September 13, 2008
Valders, Wisconsin
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 slippery clay.

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 virtually
unnoticeable.

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
Zwingle, Iowa
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 morning.

[
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 his keys.
]

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 obstacles:

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 perpendicular logs.
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 it.

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.
Valders, Wisconsin
Z
wingle, Iowa