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. 

1 comment:

  1. Well done. I sometimes have to remind myself why I'm doing this, whether it's getting on the road well before the crack of dawn, or picking myself up from a nasty high-side crash...and sometimes it takes a little longer to remember, but you're right. The people you race with make the difference.