April 18, 2009
Leadbelt ISDE Qualifier
Park Hills, Missouri
6th of 13 in A Class
Advance registering for the International Six Days Enduro ("ISDE")
qualifier at Missouri’s
St. Joe State Park sounded like a great idea in
February. That’s when I mailed my pre-entry form for this year’s
version of the Leadbelt Enduro, which also doubled as a
Blackjack
Enduro Circuit event and a qualifier race for those intending to
compete in the ISDE in Portugal. Two days of racing in the most
diverse riding of all the Midwest, well, that really was a great idea. Not
so great an idea? Being in lousy physical shape for racing 70+ miles
of singletrack.

Two hare scrambles at Prophetstown, Illinois were all the preparation
I felt was needed to survive the Leadbelt. Jeff Henderson had offered
periodic course updates after spending many weeks with the
Missouri
Mudders laying out the trails. The sand track special test was sure to
please, he said. The awesomeless sand rider I am, I hoped it would
be a short test.

An early start time had me rolling into the park around 7:00 a.m.,
where I located my row partner Matt Sellers. The staging area was
filled with motor homes and 3-axle fifth-wheel RV’s with more living
space than most of the houses in Dakota, Illinois. The only other
place for a U.S. rider to qualify for the ISDE is in
Idaho in May, so
those wishing to fill out the 28 open spots for Portugal usually plan to
attend both events. Since Park Hills was first on the qualifier
schedule, just about all the Letter of Intent riders (those trying to
qualify, a/k/a “LOI”) were in Missouri for the weekend. License plates
from as far as California and Washington were scattered throughout
the parking area.

As with my previous
ISDE qualifier in Colorado in 2006, I had no
intention of qualifying, so I joined the majority of the other riders who
treated the race as just another enduro with a few extra odd rules
thrown in. While the LOI riders strolled bike-less through the staging
area (their motorcycles were parked in the impound area from the
night before, per LOI qualifying rules), I prepared my KX250 for 72
miles of trail. I found Matt parked next to Ray and Glen Osia, who
were camped out in an RV for the weekend. Preparing for the start of
the race was a leisurely affair, as Matt and I had been assigned row
53.

BJEC regular Todd York joined us on probably the latest row I've ever
been placed in an enduro. Word in the pits was the LOI riders were
up front, followed by BJEC members, then no-series riders like me
and Matt. We sat a few minutes in the sand flats of the non-public
part of St. Joe State Park, waiting for our time to leave. At 8:53 we
departed, straight into the singletrack. For the next 5 hours, that’s
virtually all I would see.

The course initially twisted through the east side of the park, where
some of the best motorcycle trails are located. The days leading up to
the race had produced the best riding conditions St. Joe can ever
offer, but Saturday’s overcast skies and a sporadic drizzle slickened
the soil and forced extra lead time for the routine brake slides that are
necessary to slice through the Missouri trees.

The nature of the international scoring rules of an ISDE qualifier is
supposed to be relatively simple. You’re told the mileage location of
the checkpoints and the time at which you must arrive in order to
avoid penalty points. When you’re checked in and ready to go, you
ride like hell for the duration of the timed section. The route sheet
indicated 4 timed tests, the first beginning 40 minutes into the race at
mile marker 9.0, but a checkpoint appeared earlier than that. The
electronic scoring results suggested that this was simply a test of one’
s ability to ride faster than the approximately 13.3 mph required speed
average. These first miles of singletrack weren't terribly tight, and I
was able to zero the check fairly easily. However, I assumed this initial
check was a timed section and cranked up the pace to hare scramble
speed.

The scorers had me, Matt and Todd York spaced about 15 seconds
apart through the electronic scoring apparatus, which used the same
Missouri Hare Scrambles Championship transponder that has been
duct-taped to the underside of my helmet’s visor for many years.
Todd passed through the scorer’s tent just behind me and begged by
a few minutes later. He set a strong pace, gradually disappearing into
the lightly budding trees. He looked to be at home in the slippery
trails, and I didn't mind commenting to myself that the light rain was
making this my kind of race.

In the first timed-to-the-second test at the 8-mile marker, I was
struggling to see out of my goggles. The rain, as my farmer-dad
would say, wasn't enough to do any good, but just enough to mess
things up. Eventually Todd gave up on his goggles altogether while I
attempted to conserve my roll-offs. Todd finished 27 seconds ahead
of me in the first timed test, a 20-minute affair that took us to within
shouting distance of the staging area. I’d gained enough time on the
course to enjoy about 10 minutes of rest and refueling.

The next section took us approximately 14 miles through the west
side of the park, by way of the outskirts of the public riding area and a
long levee which always reminds me of Jerry Hemann’s tragic
accident there. A mile later was the second timed test, where Todd
led me through some of the tighter trails we’d see throughout the day.
He struggled through a few areas of jagged rocks which, despite a
couple hundred earlier riders clearing the way, were still hiding under
a winter’s worth of leaf cover. I passed Todd briefly, rode slightly
beyond my abilities and bobbled enough to let him back around. He
finished the section 3 sections ahead of me, and together we carded
the two fastest times in the “regular” A class (Tom Farris, competing
in the Senior A class, was about 30 seconds faster than both of us).

Near the end of the 14-mile section was the infamous series of
waterfalls, where I
impressed the cameras with my high-wheeling and
Matt impressed the spectators with his
low-wheeling (check out the
aftermath
here). At 43 miles was our second and final gas stop. This
also marked the end of the short course for the B and C classes. I
could have also ended my race here and felt very satisfied, but the A
riders still had 30 miles of trail ahead of them. It was at this point
where, as usual, I executed my bonehead-of-the-day action that put
me out of the running for a strong finish.

I checked into the wrong scoring tent.

There were two tents near the refueling area just outside the staging
grounds. I filled up my gas tank and pointed my KX250 towards the
closest tent, not recognizing obvious red flags like: a) the posted
mileage markers at the tent did not match the route sheet; b) Todd
York was nowhere to be found; and c) no riders, in fact, were
anywhere near the tent. Despite this, I checked in with the scoring
folks, repeated my ride across the levee and found myself at the
beginning of the timed test section I’d just completed. Seeing no
riders anywhere on the trail was finally enough evidence for me to
realize I’d screwed up. The nice folks at the checkpoint sent me back
to the staging area, where I found the correct scoring tent
(approximately 100 feet from the wrong one I’d checked into),
alongside 15 or so riders waiting for their departure times. I had just
cost myself 11 minutes.

I nearly got myself back on time at the next checkpoint, dropping
another minute’s worth of points, which effectively cost me one
additional minute because I was timed at the end of that test section.
By now, Todd York was long gone and I wouldn't see him the rest of
the day. The A-only trails were mostly a repeat of the first 30 miles,
which by this time had seen enough knobby tires and light rain that
my 53rd row position was becoming a detriment. The solid clay
section of ATV trails, part of just about every race here, were now
offering zero traction. All the loose clay on top was now resting
peacefully along the sides of the trails. After breezing through here on
the first loop with fresh legs, now I was struggling. A sure sign of
fatigue, the mile markers could not come fast enough. The first 3
hours of racing would have been just right for my physical
conditioning. The next 2½ hours were killing me.

When exhaustion sets in, so does the tendency for errors. Trees
suddenly became magnetic. Throttle control went away like stock
options to bank CEO’s. If I could've sat my butt on the seat for the
entire 30-mile loop, I gladly would have. But St. Joe does not allow for
such things. Even though the singletrack kept us out of the fastest,
rockiest parts of the park, standing through rough downhills was
mandatory. The wonderful trails which followed a tall fence separating
us from the public area of the park, so enjoyable in the first loop, had
now lost their magic. I just couldn't ride fast anywhere.

The only casualty of the day came when one of those magnetic trees
pulled me in and I broke my fork slider. As the mile makers slowly
added up to 72, I expected to finish up with another run through the
long sand track. Jeff Henderson’s description of the track was spot-
on. It was everything you’d expect of a national event – fast, well
marked, and full of deep sand. Evidence of much faster riders had
been easy to spot, through their use of wide lines through the turns,
instead of the motocross-style inside lines I was taking throughout.
But the sand track never came, and I finished the race with no desire
to do it all over again the next day. Heavy rain was in the weather
forecast, and it wouldn't get any easier on Sunday.

Matt had finished the short course with wheel bearings in desperate
need of replacement. His sentiment was identical to mine, so we
enjoyed a meal courtesy of the Osia’s and packed up for the
weekend. Jeff Henderson stopped by to collect our thoughts on the
race and convey what he’d heard from the father of a young guy who
came from California to race: “He doesn't understand how these guys
can go so fast through the trees!” A good experience for him, no
doubt. The top guys of the two-day event were the usual suspects of
the national off-road racing scene: Russell Bobbitt with the overall
win, followed by Cole Kirkpatrick. Both will represent Team USA well
in Portugal. Todd York went on to win the “regular” A class, while I
finished the day mid-pack and ready for sleep.

Congrats to the Missouri Mudders on an excellent event – I hope the
ISDE qualifier returns to Missouri in the years to come.

May 17, 2009
Atkinson, Illinois
1st of 5 in +30A
Rare is the race in which nearly everything goes according to plan,
when the laps stream by with no fatigue, no mental errors, no odd
moments where in an instant of bad fortune, a good race becomes a
lost cause. Maybe it was dumb luck, but I left the Atkinson round of
the
WFO hare scrambles series feeling like I’d just spent the morning
watering my lawn. No aches, pains, bruises, or broken motorcycle
parts, and feeling like I could do another 2 hours with no ill effects.

There were, however, a few challenges, the first being the miniscule
effort needed to engage the kickstarter. In my garage the day before,
I could easily push the kickstarter with my hand, through its entire
stroke. The KX250 came home from the ISDE qualifier last month low
on coolant, thanks to long periods of abuse and mud buildup around
the radiator guards. Clearly, the engine had been stressed, and
clearly, I shouldn't have waited a month to prep the bike for Atkinson.
The KX still ran well, but on the starting line, waiting for the sound of
gunfire to signal the go-ahead, this lack of compression made it
difficult to keep the weight of my boot from pushing down the
kickstarter and advancing the piston past top dead center. The rifle
shot came and went while I three-kicked the engine to life. The
various A classes grouped together on the 2nd row were well on their
way by the time I was moving.

Within a few twists of the throttle, I caught up to a handful of trailing
riders in a fast, grassy section along a lake near the staging area. The
Atkinson course was laid out in a recreational area once used for strip
mining coal, and its pair of leftover lakes would be circled several
times at high speeds during the next 2 hours. For now, I was at the
back of the back and trying to earn my way into better position. We
turned into the woods about a quarter-mile after the starting line,
where a train of riders searched for the perfect rut through widely
spaced trees. Spring had sprung through the I-80 corridor with
generous rains, leaving any soil without access to sunlight dark and
damp. Around one tree was a deep rut that should have brought me
to a stop, but somehow the KX churned through it all.

With the C classes running earlier in the morning, we were blessed –
and cursed - with a broken-in trail. The parallel ridges of the Atkinson
property, a clear sign of “olden days” strip mining when the land
didn't have to be returned to its original shape, littered the course with
pools of scum water. I’d scouted most of the ridged section of the
course earlier in the morning and found a few mud holes, some filled
with flowing water and others with the kind of brown liquid which most
normal people would not touch. We, on the other hand, plowed
through it all. Despite my earlier tour of the trails, I had not seen the
worst of the mud holes until the two or three worst offenders showed
themselves on first lap. At that early point in the race they were easily
navigable, but each successive lap would require some creativity to
clear the low areas.  

After the ridged section of trails, we blasted through a long, wide-
open flat area that was as dusty as the woods were muddy. Never
before have I seen so much mud and dust all in the same race. The A
class riders were still spaced tightly together and kicking up generous
clouds of earth.  Those riding with the least fear, or by way of some
line of sight I didn't know about, were passing me on both sides.
Once we jumped back inside the woods, visibility returned and so did
the mud.

Near the end of the first lap was our circumnavigation of the second
of the two lakes on the property. The far side of this lake bordered
terrain devoid of any form of vegetation, which is another telltale sign
of prior mining operations. The soil, if it could be called that, was
grey, hard, choppy, and dangerous with dust clouds ahead of me. I
followed another rider through here and eventually found myself back
at the starting area. The scoring barrels marked the end of the lap,
about a half-mile beyond the rough side of the lake.

With no idea where I stood in the +30A class, I simply focused on
riding without mistakes. I looked for alternate routes through the
muddy sections. I avoided the deepest ruts and chose smart lines
through the high-speed choppy areas around the two lakes. In many
of the 16-minute laps, I found some luck in steering through the
toughest obstacles. On the second lap, I launched myself off a 5-foot
ledge near one of the lakes, amidst a cloud of dust offering no view of
the landing, and compressed the suspension so firmly that I thought
my wrists had exploded. Fortunately, they did not, but on the third lap
I nearly threw away the race by trying out a new, faster line through
the choppy wasteland around the second lake. The way I launched
myself up and over a small ridge in 4th gear must have seemed cool
to anyone watching, but it scared the bejesus out of me.

The mud holes in the middle section of the course were now
gathering crowds at the halfway point of the race. There are generally
two types of people involved in the mayhem of forcing 250-lb, less-
than-buoyant motorcycles through an 8 foot wide gully of black muck:
those piloting the motorcycles, and those yearning for entertaining
spectatorship. Eventually, even the most heartless observer will take
pity on helpless riders, say goodbye to clean clothes and begin
tugging on handlebars. When arriving at such a scene, my
philosophy is a variation of how baseball’s
William “Wee Willie”
Keeler described the secret to successful batting (“Keep your eye
clear, and hit’em where they ain't”). I try to keep both eyes clear and
choose a line where they ain't. In this case, “they” constitutes both
people and already-used lines. Avoiding both usually increases my
odds of riding, not pushing, through a muddy gully filled with water
not suitable for many municipal treatment plants. If a line had
developed between two trees, I placed my front wheel as close to
either tree as possible, figuring most riders would have centered their
motorcycles between the trees and traveled through the midpoint. If
more than one rider was standing in 16 inches of water and going
nowhere, I went somewhere else. Hare scramble rules allow alternate
lines within 15-20 feet of the marked course, and I used every bit of
that distance.

I did make one mistake that cost me about 30 seconds, and that was
following a rider through a ravine and watching him stall at the top. I
had scouted this area prior to the race and knew of an alternate line
that was just as easy as the one taken by the stalled rider. But once
my KX250 was at the bottom of the narrow 10-foot ravine, I could do
nothing but hope the hapless rider would coast backwards and join
me for another attempt. I was unable to make the KX turn towards the
alternate line and could only observe while others cruised through the
ravine by using the line I should have. This same stalled rider had
already killed his engine while I followed him just before the ravine. I
should have suspected he might have some stalling issues, but no, I
had to follow his line. Finally, he restarted and climbed up the
opposite side of the ravine, and I was on my way again.

Somewhere in the midst of mud holes, Tim Farrell stuck himself in the
muck just long enough for me to pass and take over the lead in the
+30A class. Where this happened, I don’t know, nor did I have any
inkling I was leading the race. When the checkered flag appeared at
the end of the 7th lap, I had no expectations of anything remarkable.
The results were posted quickly and I believe my exact inner
monologue was “Holy crap, I won!” when the class sheets were duct
taped to the outside of an enclosed trailer. I accepted a ridiculously
oversized trophy from Ron Whipple and cruised home with good
thoughts about Atkinson.
Park Hills, Missouri
Atkinson, Illinois