Tuesday, October 15, 2013

NETRA Dam Good 2013: In Which I Throw my Clothes at a Stranger and Win a Trophy

First of all, a version of this entry will appear in the October issue of Trail Rider Magazine, a nifty little monthly that covers the Northeast's off-road racing, riding, scene and machinery and also (fanfare, please) carries my column, Yard Sale, which I don't post on this blog. Check out the digital edition on the website, or if you're sick of staring at your computer screen, save a paper mill and subscribe to the print version!

My alarm wakes me at 4:15 AM and I climb out of bed with an unshakable conviction that I am doing the right thing. Never mind the four-hour drive (in each direction), or the price of gas, or the murmurings about rain and mud—I missed Hard Knox with a bad cold a couple weeks ago and so today I’m going racing, come hell or high water.

As soon as we get to Massachusetts, it’s apparent—high water it is. The rain follows us to Connecticut, falling faster as we approach our destination. At Thomaston Dam, Greg threads our Honda Element down a long road lined with my dripping-wet future competitors. I put on my gear in the back seat, trying not to lose my earlier sense of conviction as the rain hammers on the roof.


By the time I get to the start, it’s half under water. At the front of the field, workers and spectators have bravely gathered, and there’s even music playing, somehow. I pick a spot on high ground, far from the first corner—no way am I going for the holeshot in this slop. When the flag drops, I sit back and enjoy the view as my whole line charges ahead of me and then self-destructs in the mud whoops following the second or third turn. I skirt around my fallen comrades, my trials tire squirming, and make it to the woods without ever having left the vertical. So far, so good, I think.

Now that the trials tire is less of a liability, I open it up, wanting to hold on to my unexpected lead. The trail is slimy, but if I remember to carry momentum into the hills and stay up on the pegs, I meet with no difficulties. The peak autumn leaves—much yellower and orange-er than in Vermont, I must say—make the woods beautiful even in the pouring rain, and as the miles tick by on lap one, I swear I’m enjoying myself too much to crash.

One panic-inducing moment happens after the trail crosses the road at the top of the course—immediately after my tires leave the concrete, they plummet down a nearly vertical mud rut with a sharp left turn at the bottom, leading to a long, paved straightaway. I upshift to third, only to become extremely confused moments later when I end up back at the road crossing, this time outside the tape marking the course. How did THAT happen? I roll over the tape and down the j-shaped drop-off again, taking straightaway at a more reserved speed and stopping in time to make a hairpin right-hand turn that I hadn’t noticed before.

The section of the trail following this is a riot—bermed switchbacks wind down the hill and into a swampy section whose grass grows well over my head, giving me the feeling that I’m going down a waterslide. I gleefully lay on the gas, trusting the berms to catch me in the corners and the grass to provide a soft landing if they don’t. My joy is cut short when the waterslide ends, dumping me into its proverbial splashdown pool—the mud whoops at the start were nothing compared to this. The stuff isn’t deep in most places, but it’s greasy as hell and my trials tire won’t track straight in it. When I roll on the throttle, my rear wheel spins out and I do donuts instead of accelerating. Worse yet, the mud is interspersed with opaque water crossings of unpredictable depth—most are harmless when crossed at speed, but one hides an enormous hole that nearly sends me over the bars. 

Needless to say, I take a few tumbles in this section, but there is solace on offer at the finish line where the scoreboard unbelievably flashes “Class Leader!!!” as I roll by. I pump my fist in the air, then feel like an idiot when I remember that there were only two other women in my line. Still, I’ve raced them before and they’re both way faster than me under normal circumstances—so when I leave the gates, I stand up, prop up my elbows, and try to clear out my tires before I have to face those slimy uphills again.

As soon as I enter the woods, I start feeling sick to my stomach. What the heck, I think, I can’t be that dehydrated or tired already—then it occurs to me that I’m not tired, I’m scared. I’ve actually done a good lap for once and have something to lose. What if I get stuck on one of those slippery hills or drown my bike in a mudhole just before the barrels, then have to watch everyone pass me as I settle for a DNF? Burn that bridge when you get there, I advise myself, and I gas it like hell up the first of the intimidating hills.

The track is predictably worse than on the first lap, but not impassable (yet—I don’t envy the folks in the afternoon race). The first sign of trouble comes in the switchbacks leading to the road crossing at the top of the track—the first ascent gave me no trouble on lap one, but now it looks chewed to hell. I see a second line on the far left that looks smoother—if I give it the beans, I think, I can shoot right between those two trees at the top and skip the sloppy stuff. For the first 5 yards, this seems to be a great idea, but the ground right before the trees is unexpectedly close to vertical. I come to a sudden halt on the incline, tire spinning, and then notice a camera pointing at my face.

“NOOO! I WAS SO CLOSE!” I shout at it, and fall over. The cameraman’s buddies help me drag my bike back to the main part of the trail, but I’m so out of breath that I can’t get it to turn over (my e-start conveniently died two weeks ago). One of the two guys takes pity on me, kicks it to life, and gasses it zig-zagging to the top of the hill, showering us in an epic rooster tail of rocks and mud.

“Better him than me!” I say to the other guy, then run—okay, make that “crawl quickly”— to retrieve the bike.

I make it to the top of the track without incident and begin making my contribution to lap traffic as the frontrunners catch me on the way down. Conditions are awful for passing: in many places, the trail has deteriorated to one deep rut, and I know that, even if I did manage to climb out of it to get out of someone’s way, I’d go ass over teakettle in the process.  Fortunately, it’s not until I’m wallowing through the wide avenues of whooped-out slop leading up to the home stretch that the majority of the pack catches up to me. Watching them speed past does little to improve my morale as my trials tire incessantly spins out from under me. By the time I reach the final slimy straightaway, I am so covered in mud that wiping my gloves off on my clothes or my bike only makes them muddier. I fall again and again, collecting more and more ooze, until finally, when I go to pick the bike up, it and I are so muddy that I can get no grip on it and fall on my ass trying to lift it.

“F____!” I scream, completely at wit’s end. “I’m gonna KILL somebody--”

Then I hear someone laughing. On the other side of the tape, a lone spectator is observing my plight with obvious glee. I am too far gone to halt my temper tantrum for his sake.

“I cannot f___ing do this any f____ing longer!” I howl, standing up in the calf-deep grease. “I can’t even pick the stupid thing up—my gloves are too muddy…” I strip them off and throw them to the side of the trail, where the spectator blinks at them, insulted. “I’ll come back for them,” I say, wrestling the bike first up and out of the mud, then into a vertical position. “Would you, er, maybe stick them on that post for me? Sorry…” Beginning to snap out of it, I realize that I just threw my muddy gloves at an innocent bystander and feel embarrassed. Well, takes all types to make a world...

I squirm onto the bike and try to twist the throttle. My hands are as muddy as my gloves. Nothing happens. “That’s WORSE,” I say, feeling steam building up inside my ears again. I snatch the gloves off the post where the spectator generously placed them and ooze them back onto my hands. “How much further is it to the finish?”

“Oh, it’s right around the corner. Calm down. You’ll make it.”

Sage advice, I think. I thank him and kick the bike, which, thank God, starts immediately. After letting out some frustration in superfluous revving, I ease the clutch out and slowly accelerate, trying to keep the rear tire anchored in the straightest ruts. The trail climbs, the mud thins—and there’s the gate. The checkered flag is waving, Greg is cheering. I weave through the barrels, taking little joy in the “Class Leader!!!” message still flashing on the scoreboard, then turn my bike down the road toward the Element. “That was the most miserable experience of my life,” I say to Greg, who is running alongside me. “Alright,” I revise, “the top section was really fun, but that bottom section is horrific. There are probably manatees living in my airbox now...”

I complain all the way back to the car, only pausing to tell Trail Rider’s editor Kevin Novello, who is putting on his gear for the afternoon race, what a godawful experience he’s about to have. My community disservice for the day thus complete, I throw everything I’ve been wearing in a bag for decontamination and put my street clothes on, then Greg and I go loiter around the sign-up tent to wait for printed confirmation of my victory. The sign-up tent is in a puddle, though, which seems to be having an effect on the printer.

“Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen,” somebody says. We turn around to face a man in an Army Corps of Engineers hat and matching raincoat. “Please go back to your vehicles and leave the area. There is a flood warning. This event is closed.”

“I could have told you there’s a flood,” I grumble. Everyone looks at everyone else and shrugs; meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers guy vanishes. Greg and I begin to limp back to the Element. The crowds show no signs of fleeing, but frankly, I’m glad of the excuse to sit down for four hours as Greg drives me home. I take over at the Vermont border when he starts to fall asleep at the wheel. What an outrageous pastime, I think to myself, looking in the rear-view mirror at the unrecognizably muddy bike on the trailer. What kind of fool would spend their Sundays this way? Expensive, inconvenient, exhausting, unglamorous, and probably more fun in retrospect—I can hardly wait for next Sunday, just thinking about it.

A big thanks is due to everyone who stuck around to make Dam Good happen despite the rain. I had great time out there, on the whole! This is New England, after all—though we spend 60% of all conversation griping about the weather, we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t secretly love it. It makes for good stories. 

...And after.