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?

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