Thursday, August 8, 2013

NETRA Rocky Mountain 2013: The Rekluse Makes Noises and a Man Calls Me "Man"

Everything is too clean. My gear still smells like the garment factory and the KTM is glowing from a recent scrub. Greg and I spent Saturday night at my uncle’s house, only 40 minutes from the track, so I’ll even be racing on a full night’s sleep. Sitting on the starting line, all this tidiness is making me feel a bit… unbalanced. Fortunately, two problems reassure me I’m not dreaming: one, I forgot my Camelbak in Vermont and I’m borrowing a knock-off from my cousin. Two, the KTM’s Rekluse is slipping, or dragging, or both. Several surgeries have only made it worse. Along with a stripped bolt hole in the engine case, I now have no neutral while the bike is running and it doesn’t like to start in gear. The rest of my line is long gone by the time I take off, and, scrambling to catch up on the grass track, I lose my front and go body-surfing in the dirt on the second corner of the race.

That bike is LUMINOUS.
Right, I think—having dislodged my jitters and put on some camouflage, I can get this show on the road. Soon, I’m nipping at the heels of today’s token “Dude, That’s Not a Race Bike” person. Remember Dual Sport Guy on the TW200 from Martin’s Mayhem? At Rocky Mountain, there’s TTR-125 Girl, who I pass in the last 20 feet of the grass track. Our first taste of the single-track is packed, nicely bermed loam—then 200 yards later, there’s a left-hand, downhill turn onto a slippery bridge and the trail frays like an old rope across a wide, muddy rock garden studded with pine trees. Thank God, I think—I’d have been dead last for the whole race if that fast stuff kept up. I find the shortest distance between me and flat ground and duck-walk through without an issue, passing half my line in the process.  
Over-confidence thus established, I react with a smile when the course takes me to the first water crossing. Feet up and throttle wide, I fly effortlessly through, feeling grateful (in distant retrospect) that my first-ever NETRA race was the 2013 Spring Challenge. That one was like swimming the English Channel on a bike, at least from a newb’s perspective, and any fear I might have had of water crossings going into it was replaced by weary familiarity by the end. By now, that weariness has worn off and I think they’re a bucket of laughs.
By the middle of my first lap, my race takes on a predictable pattern. First, there is slop, rocks, water crossings—usually featuring a dude with a grey Camelbak paddling slowly but steadily through them. I blow by at Mach 10, gleefully out of control and dousing this poor guy with mud, then the trail opens up. There are whooped-out, sandy sections, big berms, all the stuff that I never have to deal with while trail riding in Vermont. I go sailing into the bushes, and as I’m sweating and wheezing my way back to verticality, Steady Eddie putters past me. I panic, haul ass, catch up to him at the next mudhole—and the process repeats.
The last third of the track is all thrills and spills—it crosses several stone walls (over which I do not find any graceful lines), funnels me down a horrifyingly steep hill with a tiny and slippery bridge at the bottom, then, after another bridge and more tight single-track, it sends me straight up the opposite side of the valley. I barely make it to the top in an overoptimistic second gear, dragging my feet and praying that the overtaxed Rekluse doesn’t let me stall. It doesn’t, but it makes a ghastly squawking noise. Still puzzling over this, I am surprised to see a sign by the side of the trail reading “PHOTO AHEAD,” and a small jump following. I make an effort to prop up my elbows and catch some air—neither of which objectives are met with success, as Art Pepin’s photo will later prove.

See that rear wheel floating? Yeah. MASSIVE air.
I survive the grass track without incident, pass the start-finish line, and make good headway through the first rock garden before coming to a screeching halt at its second and more rustic bridge. A man in street clothes is standing smack in the middle of it and waving me frantically to the left—into a maze of trees and crisscrossing, chain-detaching ruts.
“NO WAY!” I shout at the man, who keeps waving in response. “YOU’RE KIDDING ME, BRO! WHAT ABOUT THE BEAUTIFUL BRIDGE?!” He stands his ground, and, shooting him a you’ll-be-sorry-for-this glare through my mirrored goggle lenses, I reroute the KTM into the woods. I avoid the worst of the ruts and rejoin the course, attacking a root-crossed hill from an awkward angle with totally mud-packed tires. A double shot of whiskey throttle gets the bike to the top, but when I see that it’s headed for a beech tree, I decide not to go with it. There’s an awful crunch—and another front fender makes a date with a dumpster.
I walk to the top of the hill, where the bike is being pried out of the greenery by a course worker. He’s a chatty one.
“Looks like you broke your fender!” he says. “I like your graphics, though. What is this, a 200?”
“250,” I say dazedly.
“2011? My buddy has one of those. It’s a sweet bike…”
Now that I’m standing still, I realize I desperately need water. My borrowed Camelbak has about 1/10 the flow rate of my usual one, so I gnaw on it frantically as the guy keeps talking, my sociopathic racing autopilot mumbling vague responses to anything it recognizes as a question.
“Well, good luck with your race, man,” the guy says, offering me the bike as I tuck my Camelbak hose back into its shoulder strap. “I hope that trials tire works out for you—“
“That’s not a man, that’s a girl!” observes another course worker, walking by.
I squint at the first guy, who squints back at me. True, my gear is fairly androgynous and my sociopathic racing autopilot has an unfeminine habit of addressing everyone as “bro…”
“He has a point, but it’s okay,” I say. “Thanks for your help!”
I take the bike and carry on down the trail. 200 yards later, the KTM’s number plate falls off. The autopilot keeps going.
All is well until the end of the sandy, flowing section, when the fastest riders on the lead lap catch up to me. I fall on a big, bermed hill and piss off at least five people who get stuck behind me, one of whom, I notice as I haul the bike off to the side, is Steady Eddie. As usual, the autopilot has a conniption at the sight of him. I’m within striking distance of him when I hit the first stone wall, but the line I take this time is worse than last. While I deepen my acquaintance with the ground, my quarry disappears for good.
“Dude,” I say to the autopilot, sitting up in the dirt, “you just can’t keep doing this.” I resolve to keep my cool and try to make it the rest of the lap without falling. If I were to keep going at this manic rate, I would probably pass out half-way through lap three.
True to my word, I plod onward in a businesslike fashion, making it across much of the steep-sided valley without incident. However, before I can climb to the safety of the grass track, I must cross that last wooden bridge—and there’s a Yamaha lying in the middle of it. Its owner, a skinny kid who has taken off his helmet, is trying to pick it up, but he’s either exhausted or he’s just taken an epic digger. Plus, his boots keep sliding on the wet wood. I look around for another way across. The stream isn’t deep, but to get a decent run-up, I’d have to turn around. Lacking the energy, I wait.
The kid gets his front wheel off the bridge and falls over again. Helplessly, he points to his left—maybe I can make it around him. Going easy on the throttle and paddling my feet, I cross. So this is why I was diverted from that bridge at the beginning of the track, I think—the wood feels like somebody buttered it. I skirt the fallen bike, my front tire finds solid ground—and comes to rest on a tiny, fatal incline. I know exactly what’s coming, but I’ll be sitting here forever if I don’t give it some gas…
I roll on the throttle and my rear tire slides sideways immediately. Now there are two bikes lying halfway off the bridge. With one arm hooked around a tree for stability, I drag the KTM to safety.
“Sorry,” says Yamaha Kid as we catch our breath.
“I would have fallen anyway,” I say. In fact, if he hadn’t been there, I probably would’ve slid off the bridge at Mach 10 and broken my neck.
Carrying on, I make it up the big hill in good form, feet on the pegs, high in the revs, and causing no horrible noises from the Rekluse. In the field track, I try to work up some Zen for lap three, which I’m sure will be a nightmare. There’s a long straightaway leading to the start/finish line and I take it at full tilt. It’s okay, I tell myself—as long as I keep a cool head and remember my technique, I’ll survive. I hit the brakes at the cattle gates, where I feel only dim confusion when I see a big, square, black and white thing waving at me. The autopilot decides that such mysteries are best left unsolved and hurtles towards the woods track—where Greg is waiting, expectantly air-traffic-controlling me toward the access road on my right.
With a sinking feeling, I stop. That was the checkered flag. So much for lap three. Game over.
The bright side of all this is apparent to me as soon as my wheels stop moving. I kill my engine, foist the bike off on Greg, and spend about three minutes drinking, vowing never to forget my Camelbak again.  As we load up the bike, I’m still feeling robbed—Greg says that if I’d come around ten minutes earlier, I would have gotten a third lap. Ten minutes is equal to five crashes, I calculate, and I probably had eight. Maybe next time, I’ll take a leaf out Steady Eddie’s book.