November 7, 2010
Goshen, Indiana
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 stuck.

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
Zwingle, Iowa
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.
Goshen, Indiana
Zwingle, Iowa