White City, Illinois
September 13, 2009
The death of my exhaust pipe came quickly, silently, instantly. The fallen tree which
mortally wounded the pipe had inflicted collateral damage to an even more important
component of my KX250. Thus would be the beginning of the end of my race, barely
30 minutes after it started.
Two hours prior, after a pleasant stroll around the Fox Valley Offroad hare scramble
course, I found #104 Jeff Snedcor parked at the far corner of the property and shared
my pleasure with the condition of the trails. With two solid weeks of not even a hint of
precipitation in Northwestern Illinois, I expected dry, hard-packed clay and a smoky
haze through the trees. Evidently, in the past weeks Wedron area enjoyed a stray rain
cloud, as some of the trails were still slippery, moist clay.
After gearing up and fueling the bike, I cruised over to the rider’s meeting near the park
entrance. The purpose of these meetings, for me anyway, was simply to confirm that
my electronic transponder still functioned. I’d not raced here since last year, and even
though the lipstick-sized transponders are virtually bulletproof, I wanted to participate
in the parade of riders strolling through the transponder pick-up mechanism. Fox
Valley’s owner/operator Gerhard Ward (Wardy to you and me) and his transponder
scoring system are a highlight of the AMA’s District 17. Not only do you get to see your
lap times after the race, the electronic display tells you what place you’re in as you
pass through the scoring area. Duct-taped and zip-tied to my chest protector, my
transponder functioned perfectly.
In the afternoon big-bike race, the first row of departing riders demonstrated that the
course wasn't completely devoid of dust. The fast guys kicked up plenty of it as they
dashed for the woods. Ours was the next row to depart, and I found myself inside a
healthy veil of fine powder after a slightly delayed reaction to the start. I clearly
observed Wardy flip his hat off his head and watched it fall onto the ground, just like it
always does to signal the beginning of a hare scramble here. Then I clearly froze for
half a second before throwing down the kick starter and thereby proceeding in a
forward direction. Half the riders on my row beat me to the first turn, where we edged
our way around the perimeter of the woods and onto ATV trails winding through cedar
The most challenging section of the entire Fox Valley riding area came quickly: the
rocky creek. Any woods racer outside the upper Midwest might chuckle at the 200-
yards-long rock garden, but for Illinois mud riders, it was a shock to the system. In
many races I’ve been able to bully my way around riders through this section, but not
today. We rose out of the creek bed, crossed a dirt road and sliced our way through
tightly spaced trees back to the scoring area. A digital RFID display showed me in 3rd
place in +30A after this partial lap, which circled about a third of the marked course.
Just after we began our first full lap around the course, Pat McClure flew around me in
a dusty open area just ahead of the motocross track. Pat had apparently taken a liking
to the Fox Valley dirt, as his Kawasaki disappeared quickly. Near the entrance to the
motocross track, I came across a precariously placed tree at the bottom of a slick
downhill, which had been mentioned by a father and son I had met up with while
walking the course. The son predicted that many riders wouldn't be able to turn in time
to avoid the tree. He was correct, although I did miss it – once, anyway. This area of
the course was, as it always is, full of slippery clay, and slowing my KX250 on the
steep downhill was especially challenging. The tree would get me the next lap, when I
leaned a bit too far to avoid it and found myself lying in a layer of black muck.
Out on the motocross track, we made an abbreviated pass through a moderate jump
and a whoop section. That was all we’d see of the track, but that was fine with me. To
enter the whoops, I took a cue from Dakota-area motocross racer Paul McMillan,
whose family was gracious enough to let me ride their backyard track to break in my
new KTM the previous weekend. At 17 years of age, Paul is still too young to
acknowledge fear, but mature enough to show this old boy how to use the first whoop
as a jump. It really does help.
We quickly turned back into the woods and met the toughest single obstacle of the
day. The trail led up a steep, wide hill with a pair of 14-inch diameter fallen trees lying
across the entire width. Crossing logs of that size is but a minor annoyance on flat
trails. Doing it on a steep slope is another matter entirely. Once my front wheel cleared
the log, the rear wheel’s reaction was exaggerated. The back end of the KX250 tried
its best to eject me over the handlebars, but somehow I remained mostly attached to
the bike and completed the climb.
After my successful ascent, I rounded a corner and suddenly felt the sharp impact of a
tree against my helmet. Where the f--- did that come from, I asked nobody in particular.
In any given race, my helmet comes within inches of all sorts of trail junk, but most of
the time I see it coming. This, well, I had no idea. On my next lap, I kept my eyes wide
open for anything that could smack me so hard, and I found it: an oddly grown tree
with a fork in the trunk, about head-high. It looked like a cactus, with one “arm” just out
of view as I rounded the corner. Covered in green foliage, the camouflaged tree made
easy targets out of unsuspecting riders.
Somewhere later in this lap I came upon a stalled rider and felt the impact of a log as I
passed by on his left. Presumably my pipe took the hit, and I thought nothing of it. I’d
whacked my pipe against hundreds of logs during the previous 4 years on the KX250.
Nothing new about that, except this one was a little more severe. In blissful ignorance
of the damage, my next two trips through the scoring area showed me stuck in 4th
One lap later, the clutch began fading like it has so many times in the last year or so.
Master cylinder venting has been the consistent culprit, but I was absolutely sure I’d
not over-tightened the master cylinder cap. In the past, good venting always preserved
flawless clutch action, and now I was stumped. Was my cherished Hebo hydraulic
clutch on a steady downward spiral of death? I didn't know. I didn't even want to think
about having to convert back to a cable clutch. What I did know, however, was that the
clutch was fading to the point of being unusable. Near the staging area, I left the trail
and rode back to my pickup truck. The clutch master cylinder was quite low on fluid,
thanks to the clutch line resting against the exhaust pipe. The log I’d made contact
with had bent the pipe inward enough to make contact with the clutch line, causing it to
melt a hole in the line. My race was over.
Pat McClure’s speed continued as it had when he passed me early in the race. He
took the +30A class win over series points leader Clint Pherigo. Trey Verado took his
third overall win in a row at Fox Valley. Jeff Snedcor placed 3rd in the A class and a
solid 6th overall. Once again, Wardy put on a fine event on an excellent afternoon for
September 20, 2009
White City, Illinois
Never was there a better example, at the Cahokia Creek Dirt Riders hare scramble, of
a dirt biker’s actions at the bottom of a hill in determining 95% of what happened on
the way to the top. We’ll revisit this thought later, but really the race course had no
chance of being perfect on this day, thanks to a two-week drought. Up until 10:00 the
morning of the race, dust had been thick and promised to challenge all riders on the
12-mile course. The trails had been hard as concrete. Then I approached Litchfield,
about 10 miles north of the race site, and the sky darkened. Rain fell steadily for the
next two hours. This race would be one for survival and not much else.
With such poor conditions, the club cut out about 4 miles of trail, leaving us with 8
miles of wet clay. The rain finally ceased on the starting line, where we waited through
an on-the-line riders meeting. Once the racing began and I adapted to riding on terrain
which felt much like frozen ground, I realized that several individuals in and around the
course bore characteristics oddly similar to what you might find in your coworkers.
That is right, while skidding through endless muck, desperately trying to keep the
nose of my KX250 pointed in the general direction of the arrows, I was comparing dirt
bike racing with workplace personalities (survival races do strange things to your
mind, man). Right about now you may be asking, What if John were to pay as much
attention to the racing as he does to his casual observations? The answer, of course,
is that John might be a better racer, but then his writing would suffer, and that’s the
whole reason you’re here instead of Facebook, correct?
So what follows is a summary of personality and job types which often reveal
themselves at any given hare scramble, and in particular, the CCDR race.
At the midpoint of my second lap, the trail dropped us down into the lowlands near
Cahokia Creek on the west edge of the CCDR property. To climb back up to higher
ground, the arrows pointed us up the side of a ravine. This severely off-camber trail
had an unfortunately placed tree root that guided my rear tire slightly off the 8-inch-
wide path, at the peak of the steepest part of the upward slope. I lost momentum and
found myself parked there, too afraid to let the wheel spin, for it would surely just slide
down the side of the hill. David Brewster was already stuck in the bottom of the ravine,
searching for a way out. He’d attempted riding straight up through the center but
apparently found some obstacle that forced him to turn around. There was nowhere
else for him to go except further down the ravine to where we started our climb, but two
fallen trees blocked the only way out. As much as I didn't want to slide down there, the
instant I gently released the clutch to ease my KX forward, I immediately joined
Brewster in the bottom of the ravine.
A course marshal was helping Brewster lift his bike over the trees about the time I slid
about 10 feet down the slimy clay. Up above on the trail, +30A competitor Pat McClure
had put his own Kawasaki in the same precarious spot as I had. While I worked to
position my KX250 so that I could do like Brewster and lift it over the trees, Pat slowly
eased his bike back down the trail without sliding into the ravine. The course marshal
had left to redirect other riders, but Pat remained. Together we slowly and painfully
lifted the KX over the logs, first the front end and then the rear wheel. Pat had no real
incentive to help me. He’d just come off a strong class win at Wedron the previous
Sunday and was battling Oscar Rodriguez for 2nd place in the point standings. He
needed this race. Even so, Pat took pity on my situation and put me back on track. He
was The Assistant.
In the Great State of Missouri, the average hare scrambler spends years honing his
skills in rocks, heat, dust, and all sort of punishing conditions, save for one: mud. It’s
not the fault of the riders, but rather the terrain. And it’s not that Missouri has no mud. It
just has no bottomless mud in the most popular riding areas. Most of the best trails
are located below Interstate 70 and the Missouri River, where wet terrain is still wildly
enjoyable thanks to an endless supply of rocks. The rare races in the upper half of the
state which happen to be muddy are usually led by an unassuming man named
Aaron Shaw. Although he’s speedy anywhere his tires hit the trail, Aaron is
exceptionally fast when the trails are slippery and the mud is bottomless. On slick
terrain, he is capable of inhuman things. In almost all of the sloppy races from my St.
Louis years, Aaron won by minutes over everyone else: Columbia in 2002, Florence in
2004, Sedalia in 2005. The list goes on.
The fastest riders in Illinois can generally hold their own against anyone in the mud,
until the Fastest Mud Rider in Missouri shows up to race, which he did on this day.
Aaron started the race just ahead of me on the front row and lapped me about an hour
later. As he passed by, I felt like the struggling B rider I used to be, catching about 3
seconds’ view of Aaron’s rear tire before he disappeared out of sight. Thus was my
window of opportunity to see just how and why he rides so fast in the mud. The next
group of front-row riders lapped me about 3 miles into my 3rd lap. The gap was huge.
Halfway into the race, Aaron may have already been 10 minutes ahead of the next
riders. In the proper perspective, that’s what you might expect from David Knight racing
against the local Pro class. But this was the local Pro class, and Aaron Shaw was
throwing down like nobody’s business. He is The Specialist.
The rapid change from bone-dry to fully saturated terrain is a tough transition for the
heavy soils at White City. Most surfaces were covered in an inch of slippery clay. Below
that was a substrate with hardness somewhere between quartz and topaz on the
Mohs scale. Many of the steep hills had little room for approach and offered just one or
two alternatives to the top. The choices were usually long, single ruts that had been
smoothed to about the equivalent of a 3000-grit polishing pad on ceramic tile. Without
plenty of momentum at the bottom of these hills, most bikes wouldn't make it to the
top without assistance.
CCDR club member Jeff Smith directed riders up a hill similar to this in an area I call
the Back 40. This land is part of the club grounds on the north side of highway 138,
which is accessed by riding under the road bridge across Cahokia Creek. The trail
wound its way to a point almost a half-mile north of the highway before turning back
toward the bridge. Jeff was near this furthest point and helped many riders up the two
main ruts up the hill. His engineering mind is prone to deep thought about the forces
acting on dirt bikes, and those applied by riders, during a typical off-road race (or any
type of riding, for that matter).
My third attempt at Jeff’s Hill required some assistance, which he was willing to
provide by tugging on my handlebars when I lost momentum. He then gave me a
push when I again lost traction about 15 feet further up the hill. His observation about
my technique in this section was consistent with the results of this third pass through
here, when the worn S-12 rear tire on my KX had been polished almost as well as the
ruts. According to Jeff, I was struggling more than most riders with similar approach
and momentum leading into the bottom of the hill. He hypothesized that despite the
less-than-ideal traction characteristics of a real tire dating back to the 2008 racing
season, perhaps it had something to do with natural ballast. The meatier racers
required much less assistance than the less fleshy riders like myself. I could not
disprove his theory, nor did I have any remaining energy to try. Jeff is The Analyst.
At any given race, the field of competitors is generally made of up individuals with
diverse skill sets ranging from beginners to experienced Pro’s. Plot those skills on a
graph and you’ll probably have a Bell curve worthy of a college statistics class.
Somewhere on the left side of the curve is a group of novice riders who may have
some racing experience but haven’t quite mastered the type of extreme conditions we
had on this day. I was part of this group during the first few years of my racing career.
While I expended huge amounts of energy keeping the front wheel tracking straight
and the rear wheel from spinning itself off the trail, better riders passed by with the
appearance of little effort. How their tires found traction in such slimy conditions was a
At White City, the novices were struggling. On a downhill with two diverging ruts, I
witnessed a rider skate down the hill with the rear wheel in the left rut and the front
wheel in the right. Eventually the ruts diverged too far and the rider went down. Even
the flat trails weren't foolproof. One guy spun his wheels with both feet out, sliding left,
then right, and ended up sitting sideways in the middle of the trail. The mud made life
miserable for The Novice.
On my first lap, once I became semi-comfortable with the sensation of hitting false
neutrals, even though the transmission was in gear and the rear wheel was spinning,
I backed down to cruising speed and slowly caught up to riders who either started on
the row ahead of me or had jumped out to a quicker pace on my row. One of these
individuals, on a Honda, was an accident waiting to happen. Determined not to be
passed yet again, he kept on the gas like a motocrosser. The problem with this was
evident in his body positioning, which made him appear like he was riding a runaway
horse. I have never seen a motorcycle spin in so many directions and still remain on
two wheels. Anything possible to keep on the same pace as me, this guy was doing.
Passing him had to happen quickly, or else his impending crash might take me with
him. After a couple of failed attempts, I out-braked him to a corner and slid by. The old
saying “Ride slow to go faster” was lost on him. Whether The Over-Compensator
finished the race, I do not know.
At the end of my third lap, I was hoping beyond all hope that I would see the checkered
flag. Instead, I observed a white flag, signaling one more lap. Crap. Those polished
clay ruts weren't getting any better. The very first one on the course required two
attempts, but somehow the rest I was able to scale cleanly. At Jeff’s Hill, I ducked to
the far inside of the turn that set us up for the climb and found unadulterated soil all
the way to the top. Jeff shouted some words of encouragement, but I suspect he was
just happy he wouldn't have to pull me up the hill again.
Some of the slime on the high ground had by now been cleared away to leave
relatively dry dirt. One hill in particular was slick at the start, then dry about halfway up.
The KX250 would spin its wheel, then blast off like a rocket ship. None of my laps
were mistake free, despite my best efforts, and each fall or bobble would suck away
what I thought was the last of my energy. But somehow I came through to the end,
where the checkered flag at the scoring barrels was the best sight of the day (along
with my jug of Gatorade). The drive home was long and gave me several hours to
ponder the toughest race of the year. I survived.