Friday, March 29, 2013

The Waste Land (or, the NETRA Spring Challenge, 2013)

“In other news,” Chris says, “a Vermont man has beheaded beloved rock star Axl Rose in an effort to gain—and I quote—1000 years of power.”
It is 9:00 AM, and we are headed south on I-95—Greg, Chris, and myself, with the Kawasaki and two KTMs in tow. Having Chris along has livened up the pre-dawn race commute considerably—nonsensical remarks and subsequent cackling have been more or less continuous since 4:45.
When we reach Demoranville Farm, however, we are all business, lining up immediately to register, then go through tech, then put on our gear, then wish each other good luck and head to our various lines. Having registered for the Women’s class, I am all the way in the back, and grateful for it—being immediately run over by the 150-odd individuals in front of me would have been no way to start my first NETRA race.
Greg has been priming my nerves since the last J Day race: “On the New England Dirtbikes forum,” he tells me, grinning, “somebody posted about how he’d been doing the J Day races and wanted advice for his first NETRA hare scramble. Everyone wrote back about how there was no mud anywhere and they always pull all the rocks out of the trail, and it went on and on until some dude wrote, ‘Time to lose the diapers and put on your big boy pants!’ That about sums it up.” I response to this, I scowl and grunt. How else can one greet impending doom?
On the line, doom impends swiftly and unceremoniously. In the distance, a man I can’t see shouts something I can’t hear, then a hundred engines start at once. Mine joins belatedly, then the guy next to me elbows me.
“Want to switch bikes?” he yells through the din.
I look from the KDX to his bike and laugh—it’s a 2012 Husquvarna with neither a scratch nor a speck of mud on it.
“There’s a lowering link in this,” I yell up at him. “You’d be dragging your knees on the ground!”
“You have a point,” he says. “I think I’m gonna have to raise this one…”
“This is my first NETRA race,” I confess. “What have I gotten myself into?”
The man laughs.
“Just have a good time and ride for the checkered flag. You don’t win these things off the start, or even in the first lap.”
The line in front of ours takes off, and when the smoke clears, a guy with a rolled-up green flag is walking toward us.
“30 seconds!” he shouts, and the flag unfurls.
I click the bike into first, get my foot on the kick start lever, and open up the throttle.
Ride for the checkered flag, I think—two laps, twenty miles.
“Freetown Swill Hole,” some guy on the forum had called it.
Oh, what the hell…
And my mind goes silent.
Something green moves, the KDX flies forward on a shockwave of noise and I round the first corner solidly in the middle of the pack. The Force must be with me, I think, and keep on the gas as we hit the sand track.
The last time I rode this track in November, I could hardly keep the bike vertical in this section, but after riding on snow all winter, the sand feels solid as pavement. I hang on with the rest on the corners, but—where the hell did these whoops come from? I think, rolling the 3-foot swells in second gear as everyone else blows past me in third. By the time I reach the woods, I’m at the back of the line where I belong.
After a short dash down a half-flooded power cut, another section of single track sends me right up the middle of a shallow, pebbled stream. The pebbles get bigger and bigger as I gain elevation, then the trail veers right, the woods end, and I’m in this weird, burnt-out scrubland, perfectly flat, but studded at one-foot intervals with rocks the size of footballs. There isn’t a soul in sight. The weird scrubland goes on, corner after corner, so I stand up, kick it into third where I can, and focus on my technique:
“Elbows up, chin over the bars… It’s too late to avoid what’s under your wheels, so look ahead and choose your line to the next corner…”
The self-help audio track as long since given way to Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” when the rocks begin to give way to mud. Hitting the brakes, I force myself to focus.
“People have been riding dirt bikes on this trail since forever,” I remember Greg saying. “All the mudholes have rocky bottoms as long as you stay on the trail—it’s when you try to find a way around them that you get stuck.”
With this in mind, I line up with the main rut, put my butt on the back fender, and hit the gas.
The KDX wheelies amiably through the swill—something I never thought it had enough scream to do—and I return to the scrub on the other side with wet feet and high spirits.
A few more water crossings and many miles of scrubland pass without major catastrophe: I have no high-speed falls, and while each mudhole seems deeper, wider and more like a pongee pit of submerged boulders than the last, I have yet to truly Davy Jones the bike or get so stuck that I can’t pull myself out. Nonetheless, the ten-mile lap is beginning to take its toll, and I recognize Trouble when I see it.
The trail rounds a corner, and in a little copse of scraggly trees, it dissolves into a dozen different ruts, which disappear under opaque, oily water. I pause, uncertain which rut to take, then my eyes catch a flash of red in the underbrush. One kid emerges, a boy about 13 years old, followed by another. Now that I’ve seen the riders, it occurs to me that the strange, muddy lumps on the far side of the puddle are actually bikes.
“Which way?” I call out to them.
“Right here!” the boy in the red jersey shouts back, air-traffic-controlling me towards a less-deep rut on the far left of the mire.
I line up my wheel and gas it forward, but either the KDX’s low-hanging forks or my own hesitation cause me to get stuck, dig a big hole with my rear tire, and stall out.
I dismount, grab the KDX around its middle while each boy takes an end, and we haul it sideways out of the hole—only to drop it on ourselves as soon as the tires come clear. The boys wiggle out easily, but I am considerably—ah, wider than they are, and my footpeg is caught on my pants. The boys make to lift the bike off me, but as they do, I see the rear tire slipping back into the rut—
“Hold it there!” I say, and manage to unstick myself. We stand the bike up on reasonably solid ground, I thank the other two Stooges heartily, and gas it out of there. The trail turns up a little hill, then there’s more scrub, then proper trees—one of them has a little sign tacked to it—
Eight miles, I think. Oh, for Christ’s sake…
The last two miles of the track are as bad as the rest, if not worse, and by the time I make it back to recognizable turf at the end of the loop, my knees are Jell-o and some reptilian brain autopilot system is all that’s keeping me going. It works fine for getting me over the rough stuff—at one point, the KDX rolls up a four-foot rock face seemingly of its own accord—but in social situations, I discover that it’s worse than useless.
I am almost out of the woods, literally, zooming up a rooty, muddy slope on my way toward the field track, when my front tire slips out from under me. The handlebars twist out of my hands and the bike revs wildly, its rear tire accelerating in air. I land with my stomach on my radiator shroud and feel a sharp pain in my right foot. The bike stalls, I attempt to stand—but I’m pinned to the spot. More specifically, my foot is pinned... I look back at it and scream.
When I twisted the throttle, the spokes of my rear wheel must have carried my foot toward the brake—and there it stays. The toe of my boot is wedged between the caliper and the spokes. I pull on it, which hurts like a bastard, but neither boot nor wheel will budge. I scream again, from the bottom of my lungs.
“Uh-oh,” I distinctly remember someone saying.
The reptilian brain autopilot assumes full control of the situation as several spectators rush to my assistance. Someone pulls on my foot, I scream, the spectators yell at each other, I yell at the universe in general, somebody else pulls on my foot and I howl “DON’T FUCKING DO THAT, MAN!” at him—and then I kind of snap out of it. One mustn’t swear at one’s rescuers, I admonish the autopilot, and I attempt to think.
“I can’t reach the clutch,” I start to say, but somebody is already holding it in while someone else slowly turns the wheel backward…
The autopilot takes one more scream for the road as my toes come free.
I stare stupidly at my collapsed boot for a moment, then stand up.
The spectators are looking at me strangely—I’ve seen that look before, like when I drove my car off a 30-foot embankment last summer. It says “On a human level, we are concerned about you, but on an animal level, we really do not want to see it if there are bones poking out of your skin.”
“I’m probably fine,” I reassure them. “I just like screaming.”
At this, everyone looks vaguely insulted, but I am too happy to feel very apologetic, because I can move my toes.
“They wiggle!” I crow. “That’s beautiful!”
During my recuperation, two men have stood the KDX up and pushed it to the side of the trail. I hop over to them—the toes don’t even hurt now, but they do feel tingly and gross, and I want to get moving before I think about them too much.
“Do you want to keep going?” they ask.
“Yup!” I say, swinging a leg over. “Thanks so much for your help!”
The numb toes kick start the bike effortlessly. I wobble through the field track and the starting gate, where I am discouraged to see the white flag for the last lap already waving. A little voice advises me that it would be reasonable to go back to the truck, but the autopilot ignores it and before I know it, I’m in the woods again.
At this point, the front runners have already lapped me and now the whole pack is knocking into my rear tire. Making room for them to pass in the single-track is a nerve-racking business—at one point, I get bounced along the ground for a few yards with my elbow guard caught on somebody’s footpeg—and plus, my toes are beginning to hurt. I pull over for a man to pass me, catch my handlebar on a tree, stall out, fall over, and take that golden opportunity to inspect the damage to my digits. Squeezing muddy water out of my sock to check for blood, I conclude that there is none, and reattach my dented boot. As I start the bike, a familiar figure zips past me—
“HEWIIIIIIIIIIITT!” I shout after Greg, but he doesn’t hear.
Lap two swiftly becomes my own private Battle of Passchendaele—a war of attrition, (wo)man and machine versus boring wasteland and masses of mud. About midway through, I find myself hip deep in brown water, the KDX suspended on a rock by its skid plate with another rock immobilizing the front wheel, a three-foot high embankment to my left and an airbox-flooding sinkhole on my right. Brute force will get me nowhere, I immediately see, and besides, I have no force left, brute or otherwise. Waiting calmly for divine intervention, I sit side-saddle on the bike and take a long drink from my Camelbak.
While I’m drinking, I hear the approach of a small four-stroke. It slows, it revs, it slows, it revs—and right in front of me, it stalls. There is a splash, and muffled swearing. Misery loves company, I think, and pull my chinbar down so I can see.

A skinny kid in comparatively tidy racing kit is struggling to return a soggy Honda to the vertical.
“Right,” I say. “You’re stuck and I’m stuck, but you might be able to get unstuck, so I’ll help you.”
He looks at me catatonically as I grab his handlebars.
“I’m not having fun,” he says, and turns his 1000-yard stare on the bike.
We get it upright, drag it out of the deep spot, and after he rides it clear of the mud, he calls back to see if I’d like help with mine.
“Save your energy, man,” I call. “I'm a lost cause!”
He wishes me luck and disappears into the swamp.
I turn back to the KDX. The situation really looks hopeless—the rock in front of my front tire might be surmountable, if only that big runner weren’t there, too…
I grab at the log, not at all expecting it to move—and almost fall backwards into the water when it does. Ridiculous, I think, straddling the bike. I brace my feet on the rock that the skidplate is stuck on and push up on the handlebars as I open the throttle—the rear wheel oozes up the rock, the front suspension squirms, then the front tire pops free and I bounce inelegantly out of the muck.
The next five miles pass without major incident. My muddy gloves have zero grip on my throttle and levers, but at this point, it hardly makes me go any slower. The two kids who’d helped me last time have filled in their chosen rut with branches, and I shout my thanks to them as I putter easily through. At the next mudhole, there is a traffic jam—one rider revs a bike that's in a rut over its footpegs, another is helping her push it, and one is waiting on dry land. I pull my bike up behind him, too dazed to think of going around. A few motivated individuals weave past the lot of us, and eventually I follow them, an idea popping into my head: I’m not going to let the stuck rider pass me, I think, making note of her diamond-patterned jersey. She’ll be another minute getting out, so even if this is her third lap, I’ll have a good head start. I stand up on wobbly knees and point the KDX down the home stretch.
The girl in the diamond jersey does not pass me—in fact, not until I’m back on the power cut do I see another soul. It is a spectator, a man on foot carrying a lunch box. I swerve past him into the woods, then immediately hit a big rock and stall my bike.
“Hard race, eh?” calls Lunchbox Man.
“You ain’t kidding!” I say jokingly. “When’s it gonna end?”
“It’s not going to get any easier for you,” Lunchbox Man informs me. “I think the sweeper’s on his way.”
What a Negative Nancy, I think, feeling insulted, and blow past him on the gas when the trail crosses the power cut again.
When Lunchbox Man is out of earshot, I roll off the throttle and plod through the last mile of track, sitting on my sore ass in second gear. As I approach the finish line, my heart sinks: no checkered flag. I’m too late, so my second lap won’t even count—and then I stall the bike in the middle of the cattle grate.
“Get off and push it!” says the bored woman in the computer tent.
This is the dumbest advice I have ever heard, as the cattle grates are too close together to dismount in, and even if they weren’t, God invented the internal combustion engine for a reason. As I gas it out of there, I notice the electric sign: It seems I am in third place in the Women’s class, which is bad news for womankind and great news for me, especially if more than three women registered. 
Greg and Chris aren’t at the Element, but their bikes are, looking as muddy as mine. Greg’s KTM has lost its front number plate and dripping gear is strewn all over the trailer. I ditch my helmet with the rest of the detritus and limp off in search of them, mud squelching in my boots.
“Now THERE’s a real rider,” the guy manning the tire tent calls out to me as I hobble past.
I grin back and tip my imaginary hat. If he only knew, I think—then it occurs to me that he probably does. The fast guys won’t look abused at all after a 30-mile race, whereas I look like I just deserted from the Western Front. Perhaps Tire Man measures the reality of one’s ridership by perseverance rather than speed, or by enthusiasm rather than competence, or maybe on time spent in the saddle (some 2.5 hours recently, in my case), or on the sheer volume of mud one manages to accumulate about one’s person. Takes all types to make up C Class, I suppose, and I line up to be impressed as the AA’s launch off the line.
If you’ve heard anything about this race, you are probably wondering, what about all the sad stuff? What about the man who died of a heart attack and the two who were badly injured? Well, somehow I managed to go two laps without personally noticing any evidence of trouble, and not until we got home and Greg went online did he learn the bad news and relay it to me. I’m pretty useless as a correspondent, I guess, but I wish a speedy recovery to those who were hurt, and I will pass on the following information from Greg: the man who died wrote in his will that he wanted to be buried in his dirt bike gear, and race arrows will mark the way to his funeral on Sunday. Now THERE is a real rider.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Amazing Newbie Rodeo Rides the GasGas

 In the forest there is a field, and in the field, there is parked a Honda Element. In it, there is dirt biking gear and a half-empty 12-pack of Long Trail, and perched on and around it are my best friends, Samantha, Collin, and Deb, and myself. Cold beers in hand, we are waiting. It is early evening, late June, with golden summer light slanting through the maple leaves and the long grass. 
 Our ears prick up as the high-pitched buzz of a two-stroke cuts through the woods to the north of us. Greg, my boyfriend, and a GasGas 200 enter the clearing in a crescendo of throttle and a wheelie.
Sam squints at me over her aviators and beer.
“Anna, your boyfriend is a showboat.”
His dark red curls haven't been suppressed at all by the helmet he's just removed, and he looks pretty good in a moto jersey and jeans.
I shrug. “Yes, well...”
Leaving the GasGas on its kickstand, Greg walks toward us, helmet outstretched like a peace offering.
“Alright, it's warmed up. Who's going first?”
The four of us civilians look at eachother.
“I'm out,” says Sam.
I look at Deb, who looks dubious. I look at Collin, who looks eager, but nonetheless waves a hand towards the bike as if he's holding a door for me: ladies first.
“Right,” I say.
I'm nervous. Later Sam and I will sip Switchback pints in McGillicuddy's and discuss this nervousness: “You really think Greg won't respect you if you don't learn to dirtbike?” she'll ask. “Yes—I mean, no,” I'll say. “I mean, since we have nothing in common, and frankly, given the income disparity, here... I mean, I need all the respect I can get, right?” “I certainly won't respect you if you PWN yourself and die over some ginger,” she'll say. “I won't PWN myself and die,” I'll say, unconvincingly.
I try not to think about PWNing myself and dying as I drop my jeans, put on knee guards, yank the jeans up, put on elbow guards, chest protector, Greg's boots—
“You should wear a long-sleeved shirt,” Greg calls from the midst of a conversation with Collin.
I stretch my UVM Rowing shirt over the gear, and buckle on one of the many helmets in the back of the Element.
“Ready,” I say.
I feel undignified, and suspect that I look like the Elephant Man disguised as a Power Ranger. Collin bursts out laughing when he sees me.
“The shirt could have gone on first...” suggests Greg.
“Too bad,” I say.
Greg leads me to the bike, and I awkwardly swing a leg over—my sweaty jeans, stretched over kneepads and stuffed into Greg's too-large, outrageously heavy moto boots, don't allow for much range of motion, and the GasGas is far too tall for me. I can't get a toe to the ground once I'm on, so Greg holds the handlebars steady as he lists the controls.
They're familiar enough, as I have my motorcycle license—but not that familiar, as the motorcycle I got the license for hasn't turned over since my grandfather died 15 years ago. Sam, Collin and I had to load it into the back of Collin's '97 Subaru Legacy to get it from my uncle's garage in New Hampshire to my mom's basement in Vermont. It fit, yes—it's a little antique two-stroke, a '72 Yamaha DS7, and none of the myriad things I've learned from taking it apart are helping me as I pull in the clutch of the GasGas and flail ineptly at the kick start lever.
“These boots weigh a thousand pounds,” I complain.
“Better than breaking your ankle,” says Greg. “Never ride without boots and a helmet.” Then, after consideration: “And gloves. And knee pads. And a jersey.”
On the fifth kick, the GasGas screams to the top of its rev range.
“Easy,” says Greg. “The throttle's really sensitive...” It idles down. “Start letting out the clutch, just until it starts to engage... Now give it a little gas...” He runs along beside me as the machine jerks forward. “Make a big circle around the field—eyes up! Don't watch the car or you'll hit it. Watch where you want to go.”

I make counterclockwise circles, to weak applause from my friends. Greg runs back to the Element, opens a beer, waves me on.
The throttle is a terror and the suspension is amazing. It's like riding the hideous offspring of an unbroken thoroughbred, a mountain bike, and a sofa. I also can't figure out how to make it turn.
“Eyes UP!” Greg calls again. “And sit forward! Further—like, balls on the gas cap! You want to have some weight on the front wheel, so it'll bite when you turn.”
The bike feels top-heavy and uncooperative going anywhere but straight—but then it's magic. I crack the throttle and yell with delight as the rear wheel spins in the slick grass, finds traction, and launches me across the field back toward the Element.
“Try standing up!” Greg calls. “Now point your elbows up, like this! Chin over the handlebars... Now make a figure eight and go the other way!”
I make it through half of the eight, but on the second corner, I give it too much throttle and fall over.
I pick up the machine, which feels much heavier than it looks, make a few more loops, have a couple more falls, then hand it over to Collin so I can catch my breath. For a bike without pedals, it provides a hell of a workout.
Collin is wearing a brown, button-down sheriff shirt that he found in a thrift store, and with the gear on, sitting on the GasGas, he looks like a 21st century Road Warrior. I rejoin Sam and Deb in the grass by the Element, open a beer and lean back on a hubcap to watch.

“How was it?” Deb asks.
“Well, the gear is epic,” I report. “Falling doesn't feel like anything.”
Collin's lesson seems to be going much more smoothly than mine. He's standing on the footpegs, elbows up, not frying the clutch to keep from launching into the treetops like I was, but actually applying controlled amounts of throttle... Greg trots after him, gesturing; Collin nods, makes changes.
“Has he ridden motorcycles before?” I ask Sam.
“No, Collin's just... like that with machinery.”
After ten minutes of very tidy circles and figure eights, Collin stops the bike in front of us.
“Sam?” he says, voice muffled by the helmet.
“Not my thing,” she says.
Deb gets up.
“Why not?” she sighs.
Gear is exchanged, then Deb starts the bike with the first kick.
“Oh yeah!” she yells over the revs, grinning.
After Greg's introduction, the bike glides forward. Deb sits up with her back as straight as a board, elbows tucked in to her sides—of course. She's used to riding horses.
“Get those elbows up! Higher!” says Greg.
“Ugh,” says Deb. “Like this...?”
“More! Like—like a cartoon! Yes! Perfect!”
Deb's circles get faster and faster—she's really taking to it—
“Whoa—” we all begin, and she tips over.
“Are you okay?” Sam and I call.
Deb jumps to her feet and hauls the bike up after her. She gets back on, completes her figure eight, does a few more laps of the field in the other direction, and returns to the Element, victorious.

“Alright, Anna,” says Greg, “do you want to try the single track?”
I really don't. I can barely keep the bike within the confines of a half-acre field devoid of obstacles, let alone keep it within the confines of a zigzagging, hilly trail as wide as the handlebars with rocks and trees on either side. Visions of compound fractures dance in my head.
“Sure,” I say. “What's the worst that could happen?”
I crash before I even get to the trail, then two more times before I get to the first hill.
“Here, just let me kick start it for you—” Greg says.
“I've got it,” I snap.
I don't. The boots get heavier with each kick. When I finally get a spark, I roll the bike down the steep incline with the clutch in and the brake on. But this part is just like mountain biking—I stand up with my butt over the rear fender and let it have more speed.
“Good!” I hear Greg say, running along behind me.
The trail flattens out, then hooks sharply to the right, up the other side of the little valley—
“Gas!” yells Greg. “More gas!”
Too late. It stalls halfway up and I tip over.
Greg lifts the bike before I can even lift myself up, offers me a hand, and says,
“Let me ride it back to the Element. You need more field time.”
“Fine,” I say through my teeth, ignoring the hand.
Greg zips off effortlessly and I stomp after him, dripping sweat and feeling murderous. I vow revenge on the GasGas, and on Greg's size-1000 plutonium-reinforced boots, and my jeans, which were apparently manufactured by a straightjacket company...
Another beer puts me in a better mood, as does Collin's refusal to try the single track next. That would have made things really embarrassing. We drive back to the barn where the trailer is parked, load up the bike, drop my friends off downtown, then Greg and I take the GasGas back to his parents' house a few exits up the interstate.
“Maybe next weekend you can ride it in the field here,” he says as he unhooks the tie-downs. “I mean, if you want to. You certainly don't have to if it doesn't interest you.”
Like shit I don't have to, I think, giving the bike the hairy eyeball as it disappears into the garage.
“I'd love to,” I call.
On the ride back to town, I lean out the open window as the sun sets and imagine myself taming the bike, miraculously, just like in all those dumb chapter books when the orphan tames the wild stallion and wins the Kentucky Derby.
When next weekend comes, I tame the bike and get my promised revenge by sending it backflipping into a tree—unfortunately, I neglect to let go of it first. Woman and machine somersault out of the foliage, bounce to a stop in the field, and I army-crawl over to kill the engine before the full-body ache of high-speed impact has a chance to set in. I'm lying on the ground writhing and hissing when Greg catches up to me.
“You went lumberjacking,” he observes. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” I wheeze, and attempt to sit up. It doesn't go well—I seem to have become a giant bruise.
“Are we done for the day?” Greg asks.
I grunt.
He picks up the bike for me as I complete the arduous task of standing.
“Oh, shit—you broke my radiator... Yep, we're done for the day.”
“Sorry,” I say, viciously. “I'll buy you a new one.”
Greg pushes the GasGas back to the garage, and I hobble after, swearing inwardly. This, I think to myself, is the dumbest hobby mankind has invented, short of stamp collecting, cooking meth, and baseball. Nonetheless, as soon as that radiator's fixed, I'm gonna show that miserable bike who's boss.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

J Day Winter Triple Crown Rd. 2 and/or 3: Snow, Slush, and MAD AIR

We’re back. As we park the Element and hop out to go register, I look furtively around at the other racers. I’m half-expecting eyes to roll as they register my improbable return--Oh, great, the Human Edurocross Obstacle strikes back!--but it doesn’t happen. The first person Greg and I recognize from last time, known to us only as Mohawk Boy for the decoration on his helmet, smiles and waves. So does the Super Senior who almost ran me over in the second moto and then gave me a hug. So far, so good. I’m here, I chant inwardly, I am incompetent--but I will not live in fear. NO FEAR: that is my goal for the race. Open up the throttle, ditch the wobbles.
Contrary to our expectations, we’ve arrived early, so Greg and I stomp around the course to get a feel for the conditions and see if any changes have been made since Round 1. It isn’t snowing here, to our astonishment, but there’s plenty on the ground from the blizzard last weekend that transformed the J Day Winter Triple Crown into a Double Crown. As late as 5 AM this morning, Greg and I were in debate about whether the event should even be a Single Crown for us: when we got on the highway in Randolph, Vermont, visibility had been next to nil and the road felt slippery even at 45 miles per hour.
“We might miss our first moto,” Greg said gloomily from the passenger seat as we passed Bethel. “We can still turn around...”
I slugged more Red Bull and told him that he was exaggerating. I would be dead before I let this weekend end up the like the last: our bikes race-ready on the trailer with no place to go, and the two of us reduced to skating or some such inferior activity to pass the time... It didn’t bear thinking of. Greg fell asleep and I drove on--through the whiteout, into the dawn, and onto clear highways by the time we reached New Hampshire. I set the cruise control to 70 and we made it to the check-in an hour before the Mini class kicked off the race.
The course hasn’t changed much during our two-week absence, except that the KTM Extreme Section has gotten extreme-er: the log over which I’d done a front flip is gone, replaced by a fast section through flat, low-lying woods and a dramatic climb up a huge hill to the finish. There is an alternative ascent, more gradual but much longer, winding through deep powder and dense evergreens until the two trails rejoin at the finish line. Standing at the junction, I look apprehensively from one route to the other.
“Which of these is supposed to be easy?” I ask a race official as his bike skids to a halt beside us.
“Take the steep one,” he says. “It’s easier--as long as you’ve got the speed.”
“You haven't got the speed,”  Greg tells me in a stage whisper.
“I know,” I say. The official drops off a sandwich board showing arrows to “EASY” and “EXTREME” and zips off. “So does he,” I add as the scream of the two-stroke fades. “He watched me pick my bike up forty times last race.”
Back at the start and waiting for Greg’s line to take off, I am annoyed to see that our borrowed camera is equipped with a dead battery. Still, I cheer as the flag drops and Greg pulls ahead of the pack. His bike launches a V of brown slush into the air as he gasses it through the huge puddle at the end of the straight--
“HOLESHO--” I begin, then his front wheel slides out and he’s on his butt in the drink.
“Stupid, stupid camera,” I think.
He fishes out the bike and still beats some stragglers into the turn. As soon as they’re out of view, I run to watch the action at the hill. A crowd of people stands waiting and talking. From the valley below us, there is a distant hum growing louder--LOUDER--and then there is air. WICKED air. The riders trace a huge trajectory off the incline, land in frictionless grey slush on the flat and gun it in wild fishtails toward the finish line. Lap by lap, Greg regains the places he lost while going swimming--he’s in fifth when I leave to get ready for my turn.
As I position my bike on the line, Greg runs out to me, still carrying his helmet.
“How’d it go?” I ask him.
“I Davy Jonesed my bike,” he says. “Did you get a picture?”
I explain, then ask, “What’s it like out there?”
He makes a conflicted face.
“There’s one rut,” he says. “It goes all the way around the track. Stay in it.”
As soon as I enter the woods, I see that he wasn’t kidding. The rut is almost footpeg-deep in places and everything outside it is mush.
“EYES UP,” I tell myself out loud. “What do you care if there’s a rut? PIN IT!”
Sure enough, a few minutes in, the rut splits in two and I pass somebody. When I get to the lumpy straightaway about two-thirds into the lap, I bump the KDX into third and gas it straight into the acceleration bumps, rather than hugging the side and sliding around in the snow as I’d done in the last race. As I accelerate, I can feel my front wheel hit the top of one pothole and bounce off--then the rear wheel hits, then the front wheel hits the next pothole-- “YEAH!” I shout, punching the air like I’ve just won a round in supercross. “So THAT’s what that’s supposed to feel like!” Ryan Villopoto could not have been happier with himself at Daytona last week than I am hitting those potholes as if they’re whoops.
After the straightaway comes a snowy descent into the low-lying section at the base of the hill. As nobody raced here the week before last, the track is a little softer, and because it’s pretty wide, there are several criss-crossing ruts to choose from. I take a couple annoying spills and give vent to my irritation with excessive throttle, which launches me off a little jump that I didn’t even seen coming. I hug the bike with my knees in the air and break into a grin as my suspension eats the landing. I grew up on an aluminum-frame hardtail mountain bike with blown-out forks, so even my old-ass KDX feels like a hovercraft with Cadillac suspension by comparison. I am hooting with glee. I charge up the Easy trail, hitting a jump there deliberately and hooting with glee some more. I perform the world’s slowest tank-slapper in the deep snow in the pine stand, but don't take down too much tape, and cruise past the finish line in high spirits.
The next two laps go by in similar fashion: I have no serious crashes, the guy I passed in the first lap never passes me back, and a skinny dude who I eventually recognize as Mohawk Boy without his helmet keeps appearing out of the forest like a leprechaun to cheer for me. Things are just as good on the second moto: Greg refrains from Davy Jonesing himself off the start line and leads the pack for a full lap, and I complete another three laps of miniature whoops and polite quantities of air without incident. 
After my race, Greg and I grab our remaining Red Bulls and hike down to the bottom of the big hill to watch the Pro class tear it up. We laugh, we stretch, we caffeinate, we watch some epic pile-ups--but we’re getting hungry for dinner and there’s a long drive ahead. In a break in traffic, we scramble up the hill. I’m already wondering as we get in the car, “No race next weekend? What are we going to do with ourselves? We can’t go skating again...”

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Gravity by TKO in the 2nd Round: I Go to the J Day Triple Crown, Rd. 1, and Fall Down a Lot

It is seven o’clock in the morning, I have been on the road for three hours, and I’m lost. My boyfriend awakes from peaceful slumber in the passenger seat to find me jack-knifing the trailer in the middle of a residential street. The stillness of the winter dawn is broken by a glassy crunch and further profaned by my impolite inquiry about the origin of the sound.
“Probably the tail light breaking,” says Greg. “Look, just pull forward until we get to someplace where you can pull a U-turn...”
Thinking that this is an inauspicious start to my first race, I proceed as directed. The place where I can pull a U-turn turns out to be the junction with the road to the race: so the tail light died in vain. I’m in a charming mood as we sign the waiver at the gate and pay our entrance fee, and our first sight of the parking lot does little to cheer me.
“We’re going to get stuck worse than last time,” I prophesize, guiding Greg's Honda Element and trailer to relative high ground between barely iced-over puddles. ‘Last time,’ when I had filled the role of Greg’s driver at the NETRA Winter Scramble, the parking lot had ended up looking like a World War One battlefield, and though our eventual escape was far more thrilling than driving a glorified minivan in second gear has any right to be, it was too early in the morning for me to anticipate a repeat performance with anything other than dread.
Greg, riding in the C 250 class, goes to the line first, leaving me to work the camera.
“I get so nervous on the line,” he says as he positions his bike. “Are you nervous yet?”
“No,” I lie. “I’m not really here to race, just to go around the track without getting run over.”
“Shoot for three laps,” he says. “You won’t get run over. Good luck if I don’t see you before you start.”
“Good luck to you, too,” I say, and make my way to the first turn with the camera. I kneel down in the snowbank, the green flag drops, and”HOLESHOT!” I yell, clicking away. Greg has a wheel out in front coming into the turn and carries a clean lead out of it.

I document five laps for him, running hither and thither with the borrowed camera, until, succumbing to nerves at last, I head back to the car, kick my KDX to life and strap on my boots and helmet. It’s been two weeks since last I rode, and the bike feels heavy and intimidating as I “trials” it in circles around the rutted parking lot.
On the line, the other half of the Women’s class, a slender girl in green gear on a YZ250F, smiles at me. She looks like she knows what she’s doing. So do the members of the Super Senior class, who will be racing in our line. The flag drops and the first line takes off, then a pause, then the flag raises for the second lineI try to start my engine with them and fail. There’s Greg on the sideline, muddy and helmet-haired, smiling his encouragement. I sigh. This is going to be ugly. The flag drops and I totter after the receding backs of my competitors into the first turn. I make it almost to the second turn and around a Super Senior whose bike has stalled, then my front washes and I fall over. I pick the bike up250 pounds of 1998’s finest machineryas the recently stalled Super Senior goes zipping by. I kickstart and wobble off in pursuit. So it begins, I think.
My first, overwhelming impression is that I should not be doing this, because I am in everybody's way. One-third of my way into my first lap, people are already lapping methe front runners, and then the whole pack. I am crashing, stalling, or just falling over at a steady rate of once per minute, and my arms are getting tired. By the time I make it to the KTM Extreme Section at the end of the lap, the pack is back for thirds, piled up behind me in the gnarly single-track and yelling at me to move. But there’s a two foot-tall log in my way. How the hell am I going to get over that?
The yelling behind me intensifiesI feel like a stampede of wildebeests is bearing down on meAxis-engineered wildebeests with angry two-stroke engines and spiked tires
“Fuck it,” I think to myself, and hit the gas. My front tire hits the logfront suspension compressesfront tire rolls over it. My rear wheel hits the logrear suspension compresses...
That wasn't so bad, I think.
And my rear suspension decompresses.
I spend a moment windmilling in the air and wondering what I’d ever done to deserve this before I land and the bike lands on me. I untangle myself, wiggle the fingers of my stinging left hand experimentally, and then haul ass out of the way. I make it to the starting gate: Lap One, in the bag. For a 30-minute moto, it’s shaping up to be a hell of a long race.
The next two laps pass in a stupor of exhaustion and correspondingly stupid mistakes. I am too tired to go fast, and I’m going too slow to keep from falling. When I see the checkered flag, my handlebar hits the snow for what I fully intend to be the last time that day.
“Exhaustion,” the guy at the computer diagnoses as I struggle to pick up the KDX. “I know that feeling.”
I am in no state to acknowledge this voice of sympathy as I stagger out of the way.
“Three laps!” Greg cheers as I return to the car. “You did great!”
I collapse in the passenger seat.
"Never again," I say.
Famous last words. We spend an hour in the truck with the heat blasting, eating granola bars and recounting our adventures, and when Greg goes off to the line for his second moto, I’m a little jealous.
“Why don’t you try one more lap?” he says. “If you’re tired, just pull over. They’ll drag your bike out of the woods with an ATV if they have to.”
The green flag drops, Greg gets the holeshot again, and after five laps, I’m back at the car, warming up the KDX. I paid my moneywhy not?
My second moto feels better. I finish the first lap and go for a second. I’m going faster, falling less, and I’m not even that tired anymore. Somewhere in the back stretch, I get thrown sideways out of a rut, and the Super Senior who’d been about to pass me hits my bike, then me. It’s not his faultthere’s no braking in this slush, or even steering. We dust ourselves off, apologize to one another repeatedly (no doubt he is sorry for hitting a girl, and I am sorry for causing a guy as old as my grandfather to crash), and keep going. When I come past the finish again, I see the B class lining up at the start, and I pull off into the parking lot. Like hell am I getting underfoot of that!
As Greg and I exchange congratulations at the carhe to me for my survival, I to him for his 4th place finishthe Super Senior in front of whom I’d crashed comes over, gives me a hug, and apologizes again.
“You meet good people racing,” Greg remarks after I assure the man that no damage had been done.
We stick around to watch the B and A classes race, then, when our wet feet start freezing, we head northand with minimal objection from the deepening mud in the parking lot.
“Glad you went out for the second moto?” asks Greg.
“Are we coming back for the second race?”
“Of course.”
That sharp incline at the bottom of the learning curve is brutal, but damn, does it hold your interest...

"Looks like Brave Sir Robin is running away!" - My Dad

Monday, March 11, 2013

Freakin' Out

For perhaps the third time in half an hour, I am stuck. My rear wheel has dug clean through the snowpack and is spinning on bare ground at the bottom of an axle-deep hole. I am five yards laterally from the perfect traction of the plowed road, but still some ten feet vertically below it, and I am producing a high-pitched banshee howl of rage that cuts clean through the revving of my bike and the snow and wind and sends my trailmates running. To my rescue, by some miracle of human sympathy, not away from me. 

My boyfriend gets there first, kills the motor, and lifts my battered, steaming KDX220 out of its trench and onto the rutted surface of the snowmobile trail. By this time, I am out of breath, and swears, and things to kick, so I thank him civilly, or at least sanely, and duck-walk the bike in first gear up to the road. 

Bruce is waiting there on his WR450, unfazed by the show. I probably owe the continuation of my relationship to Bruce and his unfazed-ness, if that can be made a word: Greg, my boyfriend, was at the outset visibly upset by my rabid reaction to falls, stuck wheels, stuck bolts, broken trailers, cancelled races and the like--he thought I was angry at him, as if it were all his fault for introducing me to this infuriating sport. Hardly: my rage has no object, save perhaps God and my own incompetence.

It runs in the family. My grandfather, when his televised view of the Apollo lunar landing was interrupted by static, took the TV out to the back yard and shot it. My mother, when I got a haircut that she particularly disliked, threw a teacup at my head (yes, she missed, and yes, it was full of tea). I always thought that that sort of behavior was normal. Greg's defensiveness in the face of my comparatively mild tantrums baffled and unsettled me. What was wrong with him? 

Imagine my delight, then, when Bruce began telling us of all the times he'd had to go retrieve his brother Jimmy's helmet from where it had been flung in fury to the bottom of a gulch, and about the time his son Jesse picked up a large rock and dropped it on the prostrate form of his dirt bike after a particularly aggravating crash. The more weekends we ride with Bruce, the more times I get stuck halfway up a snowy incline and fall victim to another unreprintable outburst, the less Greg takes it personally and the more enjoyable our excursions become. After all, I'm not bothered by my behavior. Hurling blasphemies into the silent, snowy woods is kind of a treat, actually--if I did that at work, where I really feel like hurling blasphemies, my boss would punch me out and I'd wake up at the DOL, filing for unemployment.*

Granted, in terms of my relationship with Greg, I can't help but feel that perhaps the wrong one of us has learned the wrong lesson, here. He shouldn't have to learn to cope with my inadequacies, I should learn to improve myself. I need to grow up, be a (wo)man, and GAS IT UP THE GODDAMN HILLS. "Fall all you want," Greg is fond of saying, "as long as you fall at the top." That's philosophy right there, I'm tellin' ya.

*It is interesting to note that, since the composition of this entry, I have, in fact, been fired. Anyone want to hire me?