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”.
East Moline, Illinois
L
akeview Heights, Missouri