Saturday, November 23, 2013

Back in the Saddle, Late October

It’s the end of autumn and things are mostly back to normal. Ahead of me, I hear the low rumble of my 
boyfriend’s brand-new KTM 250 XCF-W winding up to a howl, then the shiny orange machine rockets out of sight around a sweeping uphill turn. He’s ridden maybe three times since coming back after a season with a busted knee, and already my odds of keeping up with him have decreased from 2:1 to…well, nil, by the looks of things. Deciding to ignore my invented statistics, I pin it in pursuit, my rear tire spinning on fallen leaves and mud.

I wring out second gear and upshift to third, but there’s still no sign of Greg. The faster I go, the better the tire feels, and the water bars that made for a bouncy descent half an hour ago are excellent jumps in reverse. After many steep switchbacks, the trail levels out and the water bars turn into with washouts. Flying along under a canopy of evergreens, I see a particularly wide ravine blocking the trail ahead of me. On the right, the ground rises like a ramp before it drops off—I make a half-assed attempt to preload my suspension as I hit it, throttle wide. The bike revs higher as it arcs through the air, then my rear tire hits the top of the opposite bank, slinging mud as it sends me tidily on my way.

Remarkable, I think—that was the most air I’ve ever gotten, at least while still connected with the bike. A hundred yards later, I see a flash of orange amid the gold of the autumn leaves: finally, there’s Greg. Rolling up beside him, I ask how long he’s been waiting. About four minutes, he replies. It has been three minutes since I last saw him. I do some quick calculations and decide that this is impossible unless he’s been going several times faster than the speed of light, which, meaning no disrespect to his skill, I doubt. Before I can confront him about this, a 2005 KTM SX buzzes up to us. Here’s Chris, who has been taking it easy on the downhills because he only has one functional brake: first gear.

The three of us look at each other expectantly until I lose the staring contest and take the lead. I pull a slight gap on the other two as we head down the far side of the mountain—Greg’s left leg still doesn’t hold up too well when hitting those water bars from uphill. When the trail pops out of the woods, we get an incredible view of Camel’s Hump mountain, its trees bare of leaves except for a few yellow aspens and birches dotting its lower slopes. I’m soaked from head to toe, thanks to a giant mudhole a way back, and start to feel refreshingly cold in the wind.

Greg made it back just in time, I think—this is the perfect season for dirt biking. And this—riding around with friends—is exactly what I’ve been missing all summer. Riding alone is a little lonely—and a lot dangerous. Besides, when I’m trying to keep up with Greg and Chris, I get faster way faster than when I’m tooling around by myself, or even when I’m racing, which for a newb like me is more about maintaining verticality than maintaining speed. I know those two will come looking for me if I disappear, which makes me willing to crack the throttle and try new things, like jumping ditches and wheelie-ing over fallen logs (yeah, the latter didn’t go so well today). Greg is just as eager to get some seat time in as I am—he and his friend Bruce are planning to ride in the morning before work once a week.  The thought of those two hitting the trails while I’m catching the bus to school makes me want to cry a little, but I guess Greg has earned it after all he’s been through. Besides, the sooner he’s strong enough to take those downhills fast, the sooner I’ll get faster too. 

Look at thatelbows up  and everything!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

NETRA Toys for Tots Run 2013: Progress and Enlightenment (Maybe)

Greg, Chris and I are headed south on I-93 towards Freetown, MA again, seven months after racing the NETRA Spring Challenge together at the same course in March.  Like last time, the mood is festive and the conversation makes no sense whatsoever. “Doctor,” shouts Greg over the general hysteria, “every time I turn on the radio, I hear this tootling noise—do I need to change my fan belt?” Amid blaring Charleston music and deranged cackling, we pass Boston and continue south, arriving at DeMoranville Farm at around 9:30 AM. We add our largely moto-themed contributions to the growing heap of toys near the sign-in tent: reliving your childhood at the mall is a much funner way to pay your entry fee than shelling out 45 bucks at the sign in tent, and it’s for a good cause!

As we unload the bikes, Greg and Chris remind me to put some coolant in my air filter—apparently I requested this reminder while half-asleep in the car, and I am never going to hear the end of it. Despite additional helpful hints about topping off the battery oil and greasing my brakes, I manage to complete my pre-ride tech check without totaling my machine. We warm up the bikes, shove our belongings back into the car like it’s a giant front-loading washing machine, and head for the woods. I’m feeling cautiously optimistic. The Spring Challenge was my first-ever NETRA event, and each lap took me about an hour—I’m hoping that won’t be the case today.

This isn’t half as bad as I remember it being, I think, splashing through the first stream on my way towards the gas line. As soon as I exit the water, my front wheel slides off one rock, deflects off another, and I shoot sideways into a tree. As the bike falls, my left hand gets pinned between the handlebar and the rough bark of the little oak tree, with all my weight and the weight of the bike bearing against it. So much for my confidence. I free myself, stagger around for a minute, and climb back on. When I try to pull in the clutch, nothing happens—and I hear engines revving behind me. I huddle against the predatory tree until the line of traffic passes and my fingers unfreeze, then make my way through the last of the rock garden to where Greg and Chris are waiting.

“I hit a tree,” I explain, and gingerly work my hand out of my glove.

“OOOH,” they say in unison.

There is a mottled purple and red splotch just below my knuckles—a scrape on top of what promises to be a heck of a bruise.

“It still works fine,” I say. “Lead on.”

We rip down the gas line until we reach the first proper section of single track. My run-in with the tree notwithstanding, it seems my riding really has improved—thinking back to the NETRA Spring Challenge, I remember this section as an impassable minefield of bowling ball-sized rocks. Now, going twice that speed, I find a line through or over the rocks that actually feels pretty smooth. I remain glued to Chris’s rear tire until we reach a traffic jam behind a particularly nasty—well, let's say "boulder dump." "Rock garden" would be putting it nicely. Greg and Chris wait patiently for a line to clear up, but I am on Race Mode and immediately look for another way around. Two-thirds of the way across, my wheel gets stuck in a crevice and I decide to get off and push. When I hit smooth dirt again, I am off like a shot.

I stop the next time the trail joins the gas line and don’t have long to wait before my comrades catch up to me. Given my negligible corner speed, I conclude that I still ride faster when I’m trying to follow Greg, and I decide to let him go ahead. While I’m pondering this, he vanishes like Road Runner in a plume of dust and I run through most of my gears trying—and failing—to catch him. The next section of single track is new to me, twisting through a dense, rocky pine forest and gradually winding uphill. Greg’s bum leg doesn’t do too well with the ol’ “sit down, stand up, sit down” routine, so eventually I take the lead. Hearing a four-stroke close behind me, I turn up the heat, and am surprised when someone on a Yamaha passes me at the next trail junction instead of Greg. 

I shut off my bike and take a drink from my Camelbak while I wait. Many unfamiliar bikes pour out of the single track, some of them moving very fast, some of them not moving fast at all. A group of riders pauses beside me and I ask whether they saw any bad crashes in the last section. They respond in the negative, so I take the opportunity to examine my squashed hand.  Everything that was purple before has swelled and the skinned part has sunk by comparison: it looks like a minor case of zombie bite. Then I notice one of the very fast riders walking towards me—it’s Trail Rider's editor Kevin Novello, I realize, disguised in swanky new Shift gear.

“How’s it going?” he says.

“I punched a tree,” I say, and show him the bruise. He doesn’t look impressed. “How are you?” I ask.

“Oh, pretty good—I’m riding the four-stroke.” He motions to the 2014 KTM he’s left by the other fast riders. I squint at it, but can’t immediately tell which four-stroke it is. “Did you lose the boys?” he asks before I get a chance to follow up on the bike.

“I guess so. You didn’t see anyone stuck upside down back there, did you?”

“I don’t think so,” he says, “but it’s hard to tell…”

“Yeah, I can imagine. Your rear brake squeal preceded you.”

Finally, Greg and Chris come puttering out of the forest. Kevin exchanges a few words with Greg—probably about KTM four-strokes—before rejoining his crew, and after Greg and Chris take a break, we set off again. This section along the gas line is probably half a mile long, and I get a rare taste of fourth gear before we duck into the wasteland again for a final stretch of fast, fun single track.

During the second lap, our group of three spreads out considerably. Gaining confidence, Greg cranks up his speed, not to pre-injury levels, for sure, but fast enough that I only last a minute behind him in the single-track before he disappears into the woods. He’s faster than me in the corners, steadier than me in the rocks, and in between them, he really twists the throttle: I grit my teeth and try to follow suit. I’ve always known Freetown has some berms, but lap two of Sunday’s Toys for Tots run was the first time I ever used them. Meanwhile, Chris has fallen behind—I don’t envy him trying to thread that 2005 KTM 250 SX through the extremely tight turns in the hilly section, or trying to track straight through the rocks on its blown-out shock.

Reunited at the truck, we devour some granola bars, shake out our collective arm pump, then head out to burn some laps on the grass track before loading up to go home. My previous experiences running a trials tire on grass can be summarized in one word—well, maybe two: low-side. However, the Freetown grass track has been compacted until it resembles concrete, and I find myself carrying improbable speed through the corners. On the first lap, I roll the jump near the sand section as usual, but when I see Greg loft a wheel off it on lap two, I impulsively whack the throttle. I get more air then I bargained for, and from up there, the next turn looks closer than I remembered. My suspension compresses—WHUMPH!—as I land, and I keep it on two wheels around the corner, feeling like Orville Wright.

By the third lap, I am about ready to turn in, but then I hear the familiar sound of squealing brakes behind me. The squealer rides high onto a rocky ledge to the right of me, passes me in mid-air and rounds the next corner in a massive drift, followed by some lunatic in Shift gear on a shiny new four-stroke KTM. I upshift in pursuit, flying down the back straightaway at the top of third gear. Come on, Anna, I think, sit forward coming into this next turn, weight that outside peg… Though Kevin and company leave me in the dust, I ride four more laps at full tilt and only take out one stake—a record, believe me. My arms are getting tired, though, and I haven’t seen Greg and Chris in ages. When I get back to the truck, they’ve already loaded their bikes.

The ride home is much quieter than the ride there—not that that’s saying much. In New Hampshire, Greg and I switch places so he can sleep, and as I drive, I reflect on my improvements. I’m not sure I’ll ever make it out of C class, but improving my riding is so satisfying that I aim to keep it up as long as possible. Plus, the more fundamental skills that learning to ride requires—hard work, dedication, and willingess to take a beating—are also indispensable during the week. Walking bruised and sore into calc class or chemistry on Monday and seeing a new set of equations written on the board, I always think, “Well, if I figured out that nasty hill climb on Sunday, I can figure this out too.”

Kevin Novello has captured me moving at warp speed
through the grass track. Maybe I'm doing a track stand?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

NETRA Barnes Way 2013 - In Which I Take Good Advice and Go Up a Hill

Alright, so Barnes Way, the last NETRA hare scramble of the season, was kind of a long time ago, at least as far as the time frame of this blog is concerned.  Though the opportunity may technically have passed, I think the event deserves a few words and I’m going to say them anyway.

The build-up to the race was promising. We picked up Greg’s friend Bill in Boston—Bill is pursuing a Master’s in philosophy at Tufts, and we thought it would be beneficial to his education if he saw some dirt bike racing—you know, to broaden his Weltanschauung. Just kidding—he and Greg don’t get to hang out much, and since Greg wasn’t racing, the two of them were planning to stroll around and catch up on old times while I got my ass kicked.

As soon as the Element bounced to a halt in Chepachet, RI, I ditched the two overeducated gingers to go through tech and sign up. While standing in line for the latter, somebody recognized me from last weekend’s Dam Good hare scramble and handed me my first place trophy—and a gift card to Roost Power Sports in Thomaston, CT! Glory—and 20 bucks. That’s a new air filter! If that ain’t the way to start the morning right, I don’t know what is.

As I rolled up to the start, Megadeth was blaring, Bill was air-guitaring along, and every line was packed elbow to elbow. My performance didn’t live up to the festivities: I ran wide in the first turn and came out of it in the back of my line—and the back of the race, by extension. The trail in its first miles was rootier than anything I’d ridden, and so when I saw some knees, elbows and a motorcycle sticking out of a wood pile by the side of the trail, I figured I had little to lose by stopping to help. The kid was fine, but the bike was tangled in a knee-deep nest of crisscrossed logs. Together we half-rolled, half-carried it back to the trail and went tearing after the pack. His odds of catching them looked better than mine.

By five miles into the lap, I had made up a few positions, passing a girl on a Yamaha and weaving through a long line of guys who were moving in such a convivially slow pack that I wondered whether they were part of the race at all. It was all for nothing, though, because two minutes later, I arrived at the sand hill. With first gear pinned, I made it two-thirds of the way up and fell over. Walking the bike back down, the girl on the Yamaha passed me on her way up, followed by the guys. I repositioned my bike in the deep sand at the bottom of the five-story ascent. It looked totally insurmountable.  

Well, I might as well try once more and get my money’s worth, I thought, kicking the bike once, twice, three times.

I hate everyone and wish I was dead, I thought, kicking the bike five, eight, fifteen times.

I dismounted, ready to wheel it to the side and give up—then somebody grabbed my handlebars. I looked up. There stood a familiar-looking man about my dad’s age, wearing a floppy fisherman’s hat.

“Hey,” he said, “I met you at Tuxedo Ridge, remember? My son and your boyfriend were both in the ER.”

“Oh yeah!” I said. “How’s your son doing?”

“Fine, fine—he had to take it easy for a while, but he’s racing again now. You want me to start this thing for you?”

“I dunno,” I said, “I don’t think I can make it up that.”

“Put it in second gear and hold it wide open, all the way up,” he said. “You stuck with him when his leg was busted, you can do this. This is easy.”

I handed over the bike and the man in the fisherman’s hat started it with one kick. I got back on, thanked him, kicked it into second and wrung its guts out until it wheelied on packed dirt at the top of the hill.

The rest of the race was pretty calm. Going through the initial rooty section after the start-finish line, I made my routine contribution to lap traffic but noticed something very useful in the process: when fast people ride through rough stuff sitting down, they’re not riding sitting still—far from it. Between this revelation and the general lack of early-race chaos, I pulled off a second lap that was a couple minutes faster than my first. It wasn’t enough to keep me from coming in fourth out of five in my class, but it sure was good for morale.

 “Nice job on the sandy hill,” said Bill when we were all reunited at the Element. “Greg and I were ready to run out there and drag the bike to the top for you, but then you made it up!”

 “That was the guy from Tuxedo Ridge who helped you start it, right?” asked Greg. “That was crazy—after he talked to you, you went right up. It was very triumphant. What did he say to you that made you go right up like that?”

I shrugged. “He told me to put it in second and pin it, so I did.”

Good advice, sure, but I think the other part—“If you stuck with him when his leg was busted, you can do this”—is what sealed the deal. It’s taken me a few weeks to figure out why, but I think I’ve got a handle on it now.

When you’re in the middle of a race, tired, frustrated, and with your racing tunnel vision on maximum zoom, winding up with your nose in the dirt at the bottom of an intimidating obstacle seems like the worst thing that has ever happened to you. It ain’t. We’re all a lot tougher than we think—the key with racing is to dig that deep when the stakes aren’t high, and to push your limits without forgetting to have fun in the process. Still, at the end of the day, if racing were just about ignoring fear, withstanding pain, and riding a motorcycle in the woods, who knows if it would be worth the trouble—there are plenty of ways to challenge yourself that don’t risk shattering all your bones. Something makes the experience greater than the sum of its parts—and I’m willing to bet it’s the people.

If you’ve ever slapped a number on your bike and parked it on the line, you are part of an amazing community. Once, Greg and I were driving down the highway with our bikes in tow when a big van passed us in the other lane. We looked up just in time to see a motocross magazine slammed against the passenger window and some random dude inside waving like we were his long-lost friends. Your fellow riders are your family just as much as they’re your competitors—Greg’s injury really brought this into focus for me. Even now, wherever he goes, people who were at the Tuxedo Ridge race stop to ask him how he’s doing. Everyone is amazingly kind and helpful, and if you happen to help someone else, odds are they’re going to be awesome about it. Remember the kid whose bike I helped rescue on lap one? Well, a couple weeks later at the Jack Frost Fun Run, he somehow recognized me and pulled over to thank me—again.

So yeah. Racing: you take the risks, fight through the pain, push yourself further than you thought was possible—because however fun it is to fly through the woods on two wheels, the people you’re riding with make it funner, and you always know that if you fall, someone will be there to help you get back on your feet again. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Boots: a Product Review/Post-mortem

Something tragic happened at the NETRA Jack Frost Fun Run in Oxford, MA last weekend. The ride was great, Greg and I had a blast—I guess, to be accurate, something tragic happened AFTER the Jack Frost Run. As Greg was backing the Element out of its parking space with the trailer, the guy next to us knocked on the window and told us that our very new and very long tie-downs were trailing. I got out to tie them up in festive bows, and as I was about to get back in the car, I noticed the calamity.

“Roll forward,” I said to Greg, opening the door. “You’re on my boots.”

Alas, once the wheel was off them and I had dusted them off, they looked—exactly the way they had before. Okay, maybe the giant holes in the ankles got a little gianter. But It Was Their Time, that much is for sure. Consider this their obituary.

Those boots—Fly Racing Maverik boots, a 99-dollar special—were the first piece of dirt biking equipment I ever bought. (That was last fall—don’t go thinking the boots are from the 70’s or anything.)  I purchased them for myself as an overdue acknowledgement that my weekend adventures on Greg’s old trials bike were actually going to turn into a hobby—and shortly thereafter, Greg bought a '98 KDX 220 for me. Heck of a boyfriend, right? See, this is why I’m going back to school. With two of those salaries, we’ll practically have our own satellite race team, in terms of budget if not in terms of talent, at least compared to the present state of affairs—which brings me back to my boots. 99-dollar boots more or less review themselves on their price tag, but let me tell you about the successes and failures of these, just for giggles.

First, they were stiff, obviously, but they worked. At the Toys for Tots run last November, they immediately filled with water, but that was because I toppled over in a knee-deep stream. (I really envy people who learned to ride on bikes whose seats are a foot off the ground, and who got all that falling over with when they were too young for it to be embarrassing.) Over the winter, they kept my feet reasonably warm and passably dry, and then, at the NETRA Spring Challenge, they earned a medal of honor for saving my toes.

The full chronicle of the Challenge is here (and it rivals the Odyssey), but the boots’ part in it is this: totally exhausted after an hour-long first lap, my bike slides sideways out from under me as I round a slippery corner. As I fall, I accidentally twist the throttle wide open—and then land with my right foot in my rear spokes. The spokes carry my foot into my swingarm, and there my toes stay as the bike stalls, firmly and painfully stuck. I land at such an angle that I can’t reach my clutch lever to rotate the wheel backward and unstick them, so I lie there with my face in the mud and scream blue murder until some horrified spectators rescue me. But my toes aren’t broken, I discover, standing up, although the end of the boot has temporarily collapsed. 10 points for Fly Racing.

No, I didn’t break any toes in these until about a month ago. It was a boring freak accident—I flipped the bike over backwards at the top of a steep, rocky hill and the handlebar came down BANG like a hammer on my left middle toe. It turned purple—the whole thing. That was a good sign that the boots were nearing the end of their usefulness—there’s only so many times you can fully invert the toe box before it starts to lose its rigidity. Although, on that note, maybe the problem is my riding, not the boots. Greg’s friend Chris has had the same boots forever and the toes of his are fine—but then, his have griffins and lightning bolts and shit on them and mine don’t, so his may be running on PFM technology at this point (that’s Pure Effing Magic, for those who haven’t asked a computer science major how the internet works recently).

In addition to the compromised toe boxes, the boots are each missing a strap and massively split in the ankle, and one of them is missing one-third of its metal toe reinforcement (God knows how that happened). Folks, I think their condition is terminal. Alas, since I somehow have to pay for classes next semester, I will be forced to reanimate their remains with duct tape and continue wearing them until they decompose completely or Santa's elves team up with Alpinestars and make me new ones (not likely). On that note, recommendations for good cheap boots are welcome—griffins and lightning bolts preferred.