June 6, 2010
White City, Illinois
1st of 7 in +30A
I have found a new way to train for off-road motorcycle racing, and it goes something
like this: have 9 large trees delivered to your home, hand-dig 9 large holes with a
shovel and spade, and plant them over the course of 2 days. It is the closest thing to
back-to-back 75-mile enduros that you can put your body through without actually
riding a two-day enduro. After this tree-planting episode on Memorial Day weekend,
the White City hare scramble was a piece of cake.
The riding at the Cahokia Creek Dirt Riders club was, comparatively, more
technically challenging than digging holes in my back yard, but aside from a few wet
spots in the low areas, the course was in good shape. The club allows no practice
lap, so I killed some time by walking part of the trails on the north side of the
highway. The loop was said to be roughly 7 miles long, with about 2/3's of it laid out
around the club grounds and the remainder on the other side of Illinois Route 138.
The seven of us in the +30A class were aligned on the third row of the starting area,
this being a straight-on drag race across a bark-laden, faux-motocross course
alongside the highway. The starting grid was positioned at the edge of a 180-degree
turn at the end of a long, dry straightaway, which seemed an odd location. Half the
class claimed spots on the mulched track, while I moved to the far right to (hopefully)
grab more traction on the grass. For the most part, it was a good choice. I kicked the
KTM to life, sailed down the grass next to the track, and found nobody noticeably
ahead of me as we neared a right hand turn that would take us into the woods. As
we braked for the turn, things changed a bit. I knew I'd be crowded to the inside of
the turn and aimed the bike toward a small berm that was part of another section of
the motocross course. The small bikes had used this berm in the morning race and
dug out a nice rut, making it a little deeper than it appeared when I committed to this
line. When I slowed, half the class flew by.
One of these riders was Pat McClure, who ended up immediately in front of me. We
followed a fast, narrow trail that was just slippery enough to keep us struggling to
make our tires stick to the established path. Pat was noticeably flustered through
here and eventually fell in a spot that wasn't very suitable for falling. His bike, on its
side, was completely blocking the trail. I don't really enjoy using other bikes as
traction, but there was no way I was going to stop and wait. But had I recognized that
this was the same Pat McClure who helped me out of a nasty ravine the last time we
raced here, I might have at least tried not to use his entire rear subframe as traction.
But that I did, just like the rest of the +30A class behind me. The trail continued
around the northeast edge of the club grounds, then angled back towards the south.
I missed a turn somewhere in there and found myself riding with no arrows in sight.
I had a hunch that I could keep following the unmarked trail and eventually find
arrows again, but I turned back around. Another guy in my class kept on going, and
after backtracking to the arrows, I could see that my hunch was correct: the
unmarked trail would have linked right up with the course. So I’d given up a couple
spots by doing the right thing.
The trail continued through the ravines and ridges that make up much of the club’s
property, then crossed through Cahokia Creek about halfway into the loop. The
sandy banks of the creek were already developing ruts on our first pass through
here, and would only get worse as the laps accumulated. After crossing under the
Illinois 138 bridge, the trail made a large loop through the trails on the north side of
the highway. In between was the second crossing of Cahokia Creek, where I found
myself approaching it at an odd angle. Somewhere in these trails, I’d missed
another turn and cut out about a half mile of trails. I wasn't alone, though. On my next
pass through here, 3 or 4 guys stood blocking the trail where we’d left the marked
course, making sure nobody missed the turn again.
The 7-mile course was one of the faster layouts I’d seen at White City, as my lap
times averaged just over 20 minutes each. The trails were damp enough for
excellent traction, but some of the gully crossings were softening and developing
ruts. On my second lap, I needed a tug from one of the course workers to get
through one of these gullies. Over at the Cahokia Creek crossing, a crowd had
gathered and was helpfully pointing out good lines. Some were keeping busy
assisting stranded bikes.
One tricky uphill on the north side of the highway was a challenge each time, no
matter what approach line I chose. The sand whoops in the low-lying ground next to
the creek were deep and soft. Through it all, I kept my wheels on the ground and the
After the missed-turn incident on the first lap, I had no idea where I stood in the +30A
class. A couple of guys had passed me from what appeared to be earlier rows, but
they could have been from my own class. All I knew was that I felt pretty good on the
course. Other than some numbness in my throttle hand in the early laps, my body
felt strong through the whole race, even though I hadn't ridden in several weeks.
On my next-to-last lap, the course had been re-routed around a nasty gully, and I
suddenly found myself riding with no arrows in sight. I turned around, thinking I’d
missed arrows once again, but a couple of riders behind me continued up the hill I’d
just backtracked. Turns out the re-route joined up with the marked trail only a few
yards out of sight from where I’d turned around. So once again, I wasn't sure who I’d
just given up positions to.
With one lap remaining, I pushed hard to the finish – a little too hard, apparently. The
250XC ran out of gas with a couple miles remaining (no worries…the KTM tank has
a reserve). One nice thing about running out of gas with an electric-start motorcycle
is that the engine re-fires in about one tenth the time as a kickstart-only bike. I eased
off the throttle a bit over the remaining miles and finished a few minutes afterward.
Late in the day, after I’d long since departed White City, Jeff Henderson alerted me of
my finish. How I’d passed the rest of my class, I did not know. But it made me feel
pretty darned good. Once again, the Cahokia Creek club proved why White City is my
favorite place to ride in all of Illinois.
June 20, 2010
8th of 11 in Vet A
The sports psychiatrists of the world make their livings on the idea that competition
is as much mental as it is physical. After the Blue Hills Enduro, I could very much
agree with that, but I would break it down even further. There's two kinds of mental in
a dirt bike race: a) the kind that smacks you in the face and says "You will be
punished today"; and b) the kind that tells you "Oh yeah, by the way, don't forget about
those other things going on in your life that have nothing to do with enduro racing." I
would like to think the combination of those two were responsible for my less-than-
satisfactory performance, but a more likely explanation is that I just plain sucked.
The area of Hayward, Wisconsin is pretty much in the middle of nothing except the
kind of natural beauty that draws vacationers from miles around. What the year-
round residents do here, I am not sure, but it's a great place to get away if endless
trees and lakes are your thing. The staging area for the enduro was a hunt club
named Summit Lake Game Farm, located almost 6 hours northwest of my home.
On Saturday afternoon I loaded up Big Bird and drove up to the race site, hoping I
could somehow navigate my way back home on Sunday. It was that far into the
netherlands of Wisconsin, and based on stories coming from the youth race on
Saturday, this is not a place to lose your navigational bearings. A couple of young
racers did just that and decided to ride up to a house in the woods and ask for
directions. They were greeted by an angry man with a loaded gun. For his efforts, the
guy got to spend the rest of the weekend in the local pokey, but I've not heard of a
better reason to stay on the arrows.
On arrival on Saturday evening, I missed the signup and sound test by about 5
minutes, so I got myself comfortable in the back of the Blazer. With the seats down
and stretched out diagonally in the cargo area, I could almost extend my legs fully.
Our staging area was what appeared to be a skeet shooting range, with a lake just
off to the north. I awoke early and walked my bike over to the sound test, not wanting
to be "that guy" who fires up his engine first in the morning. The sound test guys took
one look at my stock exhaust on the 250XC and waved me onward. "I'm not worried
about the KTM's," said the Head Sound Checker.
The signup crew used the random-draw method of choosing rows, which mostly
eliminated the rush to sign up early and improve the odds of reserving that perfect
starting row. Some racers would say your row number is one of the most important
variables in all of enduro racing. I would say, who gives a crap, I’m not here for
anything but fun and challenges. Regardless, I reached into the box of envelopes
and pulled out 29C – a lucky draw, in my opinion. This gave me plenty of time to
prepare for the start, and by then the trail would be very well broken in. Or so I
As I was lounging around the Blazer, slowly dressing myself while lovingly gazing at
my orange motorcycle, that second type of mental challenge that I talked about
earlier suddenly came on. My potential performance was already being threatened
and the race hadn't even begun. And it all had to do with a 1995 Suzuki RF900R.
This is the motorcycle that my employer had repossessed a couple months earlier,
of which I'd taken in and nursed back to running condition. A Craigslist ad had linked
us to a long-distance buyer who was willing to take a one-way flight to Chicago and
ride the bike home. All we had to do was deliver the bike to the airport, and that was
where things were breaking down. The individual in our office who volunteered to
meet the buyer did not, apparently, know his own cell phone number, for the number
he had provided was failing to produce the exchange of phone calls planned for
Sunday morning. Our buyer was nervous. "Should I get on the plane?" he asked.
"Don't worry," I said. "Our guy will meet you there." But I never did make contact with
our employee. I finally gave up and let fate take its course, as my minute was rapidly
approaching. I started the race thinking of what a bad deal it would be if our buyer
showed up in Chicago with no ride home, and how many different ways I would have
to physically abuse our employee if he didn't show up at the airport with the RF900.
The other part of mental showed up about a quarter-mile into the race in a patch of
small trees spaced no wider than my handlebars. Or, in some cases, not quite as
wide as the handlebars. This section lasted far too long and consumed far too much
energy in the early miles of the enduro. I could see now why an 18 mph speed
average was appropriate - I could've jogged faster through here. Adding to the
challenge were small, smooth rocks. Even though the soil was about as perfectly
loamy and tractable as could be, the rocks were taking all of that away. If there ever
was an effective means to take a person out of the game before it was started, this
was the kind of section with which to begin a race. Will all 55 miles be this way? I
asked. If so, I doubted I would finish.
Mercifully, the tightly packed trees ended and the course took on some ATV-wide
trails now and then. After these initial few miles, speeds increased but the difficulty
of the rocks did not. As rounded and traction-less as they were, it was actually the
color of the rocks that was more challenging than the shapes. Their darkness
matched the shades of black in the soil. Around every corner, my eyes told me I had
smooth black dirt to work with. What I got, actually, was slippery rock. Ever try to
make a dirt bike turn on rounded, slippery rocks? I was losing points quickly.
At the first checkpoint, I was 9 minutes behind schedule. We were given a long reset,
so I used that opportunity to casually take note of how other riders had scored. Craig
Holesek, a longtime fast guy from Minnesota, somehow found a way to drop only a
couple points. Craig would go on to finish 2nd overall and would only lose 14 points
the whole day.
The size of the property, combined with its densely packed trees and undergrowth,
allowed for no repeat trails the whole day. Every so often the singletrack would
merge with snowmobile-type trails, then head back into the thick forest. The
smoothly shaped rocks continued to frustrate me, along with repeated visions of a
guy showing up at the airport with no RF900 in sight. Occasionally the dirt would turn
relatively rock free and remind me of places like White City, Illinois. But then I’d try to
turn the 250XC at speed and feel the front end drift off into the trees.
The longest, toughest test came in the second half of the race, between the 5th and
6th checkpoints. I was 16 minutes behind when this section ended. Although my
energy level was fine, mentally the course was beating me badly. Would the rocks
ever end? I had seen much worse in Missouri and Colorado and Arkansas, but at
least in those places the rocks had some sharper edges and the rear tire could bite
into them a bit. Here, there was no bite at all. In one section of the course, an open
field led to a makeshift bridge of logs laid over a wet spot, leading to a short, steep
hill inside the woods. Without the rocks, this would have been a simple obstacle. As
it were, I lost traction near the top of the hill and had to let the bike slide down the hill
backwards. All I could do was step off the bike, grab some throttle and push it up the
hill with all my energy.
After 4 hours of frustration, it finally occurred to me that I had seen this type of terrain
before. It was 900 miles to the east in a place called Unadilla, New York. In 2007, I’d
had similar thoughts about the rocks during the Grand National Cross Country race
at that location. It was an older terrain, like what I was riding in Wisconsin, filled with
moderately sized rocks that gave the appearance of having spent some time in a
After the tough test of the day, we were given two more chances to prove our mettle
in the Wisconsin forest. For the most part, the course continued to beat me up all the
way to the end. I dropped another 17 points in those two sections and finished the
race with a score of 46. In my class, I’d beaten only one rider who actually finished
the race. Todd Sigfrid, a Minnesota native and fellow Vet A rider who shared my row,
scored a 40 and placed a couple spots ahead of me.
Was the race fun? Probably not the same kind of fun as a Roselawn, Indiana enduro
or others of that type, but it was satisfying that I’d finished a race that never quit trying
to beat me both physically and mentally. As for the RF900, the exchange had indeed
been made in Chicago, probably about the time I was pushing my KTM up that hill,
so I wasn't going to have to kill anyone on Monday. Would I drive this distance to
attend the enduro next year? Probably. Sometimes you just need the bejusus beat
out of you for 4 or 5 hours. It’s good for the soul.
White City, Illinois