September 13, 2009
Wedron, Illinois
DNF
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 Snedecor 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 trees.

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 place.  

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 racing.

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.

The Assistant
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.

The Specialist
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 Analyst
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.

The Novice
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 complete mystery.

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.

The Over-Compensator
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.

The Conclusion
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.
Wedron, Illinois
White City, Illinois