September 13, 2008
3rd of 7 in A class
In any given year, September in the Midwest is a most glorious month for off-road
racing. The heat of the summer usually dissolves into moderate, pleasant
temperatures, and the race calendar is often full of quality enduros and hare
scrambles. This year is no exception. In fact, as I reviewed the AMA District 17 event
schedule and those of neighboring districts, there were no less than 7 reasonable
opportunities to race this month. Seven! All within a 3-hour drive from my home, and
all contained in the four weekends of September.
Contributing to this excess of racing opportunities was District 16, made up of
Wisconsin and upper Michigan. Two Saturday hare scrambles were on the D-16
schedule, including one near Valders at the Viking Bow & Gun Club. Seeing as my
nearly 3-month sabbatical from revenue-generating activities (a/k/a unemployment)
has given me plenty of time during the week to prep my motorcycles for racing, I
decided to give Valders a try. Despite my close proximity to the Land of Cheddar, I’d
never raced in Wisconsin, and the Saturday event left open the possibility of
competing the following day in a D-17 hare scramble.
I awoke to steady rain on Saturday morning, which always puts a little damper on my
motivation to go racing (damper…get it? Damp, like rain…aw, nevermind), but
Intellicast radar showed only light precipitation north of Milwaukee, the direction I’d be
heading. My bike and gear were already loaded in my truck, parked inside my shared
garage between the Land Rover of my downstairs neighbors and the girlie sedan
driven by the live-in girlfriend of my neighbor on the other side of the wall. At least I
didn't have to load up in the wet stuff. I grabbed a rain jacket and left Chicago just
before flooding started to shut down highways.
The entire drive, nearly 3 hours, was wet, although the Viking Bow & Gun Club had
only light rain when I arrived. A clear advantage to holding a hare scramble at a gun
club is that most of these types of organizations have really nice clubhouses. After
spending 5 hours in a tree stand with only a rifle keeping you company, beers at a
drinking establishment are pretty much mandatory, and the Vikings had it covered.
Their clubhouse contained a restaurant, a large bar, restrooms, and enough
mounted heads of various wild animals to keep a taxidermist busy for years. I signed
up in the A class, bought a hot dog and sat in my truck, hoping the rain would end.
The contortions necessary to dress oneself inside the regular-sized interior of a
compact pickup truck would rival that of an underage Chinese gymnast, but I
managed. I’d contemplated swapping out the brake pedal on my KX250, which had
lost its tip/step pad somewhere in the Walters Ranch the previous Sunday. An eBay
replacement arrived in the mail the previous evening and was within arms reach, but
I loathe bike maintenance in the rain. Heck, I don’t like it much inside the warm, dry
confines of my garage/storage unit, and pretty much anywhere else I happen to be.
So I stuck with my redneck fix, an allen wrench hose-clamped to the pedal. This trick
served me very well in Colorado last year, and would work just fine today.
The A class was lined up just behind the AA’s on the starting grid in front of the
clubhouse. This flat patch of sand would normally be in the line of fire for those
seeking target practice, but today it served as a fine spot to begin the hare scramble.
Several hairpin turns were marked with yellow ribbon, the first of which was placed
about 200 feet ahead of the starting line. As would be expected at a gun club, the
blast of a shotgun signaled our start, and I jumped out to the 3rd position at the first
turn. I held this spot as we completed the sand track and reversed direction around a
concrete barricade, then lined up for a series of whoops that would take us into the
woods. The novice classes had broken in the trail for us in their morning race, which
in the grass following this 180-degree turn consisted of churning up all vegetation
and leaving behind clay muck. Nothing on the ground was capable of providing
traction, as clumps of grassy mud spewed from the rear tires of the two bikes ahead
of me. I felt like Green Day at Woodstock in ’94.
Just after this turn, while struggling to force my rear wheel to track straight, I high-
sided and found myself stumbling alongside the KX250. Still on my feet, I was
running about as fast as the KX was sliding. I congratulated myself for not falling into
the mud, then tried to sort out how it was possible to high-side in the first place. High-
siding normally occurs when the rear wheel loses traction and begins to slide, and at
some point during this slide the wheel finds traction again. The resulting jolt as the
motorcycle instantly becomes upright (seen frequently in road racing) is usually
enough to toss the rider off the bike. That’s exactly what happened to me, but where
the rear tire was able to find traction was a complete mystery. The entire surface was
I remounted in last place but caught up to the rest of our class within a minute or so.
In the next quarter mile, two guys made mistakes that allowed me to gain back a
couple spots. The terrain was similar to most racing venues in the Midwest held
under wet conditions, except with a bit more sand and baseball-sized rocks thrown
in. Wheel spin was the key to forward momentum. I’d mounted a Michelin S-12 rear
tire and a brand new Bridgestone M59 on the front, so my tires were about as right for
the landscape as could be. Still, I struggled to find traction.
The course alternated between singletrack and ATV trails, with the wider paths
usually made up of grass that was turning into the same type of muck that took me
down early in the race. One of the grassy open areas was made into a short grass
track, where we coasted down a 30-foot hill and then had to turn around and climb it
again. Following that was a repeat of what we’d just done, this time on the other side
of the grassy area. This section would have been a breeze in dry conditions, but
today many riders would struggle mightily through here. Just after the grass track
was a moderately sharp left hand turn that took us back inside the woods. Although it
was off-camber with a downward slope, this turn was another that would have been
uneventful if the trails had been dry. Today, however, even the A riders were falling
down. A club member was on hand to warn us of the impending turn (mostly so we
wouldn't crash into riders already on the ground), but it was too late for the guy
directly ahead of me. He slid down the side of the hill, barely missing a tree, while I
took as high a line as possible.
After a few more slippery off-camber trails, I reached the electronic scoring area in
front of the clubhouse. About 9 minutes had passed since we started the race. The
prior week I’d combed the Internet for some information on the Valders hare
scramble and found the blog of 2007 overall D-16 hare scrambles champ Scott
Daubert, who described last year’s course as being very short. The 2008 version
appeared similarly diminutive. With two hours of racing in store, I was going to see
that nice lady with the bar code scanner many, many times today.
On lap two, the trails were slightly better defined and my lap time improved to about 8
minutes. The hilly, muddy grass track midway through the course was causing
problems for many riders when I arrived the second time. By now a couple of the
faster B riders with exceptional mud riding skill were catching me, and two passed by
easily around the challenging off-camber left turn following the grass track (this turn
would be re-routed soon after, on account of hardly anybody being able to stay on two
wheels through it). The remainder of the course was becoming downright rough,
even though only about 50 guys showed up for the afternoon race.
Before the race, I’d quizzed a novice rider parked next to me about trail conditions,
and his three words of wisdom were proving accurate: Forget the goggles. Although
the rain was very light, goggles never really seem to care. They all pretty much suck
when wet. The roll-off tape canister was close to empty about an hour into the race,
and fogging was becoming a problem. I pulled the goggles away from my face
whenever I could, to let in some outside air, but eventually I had to toss’em trailside.
Normally I can let goggles hang around my neck when they no longer function, but
my new Leatt neck brace wouldn't allow that to happen comfortably. Just after the
scoring lane, I heaved them into some foot-high grass.
The Leatt brace was a new addition to my collection of protective gear. After the neck
injury I sustained at the Morrison hare scramble in June, I decided to make the $400
investment. The brace has numerous adjustments for fit, all of which are designed
for comfort and adequate support. Without a test ride, I went into the hare scramble
not quite knowing what to expect of the fitment, and it became immediately clear that I
needed a few more adjustments. When I stood on the pegs, the rear of the brace
wouldn't let me keep my head up high enough. But other than that, the Leatt was
As we entered the 90-minute mark, I had no idea where I stood in the class order. I
traded places several times with a #9 Yamaha that I suspect belonged to Brian
Winnekins. I fell twice in the last half of the race, once while rounding a turn at the
bottom of the hilly grass track near the middle of the course, and another time when I
ran straight into a 3-foot tree stump. The #9 Yamaha got around me there, and my
best efforts to catch him before the finish were unsuccessful. I ended the race exactly
where I began at the first turn – 3rd place.
Even though the course was remarkably short, I was constantly challenged
throughout the entire race and was worn out afterwards. Even more tired had to be
anyone inexperienced with that kind of mud. We did actually begin to churn up dry dirt
in some places, but that was more than offset by the conditions of the grass tracks.
The entry point to the hilly grass section near the middle of the course had an off-
camber left turn that not so long ago would have taxed my strength. If forward
momentum came to a stop, you went nowhere. By watching other riders over the
years, I learned to take the highest possible line around the contour of the hill;
otherwise, the slimy topsoil forces your bike to a lower position on the hill and makes
it that much harder to get back up to where you need to be. I passed riders here
almost every time through, until some began taking such low line that they could
dump the clutch at a point about 10 feet below my level, where the traction was better,
and slingshot themselves past me at the top of the hill. Another lesson learned over
the years: if you can’t beat’em, join’em. The last two laps, I chose the low line.
Chuck Garetson took the overall win on his Honda, which lapped me at least twice.
He was absolutely flying through the slime. D-16 series leader Ryan Finnel won the
A class. I changed into dry underwear, cranked up the heat inside my Sonoma, and
returned to Chicago in time to witness the effects of the largest single-day rainfall
total ever recorded in the city. The next day, I took a pass on the D-17 hare scramble.
One mud race per weekend is my limit.
September 21, 2008
Rekluse Mississippi River Championship Series
If the name of a racing venue is any indication of the event in store for you, then
Zwingle was an unusual name for unusual hare scramble. Alphabetically, this
community of 100 or so residents would show up last in a list of Iowa towns, but its
rolling terrain puts the Zwingle area near the top of my list for excellence in cross
country dirt biking. WFO Promotions once again made the most of its available land,
a dairy farm bordering Otter Creek in East Central Iowa.
The event flyer indicated 8-miles of trail, including the only EnduroCross course in all
of Iowa. When faced with two racing options – Culver, Indiana, which I’d already
raced once this year, or Zwingle – I chose the latter, even though it was an hour
further away and Culver is always a fun place (my first choice, the rescheduled White
City hare scramble, was flooded out for the second time this year). My past couple
months of racing has been all about diversity in locations and racing in new places,
so why mess with a good thing? Plus, the last time (and only time) I rode my dirt bike
in Iowa was an enduro near Winterset in 2000. I was long overdue for a return trip.
The drive across U.S. Route 20 to Dubuque was as scenic as can be found
anywhere in Illinois. West of Rockford, my soon-to-be new home, the flatlands give
way to rolling hills and probably some picturesque vistas if a morning fog hadn’t
obscured the views entirely. In all my years as a Midwesterner, I’d never found a
reason to visit either historic Galena, past home of our nation’s 18th president, or
Dubuque, famous for being that place where 3 states touch. Now I had, all in one
[Author’s side note: I used to work with a man named Dubuque who was a
descendent of the town’s founder. The guy once received the keys to the city in a
special ceremony. None of his co-workers were envious, but did often ask to borrow
The Bergfeld farm hosting the hare scramble was cut from the same Driftless Area
that makes the terrain around Dubuque and Galena so darned pretty. While walking
part of the course before the race, I found a firsthand view of how this geology
affected the trails we were about to ride. I took a walk over to a section of singletrack
next to a cornfield, where a barbwire fence separated the marked course from the
corn. The sound of rushing water could be heard on the other side of the trail, so I
wandered 30 feet to my right to investigate. That 30 feet was as far as I could go
before the edge of a rock ledge made me think twice about how much further I
wanted to wander. The creek was barely visible 75 feet below. An ear of corn I’d
grabbed along my walk to the woods bounced and rolled for several seconds after I
heaved it off the ledge.
Around noon, the AA class was set loose for their 1¾-hour race. The riders were
placed in several rows across a recently harvested cornfield and pointed in the
direction of the EnduroCross course about a quarter-mile ahead. This football-field-
sized layout of manmade obstacles was an intimidating sight. Race organizer Tom
Farris of EnduroPilot.com designed the track with help from property owner Tom
Bergfeld and Heath Drone of Team P&G Offroad. True appreciation for EnduroCross
is to see it with your own eyes, and photographer Michael McConaughy was present
to document the carnage throughout the race.
My row, leaving one minute behind the AA class, contained about 25 riders
competing in the various A classes. Unlike nearly a third of the bikes in the front row,
my KX250’s engine fired on its first kick, albeit with a slightly slow reaction to Ron
Whipple’s green flag. We rounded a pair of large hay bales and raced through a
series of chicanes that took us back to the EnduroCross course. This section was
the clear favorite for those looking for photo ops. The track was designed so
spectators could stand between carefully marked boundaries between the up-and-
back, stadium-style layout. I would have 4 opportunities during the race to complete
the EnduroCross course, and each time I nearly crapped my pants in order of the
1. Vertical Tires of Death
With help from a small lead-in ramp of dirt, we were to launch our bikes over tires
normally found on trucks working in quarries or open-pit coal mines. In the morning, I’
d witnessed club members treating the tires as a jump, but I had no interest in such
foolishness. I carried only the minimum amount of momentum needed to coax my
bike over the top of the tires.
2. Horizontal Logs of Dismemberment
Twelve-inch diameter logs were placed horizontally across three similarly sized logs
laid on the ground at a perpendicular angle. For good measure, the horizontal logs
were spaced about 8 inches apart. Apparently the course designers ran out of logs
and left a 10-foot gap between two sets of horizontal logs. Adding to the challenge
was the fact that the horizontal logs had been raised further off the ground by the
3. Horizontal Tires of Destruction
Three of the same type of industrial tires as found in the Vertical Tires of Death were
placed on the ground, side by side. The tires, about 20 inches in width and very
square-edged, were mercifully filled with dirt. Even so, I came remarkably close to
kissing my fender my second time through here.
4. Wooden Planks of Danger
This obstacle was a pit bounded by logs. To avoid the pit, riders could hop up onto
thick wooden planks and coast across the 12-inch-wide elevated platform. To do so
would have required some level of balance and hand-eye coordination, neither of
which I have in any measurable quantity, so I dropped down into the pit each time.
5. Log Pyramid of Peril
More logs, this time bundled in a 30-inch tall stack. At the peak of the pyramid was
just one log, fully capable of turning bikes into useless teeter totters without the
proper amount of momentum.
6. The Tree Who Gave Its Life for EnduroCross
Our final test was a 3-foot diameter log. Simple, yet treacherous.
[Author appears at 1:09 and 1:16, riding slowly]
My row was still packed together tightly when we arrived at the EnduroCross course.
Spectators were rewarded with a few floundering A riders and the anticipation of what
might happen when the B classes arrived. Somehow I conquered the sphincter-
tightening obstacles with a little patience and some dumb luck. More riders seemed
to struggle through the last half of the course than the first, allowing me some
breathing room as we left the track.
[Author appears at 2:50, riding even more slowly]
Inside the woods was terrain that can only be described as a cross between
Arkansas and Illinois. The Arkansas part of it was rock ledges; the Illinois portion
was a generous supply of soft dirt. The lay of the land was such that much of the
course centered around the ravines and small streams feeding into Otter Creek.
Elevation changes were as frequent as rocky off-camber ledges. One of those
ledges was a tight squeeze between two rocky outcroppings, where just about every
bike’s shift lever scraped one unfortunately placed rock. Near the end of the race, so
many shifters had gouged the boulder that a light coating of rock dust was left beside
Most hare scrambles held on livestock farms have a fair number of high speed
pasture sections, where racers are encouraged to twist their throttles to the WFO
position, which is roughly equivalent to an amplifier turned up to 11. The WFO
position is just a little more than I prefer, especially in 5th gear. But it was necessary
through the long stretch of pasture that took us to a gravel road crossing. Following
the road was another mile or two of singletrack leading us to the next most
interesting section of the course: L’Escargot.
I’d first seen this spiral-shaped layout at an enduro near Roselawn, Indiana in 2007.
From overhead it looks similar to this:
[Author’s disclaimer: That awesome freehand is pretty much why I dropped out of
architecture school as a 19-year-old.]
The circles began in a counter-clockwise direction, wide at first and then decreasing
in radius. Our direction reversed when we reached the center of L’Escargot. From
there, the circles gradually increased in radius. In a freshly mowed pasture, the
grass offered no real traction. My lack of grass track skills are well documented, so it
came as no surprise that I was passed often here. Along with the dizzying effect of
continual circling, there was also the disorienting vision of riders coming straight at
me. The lanes were well marked with twine, ribbons and stakes, but the concept of L’
Escargot means you’re always in the middle of two lanes where riders are moving in
an opposite direction. On my second pass, the radius of one circle decreased
sharply, and I nearly hit an oncoming rider when I overshot the turn slightly and
veered into his lane.
Following L’Escargot was the same singletrack I’d walked prior to the race. At some
point I followed a group of riders off the course and into the nearby cornfield, where
the ATV’s had ridden during their morning race. The barbwire fence offered no reentry
into the woods, so we all missed about a ½-mile of the most scenic singletrack on
the course (course workers had this section better marked on subsequent laps). We
picked up the route again where the motorcycle trail merged into the cornfield, then
returned to the area of the EnduroCross course. The final portion of the course was a
mile of slick, hard-packed trails. My rear tire had so little traction through here that at
one point I thought it must be flat (it wasn't).
My 36-minute first lap didn’t set any speed records, but the 8 mile course advertised
in the race flyer seemed a bit conservative. Despite the highly technical trails, we had
plenty of opportunities to open up our throttles (later I learned the A and B classes
had actually been given 11 miles of trail). Thanks to better defined singletrack, I
shaved a minute off my second lap despite angry bees who found my jersey in the
singletrack leading up to L’Escargot. There are few greater disappointments in racing
than knowing bees are faster than you (and their stings hurt quite a bit).
After the second lap, 71 minutes into the race, I knew my third lap would put me very
close to the 1¾-hour time limit. But just like East Moline in August, the quirky rules of
WFO Promotions gave me a fourth lap. I’d been on the course for 106 minutes when
I pulled into the scoring lane for the third time. Since the lead rider in the AA class
had started his fourth lap prior to time expiring, everyone behind him would get
another lap. I was fine with that. The course was fun and challenging and I had some
energy left in me. I did get myself hung up on some nasty roots where we exited a
creek bed, but my final lap was otherwise uneventful.
The event was a success for its promoters, with over 200 riders participating in the
day’s races. The Bergfeld dairy farm is unique in its terrain and is operated by off-
road enthusiasts. That along with the incredible effort in building the EnduroCross
and the L’Escargot courses made for one of the better hare scrambles I've raced in a
good long time.