Morrison, Illinois
Bitter Start Enduro
March 29, 2015
7th of 8 in +40A
In my decades of racing, never has an event been more aptly named than the
Bitter Start Enduro.  And never before have I measured my racing years in 10’
s. But I am old now, so that’s how I do things. Anyway, in an effort to ride
more this year, I put this race on the calendar, even though the calendar said
March, which meant about a 50/50 chance the enduro could live up to its
name. It was a calculated risk, and in the days leading up to the race, the
weather forecast suggested we could have what AMA District 17 enduro
director Ryan Moss would later describe as a “true enduro”.

Enduros in the Morrison, Illinois area have been on hiatus for many years,
although the region is home to several off-road motorcycle events such as the
Moose Run and the Bitter End Dual Sport ride. But thanks to Monte Gusse
and MGR Woods Racing, this year an enduro returned to the hills and gullies
of Fenton, Illinois. The course had been advertised as a single 60-mile loop
with about 6 miles of road sections. When the weather forecast became more
clear for Sunday, the route was changed to 35 miles of trails and 16 miles of
road….ugh. I pondered this inside the warmth of my pickup truck at Bill Gusse’
s Bike Barn property. I had just stood in a signup line for 30 minutes, the first
10 of which consisted of dancing from one foot to another while ice pellets fell
from the sky. This was followed by freezing rain, and then just rain.

Thankfully, the last 10 minutes of the signup line were inside a warm, dry
building, where we handed over our money and our sanity in exchange for a
score card and a row number sticker. Neither would bond to my ice-covered
front fender or headlight shell. Duct tape sticks to many things; ice is not one
of them. I scraped off as much as I could, making frequent trips to the truck to
warm my fingers. The scorecard was nearly concealed in a mess of gray duct
tape, about half of which was actually clinging to the front fender. My row
number sticker flapped in the wind, partially stuck to the headlight shell. I
suited up as best I could inside the truck, where I’d left the engine running for
about an hour while I prepared to ride. The thermometer read 31 degrees.
This was officially the coldest temperature in which I’d ever raced.

About 15 minutes before my start time, I introduced myself to +40B rider Eric
Piening, parked beside me. We both had signed up for row 15, and neither of
us were in a hurry to ride over to the starting line. Although the rain ended just
before our row’s 10:15 a.m. departure, smarter riders awaited their starting
times under the cover of two buildings with canopies. I suffered in open air.

The rows ahead of us left the starting line in a full-on sprint across an open
field, where woods awaited about a quarter-mile to the north. Our row left the
Bike Barn property on schedule at 10:15 a.m., where AA rider Chad Toth led
us through the open field. Inside the trees, he was out of sight immediately,
while I felt my way around the course. I remembered these sparsely-wooded
trails from the last time I’d ridden here in July 2008. Some days my neck still
feels the effects of the over-the-bars crash I suffered at an MXC-series race,
and I wondered if I’d recognize the pothole that caused it. But alas, I’d see
little except wide trails, sweeping curves, and a slimy coating of mud on top of
what seemed to be frozen ground. I probably could have ridden faster in
snow. As it were, every twist of the throttle threw my rear wheel sideways, and
I thanked myself for reversing my Michelin S12 rear tire to gain a few more
square-ish knobs. I would need all of them, and then some.

This initial 7-mile test was not extremely technical, but arm pump crept into my
forearms. My thick winter gloves were keeping most of my digits warm, but
sometimes my pinky-finger would catch between the end of the clutch lever
and the hand guard. And in some of the open sections, I had to exhale
through my nose to keep my mouth from freezing shut. The Bitter Start was,
indeed, a true enduro, and I hadn't even seen the worst of it.

The fast guys would drop a few points in this section, while I checked in 6
minutes late. Under normal conditions, the fastest riders would have had to
slow down a bit to preserve a 30-mph average. Today, even overall winner
Chase Robinson would lose a point here. We transferred to the second test
using cornfields which sometimes resembled Indian burial mounds. I’ve never
seen crops planted on such odd formations of black dirt, but around Morrison,
that’s what they do.

The next section would test my technical skills through 8 miles of the areas
common to the Moose Run. Leading up to the race, the MGR guys claimed to
have cut out the biggest hills, but I still found myself charging up steep ones.
This section would be the most enjoyable of the day, with a nice combination
of tight woods separated by open fields where I could catch my breath. And
by enjoyable, I mean tolerable. Mother Nature still left many challenges for us,
including precipitating trees. Seriously, the trees were raining. In the open
fields, no rain. Inside the woods, rain. The air temperature was apparently
rising just enough to melt the ice off the trees, and now I was riding in steady
tree drizzle.

It wouldn’t last long, and about the time the trees quit raining I noticed my
fingers had loosened up. Then my face thawed out, which was nice. But that
wouldn’t last long either. In the transfer between the 2nd and 3rd tests, we
took an 8-mile country ride to the gas stop. There is cold, and then there is
country-road cold. The second test ended north of Fenton, at a location
without a direct path to the gas stop. What should have been about a 5 mile
ride due south became four consecutive left-hand turns on paved and gravel
roads. I was convinced we had ridden in a giant 8-mile square. During this
time I was already sore from crashing in a field lane which had been
bulldozed into the side of a hill. With a tree line on the south edge of the lane,
the ground was frozen solid and extra choppy. We descended down the hill,
where I saw a couple bikes lying on the ground near the bottom. While
planning my way around the riders trying to remount, I slid into a dirt wall that
had been bulldozer-carved out of the side of the hill. The impact bruised my
hip, sheared off a radiator shroud and sent me tumbling to the icy dirt. My
motorcycle simply rubbed its way to a complete stop, perfectly upright.

After remounting, I progressed another 200 feet and fell down again. This was
my start to an 8-mile transfer section, where a few miles in, I made one of
those four left-hand turns onto a gravel road and found myself sliding on my
ass. The gravel roads were still frozen, but not the pavement. Go figure. At
this pace, I wasn’t sure I’d make it to the next test on time. Finally, I arrived at
the gas stop, where I’d placed my gas jug and a small cooler. Sure, I could
have thrown it on the gas trailer like everyone else, but I figured I might as well
waste some time before the race inside my warm truck and drive out to the
gas stop. The MGR guys had asked riders and their support crews to park
along the whole quarter-mile stretch of road, but as I approached, they were
using about the first 100 yards. Far in the distance, I could see my lonely gas
jug, all by itself in the ditch. I topped off the tank, had no interest in eating or
drinking, and left for the next checkpoint.

I had dropped 8 minutes in the second test, which put me right in the middle
of my 8-man class of forty-somethings. The third test would prove my
undoing, and send me to the back of our class. It all began innocently
enough, in an open field with a quarter-mile of corn stalks. Then the woods
came. And they refused to end, or at least that’s how it felt. The 10-mile
section would be conquered in about a half-hour by the fastest riders. I
suffered in there for 49 minutes. I remembered the good old days when I
actually tried to get some exercise over the winter, and would have already
done a race or two by the end of March. But not now…family has a way of
ending physical fitness.

So I toughed it out through endless singletrack along the sides of ravines,
more singletrack crossing those ravines and climbing straight up the centers
of those evil ravines. A few miles in, I was alone. The faster riders on later
minutes had already passed by, and I’d caught up to the slower riders who
struggled even more than me. Several times, I couldn't get both wheels over
logs and had clean and jerk the back side of the bike. I remembered one of
those logs from the 2007 Moose Run, lying diagonal to the trail on the side of
a hill. The log was etched into my memory because it came just after a
shortcut that I’d missed in 2007 and would miss again today. Both times, I
cursed myself for not acting on my hunch that the lightly traveled side trail
might be an easier path. Once again, I had to lift the rear of my KTM over the
same log.

The self-cursing eventually ended, for it served no real purpose anymore. I
could barely hold onto the handlebars. Several times I stopped to catch my
breath, wondering if I would finish. But then, mercifully, the test section
ended. I doubted I could make it to the next check on time, but I tried. Much of
the transfer section passed through rough fields, which wore me out even
more. Somehow, though, I managed to reach the start of the fourth test with a
few minutes to spare. A half-hour reset was just enough.

The final test would be a reverse run of the first test. Eric Piening was
nowhere to be found, so our remaining threesome on row 15 set out to finish
the race. Chad Toth, of course, took off as if he were riding on fresh loamy dirt
in the middle of June. Brian Faest, our row-mate in the +30A class, jumped
ahead of me and began a series of rear-end swaps so violent that I felt he had
a decent chance of shooting himself into the creek next to the trail. He
recovered, slowed a bit, and let me by. Soon after, he passed me again and
would leave my sight.

You would think ATV trails on flat ground would be manageable, even in
sloppy conditions. But then, you would be wrong. Partly due to extreme
fatigue, this 7-mile section was equally as difficult as the previous one. I fell
over at least 5 times, in each case tempted to leave the bike on the ground
and walk back to the pits. These trails were wide, and had developed many
alternate routes. All riders were searching for any form of traction, and the
only way to find it was to get on top of something resembling grass. The rest
of the trails were a sloppy mess of mud, where remounting from a fall was like
trying to get moving in a foot of snow. The first time through here in the
morning was a cakewalk. Now, I just wanted to go home. While stopped on
the trail, another rider came to a halt beside me and suggested that he should
have worked out a little over the winter. True words from that man.

The last insult, as the staging area came within sight, was a run through the
Bike Barn motocross track. It’s not a large track, but it didn’t matter. As my
faithful readers know, I suck at motocross, and I am even worse when
exhausted. Spectators would have probably rated my performance on the
track about the same as the KTM minibike riders who get to do a couple laps
around Supercross tracks. Except the minibikes would have got more air over
the jumps.

After dropping a class-worst 17 points in the final section, I finished with a
score of 61, putting me next-to-last in my class. The clock in my truck read
1:30 p.m., the earliest I’d ever finished an enduro. And I couldn't have
been any happier.
Morrison, Illinois