Ed. Note: The following takes place between stage 7 and stage 10 of the Punk Bike Enduro in 2004. This story originally appeared in Dirt Rag 105.
Words by Joe Whitehair
We leave the beer van behind and begin the uphill slog on a rough and gritty road, wet with snow dissolved from sparse traffic and salt, certainly not from the temperature, as it is well below freezing. The sun beams down on my back and the beer on my lips tastes good; I want more. But the van is gone and I don’t know when I’ll see it again.
The mass of riders moves at a nice steady pace, racers flushing the lactic acid from their legs in preparation for the next stage and the people who are just along for the ride keeping the casual pace they’ve kept all day. I recognize landmarks from last year’s Enduro: road crossings, heavy machinery, a field we shortcut across. I forget about the next hill until it is upon us. I stand and pedal to keep my cadence up, talking with my fellow riders as we close in on the next stage—an ugly stage, as I recall from last year.
We finish our climb and roll up to the starting point for the stage. Stage 8 is a hill climb. More appropriately, a hill run, as it would be impossible to ride even if there weren’t six inches of snow on the ground. It’s steep. If I pulled out my protractor I’d expect the pitch to measure 45 degrees, although I know it’s not true. The hill is a scarred mess of ruts and roots; an obvious drainage area that sees water rip across her surface carrying bits of rock and soil in a quest for the fastest and easiest route to the bottom. The result? A steep, gnarled excuse for a trail that just happens to hide all potential obstacles underneath the fresh snow. At least the trees are visible.
As I explain the stage to Ricky and Al, I contemplate out loud if I’m going to bother racing this stage. That’s how miserable I consider running up this hill shouldering my bike. Of course, if I avoid Stage 8, I also miss Stage 9, as it’s the reverse of Stage 8. Bomb back down to the starting point where the crowd waits. Dirt Rag Brad, our gracious innkeeper from last night, hears my musings and promptly lets me know I can’t puss out on this stage as I’m “a contender.” He’s right of course. I’ve got a handful of tickets in my pockets from previous stages, points that will be added up at the end to determine the champion of this less than serious race. The beer van piloted by Maurice has arrived by now and I head over for some liquid courage courtesy of Troegs Brewing.
As we hang out, a pair of throttle-twisters shows up. Trailbreakers, they’ve been rolling out ahead of us on some of the stages cutting through the fresh snow to help make things a bit more passable for the lead riders. They head up the hill climb, having trouble as they get higher. The steepness and the snow makes things difficult until one of them guns it and loops out to the cheers of the crowd below. I told you it was steep.
We hang out long enough for me to down two cups of hoppy goodness before there’s a rustle in the crowd. Time to start the stage. A good chunk of riders lines up at the bottom of the hill forming a loose pack at the base of the trail. I hang on the outer edge. The crowd lines the street and the edge of the woods sipping their beer. At the word “Go” there is a mad scramble as racers shoulder their bikes and start up the hill, slipping and sliding. The finish is not visible from where we start. Not that it would matter since I’m focusing all of my energy right in front of me. I glance up a few times—no finish in sight. I don’t know if it’s just me, the trees, or the fact that it is still far away. Being on the outer edge at the start is paying off, I didn’t get clogged in the crowd, but my lungs are burning (too much fun last night?) and the finish still isn’t in sight. I spot someone standing in the woods and think I’m almost done, but a bit off course. No such luck, it’s a course marshall and he’s laughing at the stumbling mass of riders clawing their way up the hill. The legs start to feel it now. I’ve already worked them on earlier stages and I’m not a runner, dammit! Just then I spot Pete Weir to my right and just ahead of me. He’s swooped me on two earlier stages and grabbed first place, now he’s doing it again. This motivates me and I dig deep, maintaining my pace as the hill seems to get steeper. I spy a laminated punk hanging in a tree, pretty far off course. Somehow I’ve got enough brain cells operating to do a quick calculation. A punk is worth 10 points, equal to a first place finish. I give up chasing Pete, drop my bike on the trail and bolt for the punk. I grab it, head back for my bike, and make my way to the end of the stage to grab second place.
As I hang over my handlebars sucking wind, the rest of the racers start gathering at the finish. It’s a small area, so the early arrivals are pushed further back to make room. Ricky is beside me and sits down to shed some layers. Or so I thought. Next thing I know, he’s down to a pair of bright red Lycra shorts, his Lake winter shoes and a Camelbak. It’s 20 degrees.
Stage 9 gets ready to kick off and I’m at the back of the pack, no room to jockey for position even if I wanted to. I don’t worry about it since I’m running fully rigid and the full squish guys definitely have an advantage here. I take a look at Ricky’s red shorts and laugh as the imaginary gun goes off. It’s every man, woman and child for themselves. The fast line is down the main runoff chute, but I know better. Everyone wants that line and with a good number of riders in front of me I know I’ll be dodging bodies. Between the snow, rocks, roots and ruts, more riders are on the ground than on two wheels. I’m on the bushwhack route as I dodge as many fallen soldiers as I do trees. When you’re hauling ass on a steep, snow-covered pitch, steering is done by body English and sharp turns spell sudden death. I narrowly miss using some downed comrades as speed bumps but it all comes to a sudden end when I need to make a sweeping right at the bottom of the hill. My bike wants to go straight as I nearly take out Al, who is shooting video of the whole episode. I’m over the bars, playing in the snow, and the bike gets tangled in itself, bars locked 180 degrees from where I need them to be. I grab my steed and run the last 50 feet to Thanita and snatch a seventh place ticket.
As I turn to watch the rest of the pack finish I see body after body going down in the snow. The crowd yells. And cheers. And laughs. Ricky has arrived at the bottom in his half-naked glory; leg extended like an outrigger, negotiating the turn at the bottom, almost spilling it, but miraculously staying upright and out of the snow as the others ride their butts down in spectacular crashes. It was a classic moment in every sense of the phrase.
And to think I was going to bail on Stage 8.