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.


  1. my dad had told me about this blog and i looked and looked until he finally showed me. and i realized the 2 kids that had helped you was me and my friend and you did amazing. also, this blog is very good keep up the good work.

    1. Hey! Thanks so much for helping me get unstuck, and I'm glad you like the blog! Hopefully I'll see you at another race, where maybe I won't need to be rescued!

  2. your welcome and ya i hope to see more and hope to see you again and haha only if me and my friend got help we were in the woods until 630.

    1. Ugh, sounds horrible. I hope someone at least brought you some dinner out there!