Joe and I were billing the final race of the WI hare scramble calendar as the World Championships. That’s because we both felt like we could do well at Dyracuse, and it was the last race, I suppose. I definitely prepared my bike, body and mind to do well there and nearly pulled off a win…but not quite.
I live just 90 miles south of Dyracuse so when I saw over an inch of rain fall at my house last Friday I was excited for some good conditions at Dyracuse. But it didn’t rain a drop there. The course would remain dry, loose and dusty. No issue as I can ride in sand and have a great sand set up for a my RM-Z250.
There was some uncertainty about what the course would be like and that weighed heavy on me. Since I was investing time and energy into doing well I didn’t like the variable of not knowing the course. But I do know the dirt at Dyracuse and like I said, my Suzuki goes good there so it was just a matter of learning the loop as quickly as I could and getting on with it.
We arrived early enough for me to ride the entire loop on my Fisher mtn bike before the race. We registered, set up the Suzuki tents, hung our Moose banner and pedaled the course. Interestingly, the Rapid Angels club, who was in charge of laying out the loop, opted to run the course in the opposite direction compared to year’s past. Good to know and now I could get my head around that variable and focus on racing.
The morning races were going off while I did my pedaling. Those races used some of the same trails that we would ride in the AA race but not all. At various intersections around the loop you would need to look for the arrows marking the AA loop. At one intersection I had to stop and evaluate for a second even though I was only traveling at bicycle speed, not the 20+mph I would be doing on my moto in the race. That intersection was confusing but not impossible to navigate through, unless you were seeing it for the first time, in the pressure of competition, riding with your head down, in the dust, at speed. I completed the lap on my bicycle, making mental notes about holes, roots, some big trees, some possible passing spots and where I might get a quick drink, then headed back to the pits.
Suzuki Mark massaged my engine after Hixton and I was excited to give it a go in the race. It was running cleaner and stronger than before but it wasn’t starting as easily as when it was stock. I messed with jetting in the few minutes before the race and improved the starting issue a little but not much. (I later learned it was my clutch adjustment that was to blame.) That was a little stressful since a bad start was going to be a lot of work to overcome. I was still having trouble on the starting line and asked JD, who I lined up next to, to wait for me when my bike didn’t start. He laughed and said he would not be waiting for me.
But my bike did fire and I was part of the fray in turn 1. Ten of us piled onto a sharp and sandy left hand turn that was the MX track in reverse. I got pushed wide, fought to get back into the battle, stayed hard on the gas and pushed my way to the front so that by the time we headed for the woods I was in 4th and damn happy that my bike started and I hadn’t fallen victim to a sandy, time sucking crash.
Those opening 5 minutes were chaotic. It really was like the World Championships. Everyone was riding like it was all on the line, including me. Riders in front of me were making mistakes and I moved up a position or two then I’d mess up and give the spots back.
Chuck Garretson, John Strangfeld and Brandon Houts were all in front of me when we got to that confusing intersection I found on my course pre-ride. They all went straight and therefore off the course. The course went left. I went left. My mind raced. What will happen to those guys? Will timing and scoring figure it out? Who’s to blame! The course is marked but its hard to tell which way to go! Am I leading now?
I pushed the pace and tried to settle down all at the same time. I made a bad line choice and had to stop for a second to line my bike back up with the course. JD and Eric Uren booked past. Eric hit a log and went off course then JD took a long line and I got past him to the lead again. I stretched it out and completed the first 13 minute lap having felt like I’d already been racing all day.
My second lap was a scorcher. My head was attached to my body, my bike was killer, there was no one in front of me and I knew the trail. I pushed hard and was having a ton of fun. Enjoy the feeling, I remember thinking. It was very rewarding.
The next time I came to the scoring tent I saw Garretson parked on the side of the trail. He waved me past. Okay, I thought, they stopped those guys and there’s a discussion about what to do. I didn’t see Brandon or John but maybe they stopped too. I pushed through and continued on my way. I later learned that those guys were told to wait for approximately the same amount of time they had saved by taking the shorter loop. That would have been long enough for them to have rested and possibly gassed up. I don’t feel that would have affected the outcome of the race but it makes me wonder if getting 3, 5 or 10 minutes of rest and not having to stop for gas (like I did on lap 5) could have made a difference. If they were allowed to gas up while resting (or getting a drink, fresh goggles, fresh gloves or whatever), that doesn’t seem like much of a penalty for not following the arrows that marked the course.
There is no doubt that riding a 230 pound, 35 horsepower, noisemaker through a mature forest at 25mph is dangerous. Anyone that disputes that has never fallen in the woods. Every so often I am confronted with a “holy shit!” moment that very quickly reminds me that motorcycles at speed are dangerous, period. Admittedly, and foolishly, I often think that it won’t be me that gets hurt. That’s just plain dumb, I know.
About 1/3 of the way into the loop was a cattle fence that paralleled the course then turned left through a gate opening. The trail was wide but sandy and loose. An enjoyable berm had formed that invited speed. I dove through the opening in 4th gear and carved around the soft berm. On my way through I nicked the fence post with my left Cycra hand guard. It didn’t have any influence on the bike at all but it was a huge distraction: I thought – okay, that is fast enough, any closer and that post will knock me down, at speed.
While my mind was thinking about that close call and not to do it again, my hand was still twisting the throttle and I was accelerating up the trail in at least 4th gear. I got a little off line and clipped the edge of a hole in the trail. The rear of the bike hopped to the left, caught traction and hopped back to the right. As it came back to the right it caught my right leg and pushed me off the bike. Maybe you’ll relate – time slowed down at that moment. I distinctly recall holding on to the right grip, my left hand in the air, staring at the seat of my bike while I flew backwards down the trail. I thought, “this is the end”.
There was sand in my gloves, in my goggles and in my boots when stood up. My visor had to be pushed back up on to the top of my helmet. I don’t recall how I got to my bike, how I got back on or any of the details in that time period but I do recall that I checked to see that the bars were straight and my levers were still in position. It fired on the first kick and off I went, sand rattling around in my goggles and all.
My lap times were no slower after that incident so somehow I was able to put it behind me. I suppose there’s merit to that somehow but at the same time, I continue to think that bad things only happen to others. Pure ignorance, I admit.
The next 4 laps were uneventful. I was on cruise. I was fast and totally enjoying the race. At one point I got word that I had 50 seconds on 2nd place. Maybe JD. I had to keep the pace up so I would pull off a win. I pushed. But on the start of the last lap I heard a 2-stroke coming up behind me. I stole a look over my shoulder and saw Brandon coming my way, and fast.
He was trying really hard judging by the way he showed me his front wheel in several turns and how much he was on the pipe. I let him by and hoped to control the race from behind. He gapped me immediately but I could match his pace. He wasn’t getting away. Maybe he would take himself out or he would tangle with a lapper. He was riding a little recklessly so I thought it was possible for him to end his own race early.
But I felt disappointed. I came to win and up to that point all had gone to plan. To get caught and passed by someone crushed me mentally. When I saw that I could match his pace I felt better but still I wanted the win to come easy and that the satisfying feelings I had early in the race were dashed and that bummed me out. I wondered how he caught me when we were going the same pace on this section of the course. Was there someplace he was going way faster than me? Must be if he was one of the riders that was held up at scoring for doing the short loop.
We dropped onto the sandy MX track with just under half a lap to go and he had only a few seconds on me. A hump in the track blocked me from seeing him fall but he did. When I came over the hump he and another rider were picking their bikes up. Maybe they collided, I don’t know. I rode between them and just caught Brandon’s front wheel as I passed. I felt as if I had hit him hard enough to push him off line so I put my hand in the air as a way to say I was sorry; unintended nudge on my part. Then I gassed it and hoped for the best.
The last part of the loop was very tight single line stuff in a planted pine forest. There’s no flow and the limbs and bows regularly hit your arms and helmet. It was hard for me to go fast there but I had caught a dozen other riders in there so I didn’t feel like I was slow. When we dove into the woods I was all over the place. My mind was mostly functioning but I had been numb to how fatigued my body had become from going so fast all day. With Brandon breathing down my neck I brushed a tree and wobbled off the trail. Huge, glowing red letters flashed in front of me: YOU HAVE KIDS.
I moved to the side of the trail and let Brandon by. We were less than 5 minues from the finish and I handed the race win to him. I could have fought and I might have won, especially if I put some very simple and powerful tactics into play. I knew what to do but for some reason I didn’t do it. Later that night I lay awake for hours recounting my decision. I kept asking myself why I let him by. I think I know but its too complicated to spell out here. Ask me someday and I’ll try to explain.
So I finished 2nd. I got away with a huge fall (nearly unhurt), I rode faster than I ever have. I beat some riders that have consistently trounced me. I survived an emotional roller coaster event that was super fun.
Dammit, why do I take hare scramble racing so seriously? Its certainly not for the money (I won only $100). It’s dangerous and yields nearly nothing other than a few smiles, the satisfaction of finishing, some sore body parts and something to talk about on the drive home. I’ll tell you why I do it. Because I love trying to understand what it takes to go fast in the woods on a motorbike. I’m always working on racecraft. How strong do I need to be to ride at pace? What training would help my balance and agility? How do I process the terrain I’m riding over? What bike set up is best for me on this track or that trail? What are my competitors thinking or doing? How can I beat them? How do I not beat myself?
In reality its just a game and all is good. I won’t lose sleep over it anymore and I’m already looking forward to the Ironman GNCC next month!