May 1, 2011
Park Hills, Missouri
4th of 7 in Vet A
Amateur racing can take on a life of its own, should one enjoy the
competition and camaraderie enough to make it his primary
extracurricular activity. While some treat it as an obsession, I prefer to
view racing as would a wine connoisseur to a collection of fancy
Merlots and Pinots. Sure, there are some who would build wine
cellars to support their hobby, in much the same way racers buy toy
haulers to support their dirt biking. I, on the other hand, am like a guy
with a knowledge and respect of wine, but perfectly content to own a
single, simple wine rack. My rack, if you will, is a GMC Sonoma
regular cab 4x4 with a long bed. The Sonoma is about as simple as it
gets for hauling motorcycles, with much the same functionality as a
Kingston Slot Cube for the wine crowd. When my envious eyes turn to
the enclosed trailers and motor homes commonly found in staging
areas, I simply repeat my most basic racing philosophy: The day I
need anything more than a pickup truck or utility trailer to haul my
bikes is the day I need to rethink what amateur racing is. Otherwise,
these thoughts can develop into a malady known in some circles
(mine, anyway) as Taking Racing Too Seriously, or "TRacTS".
The 2011 Leadbelt Enduro was yet another case where the early
symptoms of TRacTS flared up, because this race is 6 hours from
home and starts at 8:00 a.m. An overnight stay close to Park Hills,
Missouri is mandatory, but even crashing with old friends in the St.
Louis area still makes for an early Sunday morning (and heaven
forbid we should pay for a nearby motel room). Oh, how nice an
enclosed trailer would be...but no, the only way to combat TRacTS is
to focus on making due with current options: 1) My 3-man Walmart
tent, which involves the added headache of setup, takedown, and
possibly a chilly night; or 2) My sleeping bag, spread out in the back
of my Blazer with the rear seats down. The Blazer option had worked
well on a few prior occasions; thus, it would also be just fine at St.
Joe State Park.
The Park Hills area had seen more than its fair share of rain during
the week (9 inches, give or take), so much that the infamous waterfall
section had to be removed from the course. But Sunday morning was
a reminder of why May was one of my favorite months when I lived in
Missouri. I awoke to sunny, windless skies and temperatures in the
low 60's. The rains predicted for Saturday night passed through as
sprinkles and distant lightening, nothing more. After a moderately
comfortable night’s sleep, the signup area was alive at 6:45 a.m.
Brian Jahelka greeted me at his usual position in the electronic
portion of the signup (RFID cards for scoring); later I would chat with
Jeff Henderson and Ray Osia at the rider's meeting. It was good to be
back in Missouri.
It was also good to be in the land of the Blackjack Enduro Circuit,
which sanctioned the race. AMA District 17, in a continuing quest to
add events to its enduro series, had arranged to co-sanction the
Leadbelt, bringing in a few dozen riders from across the river who
might not have otherwise attended. I would have been there
regardless, as this race is one of a handful that I never miss. The
terrain of the former lead mine which used to operate here is unique
and diverse and unlike anything I know in the Midwest. A flat, sandy
area is surrounded by hills covered with trees and rocks. Some trails
are fast and flowing; others slower and technical. You want mud?
You got it. Need some rocky hills? Got some of that too. It's all there if
you know where to look. And the Missouri Mudders club always
knows where it's at.
My row assignment was 16, which in any Leadbelt is a pretty good
spot. Races have been hosted here for so long that most of the
course is run on trails already used at some point in time. Plus, the
trees are usually spaced far enough apart that the arrows are clearly
visible. Row 16 was filled with A riders, including Brady Meador in the
AA class, Curtis Fahler in the Open A class, and John Myrin in the
Senior A class. These guys all had skills.
Near the starting line, riders several minutes ahead of me waited their
turns as the rows began departing. One friendly young guy on a
YZ125 asked if I’d done many of these races before. “A few,” I replied.
“You must be pretty fast,” he suggested. “Well, I try,” I said. He then
glanced at my helmet, with its “16A” sticker applied on the right side.
“They told us we’re supposed to have the stickers on the left side of
our helmets.” Oh, to be young again.
Our first test began just outside the boundaries of the public riding
area of St. Joe State Park, where we spent some time in the sand
before venturing into some very familiar woods. Brady and Curtis took
off and were out of sight quickly, while John Myrin was more my
speed. The trails through here were fast enough that I wondered if
some in the Pro class would drop any points at all. Then we found
some technical trails near the south side of the public riding area,
slowing us to a more normal Leadbelt pace. This initial section was
about 8 miles long, and would ultimately be thrown out for scoring.
The slow starter that I am, I’m sure this only helped by final score.
Arm pump was my nemesis, and it was clearly affecting my
The second section kept us outside the public area in a section I’d
occasionally stumble across when play riding in the park. It was just
beyond the boundaries and relatively untouched, other than during
races. Its character better matched up with my riding strengths, and I
kept Brady and Curtis in my sights for some time. Once the trails
opened up, however, they gapped me quickly. Somewhere in here, a
young rider on a YZ80 struggled up a hill ahead of me and stalled his
bike. I came to a stop just behind him, just in time for his bike to fall
into mine. You would think I’d be strong enough to hold up my bike
and his little YZ, but I tumbled over with him. Luckily, a club member
watched all of this from the bottom of the hill and was on hand
quickly to help out the little guy.
Despite this mishap, I managed to finish 5th-fastest through this
section. However, I made a rookie mistake before the race and was
paying for it. After the Roselawn enduro, I’d given up on the new
Answer clearance-rack pants I bought during the off-season, since
they were clearly not sized for a 32-inch waist, no matter what the
label said. Instead, I grabbed a pair of KTM-orange MSR pants that
had been sitting in my closet for many years, going back to my pre-
KX250 days. I tried them on to make sure they fit, but did so without
strapping on my new, bulbous Fox knee guards. Major error. The
MSR pants were clearly not designed for such large knee guards.
Every time I bent my knees, the pants were so tight that they might as
well have been made of sand paper. After the second check, I dashed
back to my pickup truck to see what could be done. All I could think
of was to grab a couple of rags and duct-tape them to the knee
guards - anything to reduce the rubbing.
The third test was a relatively brief 5-miles, followed by the longest
test of the day, an 11-mile path through the non-public area of the
state park. Finally, near the end of this test, my pants stretched out a
bit and I noticed less rubbing against the area opposite my knee
caps. The miles flew by quickly, and soon I was back at my pickup
truck for a splash of gas. The next-to-last test contained the largest
portion of sand track, of which I surely lost time to my rivals. I chose to
mount a well-used Michelin S-12 rear tire from last year’s season,
thinking there to be no reason to waste a perfectly good tire on the
rocky terrain of St. Joe State Park. Between the sand and the sloppy
trails of the 6th and final test, I wished I’d made a different choice.
In that final test, which only the A and B classes would ride, the
Missouri Mudders challenged us with the most technical, rocky terrain
that the park has to offer. Most of this was in the general area of the
flat rock-bottom creeks on the Highway 32 side of the park. The
creeks, thanks to the heavy rains earlier in the week, were as deep as
I’d seen since 2006. One in particular, which was narrow enough that
I could have possibly wheelied through it, I chose to drop in my front
wheel and saw it disappear for a brief instant. The water was
cold…very cold. The trails followed small ravines and gullies where
most of the odd-shaped, sharply-angled rocks had been exposed by
erosion. The higher areas were more apt to be slick and snotty and
not well suited for a rear tire with well-rounded knobs.
As I completed the last few miles of the course, the skies darkened
and I hoped to be finished before rains came. When the final
checkpoint appeared, I simply rode through the electronic scoring
lane, paused a few seconds for a club member to back up my riding
number and time, and followed the arrows back to the staging area.
The RFID card under my helmet visor was all that these fully-
electronic enduros need. Back at my Blazer, my clock showed that it
was not even 1:00 p.m. At 1:10, my windshield was covered with rain
drops. I had been in Missouri exactly 17 hours – far too little time to
enjoy all the dirt biking this great state has to offer. Kudos to the
Missouri Mudders for another exceptional enduro.
May 22, 2011
White City, Illinois
The amazing terrain of the Cahokia Creek Dirt Riders property lost its
luster at about 11:00 on Sunday morning. Not that the steep hills and
ravines themselves were at all unappealing, nor the lush green woods
and gently flowing Cahokia Creek. It was the dang mosquitoes.
Steady rains leading up to the race had left the course slightly damp,
but the warm temperatures brought out every newly hatched
‘skeeter…and they were hungry. My scouting mission was a brief one.
Rumors of a “mud loop” had circulated in advance of the race,
meaning that instead of torturing us in the event of inclement
weather, the club might lay off the 60-degree hills. In some respects,
this was true. Our row of +30 A riders was packed tightly together for
approximately 90 seconds after the start, until a rider hung himself up
on a tree root on one of those steep hills. I couldn't react in time to
find a way around and found myself stuck behind, waiting my turn on
the side of the hill. A few other riders behind me spotted better lines
and flew by. Two minutes into the race, and I was already playing
As the trail routed itself around the east side of the property, another
steep hill greeted us. Once again, riders were hung up on tree roots,
but this time I paused long enough to plot my attack. I grabbed a
handful of throttle and pointed the front wheel into the same line as
what appeared to be Pat McClure’s, now stranded on the hillside, and
then darted to the right, just as I neared his new-for-2011 Gas Gas.
This took me a bit off to the side of the hill, which is never a good
thing with this kind of steepness. If I could just maintain enough
momentum, maybe I’d be able to conquer the hill.
In 2nd gear with nearly full throttle, my new Bridgestone 404 tire
grabbed enough damp dirt to propel me to the top. Why I had
mounted an intermediate-terrain tire for a potentially muddy race had
pretty much everything to do with my lack of enthusiasm (and
knucklehead skill) for changing tires. In a few short weeks I knew I’d
be racing the Blue Hills Enduro, a rocky race in Wisconsin. I had no
real desire to put on the ‘ol standby for Illinois races, a Michelin S-12,
just so I could change it again for the enduro. Intermediate terrain or
not, the brand new tire with its unadulterated knobs was plenty good
for White City.
The White City course is divided into uneven quadrants, with the
bridge over Highway 138 being the Four Corners. All trails eventually
lead to this point, but first you must conquer the steep hills of the
southeast quadrant. This is the largest area of the club grounds and
is bordered by the highway and the creek for which the club derives
its name. The club has been using the same sandy creek crossing to
transfer over to the southwest trails, which are mostly just a narrow
patch of trees and sand whoops that take riders to the highway
bridge. The only rocks on any part of the course that is not a creek
crossing are located around and under the bridge crossing.
Back at Cahokia Creek, I forded the sandy creek bottom and powered
my way up the soft bank on the opposite side, then blasted through
some fast, whooped trails to the bridge crossing. At this point I had no
idea where I stood in my class, but like most of these races
nowadays, I didn't really care. The While City hare scramble is just
too much fun to bother with such worries.
After navigating the rocks under the highway bridge, I entered the
northwest quadrant. This is the most technically challenging area of
the club grounds and contains certain hills where in past races, single
clay-packed ruts were the only way up. To understand just how tight
the clay can be is to walk the trails after a muddy race and marvel at
the dark blue tint taken on by the clay, as well as a tire-induced polish
job of which an expert clay pot thrower would be proud. On this day,
however, the toughest hills were mostly absent. The most challenging
part of this section was the re-crossing of Cahokia Creek at the far
north end of the club grounds, where the loose, wet sand would claim
at least one bike during the race. But on this first lap, the sand was
manageable and I made it through to the other side without incident.
The northeast quadrant is a combination of flat, traction-less clay and
short, steep hills. The level ground is tightly packed clay, occasionally
offering faint berms around corners, but more often resembling what
you’d see in the main straightaway at a flat-track race. When damp,
the flat trails are much like frozen ground in the winter, and today was
a frozen-ground day. The trails in this section eventually took us back
under the highway bridge, where the scoring crew waited. At the
scoring barrels, I could find no signs pointing to Vet A, so I aimed my
KTM towards the A-class barrels. When I shouted out my riding
number, I was met with blank stares. Wrong barrels, apparently. I
took no time to ensure I was scored, and headed back into the woods.
Lap two was an adventurous one, with the course deteriorating in
certain places. One hill in particular, in the southeast area of the club
grounds, was claiming its many victims when I arrived. My first
attempt took me halfway up a well-rooted path, where eventually my
momentum slowed, my rear tire met an unfriendly tree-tuber, and my
rear tire spun helplessly. The only real action to take on such a steep
slope is to let the bike fall over, or else ride backwards down the hill.
After years of practice, I can tell you that my backwards-riding skills
are about as effective as they were at my first hare scramble in 1994.
And for those who suggest that the solution is to apply both brakes
when momentum ceases and simply perch oneself on the side of the
hill while evaluating the alternatives, I can safely say, “Please take
what just spewed out of your mouth and shovel it into the manure
spreader, where it belongs.” The hill was steep and wet. That bike
was about to slide down the hill, brakes or not.
So I let the bike fall over, then carefully positioned it so I could pick it
up, hop on the seat and coast down the hill for another attempt. This I
did, and then picked an entirely different line of attack. Second try:
The next adventure on the second lap was a rough gully crossing,
which by now contained deep, nearly impassable ruts. A helpful
course worker, perched further uphill along the gully, enthusiastically
suggested that I ride up to his level and try crossing where the ruts
weren't so deep. This seemed like a good idea, based on the
approximately 7 words and 15 hand/arm gestures the gentleman
used to communicate what I needed to do. Ten seconds later, his
description came into view. It wasn't quite so appealing anymore. At
this higher elevation, the gully was about 10 feet deep, with what
appeared to be nearly 90-degree slopes to the bottom. Once fully
descended, the gully offered about 2 bike-lengths of space in which
to gather momentum for what would be an incredibly steep climb up
the opposite wall.
“You can do it!”
Well, his words might have rang more true if I could have actually
made my KTM go down into the gully. The underside of the bike was
hung up on the lip of the drop-off. After I stepped off and gave the
bike a push, we slid down to the bottom. Now I was committed…my
only option was to grab some throttle, dump the clutch and hope for
the best. I had no real illusions of success, but somehow that new
Bridgestone tire propelled me up the gully and I was on my way.
Adventure #3 on this lap was at the far north end of the property, at
the second crossing of Cahokia Creek. One unfortunate rider had
buried his bike in what appeared to be an Illinois version of
quicksand. He was stranded just below the creek bank where the trail
took us across the water. I scanned the area and found another way
into the creek, just a few feet further upstream. Potential disaster
averted, thanks to the guy who showed us all where not to ride. I've
been that guy (actually, we’ve all been that guy), so I fully
appreciated his contribution to my riding pleasure.
At the scoring barrels, this time the crew pointed me to the correct
barrels (whose signs, coincidently, did not show any reference to “Vet
A”), and they scored me – for one lap. On my third lap, the “nemesis
obstacles” were deteriorating further. I was able to climb the tough hill
with no need for backwards riding, but that nasty gully was still not
offering any alternatives. The same course worker was still present,
offering the same suggestion. By now, several other riders had tried
out this alternate route, and I was able to both descend and ascend
in one continuous motion, using some better-established lines. In a
matter of seconds, I was across the gully and on my way.
When I next passed through the scoring barrels, I pleaded my case
that this was, in fact, my third lap. Whether they agreed, I’ll never
know, because I didn’t stick around to see my results. But the 4th and
5th laps were made a little easier when the club rerouted the course
around those two nasty obstacles of the first 3 laps. Gone was the
steep, rooted hill, as well as the deep gully crossing. The southwest
crossing of Cahokia Creek was becoming predictably soft and rutted,
but plenty of club members were on hand to point us to the best
lines. After two hours of racing, the checkered flag appeared at the
scoring barrels. I was done, and satisfied. My favorite race course in
all of Illinois maintained its status.
Park Hills, Missouri
White City, Illinois