October 11, 2020
Four tests into the Bob Reese Memorial enduro, the reality of an old
man’s physical limits came into sharp focus, beside a large log fallen
across a narrow, off-camber trail in the woods of Western Illinois. I
had made it to the other side of the log, but the motorcycle was only
50% there. As I stepped off the bike, the primary bones of my right
leg attempted to free themselves from the confines of my knee joint.
This should not have been entirely unexpected, but was certainly a
painful surprise. At that point, I decided my race was over.
Rewind two hours earlier, and I could not have been more excited to
begin the Geneseo enduro. The race was my fifth in the past two
months, a pace which took me back to my pre-family days. After a
shaky start, the Beta was performing most excellently and my
physical stamina was much improved. The previous day’s dual sport
ride had cleaned out the trail junk and I was ready for a great Sunday.
Fifty-five seconds into the race, as I jumped over the bank of a small
stream and extended my right leg for balance, my foot hit the ground
with my knee locked straight. Pain shot up my leg as if I’d contacted a
fully electrified fence with bare, wet feet. For a moment I considered
pulling off the trail; then stubbornness pushed me to ride it out.
This first test section, when viewed from above, would not appear to
have much use for an enduro race. A satellite map reveals mostly
farm fields surrounded by a few narrow bands of timber. The green
spots are thin but deceptive. In this part of the Midwest, these are
often areas left over from past cattle grazing, and in the decades
since, were filled in by thick brush and smallish trees. Here, the
woods need not be vast. Trails can zigzag closely together without
riders ever knowing. And even if one were to discover another
motorcycle visible across the woods, they would need some luck to
plow through the logs and vines in between.
After my knee injury, this section was a fortunate one to assess the
pain and continue riding. The entire length of the test was only 3
miles, but narrow and tight enough that I rarely upshifted beyond 2nd
gear. Slower speeds were ideal for sitting, of which I did plenty. For
much of the test, row-mate Will McNabb would video my progress
as I plodded to the end of the section. I had barely averaged 14 mph.
Section 2 was a complete opposite of the first test, with high speed
trails running through the bottoms of the Green River. It was familiar
terrain. In years past I had raced hare scrambles on this property and
remembered warnings not to miss certain turns, or else take a swim in
the river. For most, the test would be a stand-up affair; for me, I
planted myself on the seat as much as possible. Twelve minutes in
the bottomland timbers passed quickly, and I arrived at the end
checkpoint. Thus far the course had been flat, but we now were
heading north to terrain which would determine champions.
The following two tests were placed within the crown jewel of the
many private properties linked together for this race. The start of the
test was littered with large logs, strategically placed in certain areas
where spectators could be entertained. The first 200 yards of the test
were cordoned off with yellow tape, directing riders to pass over a half-
dozen logs with sawmill-standard diameters and lengths. I arrived
early enough to witness a variety of log-hopping skillsets from other
riders and plenty of time to think about the embarrassment of
screwing up in front of the crowd gathered for amusement. Most
riders simply popped the clutch at the right moment, lofted their front
wheels just high enough to clear the tops of the logs, and then let
inertia do the rest. Occasionally a rider would fail this strategy by
mistiming the clutch work or ramming the front wheel straight into the
log, as if certain laws of physics could be disregarded for a
motorcycle race. One highly skilled (or highly lucky) rider treated a 2-
foot-diameter log as a jump, much like a capable EnduroCross racer.
I wished I had learned that technique at a time in my life when bones
healed more quickly.
Eventually my turn came and I gave the crowd nothing to enjoy,
clearing all the obstacles with only a minor foot-dab to help the bike
over the largest log. From there, I dropped into the depths of this
large, rough property for more than an hour, spread over two tests.
On the route sheet, the tests seemed mild, with neither more than 5.5
miles in length. While the fast, flowing Test 2 was a quick twelve
minutes, tests 3 and 4 would take nearly twice as long. These woods
were productive to humans for little more than hunting and dirt biking,
with endless ravines, thick brush, and side-hill trails. Third gear came
in brief instants, between long stretches of twisty, old-school enduro
trails. I silently thanked the previous day’s dual sporters for
cultivating the dirt, and myself for choosing row 30. The trails were a
bit choppy but as readable as could be.
Those unfamiliar with the style of this terrain might step into it the
same way a hiker gives in to an urge of walking off an established
route toward a path only traveled by hooved animals. Suddenly the
line of sight shortens, the woods draw closer, and the hiker realizes
this is a place humans rarely visit by choice. Such is enduro racing in
Illinois. In these trails, reaction times can be the difference between
clearing a difficult obstacle and dragging the bike out of a mud hole.
Several minutes into the 3rd test came just such an obstacle, a gully
which appeared around a blind corner. To the right was a rider stuck
in the bottom, his body language communicating all I needed to
know. Straight ahead was a clear path over the gully, but the only
way to avoid the same fate as the rider on the right was to launch the
bike over the top. My choice had to be made in the approximate
amount of time it takes to read the first 4 words of this sentence.
I launched the bike.
Then came the pain. While the bike sailed effortlessly over the gully,
my tweaked knee did not agree with the impact of the landing. Once
again, I struggled to regain my pace, hoping the discomfort would
subside quickly. Several miles later, the test ended and I prepared to
relax, but the race promoters had a different plan. Normally, transfer
sections between enduro tests are light trails or country backroads.
This section began harmlessly with grassy field lanes, then suddenly
converged into a mess of large, fallen trees. With the help of some
sort of excavation machine, three trees had been intentionally pushed
across the grassy lane, for no obvious purpose other than to please a
crowd of spectators. On the left was a berm of thick muck bordering a
pond; to the right was a cornfield. As I sized up the muddy berm, a
helpful onlooker warned it as an unfortunate choice, and I should
stick to log-hopping.
With that advice, I paused to evaluate a pair of riders struggling
through every inch of the log gauntlet. Their efforts were exhausting.
Then came a youngster on a Yamaha YZ85. I thought of the many
logs this poor guy would already have crossed, and the countless
more in his future. The diameter of the first log in this grassy lane was
about the same as the front wheel of the YZ85. When the young man
launched the small bike over the log, spectators jumped in to assist.
He bike was mostly carried through the gauntlet.
I wished for the same treatment, but knowing it would probably not be
offered to a full-grown man, I decided my time was now. With little
fanfare, I cleared the logs and rested at the checkpoint for Test 4. Will
McNabb showed off his newly torn body armor and flesh wound,
which reminded me of Jeff Snedecor’s injuries during the prior day’s
dual sport. These woods, as dry and perfect as could be, had a way
of reaching out to the riders.
I sprawled out on the grass ahead of the Test 4 checkpoint, stretching
my knee as far as the pain would allow, with a clear view of the timing
clock. My enthusiasm for racing had leveled off from its high point two
hours earlier. Halfway into the race, I was ready to be done but too
stubborn to quit. This temperament, in earlier years, had sometimes
produced surprising results. Today, the mental push to finish would
only be as good as my old bones and ligaments allowed. Deep inside
the fourth test, I discovered those limits.
On an off-camber trail, a bottleneck appeared in front of a large log
blocking the trail. Two riders took turns bungling their attempts to
cross the obstacle. Thick underbrush covering the side hill offered no
alternatives than to force bikes straight over the log. And force,
generous and unrestrained, was one rider’s plan as he rammed his
front wheel into the log, again and again, apparently hoping the
wheel would split open two feet of wood. He finally decided to pop the
clutch and wheelie across the log, resulting in a predictable fall. After
the rider pulled his rear wheel over the log, I took my turn. The setup
was just fine, with a small hump in the dirt providing a bit of lift as I
launched the bike, but momentum failed me and I too found myself
only halfway across the log. I let the bike fall on its side, engine still
running. As I stepped off the bike, my right knee ligaments failed to
do their job and I could feel bones moving in inappropriate directions.
My cry of pain was smothered by the clattering of rear tire knobs
spinning against a radiator shroud of the bike behind me. I didn't
really want to kill the engine, so the ratcheting noise continued until I
could drag the rear wheel across the log.
From there, I was resigned to bow out at the next checkpoint, in
hopes of avoiding reconstructive knee surgery. I met up with Will
McNabb near the start of the fifth test and we said our goodbyes. My
final challenge was navigating back to the staging area. Illinois terrain
is most helpful in these situations, its flatness ideal for country roads
laid out on grids. I knew I was a few miles northwest of where I began,
so I let the roads guide me back to my pickup truck. The staging area
was eerily quiet, as most riders were miles away. I loaded up,
carefully, and pondered the damage to my knee. Fortunately, I’d be
just as fine as the Bob Reese Memorial, a true old-school enduro.