SMITH OFFROAD >> New dirt bike rider tries racing hare scrambles [2008-10-19]
First Race

Brand new shiny 2009 KTM 450 XCW, zero miles, zero hours, not a spec of dirt, cosmetically perfect. That didn't last long.
I bought my first dirt bike 23 days ago, took two trail rides, practiced at the track for one day, and then raced my first Hare Scramble today at VDR in Berthoud, Colorado.

Backing up a month or two... I've been riding street bikes since college, but my CB-1 and VFR800 have been sitting in my garage for a few years. Busy with other stuff like my day job, competitive shooting, freelance writing, and starting a business, I simply didn't have time to get in the riding I used to when I first moved out to Colorado. I did the sport-touring thing for a while, but I was also kind of bored with street riding. I hated commuting due to inattentive drivers, and I seem to have to haul stuff regularly. I'd decided to sell my street bikes, but I didn't want to get out of cycles completely.

A couple of my friends had dirt bikes, and thanks to ADVrider, I was becoming aware of the trail riding available in Colorado. So I decided to buy a KTM, and after taking some advice and considering it, I ended up with a 450 XCW.

One of my coworkers, we'll call him A-, has been dirt biking since he was a kid. My talk about a dual-sport KTM put the bug in his head to get plates for his 200 EXC. A- took me on my first off-road/trail rides West of Boulder, about a week after I got the KTM. The next weekend, S-, A-, and I rode the Moody Hill / Crystal Mountain area near Masonville. These trails had increasingly technical portions, and it seemed like each day out, I'd end up accomplishing sections that were heretofore too scary to attempt. In short, A-'s strategy for mentoring me seems to be to throw me at something that looks way too hard (to me), and usually he's right that I can do it.

My buddy's strategy for mentoring me on the dirt bike was to take me on progressively "impossible" sections. This is one of the first times I got stuck and had to push up the last bit of a hill.
So I'm trying to plan a nice ride on 4x4 trails near OFR or Monument Gulch, and A- walks into my cube and says, "There's a hare scramble this weekend at VDR. I think we should race it as a team." After finishing up gaspipe and DC950's account of racing ("DC950 and Gaspipe Go Woods Racing", "DC950 Goes Woods Racing Again"), I had some idea what I was in for. Turns out, the Hare Scrambles at VDR are not technical at all; we hit more technical sections on my first weekend out than what VDR had. The H.S. was schedule for Sunday, so on Saturday afternoon, we rode the "back" sections of the track to get some familiarity with what Sunday would bring.

Riding the track brought me back mentally to the American Supercamp class I took a long time ago. The thing is, the difficulty in trail rides seems to be hard obstacles or technical uphills; however, at the track it's all about turning. On Saturday, I had some trouble with the very dry conditions (they hadn't wet this part of the track yet). I had a couple slow get-offs when my front wheel got hung up in loose sand I was wallowing instead of getting on the gas. But once, I was off-balance and in my effort to do - I don't know what - got caught on the bike as it surged forward and got punted over the right-hand side of the bars. I took a pretty good digger and it took a few seconds to take stock (no big pain, I can move without anything hurting too bad) and get re-collected. Another rider, probably practicing for Sunday as well, asked me if I was OK- I gave him the thumbs-up and took off a minute or two later. On the way back, it felt like my right-hand Asterisk knee brace had some pads out of place, so I headed back to the vehicles to figure it out. Turns out, my right knee probably hit the bars on the way over, dislodging the top pad from the Asterisk brace. Summary: the Asterisks are a bargain at $600/pair.

When the MX race was done on the South track, we headed over there to get a heads-up on that track, and then called it a day. Before leaving, we decided to ride separately on Sunday in order to get the most bang for buck. No sense in only getting one hour each for the same cost, when we could get ride the whole race and get two hours in. I went home and hit the sack early.

My first day at the track was an eye opener and really showed how much technique - and not crashing hard - matters.
Sunday morning, I rolled through the gate about 8:45, getting a good parking spot about 75 yards from the white sign-up building. When A- showed, we signed in and got our transponders. I meant to sign up in Vet-C class, but ended up in Vet-B when the day was over. Not that it mattered. My priorities were singular: to finish the race.

I plan to ride about half the time, take a pit stop for some water and to add gas, and then ride the rest. The KTM has a trip computer with a lap timer which I planned to use to keep track of the time.

Turns out, all the Vet classes start with the Pros, so I was in for maximum punishment. I'm on the first line, and there's probably 100 riders behind me. At the start, my plan was to hit the timer start button, then throw a leg over and head off for the first turn, letting most of the guys (the rest of the Vets and the Pros) go ahead. This avoided some passes, but meant I was riding into a lot of dust and roost. My first impression was that the track was in much better shape than the practice area I rode on Saturday. With enough water in the dirt, it was more tacky than loose, so traction wasn't a problem on this part of the track. Having guys get 20' of air and land next to you is kind of intimidating, but the advice I got was to go straight over jumps (which I wasn't going to jump), and to stick to my line.

With the front MX track area done, we headed over the hill and wound our way back to the back course. Here, the track was narrow, in many spots just one-bike's-width. The turns here were sweeping, decreasing radius, and some were sharp and abrupt. With the improved dirt conditions, the race for me was more about concentrating on trying to use proper cornering technique, not going too fast in the woops, and keeping a consistent line when I was about to be passed. Throughout the day, I had a few minor crashes, most due to the getting off course or getting the front wheel bogged down in the thick, loose, sandy dirt present in a few of the corners -- including the corner I biffed hard in on Saturday. Throughout the day, I finally overcame my hesitancy in this turn. Once or twice, I had a crash because of another rider. In the third set of woops on the back course, I felt and impact on my right foot-peg and boot, and eventually I went down. Later, there was some confusion about who was going where and I think I ended up going up some sand on the side of a turn, and had to get re-oriented and restarted.

I glanced at the timer from time to time; the time seemed to be flying past. I was busy with what was coming up next and riding my own pace. When I saw the time click past one hour, I pitted the next time I came around the start. I downed a bottle of Gatoraide as fast as I could, and decided against refuelling the bike. I had gone less than 30 miles (I can't remember if it was 3 or 4 laps), and I knew my tank was good for the rest of the race. When riding trails, I've been getting about 35 mpg, and I knew that there was no way I was going to hit even 70 miles on this race, which ought to have left about a half-gallon in my tank.

Rehydrated and with clear goggles, I took off. My plan was to still ride my own pace and not do anything crazy because my priority was to finish the race. The next two laps, the technique A- was trying to explain the day before actually made physical sense, and my turns were a lot more confident. Besides having more confidence, I could usually pick my line. This made it possible to plan passes on the back track where the course is tight. Every now and then, there'd be a rider about my speed. Sometimes they'd come up from behind - you can tell they're closer to your pace because you hear them for a while; and sometimes they'd come into view ahead of me and I'd approach. The thrill of the chase is infectious. The first time there was a guy in front of me I thought I could pass, he eventually went wide on a turn and I was right there, and I passed him up the hill, and gave a big "Woohoo!". This was humorously short-lived as I washed out on sand in two turns. A couple riders passed me as I got started again. I don't know if he was one of them or not; I didn't see him again.

My goal for the first race was singular: to finish. Here's the bike afterwards.
I knew what was going to be my last lap. At about 1:30 elapsed, I was somewhere in the middle of the lap, and by the time I got back around to the start, it was somewhere around 1:40-1:45. This was probably going to be my last lap. I figured if there was a time to go a little less conservatively, this was it, and by this time, I was much more confident in my ability and my understanding of the track. However, the track condition had degraded since the start. There were more bumps and mini-woop sections in the track, and several turns had pretty bad braking bumps. On this lap, when I heard someone behind me, I kept my line as before, but I hit the throttle and tried to keep them at bay. About half way through the back course, I was behind a slower rider, was right with him on each turn, and finally found my hole and blasted past, on the way down to the oval track section. Doing a series of things right and ending with a good pass is what it's about: Woohoo!

Past the oval section somewhere, there was shallow turn and then a bumpy and loose uphill straight. I heard another rider behind me, and felt him on my side. We both had sort of a surprise moment when we were both "right there" and both leaning away from each other to avoid contact. As he passed, he looked back - I think to make sure I wasn't crashing - he gave a wave, I did back, and he took off. There's a

Packing up my trailer and gear has become a standard drill.
table-top just as the track starts to reach back around to the start/end gate. At this point, I knew it was almost over, and my trip timer said I was at like 1:59:35. In other words, I was just about exactly at 2 hours. As I rolled up steep hill, down and over the drainage pipe, around the chicane, and over the scoring speed bump, I got the checkered flag waved, nodded to the guy, and proceeded down the hill, giving a final "WOO!" as I went down the loose hill. I was done. My odometer read 43.9 miles, and I did six laps in almost exactly 2 hours even.

Summary: finished my first race, didn't come in last, had a lot of fun, not sure if I'll be able to walk or move my arms tomorrow...

'09 KTM 450 XCW
Ohlins SD MX 2.0 steering damper
Fastway handguards
more or less stock suspension settings
Sidi Crossfire SRS boots
Asterisk knee braces/guards
Thor chest protector
Arai VX PRO 3
Scott 87 OTG w/ tearoffs
Klim Dakar pants, Mojave jersey
Fox mtn biking gloves

VDR issues stick-on labels with temporary racer numbers.
Second Race
Turns out they had to drop the first lap due to a scoring problem during the October race, so I really did 7 laps and each lap is actually about 6.25 miles in length.

For the November race, I kept basically the identical gear and strategy-- with a few minor changes. I changed to some Klim gloves from the mtn bike gloves I used in the first race. The four-stroke gets good gas mileage, still above 30 mpg even at my slow race pace. With a 2.4 gallon tank, there was no way I was going to run out of gas.

Running the race straight through without a gas stop would same some time but I needed water so I added a camel back. A couple weeks before the November race, I headed to the track for a practice day with a couple friends. They are all much faster than I am, but I get useful tips from time to time. Most of this practice was on the MX track, not the full Hare Scramble course. During this practice, I got a lot more comfortable hitting the jumps, but I still don't clear the table tops and I don't attempt to clear doubles. I also mostly rolled the woop sections. After some changes during track practice, I went back to basically my original nominal "stock" settings, since they seem to work OK for me with few surprises.

On race day, the weather started off cold, in the 40's. I knew I couldn't run the race in a jacket, but it was hard to get warmed up. Typical to Rocky Mountain weather, it was warm when the sun was out and chilly when clouds rolled through. As race time approached, I settled on just a poly t-shirt under my jersey. Getting ready to start, my biggest problem was keeping my goggles from fogging up in the cool air. Once moving, I knew it wouldn't be a problem, but I just tried to not breath very much until we were about to start.

The first race, I meant to sign up in Vet-C, but ended up in Vet-B.

13 35 6 11:53.5 1:33 ZAK SMITH 121:36:00 16:29 15:53 21:23 15:39 15:44 
At VDR, the Vets start with the Pros in the first line, and this was not the right place for me. It meant I got maximum punishment as virtually every racer in the Hare Scramble would pass me (it being my first race) and that I had started a couple minutes before the racers who were my speed-- so I spent most of the race "alone" after a huge number of passes my first lap.

For November, I raced Novice, the third of four lines, roughly one minute after the Pro/Vet line. More of these racers were my speed, and I even got to avoid the huge first-turn pile-up.

Although I got to mix it up, the first few laps were torture. I just wasn't into it. Maybe I should have warmed up more, but I definitely wasn't into it. After about three laps, I got into the groove, got amped up a little bit, and things started to feel better. By this point, I would creep up on slower racers from time to time and get to pass them. Once - I'm not ashamed to admit - a girl passed me and I stuck with her for a lap and a half looking for the opportunity to pass. When she stalled her bike just in front of the scoring gate, I rolled past and it was kind of an anticlimax. I passed one dude at least twice. On one lap, I needed to pass someone and the most convenient way to do it was on one of the most mild woop sections. I stayed on the gas and floated the front wheel over. Boy that felt good. I started to hit the woops a little more aggressively, but the long strings of woops and the big ones I still rolled over-- I didn't want to crash.

Although I had a clean race and didn't crash once (as compared to the first in which I crashed about a half-dozen times), I saw a lot more riders standing in the middle of the track with their bikes, off the track, and some bikes left on the side off the track. One guy passed me authoritatively, but when he was about 10 yards in front, I saw his back tire stop and it skidded all the way until he stopped. I don't know what happened, but I remember seeing a bike parked off the track somewhere near there later in the race.

I managed to screw up the operation of my lap timer, so I didn't know how much time had passed, and I didn't know how many laps I'd done. But the guy at the scoring gate let us know when we had 2 laps to go, and then 1 lap. I knew I was running laps just under 15 minutes, so I ought to start my last lap just before the two hours elapsed, after finishing 8 laps. I rolled in at 1:29:42 pm after finishing 9 laps.

Upon seeing the results, I was pretty happy to learn that I'd improved my average lap time by well over a minute (not counting my October "pit" of 5 minutes), kept the average lap time under 15 minutes. (My best lap was 14:44 and my worst was 15:09.) I was also surprised to see that I'd done two more laps than in October. That put me at 28th out of 44 racers in Novice. (The fastest racer in Novice did about 12 minute laps.)

028 25 9 13:29:42.23 01:44 ZAK SMITH 138:13 14:49 15:02 14:47 14:55 15:01 15:07 15:09 14:44

The biggest areas I can work on for speed is consistency and learning to maintain speed and floating the woops instead of rolling them. Unfortunately, I have to miss the December race - I'll be at the Fort Benning 3-Gun Match on the other side of the country, but I'm looking forward to my next race which should be in January.