November 7, 2010
5th of 11 in Vet A
As any guy knows, commitment is hard. For a guy who races dirt bikes, commitment
comes in the form of pre-entry, where several weeks in advance of the race, an entry
form is completed, a check is written, and just like that, you are now committed to
racing. Between then and the day of the race, many things can happen that might
turn that $40 into a charitable donation to the hosting club. Your engine might
explode the weekend before the race. Your significant other could notify you of her
3rd cousin’s first anniversary of his second divorce, and the family gathering that is
mandatory. Or, you might decide to race the Sunday before and whack your hand
against a tree.
The week after the Morrison hare scramble on Halloween day, the swelling in my left
hand subsided but the pain did not. On Saturday morning, I confirmed that my hand
was still functional for operating the clutch and loosely gripping the handlebars, so I
prepared the motorcycle for the Turkey Creek enduro. One of the challenges of
preparing for this particular enduro is its pre-race bike inspection, which includes a
sound test and equipment check. The equipment must include a working headlight
and taillight, as well as a license plate. The absence of any of these is an invitation to
spend a few hours watching other people race dirt bikes through the woods. Two
years earlier, when I last competed at Goshen, tech inspection was easy, thanks to
my Gas Gas 300EC and its working enduro equipment. In theory, the KTM 250XC
was similarly enduro-ready. In theory. I mounted the headlight shell and noticed the
larger of the two bulbs was burned out. Well, no problem…one bulb was good
enough. The taillight was a different challenge. Its bulb was a series of LED’s which
had stopped working long ago. I had no bulbs that could handle 12 volts, so I spent
an hour going MacGuyver on an old cable TV remote control shell, a string of
Christmas lights and a pair of AA batteries. My license plate from the old Gas Gas
had expired one week prior, so I rolled into the Illinois Department of Motor Vehicles
with a story of a misplaced registration sticker for the Blazer, and $20 later, I had an
official-looking registration sticker for the motorcycle plate. I was ready to race.
Despite all these preparations, the tech guys near the signup building skeptically
examined my dimly lit taillight and frowned when I opened up the throttle for the
sound test. “Really loud” and “102 decibels” were the only words that I could make
out, along with “Maybe time for a silencer re-pack.” With some reluctance, they
presented me with the official certificate that would allow me to convert my $40 pre-
entry fee into a day of racing. The club had reserved a place for me on the 15th row.
During the drive to the race site, I’d noticed a small area of lake-effect snow along I-
80/90. While the ground was clear in and around Goshen, the outside temperature
was about what it would take to generate the white stuff, had there been precipitation
in the air. I threw on a cotton long-sleeved jersey and my riding jacket, swallowed a
couple of Ibuprofen pills and made my way to the starting area. On my row were
fellow Vet A rider Aaron Barth, Masters rider Layton Erickson, and Josh Bourque in
the C Junior class. Unlike two years ago, when I thought the initial miles would be a
trail ride to the first timed section, I went all-out and followed Aaron into the woods.
My clutch hand was still feeling the effects of the Halloween Day race, with some
pangs of pain shooting through my palm. In the slippery leaves, I slid out around a
corner and saw the other two guys on my row pass by. The woods here were filled
with tall, widely spaced trees on either side of Turkey Creek. Most of the trails were in
low areas next to the creek, with swampy sections that were mostly dry today. Mostly.
About a half mile in was a leaf-camouflaged mud hole that, based on a series of
photographs by Stineback Extreme, enticed many riders. Fortunately for me, enough
guys were stuck in the hole that I was able to find a better path through it. Based on
the photos which surfaced afterwards, many riders were hauling through what
probably seemed like moist ground, then suddenly seeing their front tires disappear.
After a couple more miles of wide, flowing woods, the first check crew appeared and
wrote "18" on my score card. I had dropped 3 points. A long road section took us
south of the New Paris industrial park, which hosted the race, and over to another
area east of town. By the time I arrived at the next test section, my hands were a bit
cold. I talked with Aaron Barth for a couple minutes discovered that he was from the
Tri-Cities region of Michigan, which is like telling someone from Michigan you're from
Dakota, Illinois. As Wikipedia would inform me later, Aaron lived near Saginaw, Bay
City, and/or Midland. Or possibly he was referring to the Greater Tri-Cities region,
which is not actually a threesome of cities, but a trio of counties. Either way, his
proximity to the Thumb, the preferred geographical reference for anything related to
Michigan, was somewhere within that webbed flap of skin between the thumb and
index finger, in proximity to the thenar space (thank you for the visual, Wikipedia).
At any rate, I suggested Aaron take the lead into the woods and I'd see how long I
could keep up. By this time the ibuprofen had my clutch hand feeling somewhat
loose and fairly usable, so I followed Aaron for a good long time. In fact, I followed
Aaron for darn near the whole 70 miles. In the few instances where he made
mistakes and I was able to pass, I would ride as aggressively as I dared, but could
not put any distance between us. Within a minute or two, Aaron would catch up and
I'd let him by, but he would rarely pull away. He did manage to jump ahead by about a
minute during the longest section of the day, which took us almost miles between
checkpoints. In the next-to-last section, the second-longest section of the day, Aaron
pulled ahead by about 30 seconds, but we both clocked in on the same minute.
The Goshen-area terrain was a combination of light, loamy soil and swamp ground.
My first-ever enduro here, in 1995, proved how saturated the low-lying areas of this
place can be during a normal fall season. Today, however, the loamy ground was
somewhat dusty and the swamps were merely loamy and none of them were
covered with standing water. On the 15th row, Aaron and I were catching most of the
slower riders in the longer sections and finding clear paths through the lowlands
around creeks. This was good and bad - the later riders would get to see all the lines
we created, but some of them would have to avoid the ruts we were trenching
through the soil. Despite the dry conditions of the previous two months, there were
still areas where only a few bikes could use the same rut before one of them got
One of the most interesting things I've ever seen at an enduro occurred in a long, flat
field lane that connected a pair of woods sections. The course was filled with many
short, intense sprints across harvested fields, and this was one of them. I was
following a guy on a CR250 who, like me, opened the throttle as far as it would go.
He was about 50 yards ahead of me when a thick, black smoke belched out of his
exhaust pipe. Clearly, his engine was toast. As the bike slowed, I could barely see
through the fog of his blown engine.
About halfway into the race, the straps of my fanny pack became more noticeable
than usual, thanks to two factors: 1) my pack was overflowing with most of the
necessary tools to completely tear down a rebuild a dirt bike alongside the trail; and
2) cotton is apparently more abrasive than polyester. At the 60-mile mark, I could take
the pain no longer. The fanny pack had to go. Luckily for me, Aaron's mother was
chasing us around in a minivan and she was somehow finding us at every road
section. I located her van along the road and asked if she would hang on to the pack.
We were heading for the final section of the day, so it didn't really matter to me
whether or not I had all 5 metric wrenches or my assortment of cotter pins or a half-
inch hose clamp. My midsection was lined with a long, red scrape from the fanny
pack strap, but at least I wasn't hurting anymore.
At the entrance to the final section of the day, bikes were gathered as we paused to
wait for our rows to be admitted into the woods. The enduro was set up as a series
of test sections where it didn't matter if you showed up early to the check-in. We had
plenty of time to spare, so I relaxed a bit and inspected my bike. During this time,
Aaron told me a story that would have seemed unbelievable without evidence to
support it. Apparently I had knocked down an entire tree in the previous section. This
was one of the few areas of the course where I had been leading Aaron, so he
witnessed my bike contact the tree and saw it begin to plunge to the ground. Rather
than falling to the side of the trail, however, the tree fell straight into Aaron. Now, it
was obviously a tree that probably a stiff gust of wind could have taken down, but it
was large enough that as it fell into Aaron's bike, the tree snapped off his roll chart
holder. The evidence was clear - all that was left of the roll chart holder was a hose
clamp holding onto a small piece of plastic. If Aaron hadn't been following me, I
never would have known I took down a tree without even crashing.
After I left my fanny pack with his mother, Aaron had apparently told her the story of
the fallen tree and the person who made it happen. At the gathering of riders waiting
for the final test section, she approached me from behind and asked which
sonofabitch broke off her son's roll chart holder. I believe she may have also inquired
as to how it is possible to have no recollection of taking down a tree. That, I cannot
answer. At that point, the only question I could address was how long a pair of
ibuprofen pills will repress the pain of a sore clutch hand (answer: approximately 60
miles into the Turkey Creek Enduro). I was ready for the race to end.
That it did, about 45 minutes later. Aaron and I finished one minute apart, which was
good for 4th and 5th in the Vet A class. My clutch hand survived its test, and I vowed to
continue riding as much as I could in advance of the extremely challenging Ozark
100 race on Thanksgiving weekend. After an apology to my 250XC for using it as a
tree pusher, I packed up for the long drive home. Good day to be an enduro racer.
November 14, 2010
3rd of 7 in Vet A
No matter how many times I race at Zwingle, I always leave with a smile on my face.
With 5 visits here in my two short years as a Northwestern Illinoisan, Zwingle has
become my most popular local dirt biking venue. Even though the course doesn't
change much (other than its general direction), there's plenty to keep me interested
and coming back for more.
In meteorological terms, November is hit-or-miss for racing, and on this day it was a
big miss. Optimism had me thinking I should be happy with temperatures in the low
40s, for after all, it could be a lot worse with some wind and rain. On cue, we got just
that, although the rain was light and ended just before our afternoon race began.
Delays in the morning schedule pushed back our afternoon race past 2:00, which
made me wonder if I should have mounted my headlight.
As the starting time approached and a change into racing gear was imminent, the
line of enclosed trailers across the pit area seemed oh so inviting. A few times each
season the thought of owning one comes into my mind, and with each passing year
bringing less and less tolerance for poor weather racing, the enclosed trailer idea
almost became more than a passing fancy. Almost. Usually I just think of the
additional clutter that would come with the garage and the temptation of acquiring a
larger vehicle to pull such a trailer, and that usually ends the dream. But today, the
dream was very much alive as I let the Sonoma blast hot air through its vents while I
exchanged street clothes for riding gear.
I lined up on the 2nd row next to #114 Travis Held, who outran me to the large, round
hay bale marking the first turn. Another sharp turn took us around a cattle gate, where
I planted my left foot for balance and found it stuck under the wheel of another
motorcycle. The resulting tip-over put me at the back of the pack and, more
importantly, twisted my still-sore clutch hand. The ibuprofen pills I'd swallowed 20
minutes earlier were sufficient to mask the pain of hanging onto the handlebars, but
not enough to cover my fall. I shook off the pain and remounted.
Beyond the cattle gate, we blasted across pasture ground and entered the woods for
the first time. The entry was down a short, steep ravine, where 15 or so bikes were
waiting for a bottleneck to clear. The arrows directed us up the side of a rocky hill that
was made damp by the light rain. One racer's mistake on this short climb was all it
took to back up most of the 2nd row and leave the rest of us wondering how to get
past this obstacle. While B and C class riders will often sit tight until the clogged trail
clears, the A riders usually have no such patience. Within a few seconds, a flow of
bikes (including mine) channeled their way down the ravine and linked up with
arrows a short distance later. This part of the course took us to one of the lowest
elevations on the property, where another bottleneck had formed at the base of a
short, rocky hill. A course worker was on hand with his dirt bike and shouted "Follow
me!" I was closest to him and wasted no time falling in behind his motorcycle. He led
us to an easier path up the hill and motioned toward the way to the top. I sped up the
hill and found myself in a pasture with no arrows in sight.
With the delay in starting our race, I'd had plenty of time to walk around the course on
the south and west ends of the property. As luck would have it, this was exactly where
I was now. I remembered seeing arrows at the edge of the woods somewhere near
here, so I rode across the pasture along the tree line and eventually located the trail
again. Problem was, I had no idea how much of the course I'd cut out. Based on a
distinct lack of noise in my general proximity, I guessed I had cut out a lot of the
course. I could only see a few tire tracks on the trail, which meant I was probably in
front of most of the Pro class. This had happened once before, at a hare scramble at
Fox Valley Off-road, and it was somewhat embarrassing to see Ryan Moss fly by and
probably wonder how the heck a slow guy like me had gotten ahead of him.
Eventually, other riders caught up and began passing me as we neared the
Endurocross section. When I arrived there, one of the log pits was blocked by a guy
hung up on the logs, so I paused to let him pick up his bike before I gave it a try. I
could have simply ridden across either of two elevated 2x12 planks and been on my
way in short order, but I decided to head straight down the center of the log pile
toward where the struggling rider was attempting to free himself from the pit. I figured
he would have his bike removed from the pit by the time I made it to the other side,
but this was a bit optimistic. I charged forward, but he was still there blocking my
path, so I committed the sin of halting progress in a pit full of wet logs. Murphy's Law
had already kicked in right then, and for those from a younger generation not familiar
with this law, it is based on the general theory that if sh!t can happen, it will. The
series of Murphy's Law books, which I read cover-to-cover as a youngster, contains a
corollary that says a red light will only turn green at the instant you've come to a
complete stop. My situation was a corollary to the corollary: the downed rider ahead
of you will only get out of your way when you've lost all forward momentum. In this
case, it was a bad, bad thing.
With considerable effort, I was able to lift my rear wheel over the last of the logs and
be on my way. The direction of the course was roughly opposite that of the spring
enduro, which meant that gawd-awful pair of side-hill logs from past races would
now be ridden downhill instead of uphill. But, just as in my profession where you get
rid of one bad loan and there’s another waiting to take its place, Zwingle had one
bad log to replace the one that hurt me so much last time. This one would give me
fits in the second half of the course, near the Endurocross area where plenty of
spectators were milling around, looking for entertainment. They found it with my first
three attempts to scale what seemed more like an oversized tree root at the
intersection of a small hump, a slight curve in the trail, and the side of a ravine. I
simply could not force the KTM past this root without falling on my side. Both wheels
would make it past the root before I fell over, but I still had to pick up the bike every
time. Finally, on my 4th lap, I awkwardly launched the bike over the root, more or less
successfully, and gave myself a reluctant, proverbial pat on the ass.
After the first lap, I had no idea where I stood in the class standings, but I knew for
sure I wasn’t in the lead when Travis Held passed me on the second lap. I decided
to up the pace and see how long I could follow him through the trees. This lasted
approximately 7 seconds. Flying down a small hill on an ATV trail, damp and
diagonal tree roots dropped me hard. No harm was done to bike or body, so I
remounted and kept a more moderate pace. After witnessing Doug Lenth nearly take
down a tree with a solid, head-on collision directly in front of me, I decided the risks
weren’t worth much on a very technical, slippery course.
With only a few minor mistakes, the course flew by quickly. On my 4th and final lap,
the sun was setting and the trail became darker by the minute. In the final sprint to
the scoring barrels, across a harvested cornfield, the various nuances of the terrain
ahead of me were a blur of dark shades of gray and black. I was glad to be finished. I
scored a respectable 3rd in class and 25th overall. After the race I would find a Pro
rider’s helmet cam footage online, which showed roughly the first half of the first lap.
This guy had avoided all the bottlenecks and stayed on all the arrows, revealing that I
had cut off about a mile of the course in the first lap. But as it turned out, my alternate
path around the second bottleneck was exactly how the course was re-routed on the
next laps. The cutoff we’d taken at the earlier bottleneck did not result in a reroute,
however, so I had to delicately ease my way up and over those off-camber flat rocks
in 3 of my 4 laps. After packing up the bike and gear, my truck’s headlights were
brightening the staging area as I left for home. Goodbye Zwingle, see ya next year.