1. Winter in Iowa and nothing to do.
While sitting around in December bemoaning the end of the riding season here in Iowa and surfing the internet without any particular direction, we came across the Arizona Trail Riders’ website. Noticed that it was the club that sponsored the AMA Desert Mountain National Enduro and, more importantly the 2005 model was scheduled for February 27th – a mere 2.5 months away. And, unlike Keithsburg, it was almost certain to be warm(er). A quick round of emails between Gary Barber, Ed Stoll and myself confirmed, much to our mutual surprise, that all were more than interested.
A quick look at the map indicated a short 24 hour trip to, and from, the Wickenburg, Arizona location. We ultimately decided that we’d depart Iowa in my RV on the Tuesday evening prior to the race and head to cactusland. The only remaining element was the obvious need for a crewchief/nightdriver/kitchen-b*#@h. That bill was quickly filled by my brother in law, John Wagner – the always reliable current owner of my trusty old XR. If nothing else, the XR always made for good stories. Notwithstanding having fathered some 4 children ranging in ages from 3 to 12, his loving wife was good enough to loan him out to us for the trip. And, as far as that goes, all of our wives, Shari Barber, Leisha Stoll and Lois Neu need to be thanked for their support as well
Our thirsty accommodations
The next impediment involved our lack of trailer. Gary’s recent sale of his enclosed trailer left us with no transport options. Enter Tom and Terri Farris. Tom had planned to race the National, but didn’t desire to plant his butt in a car (or worse a C-Class RV) for 24 hours. He loaned us an obnoxiously large 16 foot double axle trailer done up in Honda colors, for no good reason that we could determine, in return for transporting his 450EXC. He and his wife Terri would jet in earlier and meet us at the staging area.
2. Roswell, New Mexico
By the time of departure, Ed made contact with a multi-brand bike dealer in Roswell, New Mexico that sold him on riding in the Haystack Mountain OHV park located in that area. By noon on Wednesday, we were wheels down on the ground in alienville. After driving through the night it was something of a slow start, but the Haystack OHV park provided vast quantities of entertainment. The place is full of soft, sandy washes and rocky single track edging around the various rock escarpments in the park.
The only injury was to my EXC’s front tire that picked up a number of cactus thorns. I then spent the next three hours expertly removing and fixing the flattened skin in true ISDE fashion in our own Parke Ferme. Gary also managed to lose the oil cap on his new 200EXC after a mere hour or two of riding. He noticed this after I tumbled into a ravine - luck for him. Fortunately we were able to use Tom’s 450 as a parts bike. There was some initial discussion about telling Tom his cap was the one missing, but we all thought better of it later.
Gary making trail.
The only real surprise in New Mexico was the nasty cold temperatures and rain. This was the desert, right? Temps hovered in the 40s and a fine mist permeated the air. But we were riding dirt bikes in February, so who really cared about such minor inconveniences.
After riding half of Thursday at Haystack, we headed into Roswell to meet Ed’s Internet buddy, Jimmy, at his store, Champion Motorsports. Nice place if you get a chance to stop there – all four Japanese brands and Harley Davidson plus the guaranteed lowest price on tires in the area. The latter being a real plus as the terrain devoured rear tires on a daily basis. The tire choice in the area (and Arizona) seems to be soft terrain front tire (Michelin S-12s work well) and a Maxxis IT rear. Jimmy allowed us to top off our water tank and directed across the street to a poo-dump station. After that we were again on our way for the remaining 10 hours to Phoenix.
3. Off to Phoenix (pronounced Pa-hone-ix)
Can you say corned beef hash and grits?
We arrived at the Flying J south of Phoenix at about 2:00 a.m. where we parked in the RV section with all the other cheapskates. One problem with these inexpensive digs (and the similar Wal-Mart RV accommodations) would certainly have to be the rather intense security lights overhead. It’s like trying to sleep laid out in an aisle of a Hy-Vee. But it beat the hell out of sleeping in the back of moving RV on the gravel roads that pass for interstate in Missouri.
After hitting the trucker special buffet, which managed to be both filling and revolting at the same time, we were again rolling at about 7:30 a.m. One of Ed’s high school chums, Phil Schaefer, now owns an outfit called “Crank Works” in Phoenix which custom manufactures crankshafts and related items, so we decided to check in on him on the way. He gave us one of the most important pieces of information required for riding in the Arizona desert. Hit an Osco and pick up a large comb. Apparently the desert is full of the fuzzy little teddy bear like cacti called “Choyas.” Or, more precisely, “jumping choyas.” Apparently, the vibrating approach of a dirt bike will cause them to eject fist sized furry balls of cactus onto the encroaching rider. The tiny barbed hooks prevent their easy removal. If you lack the required comb, any effort to remove these rascals simply transports them from one part of you body to another. With the comb, you can at least remove the ball. Of course the fishhook-like barbs will remain hopelessly embedded in your flesh, as demonstrated by Phil’s gnarled knuckles. Phil told us explained that some years back he’d been blasting through the desert when one of his bark busters sliced through a choya causing about 5 of these little boogers to fly up and embed on his riding buddy following too closely behind.
Hi-tech anti-Choya weaponry
4. Bartlett Reservoir – Tonto National Forest
So after a quick stop at the Osco across the way, we were en route to the Bartlett Reservoir region of the Tonto National Forest. Three words: “pure riding nirvana.” You cruise up through Cave Creek to a staging area next to the ranger station and head into the trails. The area is encircled with wider OHV trails, but is connected throughout with graceful, flowing single track.
No complaints other than John’s near death experience involving a misplaced cactus. As John rounded an uphill corner at a speed greater than experience would ordinarily allow, he center punched a large fingery cactus. Assuming it would react like a small tree in Iowa, he prepared for an over the handlebars getoff. Instead, the gnarly little bush simply exploded into quarter-sized sticker-balls which ended up all over John and down his chest protector. Out came the combs and he was quickly fixed up.
John, a relative newcomer to the sport, was good enough to demonstrate one of the core lessons of off-road riding. A rule made all the more important in the loose rocky trails of Arizona. It’s a simple fact that a dirt bike at speed is more stable than one that is barely moving. Momentum is king. And in loose terrain with large rocks, following this rule does not come easily. In John’s case, he launched the XR250 over the top of a small rocky peak and upon seeing the nasty, loose and rocky downgrade, locked up his brakes and cannonball over the handlebars. Ed, who was following too closely, went down as well. As I approached the top of the hill, I could only see the rear rubber of Ed’s RMX sticking up out of the rocky crevice. John suffered a nasty gouge to the belly, but was otherwise unscathed.
5. Coyote Classic Enduro
So after riding Wednesday afternoon, Thursday morning, and Friday afternoon, we headed to the Wickenburg area to engage in another extremely naïve endeavor. Somewhere during the planning of this little escapade, Ed discovered that an outfit called “FAST’R MC” (stands for the Fraternal Association of Single Track Riders – I’ll bet the guy who came up with that acronym is some sort of local hero for that reason alone) was setting up an Enduro known as the 1st Annual Coyote Classic to take place on Saturday. Ed thought it might be a good “warm-up” for the National on Sunday. Now, during the regular riding season, none of us would ordinarily suggest a race as practice for a race on the following day. But in our minds, softened by the long Iowa winter and lack of proper saddle time, it seemed a brilliant idea. (this is foreshadowing by the way – a mark of quality literature)
The 26th Minute (us)
Set in a qualifier format, the Coyote course included about 40 grounds miles in three sections. No time-keeping was necessary as the check-ins were all known and the speed average was far higher than any rider could maintain. After a section, you check out and ride peacefully down a sand wash to the next section where you were again started on your minute. Sort of like three mini-hare scrambles with riders going in on pre-determined minutes.
The race was an absolute hoot. It combined death defying goat trails cut into steep mountainsides, curving loamy trail through open areas, fast hill climbs, and wet sand washes. And to make us feel more at home, cow paths if you can believe it.
The race included another first for Ed and I. Not 300 yards into the race, we were blasting up a sand wash at our usual rambling pace when we came upon Gary on the ground facing the wrong direction. Apparently those new brakes grabbed a bit more quickly than Gary predicted in the wash and literally flipped his bike all the way over in a turn. Pretty cool because John was video taping us as we left the sand wash and Gary was the last one out. John figured he was probably dead. Usually we don’t get to see so much of Gary during a race. And, he then had to pass both of us. I don’t think Gary has a throttle on his KTM, just an on/off toggle switch.
In the end, the race was truly fun. It kept a nice pace and did, in fact, provide us with a nice preview of the terrain. The ultimate mistake was in believing that the National would be basically the same, only longer. (more foreshadowing)
Another quirky Arizona trait involves all of the riders loading up and bolting after the event and long before the trophies were handed out. By the time scoring was done some 3 hours after the race ended, the only people standing around waiting for trophies seemed to be us. After a brief ceremony, I got my 3rd place plaque in 200B and Gary picked up his 1st in Senior A. Ed beat me by over a minute, but unfortunately placed around 11th in Senior B. Had he entered 250B, he would have placed 2nd. Unlucky class selection to be sure.
6. The National
We then headed back to the National pits to set up camp and prep for the next day. By this time, Tom and Terri Farris had joined us. Seeing Lafferty’s big KTM hauler and other pro-supported outfits was truly impressive. Steve Hatch was there along with Matt Stavish, Richard Lafferty, John Barber, David Lykke, Wally Palmer and Brian Russell Although perhaps not well known outside of the relatively small off-road racing world, they are our heroes. And after seeing their final scores, each appeared borderline superhuman. You don’t really realize how crazy-fast these guys are until you ride the same course. Their final scores border on the impossible.
Gary cheating off the line on minute 45.
The National included about 36 ground miles for the C loop, 73.73 miles for the B loop and a remaining 17 miles or so for the A’s. And let me tell you, the Cs were the lucky ones. When you hear 73 ground miles at an Iowa or Illinois Enduro, you always know that anywhere from 10 to 20 plus miles will be sweet and relaxing country roads. Not in Arizona. You were on the course fighting for your life the entire time. And with only 14 or so reset miles for the entire B/C loop, including the gas stop/lunch break, there was precious little room for error.
Not eight miles into the ride, we encountered the first hill climb. Didn’t seem to bad from the bottom, but there were several riders scattered up the hill in the good line, of course. The club stationed crew on most of the hill and were all busily helping riders up and down the hill, depending upon where their respective bikes came to rest. Remembering that momentum thing, I blasted up the hill only to hit a large flat rock about 4 foot high and angled. This launched me into the air. Because I failed to click down a gear, I landed at near stop and stalled the engine. A crew member tried to talk me into going back down, but I wasn’t going to have anything to do with that. No way they were getting me to go up this beast again (or so I thought) Instead, I made him help me get started again and, after using every last bit of energy, I bull-dogged the orange pig up the hill. Which would have been great if I didn’t have another 70 miles to go.
As I was floundering up the hill myself, I looked back and saw Ed turning Suzi back down the hill for another run. That was the last time I saw Ed again until the end of the race. Never saw Tom again either, but for a different reason entirely. Gary did pop up one more time at the half before disappearing into the trail ahead.
I had to ride pretty casually for the next few miles to regain control of the sumptuous breakfast prepared earlier by John. But after that, I’d have to admit that I got in a groove. I was dropping 5 to 7 minutes per check and zeroing most check-ins. The first half of the B loop definitely contained some challenging portions, but was just as formidable as it was pure fun. Some of the single track rose high into the mountains only to shoot back down into a rocky wash or loamy dry creek bed. At times you’d be blasting down these open wet creek beds in top gear railing the corners and jumping the small channel of water only to be stopped in your tracks by rocky narrow crevices that a bike could only barely fit between.
This loop also ran us down a narrow and rocky creek pass requiring riders to slow to a stop and finagle the bike through two rocks roughly the width of a KTM200EXC headpipe, left to right. I say “approximately,” because mine only popped through after I gassed it slightly. After that, a new “tick, tick, tick” accompanied me for the remainder of the race. The only thing missing from the obstacle was a laughing representative from FMF. Gary, the seasoned A rider, physically picked his bike and lifted his pipe over, sparing his stock pipe for another day. After passing through the rock obstacle, the course dropped down over more wet rocks and required a hearty right hand turn. If you didn’t get you bike situated properly, you were stuck. After seeing the bike in front of me hopelessly screw this up, I was able to go through unscathed.
At around mile 44, we hit the pits. I was pretty pumped at that point, as I knew I’d dropped only minimal points (for a B rider). I also came in only 5 minutes or so behind Gary. In Arizona, you must go dead-engine in the gas stops and push your bike. As soon as I rolled in, John started refueling the bike. He then helped push the bike out of the gas area. This was a huge help as pushing a bike at that particular time proved extremely difficult. After the gas stop, Terri was there with water, Red Bull and bananas. And, more importantly for us B riders, we were over half the way done with only 39 ground miles to go.
Gary and I left on our minute just as Ed showed up. Turned out that the new NGK spark plug that Ed installed that morning was a dud. Of course he made this determination after the RMX petered out half way up that nasty first hill mentioned previously. He changed the plug and the bike ran better than it had the entire week, but he never quite got back on our minute as the damage was already done.
7. Second Loop of Hell
The first hill out was also part of the prior day’s Coyote Enduro and previously posed no problem to me. This time, however, my rear wheel slipped down off the trial and high-sided me. This immediately caused a substantial bottleneck. Thankfully, some spectators helped me out of the way.
At some point, not sure where, we were greeted by a check crew made up entirely of extremely attractive women dressed in devil suits standing by a large sign welcoming the riders “to hell.” And hell it was.
My small misstep leading out of the pits became an accurate indicator of how the second half of the race would turn out for me. The second half seemed significantly more difficult. At times you would climb three or four treacherous single track hills covered with loose, slippery rock only to reach the top and see more of the same looping over every distant hill as far as the eye could see. And it seemed you were the only one on the course. In the wooded courses of Iowa, a rider could at least imagine that another bike was nearby. But out here on these mountain tops, you could see no riders in front of or behind you and there was nothing but the buzz of your own bike to be heard. I’m certain that these remote locations provided breathtaking vistas of the countryside below, but turning to look would have violated another cardinal rule of off-road riding; “only look where you want to go.” The corollary being “you will go where you are looking.” A bad thing given the precipitous drop on which these goat trails were situated.
At another point, I fell victim to a common Enduro rider error – following the bike in front of you instead of the course markers. Fortunately a large number of other riders did the same. I think we were all so pleased to be in an open and rolling sand wash that we assumed it would continue forever. As luck would have it, a large group of us missed a “W” and a single left arrow. This mistake was compounded by the fact that the wash followed the Coyote Classic course. Although we went a long distance without seeing a course arrow, we were clearly still on a racecourse. At the same time, bikes were meandering back up the wash the other way. Not until we had gone some 5 miles out the way did a lone course worker point out the error. For both Ed and I, this misstep cost us at least 10 minutes. Given the lack of resets and multiple 24 mph sections, the mistake compounded throughout the remainder of the course. I was running 30 minutes behind when I hit the last reset and picked up 9 minutes. Owing to the spark plug defect, missed arrow and running out of gas twice, Ed finished the course but houred out.
And I’ll be damned if the club didn’t run us down that rocky creek obstacle again. At least my pipe fit this time in its new custom bend.
By the time I was within 10 miles or so of the finish, I was completely out of energy. I just wanted it to be over and was doing everything I could do physically to keep moving. My tire also lost most of its grab by this point and getting up hills became increasingly difficult. I also started noticing that the KTM wanted to drop its rear end to the left each time I would hammer up a hill. After one long climb which completely sapped my last remaining strength, the rear wheel of the little orange beast hopped off the goat trail. I had no way of pushing it back up, so I revved it up an shoved it up the hill as hard as I could. Not real easy on the equipment, but I had little alternative. In fact, I somehow snapped off my right bark-buster bolt causing it to stick up and look like a deranged donkey.
After about 5 minutes of this, I was back on the trail. I took off again and the stinking beast bunny hopped off again. I was super ticked off at that point. I got it back up again in the same manner, but this time managed to partially dislocate my left shoulder (hadn’t done that since adding an EVS shoulder support to my gear bag). I finally got going, but found I had to steer right manually to avoid falling off again. Turned out that the ¼ ounce KTM saved by eliminated the crown nut and cotter key allowed my rear axle nut to go AWOL. Each time I gassed the bike it dog-tracked left. I thought I was done given I still faced many more rocky hills within view. I carefully dog-paddled the bike along the goat trail hoping the rear end wouldn’t come completely apart.
Tom Farris was running on the 26th minute with his Rekluse Clutch compadres. Gary, running with Ed and I on the 45th minute, didn’t expect to run into Tom. Both Gary and Tom run the AA class in District 22 (Iowa) and generally race together competitively. About five miles before the A loop separated initially from the B loop, Gary saw a rider with the familiar custom Moose chest protector emblazoned with “Farris” just ahead while climbing some nasty mountain trails. He buzzed past Farris and yelled, “lets go Tom.” Tom gassed it and caught up to Gary just as Gary went around a corner. Both got eye contact and Gary thought the race was on. After a short distance, Gary noticed that Tom was no longer behind him and feared he’d missed a course marker, so he turned back. As it turned out, Tom’s bike died just as he saw Gary the second time and he was unable to restart the bike due to a short circuit and blown fuse.
Turns out that Tom’s starter failed previously and the beast refused to start after a significant amount of flogging on the kickstarter by Tom and the Rekluse boys. The engine’s failure while racing Gary was due to faulty connections made in McGyvering the aforementioned starter.
Finally, the B course terminated on another waterfall complete with spectators. The only good thing about bystanders appearing on the course is that it generally indicates the end of the loop as these folks won’t usually wander too far from their vehicles in great numbers. The course stair-stepped down two or three rocky drops covered by rushing water. It looked far worse than it was but a bottleneck occurred anyway with riders gingerly dog-paddling their bikes through the area with the help of spectators. I was running 53 minutes behind due to my vanishing axle nut, so I had no patience whatsoever for this. With only 7 minutes remaining before I houred out, I would have to admit becoming extremely unglued on the guy ahead of me when he wouldn’t move or get out of the way. I think the spectators thought I’d slipped a cog when I just gassed it all the way through the falls bouncing off rocks and clanking into cacti. But at least I ended within an hour of my 45th minute.
What happened to my bark-buster? Also, Gary looking at my vanished axle nut.
As I came into the pits, the sight of Terri and John could not have made me happier. Ed arrived just a few minutes behind me having been additionally plagued by lack of gasoline. Somehow the 3+ gallon gas tank had inexplicably run dry twice.
8. The Final A Loop – Massacre in the Mountains
At that point, none of us even wanted to ride our bikes the short 6 mile transport section to the pit area, let alone continue to compete. Too bad for the A riders, who still had another twenty miles to go.
The A and B loops ran together into a wash culminating in the final A gas stop and B loop end. Gary came in on reserve prior to myself and Ed, refueled, and headed out into the remainder of the A course. Tom Farris had also gone AWOL at this point.
A riders were again treated to the goat trail format which predominated much of the prior course. The only difference here was the lack of cut. Previously the course trail formed a small ledge on the mountain. At this point, it did not even appear that bikes were used to make the course. The organizing clubs fearless leader, Don Hood, confirmed that bikes were used to create these trails, but that they were actually piloted by goats. Each bike was required to pass along this mountain with little or no ledge to hold it up. And the penalty for error was severe given the steep grade. Tom Farris could see no reasonable way to retrieve a motorcycle that might slip down the mountainside. And if the rider high-sided the bike towards the down slope, rather than uphill, that individual was in for a nasty tumble down the mountain with bike in tow. Gary recalled moving in 1st gear at an extremely slow pace and being more concerned than he’d ever been in his many years of racing.
One fraged Tom Farris and wife Terri.
Following this section were several back-to-back steep hills with large embedded rock. At any point, 5 to 6 A riders were pushing their bikes or leaning them out of the way. Each hill was very close to the last with little or no run-up prior.
The final section encompassed a large boulder field that battered and banged the bikes to the very end.
9. The End.
Both Gary and Tom have, during their respective careers, participated in a large number of events all over the country. Both reported, without hesitation, that this was the toughest race in which they’d ever competed. I’m just glad to know it doesn’t get worse. I was completely whipped by the end and can’t imagine heading to another National any time soon. Unlike the Coyote, you couldn’t really say this race was fun. It was challenging mentally, physically and mechanically. We’re all glad to have finished and certainly feel a real sense of accomplishment. Even knowing how it would end, I’m sure we’d all have done it again. Purely enjoyable, however, it was not.
That’s right, a podium finish.
And that’s not to run down the race or its promoters. All of the trail, save the A section perhaps, was doable and perfectly laid out. As single track goes, it was a work of art. I could have trail ridden the course off race-pace over a number of days and had a great deal of fun. But tied together as it was for 73+ miles with little opportunity to rest, it was just plain grueling.
Of the 281 riders who initially entered the event, 226 turned in cards at the end of the race. There were 71 DNFs and 21 riders houred out. In the end, 59% of those starting, also managed to finish.
As for us, Gary finished 3rd in the Senior A class out of the 5 who managed to finish and 29 who actually started. Prior to the start of the A loop, Gary dropped only 30 points with the A loop taking another 114. Thanks to the starter issues, Tom houred out, but completed the entire course.
I dropped 190 points and landed in 3rd place in 200 B with four finishing out of 7. Ed houred out at the 11th check out of 12 thanks to a spark plug, one missed turn, and lack of fuel.
Oh ya, the pros. Steve Hatch blasted to 1st place with an unbelievable 20. Minnesotan Matt Stavish took second with Mike Lafferty pulling in third, both dropping 22 points. Fellow Iowa/Illinois rider Tim Taber pulled out first place in 250A dropping only 63 points.
And, again, only a couple dozen riders remained for the awards presentation. Most impressive was Steve Hatch who remained until every last trophy was handed out and clapped for each rider named. Not only a great rider, but a really friendly and genuine guy.
I also need to mention the conditions. The riders from the area confirmed, universally, that we faced the best conditions in 15 years. The torrential rains of the past few weeks created a desert wonderland full of green grasses and colorful flowers. It also made the dry creek beds into dirt biking heaven. Ordinarily dry hills and valleys became lush tractable terrain. The temperatures, which never left the 60s, definitely improved our chances as well. We were completely lucky in this.
Would I recommend a trip to Arizona for the National? You bet. Don Hood and the club put on an impressive event that more than lived up to expectations for an AMA National Enduro.