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 bike upright.
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
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
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 thought.
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
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 rock tumbler.
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
White City, Illinois