A Glorious Mess

A day on your dirt bike trumps EVERYTHING, no matter what.

By Frank Visone

By Frank Visone

We all have those days where we just know that getting out of bed will be a bad idea, but we get up and do it anyway. As I sit here on a Wednesday, three days after the Sahara Sands mudfest, and the aches and pains are just reaching their peak, I’m wondering if I made the wrong choice that day.

By now everyone in the ECEA zone knows what a nightmare the weather brought us this past Sunday.  Those of us brave (or stupid) enough to stick it out got a lot more than we bargained for. Riding in inclement weather is just par for the course when you throw a leg over a dirt scooter. Ask Lisa Sipko Soudas, who stated on the ECEA Hare Scrambles series Facebook page Saturday, “For all the people asking!! WE DO NOT CANCEL BECAUSE OF RAIN!!! So put on your big boy riding pants and come racing!!!!” Thanks, Lisa. Be prepared for a hefty amount of washing machine repair bills coming your way. Those big-boy pants got three times bigger with all the water and wet sand they soaked up.

By the time the 1:00 PM start time came, it had been a morning full of constant rain, mixed with doses of extreme downpour. The morning classes had their share of fun in the muck, and us in the afternoon would get to jump right in on an already abused and rutted up course; a course that was not prepared for the next wave of pounding it was about to receive.

The view from the rainy the starting line. Photo credit: Frank Visone (GoPro still image).

When I pulled up to the Vet B start line I was alone. I wasn’t particularly early by any means, and it was still only me for quite some time as we wound down to the 1-minute warning. I had my GoPro on, so as I panned left and right at the empty line on either side of me, I jokingly quipped something to the effect of “guess I have a pretty good shot at winning this class today.”

Then they came.

It was only 5 other guys who chose to stick it out and race in my class, but if you read my previous article, you know already. It only takes five to finish ahead of me to be dead last in class. Next time, my lips are sealed; no more dopey jokes for the benefit of some funny GoPro footage. Jerk.

"As the flag drops for the start of each line in front of me, I get more and more worked up, until my line takes off. At that point, I’m like a rabid dog that gets its chain cut loose and can now freely chase that wild goose running across the yard."

For me, the race itself was awesome for the first 200 feet or so. I got a great start (for me), in second place diving into the first turn. I was dicing for 2nd/3rd for the next couple corners in the open front spectator section, and then when we hit the woods things just fell apart.

It took me these past couple days to realize what my most critical mistake is when I go race one of these events. When you get past the obvious fact that I’m middle-aged and coming off the couch with no training or fitness whatsoever, the rest of the reality became glaringly clear.

Basically, I have zero control over myself in the first ten or fifteen minutes of these races. As the flag drops for the start of each line in front of me, I get more and more worked up, until my line takes off. At that point, I’m like a rabid dog that gets its chain cut loose and can now freely chase that wild goose running across the yard.

The author (#506 Yamaha) not long after the start. Photo credit: Shannon Bloom Photography.

What’s so bad about that, you might ask?  Well, considering I haven’t been to a gym in four years, I’ve barely ridden in the last three, and I’m suddenly thrust into total compete-mode, I’d say pretty much everything.  Racing full-out in a hare scrambles is about as stressful as it gets. And when your body isn’t in good shape, the wheels fall off the bus rather quickly.

It wasn’t long before I felt my arms start to burn as if they were dipped in acid. It was tough to hang on to the bars. I was out of breath. If I had slowed down a bit and maintained more control from the start, I might have fared better in the long run, but somewhere I lost the ability to focus on anything other than what was actually directly in front of me. So I soldiered on. And when we hit the really nasty stuff, well, those wheels that just fell off rolled right by me.

Being in south Jersey, it’s inevitable—you’re going to be riding in sand. So when it rains, naturally the thought is that you’ll get some absorption and good drainage and the course won’t be so bad. I’m here as a witness to the contrary. What we encountered in those woods was some sort of a mixture of sand, clay and talcum powder. It ripped your feet off your foot pegs and pulled you in up to your ankles at every turn.

The ruts that developed in the woods were the stuff you only see on the interwebs in those extreme event videos. Every time I encountered another rider on the trail, we just looked at each other with a “WTF???” stare and wondered why this race hadn’t been called.

The first of several water crossing. Photo: Frank Visone (GoPro still image).

My boots each had retained enough water inside them that, with the extra weight they brought, I was working twice as hard as I should have to lift my feet back up onto the pegs after each nasty section I’d just navigated. And I was constantly dabbing my feet down to keep from slipping into a tree, so my feet were in a steady state of dangle and disarray.

By the time I made it out of the woods and into the back section of the course, which was a wide open field/grass track layout, my arms felt good and I was feeling a lot better about my ability to push it hard for the rest of the first lap. Admittedly, I did question my resolve to continue on for another two laps, but I hadn’t even hit the finish line yet so I really wasn’t dwelling on it. I started to go a little faster, and I’d use some of the faster guys that passed me to pull me along with them as long as I could hang on.

"When I was going faster, my mind relaxed and I found myself thinking about things completely unrelated to the task at hand. What am I going to do about the brakes on my Suburban? Will I be home in time to make dinner? ...."

..I don’t know what it is, and if this happens to anyone else but me, but I noticed that quite often when I started feeling more comfortable, I’d start going faster. (That’s a given for anyone, of course—and not what I’m curious about here….) When I was going faster, my mind relaxed and I found myself thinking about things completely unrelated to the task at hand. What am I going to do about the brakes on my Suburban? Will I be home in time to make dinner? When will I have time to go grocery shopping? And other inane drivel that has no place at the forefront of your brain when sloshing around through the gorp in the middle of a race.

As soon as I became conscious of the fact that I was mentally drifting, I snapped out of it and returned to reality, and rather quickly became conscious of how fast I was going. Tie this in with a sudden and abrupt front wheel push, and the pucker-factor amps up to ten, with the rev meter dropping to about two.

So, I continued to fight the track, and myself, for the remainder of the 13-mile loop. When I made it to the finish line to complete lap one, I got the white flag. Already??? THANK GOD. All I had to do was make it through that shit one more time. I got this.

Mired in muck. Photo: Frank Visone (GoPro still image).

I fumbled my way through the finish line section and made my way back out through the spectator area, riding fairly well for myself. At this point, the track was gone. What was once a wet mess that resembled a race course was now a conglomeration of giant puddles hiding who knows how many ruts beneath its murky surface. Connecting these puddles were the visible ruts and rutted turns, made of clay and slop and slime, so there was nothing you could do but maintain momentum and hope you stayed in the rut.

Entering the woods the second time around, my heart sank. The ruts were deeper than the bottom of my frame in much of the next couple miles. I started to get a good sense of what the Blackwater 100 was like, and for the first time in my life, I no longer felt sad that I never got to compete in that event.

I got stuck more times than I can remember. The rear brake pedal bolt got sheared off and I no longer had rear brakes. And I was running out of usable energy. My legs were so tired at this point it was nearly impossible to lift them up into the pegs in order to get through a nasty section standing up, so I spent a lot more time sitting than I wanted to. Finally, after getting bogged down again in a puddle/deep rut, a sweep rider caught me and pulled me out.  He gave me the option of cutting the course and taking the main road back to the start area, or finishing the race. I told him I wanted to finish.

So he said to follow him. I kicked the bike over and had to pin it to get over a tree root that was hidden under the surface of the puddle I was still in, and the engine died. After some time kicking it over, and him kicking it too, I pulled the gas cap off and saw that I was out of gas.

What an ass! In my head, I’m thinking that, because I got the white flag after only one lap, I wouldn’t need to worry about gas. Plus, I have a 2.5-gallon tank, which should be more than enough. Guess not!

High-speed gorp swapping. Photo: Frank Visone (GoPro still image).

I managed to push the bike to an open area with the help of a course marshal who was positioned close to where I was stranded. There was a truck parked just up the road that would bring me back to the pits.  So I gave in to my dumb luck and waited for my turn to get towed to the waiting truck.

As luck would have it, when I got there, another rider was there as well. When I told them I had run out of gas, that rider offered his to me. We filled a water bottle up a couple times with his gas and poured it into my tank, and then my bike fired up with one kick. They pointed me back to where I could get back on course and get to the finish line, so I was off.

While I technically didn’t complete the entire race due to my fuel problem, I did make it back onto the course and eventually cross the checkered flag to officially finish the event. I was stoked for not giving up. This event was supposed to be two hours long, the course was 13.2 miles, and on a day with good weather, the top guys would most likely do 5 laps. At the start they told us, due to the weather, it was cut down to three laps. As I mentioned above, I got the white flag after one lap. My official time for the two-lap event was 3:00:25.

"Whoever came up with the idea that a mud bath was good for the skin never rode a mudder like this one. I’m raw in places I’d rather not discuss."

That’s something to build upon, right? My first race back was a DNF. This time, I was NOT in last place and didn’t DNF, thanks to some much-appreciated help from the course workers and a generous competitor.

Of course, I think I might need to check the timing of my return to racing. Everyone tells me Moonshine was not the best “first enduro” for someone in my position… and this one, Sahara Sands, a race I’d done before and not altogether horribly either, was the gnarliest mudfest I’d ever encountered. I sure can pick ‘em!

But who cares, right? I mean, come on, I’m not making a living riding my motorcycle—this is just for fun.  2018 isn’t going to be a breakout year for me, so why stress? And although as I write this I’m nursing a scorching case of monkey-butt (be careful what you wish for, right?), I still had an amazing time and I’d do it all over again. My hat is off to everyone who rode this race, from the guys who blitzed by me and made it look way easier than it was, to the guys who had to DNF, but gutted it out as long as they could.

So, to answer my own query from the start of this story—no, I don’t regret getting out of bed that morning. Not. One. Bit.

Here are some parting observations from Sahara Mudflats:

  • Wet sand sucks.
  • Much to my chagrin, I really am old and slow.
  • In fact, I’m afraid I was never actually as fast as I thought I was.
  • Youth is wasted on the young.
  • Whoever came up with the idea that a mud bath was good for the skin never rode a mudder like this one. I’m raw in places I’d rather not discuss.
  • Wet sand REALLY sucks.
  • Standing up on the pegs gives you the ability to track better and go faster, easier through the muck.
  • Your front end swapping around in the gorp at high speeds is a surefire way to put your ass right back onto the seat.
  • The ECEA puts on an incredible event, rain or shine.

It goes without saying: A day on your dirt bike trumps EVERYTHING, no matter what.