assured him that other
than being dead last, I was just fine. I cruised through the grass track and caught up to
the riders on my row a minute or two after entering the woods. We filed along in a
single line, varying from virgin trails to well-established ATV paths. The narrow,
motorcycle-only singletrack was a 6-inch wide line carving its way through closely
spaced trees, up and down steep ravines, and along the sides of off-camber hills. One
of the tightest sections was along the edge of a deep ravine, where a sharp right turn
was our only separation from a steep drop-off. One unlucky rider had already
discovered what happened if the turn was missed. As I eased my KX250 along the top
of the ravine, 20 feet below was a guy trying to push his bike up the center of the ravine
to where it rejoined the marked trail.

With my poor start, all I knew of where I stood at the end of the first lap was the amount
of time it took - 13 minutes, according to the scribbling of a course worker on my
fender-mounted score card. The second time around was quicker, as all riders had
now taken a lap and the course was easier to read. I’d shaved a minute off my first lap
time and passed a couple guys in the process, but figured I was still near the back of
the pack. The grass track, normally the bane of my off-road existence, was actually
fairly easy to ride fast through, or at least I felt fast. But one thing I've learned in my
years of racing is that if I feel comfortable riding something, then usually everyone else
does too, and I end up finishing in about the same place.

I didn't know it, but I was actually making some decent progress over the next several
laps. Brad Powers was our class leader throughout much of the second half of the
race, and as I recorded a few 11-minute laps, he came into my sights near the end of
the 9th lap. Leading up to that, I’d caught a couple of racers on the first row, including
#119 Ryan DeFauw. When I saw an opportunity to pass in a 3rd gear section of rough
grass, I misinterpreted Ryan’s change of direction and thought he was moving over to
let me pass. He wasn't, or maybe he changed his mind; regardless, I bumped him
solidly just before squeezing by a large tree that marked the outer edge of a sharp turn.

When I could make out the #403 of Brad Powers ahead of me on the 9th lap, I knew I
wouldn't be able to catch him before the scoring barrels. I’d begun the lap 94 minutes
into the 105-minute race, and with lap times of 11-12 minutes, I figured this lap would
be my last. But in the WFO Promotions series, the race doesn't end until the first
finisher in the first row crosses the line after the clock expires. Only then are the rest of
the riders shown the checkered flag. I finished my 9th lap at the 106-minute mark, but
since the lead guy in the first row hadn't made it back to the scoring barrels yet, I was
sent out for a 10th lap.

My sights were firmly set on the #403 bike, which was making fast progress through
the grass track next to the staging area. Just when I was in striking distance, we
caught up to Joe Gabbard and Robby Schnathorst in a battle for 3rd place in the A
class from Row 1. Brad Powers was able to pass both guys in a series of grass tracks
in the first mile of the course, but I couldn't get around either of them. Only when Robby
slid out around a corner in the last half mile of the lap was I able to get close to Joe. By
that time, it was too late and Brad coasted into the scoring barrels a few seconds
ahead of me. Had I known he was leading our class, I might have tried harder to pass
Joe and Robby, but it probably wouldn't have mattered. Brad was making the course
look easy.

The compromise between wide track and singletrack was a good one at East Moline.
Despite some extremely tight trails, slower riders could always move over in good
time, once the narrow trails merged with the ATV course. Thanks to WFO’s mastery of
course design, it was a good day.

September 7, 2008
Rock Biter Enduro
Lakeview Heights, Missouri
6th of 8 in A class
For the 15 or so years I've raced enduros, most Monday mornings after the events are
summed up like this:

    “If I hadn't [insert act of stupidity], I could’ve done pretty well yesterday.”

Such was the case at Round #6 of the 9-race
BlackJack Enduro Circuit, held at the
1700-acre Walters Ranch in the heart of Missouri’s Ozark country. The Rock Biter
Enduro was staged by a group called Dudes with Loppers. Never have two names so
aptly described the trails we would ride for nearly 6 hours. The Walters Ranch is
located just north of the Osage River, which feeds a series of reservoirs making
possible the debauchery of that
special cove at Lake of the Ozarks. While the south
bank of the Osage is overgrown with residential development, the Walters Ranch is
comfortably obscure on the north side, where cattle may just outnumber humans.

The idea of competing in an enduro 8 hours from my home is solely the fault of Matt
Sellers, who planned to bring along his 15-year-old son Michael and give him his first
taste of racing against the clock. With rumors swirling of
Jim “Rocket” Walker’s
potential participation in the Rock Biter, along with his possible access to a pop-up
camper, I figured we’d drive down on Saturday afternoon, enjoy a few Stag’s and sleep
comfortably in the staging area. But Rocket’s competing personal obligations
prevailed, so we had no Rocket and, almost as equally important, no camper. Thus,
we set our alarm clocks for 4:00 a.m. on Sunday morning and left for Lakeview Heights
at 4:30.

For the Rock Biter, I brought my enduro-ized KX250. The Gas Gas 300EC I’d
purchased last year was supposed to be my weapon of choice for enduro racing, but
since then I've thoroughly abused my Spanish Diva. After the
Summer Bummer Enduro
last month, the Gasser was in need of new piston rings, which
Hall’s Husky in
Springfield gladly provided on the way down to Wentzville. The KX came to Missouri
smartly dressed in its enduro apparel, consisting of a non-functioning headlight and a
Watchdog enduro computer.  

At the staging area adjacent to Highway B, registration was completed in about 30
seconds, thanks to pre-entry and the superb organization of the BlackJack series.
While other enduro organizers have given in to the temptation of increasing rider
participation by eliminating timekeeping, the BJEC still holds firm to traditional enduro
rules. The timekeeping-challenged do get some help from mileage markers posted
every mile, showing the corresponding time of arrival. But it’s still as much a mental
game as a physical race, as I was about to be reminded for the umpteenth time.

Matt, Michael and I lined up on row 35 a few minutes before our scheduled departure
time. As is typical in most enduros, the fastest riders generally congregate around the
20th row, giving them trails that are reasonably well broken in but not too beat up.
Today’s exception to that was a speedy teen named Zach Ingram on row 39. I’d only
see Zach once on the trail, but it was impressive. We had asked for row 35 so Michael
could go at his own pace without as much interference from faster riders trying to pass.

The Walters Ranch had received some rain the night before, as well as the remnants
of Hurricane Gustav during the previous week, leaving the staging area soft and mildly
sloppy. At the starting line, I chatted with Elston Moore, working in the Dudes with
Loppers crew. Back in my St. Louis days, Elston and I battled often when I was a
regular in the Missouri Hare Scrambles Championship series, and it’s always nice to
catch up with old friends. We watched the rows of riders depart every minute, heading
into a pasture on an ATV-width trail. Mud sprayed from rear tires, pitching back and
forth under acceleration. The trails would be slick today.

The initial 7½ miles were at a moderate 15 mph pace. The Rock Biter quickly
demonstrated its title, revealing jagged, fist-sized rocks scattered throughout the hills
and ravines. What began as two-track ATV trails quickly narrowed to singletrack, slick
and rocky and more than a match for the worn rear tire I’d mounted to the KX. During
the previous week I had perused my inventory of spare rubber, grabbed a used
Bridgestone from the March of Dimes hare scramble at St. Joe State Park in June, and
flipped it to the direction of least rounded knobbies. Who wants to ruin a perfectly good
tire for a race calling itself Rock Biter? Certainly not the
King of Cheap. But as my rear
tire struggled for traction, I wished for the new tire hanging high in my suburban
storage unit, knobs all square, nubs intact, wrapped in clear plastic with the UPS
shipping label still attached.

Our speed averaged increased to 21 mph at the 7.5 mile mark, and shortly afterwards
was the first check. I zeroed it, barely. A 12-minute pause gave me a chance to catch
my breath and talk to a guy from Memphis on a Gas Gas. Most competitive racers
would take this time to check over the bike, grab a snack from his fanny pack, and
maybe review upcoming resets and speed changes, but not me. No, no…that would
be far too sensible. Instead, a passing rider asked what our mileage was and I gave
him the wrong number. After realizing my mistake, I was determined to find him and
tell him the correct mileage (he was just up the trail a hundred yards or so).  During
this time I failed to notice my fading hydraulic clutch. The clutch lever had to be pulled
about halfway to the handlebar before the clutch would disengage. This became
obvious when I decided to get a head start in the “3 for free” territory following the
checkpoint. Since enduro rules don’t allow checks within 3 miles of each other, I
figured I might as well ride early to the 11 mile marker at an easy pace. When I
stopped to pull out a few tools from my fanny pack, I was about 2 minutes ahead of
schedule. Four minutes passed while I adjusted the clutch lever to get more action out
of the plunger in the master cylinder. I should have easily zeroed the next check, but I
could barely keep up with the 21 mph pace as it was, and I certainly couldn't make up
for a 2 minute deficit.

Instead of zeroing it, I dropped one point at the next check. From there, despite a
slightly slower 18 mph pace in the last half-mile of the first loop, I lost another 2 points
when we arrived back at the staging area. The check workers wrote down my score
and I headed straight for Matt’s truck to open up the master cylinder and see if I was
losing hydraulic fluid, or if air had entered the system. When I removed the cap on the
master cylinder, the fluid level was surprisingly full. Even more unusual was the clutch
pull, now firm as it was when I began the race. I closed up the master cylinder,
chugged Gatorade and waited for Matt and Michael to return from the first loop. They
didn't show, so I headed back to the starting area.

I’d been so focused on solving my clutch issue that I didn't notice a blister growing on
my left middle finger. Naturally, I would discover this 2 minutes before I needed to
begin the second loop. Whenever I take off my fanny pack for any reason and put it
back around my waist, it’s a two minute procedure, not counting the time taken to
actually do whatever is needed. Why? I don’t know. It should really only take about 30
seconds to get the thing on and off. By the time I found a Band Aid inside the fanny
pack, applied it to my blister and re-attached the pack, I left the staging area about a
minute late. I cranked up my pace to full-on hare scramble speed for the 21 mph
average. The early portion of the second loop was mostly a repeat of the first, with the
trail broken in nicely and a moderate rut through the center. If there ever was a course
well suited to my sit-down riding style, this was it. I raced to the next check and zeroed
it, an accomplishment matched by only 7 other riders in the entire field.

The course was full of small creek crossings, many of which were approached at
perpendicular angles and dropped into from 3-foot ledges. Once or twice I could see
the drop-offs with enough advance warning to launch myself down into the creek, but
most were those
Oh-Sh!t moments where the front wheel dives straight down off the
ledge and you hope to be bailed out by the bike. Fortunately, the KX cooperated. At the
next check I dropped 4 points. Four other riders bested my score by one point and one
rider matched it. I had found my groove.

Why did such a slick, rocky course suit me so well? Probably because these
conditions were as close as the south half of Missouri gets to Illinois-style mud. A
solid rock base kept the singletrack from deepening enough to get me stuck, but 6-
inch ruts developing throughout the course were making headaches for those not so
accustomed. I kept my center of gravity low and my throttle open, polishing many rocks
for the riders behind me.

At the 32.2 mile marker, 2½ hours into the race, the speed average dropped to 13 mph.
For the first mile or so, I actually struggled to ride slow enough. I’d catch up to riders on
rows ahead, they’d let me pass, and then I’d realize I was running too early and have to
let those riders back around me. The next check was a couple miles into this slow
section, and it surprised me. Also surprised were 4 out of the top 10 overall finishers.
We all burned this check by one minute. Afterwards was a reset, where I again opened
up the cap to my clutch master cylinder and felt the lever action return to normal.
Several riders were taking a breather here, along with BJEC Scoring Master and Rock
Biter organizer Brian Jahelka. Brian is moderately famous in enduro circles on account
of his
MotoTally scoring software, which is the coolest thing to come along in the
enduro world since enduro computers. The AMA national enduro series uses it, as do
Canadian national enduros. It’s good stuff. Brian is also famous for participating in
one of the
craziest trail rides ever, which included an unintended night sleeping under
the stars in the woods of Arkansas.

With my clutch lever back to normal, new trails were in store for the remainder of the 13
mph section. Soon enough, I understood why the speed average was so slow: these
trails were tough! We traveled in and out of ravines, sometimes heading straight uphill
through the center; other times crisscrossing at 90-degree angles. Climbing out of the
ravines required forward momentum, otherwise the rear wheel would spin helplessly. I
was fortunate enough not to get caught standing on the hillsides and maintained my
13 mph average, but it was far from easy.

We finished the 2nd loop with 6 miles of a 24-mph speed average, and I dropped 8
points – barely. I was two seconds away from carding a 7, which only a handful of
riders equaled or bettered. I could feel this race shaping up for some good results, if
only I could solve my clutch master cylinder problem. Matt and Michael were back at the
truck, where I again pulled off the master cylinder cap and felt the clutch action return to
normal. Brian Jahelka had mentioned something about a venting problem when he
observed me fiddling with the master cylinder on the trail, and that’s exactly what it
would turn out to be. Problem was, I wouldn't discover it until the final 15 miles of the
race.

Meanwhile, Matt was already changed into street clothes and moving slowly. He’d
fallen into a rider who had crashed ahead of him in the second loop. With sore ribs
(two of which were later determined to be broken), his day was over. Michael looked no
worse for wear after completing the challenging 16-mile extra-short course.

Trail markers in the second loop indicated that we’d be returning to the difficult 13 mph
section for another try at it in the third loop. This final loop was reserved for the A and B
riders, and was run at higher speed averages. At that point, I was focused on finishing
these final 27 miles strong and error-free, and hoping my clutch would keep working
until I could adjust it again at the reset about halfway in. With these things foremost on
my mind, memories of the third loop are a bit sketchy. I do recall a very large log
across a creek bed, the kind normally reserved for the Moose Run. Brian Jahelka was
on hand to encourage riders and help them as needed, which seemed to be pretty
often. I arrived just as a rider ahead of me was picking himself up after a partially
successful attempt – he and his bike were lying in the creek bed, but at least they were
both on the other side of the log. With three Moose Runs to my credit (attempts,
actually), the log was nothing out of the ordinary for a Bill Gusse race, and I cleared it
with relative ease. With self-congratulations coursing through my brain, 50 yards later I
slid out around a corner my 6-year-old nephew could have ridden one handed on his
bicycle.

I also remember riding what had been the 13 mph section in the previous loop, this
time much less successfully. Our second pass through these trails were at 18 and 24-
mph speed averages, neither of which I was close to maintaining. Twice I lost
momentum on the sides of hills. Starting from a dead stop, the rear wheel
accomplished nothing more than buffing both the knobbies on the rear tire and the
rocks below it. Rather than finesse my way up these hills, I decided to power my way to
the top, full throttle in first gear, with a knobs on the rear tire about as round as the tire
itself.

The clutch lever continued to gradually fade, to the point where I knew if I killed the
engine, I’d have to stop and take off the master cylinder cap again. I was about 2 miles
from the final reset of the day, when I grabbed my nonexistent clutch lever and felt the
bike jerk to a stop. The usual 2 minutes passed by while I grabbed a screwdriver from
my fanny pack. Jeff Neathery greeted me at the next checkpoint, where I dropped 12
points.

After the check, my Watchdog computer still showed me several minutes behind. I’d
been pretty far off the schedule through the previous section and thought the reset
might not be long enough to get me back on time, so I continued on. The next check
was only a short distance down the trail, and my jaw dropped when the check worker
wrote 31 on my score card. I was 4 minutes early. For me, the final 15 miles would be
a trail ride. With 17 points given up by burning the check, the competitive part of my
race was now over.

I paused a few minutes to figure out where I went wrong. One of the check workers
gave me the mileage at that spot, and it was about a half-mile higher than my
odometer indicated. Like a fool, I had trusted my computer. In all fairness, my
odometer matched the mileage markers almost perfectly up to that point, but the one
time it mattered most, I didn't bother to confirm my odometer’s reading to the trail
markers. I also didn't bother to calculate how many minutes the reset would allow me
to get caught back up. With a 6.5-mile reset in a 24 mph speed average, I could have
been more than 16 minutes behind schedule, and I’d have been back on time. I was
only 12 minutes behind at the previous check, so I should have known I had some
time to spare and shouldn't proceed too far without figuring out just how early I was. It
was a lesson learned in racing with an enduro computer, which I’d only used a handful
of times since I bought the Watchdog last year. You still have to use your head.

Another minor error after burning the check was sitting around to think about it. I
probably should have taken off right then and at least gained back a few points at the
next check. Instead, I played with the master cylinder one last time. I reversed the
rubber insert and tightened the cap minimally, and as it would turn out, one (or both) of
those things solved my clutch problem.

The final 15 miles were fairly uneventful, other than my aching lower back caused by
sitting through the mud ruts. At this point my rear tire was nothing more than rounded
nubs. My front tire, not exactly new before the race, was shedding side knobs. About 10
miles into this section, a KTM came flying by as if the terrain was perfectly dry. I didn't
know it at the time, but this was teenaged prodigy Zach Ingram on row 39, who’d finally
had enough time to catch up to me. Zach would finish the day 2nd to overall winner
Dale Lee Rector.

My day ended with many second guesses on just how well I could have finished
without burning the second-to-last check (most likely third in the A class and 6th
overall). As it were, I was 6th in class and 11th overall, both very respectable results
despite my errors. Even though the race’s toughness was helped by damp conditions,
the Rock Biter is no slouch, whatever the conditions.  As Brian Jahelka aptly
summarized while collecting my score card, it was an enduro with a capital “E”.