Thursday, April 21, 2016

Different Mediums, Same Hack

Someone asked me what the main differences are between road-racing and hare scrambles.  I had to think about it.  Aside from the distinctly visible ones such as terrain and machinery, off-road racing is more physically grueling than its pavement counterpart.  Two hours slamming around through the woods will whoop your ass more thoroughly than a day clipping apexes at say, Road Atlanta, as in the first photo above.

Cost and accessibility are two other major factors.  Simply put, hare scrambles are cheaper than roadracing and easier to get into.  In roadracing you have to attend a race school to get your license, bike has to pass a rigorous tech inspection as well as helmet and gear, but a person could just show up to a hare-scrambles with a bike, a helmet and fifty bucks and run like a madman through the forest.  You can undoubtedly get killed or go broke doing either, and I have concluded the risks are about the same no matter which you choose.

Generally speaking, there are a lot more immovable objects in the woods to crash into than on a roadrace circuit, yet speeds are much lower with single-track racing, like 100 mph slower.  But the thrill is the same.  25 mph dodging trees feels like dragging knees at 90.

In conclusion, it is the similarities that prove far more intriguing than the differences.  You are out there competing against guys whose only goal is to beat you.  You have to be mentally, physically and even emotionally prepared, because racing in all her forms is a cruel, vicious mistress that does not give up the goods easily.  And while the skillsets may differ, the main requirements do not: focus, dedication and heart.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Oak Ridge Post Mortem And Requiem

I accept my Loser #2 trophy and head back home, knowing it is going to be a late night.  With less than two weeks before the next race in Martinsville, VA there will be a mad scramble tearing into the motor and starting the "LI$T".  Monday morning a frantic online shopping spree to be sure.  So while my competitors are home enjoying a beer and tending to aching muscles, yours truly is up to his eyeballs in dirt, carbon, nuts, bolts and parts of Kawasaki Heavy Industries finest.

The nice thing about a single cylinder two-stroke is that they are pretty easy to work on.  I'm used to roadracing, having to care for a twin cylinder EX500 superbike and a four-cylinder FZR 489 hybrid with finicky Keihin flatslides.  The KDX is a delight compared to them.

What I find during the autopsy is anything but delightful.

Piston: shot
Head: shot
Crank: shot
Cylinder: in need of boring
Morale: wavering

Luckily I have another motor from a parts bike.  I had it running briefly last year and everything seemed basically in order.  I'm planning a cheap and dirty rebuild on it.  Run a flex hone through the bore, new piston and rings, swap over the BDK steel valves from the other cylinder and pray for the best.  After 3 events I am running 2nd in points in class with the VCHSS, not about to quit now.  The pressure is on.  Going to be close.  I may have switched genres, but one thing about racing that never changes: it's always a goddamn struggle.

An hour prior, this was a motorcycle.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Shootout At Oak Ridge

Up into second place, behind the man quickly becoming my arch-nemesis, Juan.  Exactly where I want to be.  Let him lead and set the pace.  With three laps around a ten mile course that will take nearly two hours, plenty of opportunities can arise for those close enough to capitalize.  What we tend to forget about racing is that it is not about going as fast as you possibly can, it's only about going fast enough to stay ahead of second place.  I have no intention of leading the race this early and doing all the work.

Where the hell is Juan?

He settles into a decent pace, I keep a little pressure on, just so he doesn't forget me.  Halfway into the first lap he loses the front in a dusty, slick downhill corner, had he not done it there first, I am sure I would have.  This forces me into the lead, deciding to pour it on and try to get some space between us.  This works great until catching a herd of riders in a tight section, nowhere to pass.  Without fail, Juan is behind me.  Guy in front of me stops fast for seemingly no reason and I ram him, falling over.  Juan passes.  My only goal is to not let him get away, hand on the clutch, the downed KDX is still running.  I yank it up and give chase.

Juan and I trade mistakes and a fall or two for the next 2.5 laps.  The course is fast, the clay has turned into a fine dust that fills the air and lungs.  Lips are stuck together, mouth caked with red, hydration tube flailing wildly over my left shoulder, unreachable.  Mental note: get a hands free unit before the next race.  At least this time the tear-offs mounted on proper side and folded over the right way.

Coming out of the woods leads to an off-camber field pounded down harder than concrete.  Clouds of dust reduce visibility to almost nothing.  I stand to get a better view.  We are running fourth and fifth gear wide open, but it's rough going, despite the smooth appearance.  I've got the throttle to the stops, front end dancing around.  The dust has many of us overshooting corners and having to loop back around.  We have been warned of the penalties for riding off course.

End of the second lap I come through scoring 1.5 seconds behind Juan, but somehow now in third place, somebody got by us.  No matter.  My carrot is still in front and the battle begins.  Second place sounds a lot better than third.  Cursing, I make mistake after mistake, riding so piss poorly, forgetting everything I've practiced and learned.  I know I'm better than this, but fatigue is setting in.  After a stern self talking to and forcing myself to breathe, things improve.  A line opens up on the right while Juan goes left.  I take my chance and pin the thing, wide open in third gear.  My left forearm glances off a tree, sending my already pumped arm into spasms.  Forget the pain, need to get some riders between me and Juan.  Now shouting and hooting for the riders in front to move over (this is protocol when a faster rider from another class wants to get by), but none of the J class riders oblige.  This forces some aggressive passes, nothing overly risky, just not the way I usually ride, banging bars and jamming a front wheel in where I can.  Does no good.  A rider in front falls, halting progress.  Juan makes his way past.  I'm pissed, swearing inside my helmet.  Between the trees, find a way around this group.  Juan is there.  We hit the grass track section, stay with him.  WFO throttle, the bike stumbles, bogs and quits.  I roll for a few seconds.  The bike restarts.  WFO again, bike bogs and dies.  Drop the clutch, bike fires, easy on the gas, bike continues running.  I am in big trouble.  At this point the only desire is to not DNF.  That would be too embarrassing, too much.  While I have the oldest machine at the track, I pride myself on it being well-prepped and reliable.  This is a kick right in the balls.

"Just let the bike finish, I don't care if the motor's fucked", I pray to any deity that might be paying attention.  Someone is listening.  The KDX finishes the race in third place on a clearly knackered engine.  22 seconds behind Juan and about 1 minute 20 seconds behind the class winner.  Not what I wanted, but it's better than pushing it across the line.

Notice the vine that wrapped itself around my boot, then wheel, trailing behind.    

Monday, April 18, 2016

Morning At Oak Ridge

Beautiful, yes, but somewhere out there is a racetrack, and that is my main concern.

Sleep was difficult Saturday night.  I always manage to park near the guy with the loudest generator.  The guy who spends $100K on his camping rig, but then buys a three hundred dollar piece of crap that sounds like 37 jackhammers inside your head.  To add insult to douchebaggery, this yahoo has a 4x4 section of plywood leaned up against one side, to direct the sound away from him, and right towards me.  I'm tempted to move the plywood and give him a taste of his own medicine.

Race is at 10:45, in about two hours.  I relax and have some breakfast.  If you've never eaten oatmeal cooked on a camp stove on a chilly morning looking at the above view, you might be missing something.  The bike is as good as it's going to get, with a new rear tire, new wheel bearings and some other odds and ends.  I'm nervous about the course, it's hard pack red clay, and it's dry, with dusty wide open grass track sections.  The conditions I normally train in are very wet and muddy, so this is a whole new world for me.  Be nice if I could afford tires for every condition.  I can't, so I stick with my familiar IRC Volcanduro intermediates, which seem to work ok just about everywhere.

Finally it's time and I gear up, head for the start.  There are over 200 entries in the morning event, about 10 percent of that in my class.  As usual I am on the oldest bike in class.  I quell my feelings of inadequacy at being unable to keep up with the Joneses by envisioning the course in my head.  I walked about half of it last night to get an idea of what to expect.  This helps immeasurably.

Wave after wave of riders explode off in clouds of grass and dirt, stampeding to the first turn, a left hand 90 degree bend that funnels you into another 90 degree right.  We are so close to the first turn I wonder if I will have time to grab second.  Maybe I should start in second...

No time to decide as the flag waves.  Kick the bike and scream off in whatever gear it's in.  Big wheelie to the corner, guess that was first, bang second, front drops, hard on both brakes, stand on it and force the thing down into the turn, hoping the front sticks.  It does and I'm in third place.  Here we go again.

Yours truly in the center of the shot, the only bike sporting a headlight.

I'm on the right, in third.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Oak Ridge Preview

Tomorrow is race day.  Took these while walking the course (part of the 9.5 mile loop anyway).

Only 8.5 left to go. Never gonna make it.

Is the arrow on the left telling me to drive up the tree?

The facilities are, ahem, rustic.

My guidance counselor told me I'd end up living in a van.

Idyllic now, but tomorrow, braaap!! Braaap!!!

Old Joys Revisited

Almost forgot the pleasures of driving to the racetrack.  Headed to Oak Ridge for the third round of the Virginia Championship Hare Scrambles Series.  Actually, right now, I am headed nowhere.

There is actually some pretty decent wooded area in the median.  Maybe I'll unload the KDX and go for a little rip...

I-64 West. Why is it so hard for people to drive in a straight line without crashing?

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Sometimes Others Say It Better

"What could I say?  Maybe this: the man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present instant of his flight; he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time; he is outside time; in other words, he is in a state of ecstasy; in that state he is unaware of his age, his wife, his children, his worries, and so he has no fear, because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear."

-Milan Kundera, Slowness

Thursday, April 7, 2016

A Game of Seconds (and thirds)

Coming through scoring at the end of the second lap in second place, my brain is already entertaining thoughts of what would be an amazing finish.  Then reality sets in.  This is only the second half.  Two six mile laps left and the course is becoming more treacherous as tree roots are exposed by trench-digging 450s ridden by roost happy yahoos.

The motocross track is proving to be my nemesis, I haven't gotten a single jump right, coming up short on all of them, resulting in some bone-jarring landings.  My rolling diagnosis tells me the frame is broken is at least four places, both tires are flat and wheels collapsed, with broken spokes spearing spectators, the motor is seizing, at least one fork spring has collapsed and someone welded struts in place of my rear shock making it a hardtail, and that's just the bike.  My body has experienced what feel to be three ruptured discs, four heart attacks, a mild stroke, apparent early onset dementia, crippling arm pump, crushed larynx from a nasty hanging vine, groin pull in each leg, detached retinas and dry mouth.  And I have to take a piss.

Vision is beginning to narrow and it's impossible to tell if I'm "in the zone" or about to pass out.  My focus now is only on the trail and keeping the bike between the arrows and off the trees.  I'm sitting down much more than usual, can't pick out the easy lines from the hard ones and feel like a pinball bouncing around off of every tree, rock and root.  I'm going to fall, and I know it.

Sure enough I lose it on a downhill right hander, running up over the berm and into a small tree that is bent over nearly 90 degrees.  This wouldn't be so bad, except the tree is now wedged between the front fender and the forks and the only way to free the bike is to pull it backwards, up the damn hill.  Wondering where the strength will come for this task has me wanting to cry.  I just want my mommy to take me to McDonald's for a shake and a happy meal, and for a moment my deluded brain believes she has arrived.  When the illusion fades I realize what it was, seeing again that ass emblazoned with "Jaramillo".  Juan has found me.  Son of a bitch.

Screaming, I yank the bike off the tree, remount, restart and head off in the direction of that goddamn KTM.  He's about 10 seconds in front, but I can see him.  Hitting the whoop section, I remember my ace in the hole.  Juan and two other riders head for the whoops.  I aim for the water.  2nd gear, get it into a wheelie and pin it, water cascading all over my gloves, goggles.  The bottom proves just as hard as it seemed and my ploy works, making it past two riders to find myself directly behind Juan.  Here we go.

I get slowed down at a really nasty creek bank trying to take an alternate line, Juan gains a few seconds on me.  He loses time on a slippery uphill and I've caught him again.  We get to a slippery, steep descent with several riders already on the ground.  I lose focus and crash in the middle of the hill.  Adrenaline has taken over and the only thought is that he is getting away.  Back up in a heartbeat.  No time for kickstarting, jump aboard and drop the clutch, knowing the bike will bumpstart.  It does and there is just enough time to prepare for another nasty creek crossing to an off camber uphill with tons of roots.  Juan is slipping and sliding all over the place, but hanging on.  My legs are flailing, riding skill reduced to that of a jellyfish.

The final lap is ending, I am all over him.  The "No Passing" zone before scoring comes into sight.  I make a last ditch effort and pull wheel to wheel with him, but have to give it up or be disqualified.  I finish 3rd, my official finishing time 1:47:25.  Juan's: 1:47:24.  Nearly two hours came down to one second for second, and 26 seconds behind the leader.

Then it hits me, I just finished 3rd place in an AMA sanctioned event with a 27 year old play-bike that my competitors were sniggering at on the finish line.  The same competitors that are now listed farther down on the results sheet than me.  The uninitiated call it a hobby, they call us 'weekend warriors', they ask "aren't you too old to be doing that?", only those who have heard the call, lined up on the grid and seen that green flag fly, truly understand.

It's not pretty what 2 hours does to a bike.... 
Or a man.

What it's all for.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Sunday Morning Coming Up

I take the lead of the race and promptly start shitting my pants.  It is unknown to me how fast the other racers in my class are, or what to expect as they catch up.  The unwritten rule is that if a faster rider comes up behind and makes their presence known by revving the engine or yelling, then the slower rider should move over.  But this is different.  For at least the next few minutes the only riders coming are in my class and I will be damned if I am going to move over for somebody racing against me.  It becomes a moot point catching the first gaggle of slower riders tangled up in a heavily treed section with a small hill climb.  Three of the other 40+ riders choose a quicker line and just like that I am relegated back to fourth spot.  My morale drops briefly, with no other option except to give chase.

In short order I am able to catch and pass the third place rider.  The woods appear empty in front of me, now it's time to find the rhythm.  Grip the tank with your knees, no arm pump.  Fast, fast, but smooth.  Falling loses so much time and burns so much energy, which really becomes a factor during these two hour races.  A two hour trail ride is one thing, but trying to stay alert at race pace for that long is mentally and physically grueling.  It is not uncommon to see the sides of the course littered with those who blew their wad early, unable to continue.

After a few minutes of solo tree dodging, another rider appears on the radar.  There is something emblazoned across his ass that soon becomes clear: "Jaramillo".  Juan Jaramillo.  This is the rider that won our class at the last event.  Who knows what position he is in now, but this is a good thing.  Hanging with him means he will tow me around the course or I might just toss myself into a tree riding over my head.  Either way it's gonna get interesting.

The study of his riding style commences, looking for strengths and weaknesses, not only does it help with strategy, but it takes my mind off the fatigue that is trying to set in way too early.  Notice the trials tire on the rear of his machine, the way he never seems to let off the gas on rocky uphills, the fact that he prefers sitting to standing, listen to the tone of his KTM two-stroke engine.  All of these things tell me much about my competitor.  Watching him ride proves, to my mind, he is, after all, human.  And humans can be beaten.  It's funny how that simple realization can cause a big mental shift, like a kid waking up from a nightmare and realizing his demons aren't real.

He proves his humanity once and for all coming upon a stalled rider.  Unable to go around him due to the proximity of trees, he is forced to grab a big handful of front brake, causing his front end to wash out, down he goes.  With just enough time to react, I pick a different line and pass both riders, much to my amusement.  Now is the time to hammer it and get some distance between us.  I figure he will lose about 10 seconds picking the bike up, 15 if he has to restart it.  Go. Go!

Another race, more water, and somewhere out there, is Juan.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Return To Dillwyn

I'm back at Actiontown MX park in Dillwyn, VA, for my second hare scrambles with the VCHSS and my third off-road race overall.  I've driven my ailing van down here despite the risk of it not starting (read story here), because the thought of missing a race stings more than a tow bill.

The wind was so bad Saturday night the EZ-up had to come down to prevent it becoming a hang glider, but I was able to walk about half of the six mile loop.  Coming to a fork in the trail, two distinct lines, one through a terribly rough looking whoop section on the left, the other on the right appears to be a narrow, but deep, 200 foot long water hazard.  The whoops look treacherous, but something in my brain tells me to check the swamp line.  I grab a long stick and start testing depth and bottom condition.  To my surprise and elation the water is only 3-4 inches deep the whole way across and the bottom is hard, really hard.  I feel like I've got an ace up my sleeve now, and if this the only thing I remember from my track walk, it was worth it.  I fall asleep with the howling gusts rocking the van back and forth, still grinning about my secret path.

After a restless night, morning comes cold, like 38 degrees and the generator ran out of gas three hours ago, too lazy and freezing to refill so hide under the blanket until the sun comes up cold.  My plan is a nice hot bowl of oatmeal, but somehow I managed to forget the lighter for the camp stove.  I could probably borrow one, but it's a little early to be knocking on camper doors.  Then I remember the cigarette lighter.  One of the pluses of driving a 21 year old vehicle I guess, they still made them with these devices.  Holding it in my hand a few months ago, thinking I ought to just throw it away, but put it in the glove box instead.  Without burning my fingers too terribly, breakfast is cooking and soon I'm enjoying a hot meal in the van with the refueled generator powering my electric heater.

The idyllic scene doesn't last too long.  There is gear to be donned, a bike to be warmed up, preparations to be made.  The race starts at 10:45, approaching rapidly.

After downing some sickeningly sweet energy gels my 1989 KDX200 and I head to the starting line.  The KDX is the oldest bike and it draws stares from the other 40+ riders as I take my place in our row.  There are several shiny KTMs, both two and four stroke, a smattering of Hondas and Suzukis and even a Christini two-wheel drive!  I can smell new rubber and race fuel, the gleam off new gear is almost blinding, all of it a forced reminder for me that had I made smarter decisions as a younger man, I too would be resplendent in my armor with a ferocious steed and comfortable Toy-hauler, instead of holed up in an ancient van running on it's last legs, riding a 27 year old play-bike.  Fuck it, at least I'm here.

The ground shakes from thundering four-strokes as row after row is waved off for the start.  My leg is visibly trembling, but I tell myself it's just from the vibrations.  Green flag flies, bike lights first kick and I'm off with a big wheelie, bang second with a clutchless upshift, head down the hill towards the 90 degree right hander that will send us into the first single-track section.  I've vowed to be aggressive on the start, and it pays off.  I am second heading into the woods.  The race is on.

That's the old KDX in second place at the first turn.  You can just see the tip of the leading Suzuki's yellow rear fender above. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Quit While You're Ahead

"How come wherever you're involved, there's always a story?" - My father, asked of me on at least a weekly basis from the age of 12 until about 21

6:27 AM Friday 3/25/16

Van was loaded with dirt bike and gear, a weekend plan to leave work early and head to the training grounds, get in three days of practice before an approaching hare scrambles.  Cranking the engine, a strange sound emanated from underneath, but it started.  I wondered briefly if the starter was starting to go, and headed to work.

Stop for gas, engine off.  Go to restart, starter motor spins but does not engage.  Problem.  Crawling around under the van I can see one of the starter bolts has backed out.  Odd.  Upon further inspection the bolt is actually sheared off at the threads.  Son of a bitch.  Other bolt is holding fast.  I jam the starter back into position to mesh with the ring gear and pray to any god awake at this dark hour.  It lights, but I can feel a plan starting to go to hell.  Course deviation to Advance Auto for screw extractors, starter bolts and probably some more drill bits.  Leave van running, hope nobody steals it.

Six hours later I am in even deeper shit than when I started.  Fourteen broken drill bits, metal shavings in my eyes, strained neck and bleeding knuckles are nothing compared to the penultimate horror and final tragedy.  The screw extractor shears off in the hole and that familiar sinking feeling returns.

Pressing on, I drill around the extractor and snap another six drill bits.  When I finally finish what is turning into a colossal fuck up of my own design, there are no chunks of drill bit left, the screw extractor is out, but so are the threads.  Ok, no big deal, just run a bolt through the top and tighten it from the bottom.  I find an appropriate length bolt and while tightening it the death blow occurs.  The casting on the engine block cracks and two chunks of starter mounting pad fall to the ground.  Well, if you are gonna screw yourself, do it real good.

(ps: if anyone reading this can recommend a good welder of cast iron anywhere in Virginia, please contact me)

Seriously?  What kind of idiot makes this happen?  Me, apparently.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Criminal Activity Photo Gallery

The sign says it all.  I was only guilty of one of the transgressions listed.

Still wrong, even from this angle.

How can this be wrong?

Pondering my criminal status (note the welt on my throat from an errant tree branch)