March 21, 2010
1st of 14 in +30 class
Every winter, around mid-February, I have an annual ritual called “Racing
Opportunities”. This entails an hour or so of combing the Internet for every
conceivable off-road race that I might possibly attend throughout the season. I've
been doing this since 1999. Each schedule includes a handful of races I never miss,
regardless of distance or circumstances, such as the Leadbelt Enduro. Others are
long shots, like the Crawfordsville, Indiana Grand National Cross Country race. With
no regular series to focus on since I moved back to Illinois in 2005, I go wherever,
whenever. The race schedule helps point me in the right direction.
Such was the case this year, except I didn't bother with the ritual until mid-March. I
had thought about taking in the opening round of the Missouri Hare Scrambles
Championship at Lebanon, but couldn't get motivated to drive that far for the sure
punishment of a rocky course. And, honestly, I was completely out of shape for riding.
By then I’d missed seeing Bill Gusse’s MXC opening round on his website schedule,
set for March 14th. A more glorious Sunday in March could not have been had, and I
didn't even realize the day would have been made even better if I’d loaded up the bike
and headed down to Prophetstown.
Redemption came one week later with the MXC schedule returning to the same
venue. That race would be my season opener. Unfortunately, winter decided to
return, dropping an inch of snow on Northern Illinois. I wasn't worried, though. A
couple weeks of warm weather had thawed the frozen tundra. Prophetstown’s sandy
soil would be just fine for racing.
Mr. Gusse’s Sunday race lineup always starts the A and B classes well after
noontime, which leaves plenty of time to scout the course. Snow was melting off the
trees so quickly that I had to pull up the hood on my jacket to keep my head dry. The
course was similar to most of the spring races at Prophetstown, with two out-and-
back loops that converged at the small motocross track near the staging area. The
sandy terrain was moist, compacted, and perfect. In the wider areas of the woods,
Mr. Gusse had been kind enough to smooth out the sand whoops from last Sunday's
race with a track skid steer loader. I liked what I saw.
This week’s MXC series race was jointly run with the Iowa hare scrambles series. As
such, the starting line was full - a bit too full, especially for the Pro/A class on the front
row. The motocross staring area is somewhat limited in width, and the guys in the
front-row squeezed into every inch, and then some. The old guy classes on the
second row were at least 20 strong. Behind us were two more packed rows. When
the green flag dropped, I found myself in second place at the first turn. A wise choice
for sand, that brand new Michelin S-12 rear tire. The starting area converged into the
motocross track, where I held my spot in second place until the track ended ahead of
a long, fast section of sand whoops. These were wide enough to drive a couple
trucks through, and deep enough to kick my rear wheel side-to-side, violently. I
backed off the throttle and saw a guy on a KTM 4-stroke pass on the left.
The whoops ended, and so began singletrack combined with arm pump. My limited
winter riding hadn't done much for my forearms, and it showed in the first 40 minutes
of the race. The lead guy on a Honda drifted out of sight, but I held close to the KTM
guy. My speed was definitely not a full-on race pace, yet there were no challengers
The KTM guy made a mistake in the toughest section, a short but steep sandy hill.
This same hill had bit me in previous races, but I’d scouted out the lines on my
morning walk. Now back in 2nd place, I was mostly alone, charging through
alternating singletrack and wide trails. The earlier races had churned up the sand
into well-defined lines, some of which were already threatening to swallow my front
wheel. On a dry day in the summer, I cannot imagine how deep the sand ruts could
become. Fortunately, the Caterpillar track skid loader had been through the wider
trails and leveled out the whoops somewhat, at least at the start of the day. As the
day's races ended, the wide trails would need another grooming.
My KTM 250XC, described by 4th place overall finisher Ryan Moss as pretty much the
perfect all-around bike, was outstanding on the motocross track. Mr. Gusse’s track
contains a couple of 5-foot jumps which, for the right professional motocrosser,
might actually be considered doubles. For me, they were two singles which in earlier
years on the plushly-suspended KX250, had left my wrists and ankles sore upon
landing. With the 250XC, the landings were stiff, but manageable, as were the
double jumps intended for typical (i.e. average) humans like me (i.e. short, flat, and
Twelve minute laps passed by quickly. Eventually my arm pump subsided, just in
time for a couple thumb blisters to welcome themselves to the racing season. The
top guys in the Pro/A class caught up to me about an hour into the race and began
passing just as I arrived at the tough, sandy hill. I squeezed by a guy struggling on
the side of the hill, then fell over in the sharp left turn that sent us immediately back
down the hill. Most guys with an electric-start bike would simply push the magic
button on be on their way in about half a second, but that thought never crossed my
mind. Instead, I picked up the bike, rolled down the hill and bump-started the 250XC
just like I would have done with all 6 dirt bikes I’d raced previously over the past 16
years. This electric start thing takes awhile to get used to.
About 90 minutes into the race, Ryan Moss lapped me in the second half of the
course. A few minutes later, the checkered flag appeared at the scoring barrels. The
timing was right – my thumb blisters were just about ready to burst, and the only
result of that is pain. The final results were tallied a half-hour later and to my
surprise, my name showed up first in the +30 standings. Nice way to start the
April 11, 2010
‘Lil Luck Enduro
6th of 16 in Lite A
As race venues go, few in the Midwest entice me like a certain property just outside a
sleepy Iowa community known as Zwingle. It's an older terrain near the Mississippi
River where previous Ice Ages did not touch, leaving some interesting features for
dirt biking. Since I moved to Northwestern Illinois, I have not missed any races here,
including the 'Lil Luck Enduro. However, after only 4 hours of sleep the night before, I
actually considered a detour to a dual sport ride just a few miles down the road at
Leaf River, Illinois. Then I remembered that Zwingle is awesome. So I headed
toward Dubuque and arrived in time to snatch a spot on Row #8.
The 'Lil Luck was set up as a closed-course, rally-style enduro with no real
timekeeping (sometimes referred to as a "restart" format). The event was run as 5
laps around a 9.2-mile course for the A riders (B & C classes did fewer laps), with
one timed section per lap. A working dairy farm set the stage for the enduro,
complete with freshly spread manure on the parking area. As I stepped into the
aroma, a thought came to mind: where are all the cows? In all my races here, I'd
never noticed a single animal of the bovine persuasion. Wherever they were housed,
their only evidence was clinging to my shoes.
The simplicity of a restart format makes these types of enduros glorified hare
scrambles, with no need for headlights, taillights, license plates or enduro
computers. Yet plenty of these accessories were bolted onto the bikes. On my row
was Iowa fast guy Gary Barber with a Missouri motorcycle license plate stuck to his
rear fender. As we stood in line near the starting checkpoint, the four of us on Row #8
did what most guys on most rows do when there's nothing else going on except
course workers scribbling archaic writings on score cards and guys standing next to
flip cards arranged to display the row numbers of the most recently departed riders.
We engaged in what the lay person might consider idle banter, but for enduro riders
is comparable to a pack of stray dogs sniffing out the alpha male. We desire to
establish who will enter the woods first. Sometimes this comes in the form of
inconspicuous glances at score cards, which usually list the rider's class. Other
times, we chat up the riders beside us and casually ask what class they have
entered. In some cases, even after identifying each rider's potential speed, there is
no clear alpha male. It must be left to the woods to decide. In our case, on Row #8,
the alpha male was clear: Gary Barber. He was the sole AA rider among us.
Even so, Gary was polite enough to suggest that he would lead, but if I felt that he
was holding me up, then I could just let him know and he'd pull out of my way. "I'm
usually a slow starter," said Gary, "but I warm up after awhile." When our departure
time arrived, I quickly realized he couldn't have been serious. If this was his idea of a
slow start, I wouldn't be seeing much of him all day.
The course was laid out about the same as the November '09 hare scramble, more
or less a counter-clockwise route along the perimeter of the property. The most
dangerous section came about a mile in, where two-way traffic was separated only
by yellow caution tape. I rounded a 3rd gear, sweeping right-hand curve along the
edge of a cornfield, leaning the KTM into the turn while meeting an oncoming rider.
He was simultaneously leaning into his own sweeping right turn from the opposite
direction. Our wheels were probably no more than 18 inches apart.
After another mile of rock ledges and slippery clay, I arrived at the restart in a cornfield
near the woods. This was where the real racing was to begin. We'd been given plenty
of time to reach this checkpoint, so I chatted with Gary while we paused for our
departure time. He encouraged me to attend the Winterset, Iowa enduro later in the
year. I recalled my first-ever class win at Winterset, where I was also the 2nd place
overall finisher within all the B classes combined. That was one of the few times a 6-
hour drive had been totally worth it.
Our time to leave the checkpoint came a few minutes later, with Gary racing to a
small opening in the trees. I kept his pace for about a half mile of trail next to a steep
drop-off. Whatever was down below us to the right, I hoped I'd never find out. Once we
emerged from the woods, the trail opened into another cornfield and zigzagged back
and forth. My 250XC was no match for Gary's wide-ratio 300XC-W. As he would in
every lap, Gary pulled away quickly. I would see him drop back into the woods, then
again on the EnduroCross course, and from there he was out of sight. A fast rider,
Mr. Barber is.
The first lap contained all the highlights of the property. Climbing rock ledges,
descending steep grades, ducking under tree limbs...it was all there. Even though I'd
already scratched up my new Shoei helmet at Prophetstown a few weeks earlier, I
desperately tried to avoid knocking it against rock walls. The course offered several
opportunities to do just that, with some very narrow chasms that were made into
trails. A section of cedar trees and their low-hanging branches were also hard on the
My only time-consuming mistake on the first lap came just before an observation
checkpoint at the south end of the property. We exited the woods into a pasture, then
headed for a speed-reducing chicane in the grass. I couldn't slow the bike in time
and laid it on its side. I hoped I could slide under the ribbon marking the chicane, but
it pulled away from the metal stakes holding it in place. The thirty seconds wasted in
picking myself up and restarting the bike were the difference between zeroing the
final checkpoint and dropping one minute.
The 18-mph speed average in the first timed check would be gradually bumped up
over the next 4 laps. Barring any major mistakes, the 18-mph average was doable for
me; however, the 24, 30, and 36 mph averages were not. On the positive side, the
course was breaking in nicely and the pace was likely to increase. With sunny skies
and temperatures in the 60's, this day was shaping up to be excellent.
After the first lap, I had some time to grab a snack and rest for a few minutes. In
classic Stichnoth fashion, I nearly screwed up the restart by waiting too long to begin
the second lap. I thought we'd check in again at the starting area, but when I arrived a
couple minutes before my start time, nobody was there. This meant I might have to
push hard to make it to the restart in time, when I could have coasted my way there if
I'd not spent those extra minutes lounging at my pickup truck. However, the first few
untimed miles of the course were not terribly difficult and I still had plenty of time to
With the speed average now at 24 mph, zeroing the next check was an unlikely
possibility. The handful of high-speed sections through cornfields and pastures
would not offset the slower, technical singletrack. One of the most frustrating
obstacles from the November hare scramble was present again on the side of a hill.
Every lap, a pair of 18-inch logs appeared just after a stretch of off-camber hillside
trails. Between the logs was just enough room for a motorcycle. This distance, if
traveling downhill, would have been less of a challenge. But scaling a hill and the two
logs at the same time was another matter entirely. My success rate here was 60% -
laps 3 and 4 made up the other 40%, which was pretty consistent with my
performance last Fall.
After dropping one point on the first lap, I lost another 4 points on the second lap.
Even though my elapsed time was a little better, the speed average was higher. This
trend would continue as the timetable shortened on the ensuing laps. The course
also deteriorated somewhat in certain areas, especially a gully crossing in the
untimed section. I made it through the deep ruts, but not without stepping off the bike
and pushing. Reroutes and shortcuts would get us around most of the rest of the
difficult sections later in the race.
At each restart, I would follow Gary Barber through the first area of singletrack, then
watch him disappear into a cloud of dust in the open fields. At the end of each lap, I
would take a few minutes back at my pickup truck to grab a drink and a snack, put
some fuel in the KTM and add a Band Aid wherever needed on my hands. From
there, I’d ride an easy pace to the restart, wait for my minute to come up, and see
how long I could keep up with Gary.
The 4th and 5th laps stepped up the speed average to 30 and 36 mph, respectively.
At that pace, everybody dropped points. Gary and I were the sole riders left on our
row, and the field had thinned out considerably. The final lap was made up of A and
AA riders only. I conquered the Terrible Twin logs, took the pansy route around a
tough rock ledge climb, kept my still-new helmet away from the rock walls, and
finished the race without incident.
Tim Tabor would take the overall win, while my rowmate Gary Barber would finish
10th overall. However, the real winners were all who showed up to race the ‘Lil Luck
Enduro. Great day for riding.