By Victor Wanchena
There are some lessons I’ve learned the hard way. The fact that I’m not fast on a motocross track is one of them. This is the story of how I learned that lesson. What follows is a brief recounting of my attempt at motocross racing.
Early last fall I rolled a brand new KTM 300 XC-W into my garage. It’s a hell of a machine. Big power, lightweight, nice suspension… the list goes on. But what it isn’t is a motocross bike. The power is so big it’s a handful to control, the plush suspension bottoms on big jumps, and the gear ratios are spaced wider than the plains of Nebraska. This bike is meant for the woods and enduro races; pretty much anything but motocross.
I spent the fall trail riding the 300 anywhere I could. In November, I spent a day riding the single-track trails at a local MX park. I had gone there for the single-track, but access included open use of their MX track. It’s a large outdoor track and I tried a few laps. I was a mess, but enjoyed the jumping, bouncing, and inevitable crashing.
A couple weeks later, as the weather turned colder, I happened across a listing for Cedar Lake Arena (see sidebar). They offered open practice on weekends on an indoor MX track. It sounded like a perfect way to stay fit and relatively fresh on the bike over the winter.
The first time out for practice was Saturday morning. I picked up a couple friends and wandered out to the track. The practice was fairly straightforward. They lump the riders into groups of roughly similar racing classes and run each group on the track for about ten minutes at a time.
After gearing up we settled in to wait for our turn out on the track. We were not sure what to expect as we watched the faster riders ahead of us. Huh, they’re pretty fast. Wow, those guys are clearing the triples. Quickly enough we were ushered out on to the track and I found myself in the air. Jump after jump; big ones, little ones, smooth landings, rough landings… I found them all.
The 10 minutes seemed like an eternity. Finally the flag for the end of our session came out. I wobbled into the pits absolutely exhausted. I compared notes with my riding partners. The general consensus was we suck at this. The reality was we were slow, especially in our class. See the 30+ and 40+ year old classes are made up of riders you’d think should be taking it easy on the track. You’d be wrong. Instead, they are all the fast guys who’ve kept riding since their youth and apparently are just as fast, but now with the benefit of experience. In the space of 10 minutes I think the same riders lapped me twice. So after a few practice sessions and despite the reality that I’m slow and people don’t start riding motocross in their 40’s, I decided I’m ready to try my first MX race.
The day of the first race arrived. I was apprehensive to say the least. I got settled in the pits and geared up. I looked around at the other riders, serious machines and serious looking riders. The pits were packed and everyone had full MX gear on including neck braces, and they were focused. I, on the other hand, still had to remove my mirrors and license plate.
We were given a five lap practice session. It went well enough and the bike felt fine. There was a brief rider meeting a little before noon and the race order was announced. Crap, my class, the Senior 40+, was the 22nd race of the afternoon. I settled in to watch the other races. The races went off pretty quickly and I lined up within a couple hours.
I found myself on the line in gate #4, a decent starting spot. The tension built as the 30-second board came down, and like that the gate dropped. My body seemed frozen for what felt like a year, but I snapped out of it and gave the 300 hell. I launched off the line and right into a huge wheelie. I chopped the throttle and regained some small semblance of control. By the time I hit the first jump the pack was well ahead of me and I settled into the rhythm of 5 minutes of racing.
I was slow and there was no way around it. By the last lap I had been lapped and wiped out in one corner. No damage to the bike, or me, and despite my finish I actually enjoyed it.
The second moto came a couple hours later. I lined up determined to do better this time. I went over all the fundamentals I needed to remember. Eyes up, elbows up, ride on the balls of your feet. The gate dropped and this time I actually launched okay. The guy next to me caught his gate and for a few brief moments I was in 2nd to last place. It didn’t last long as all the fundamentals I was reviewing at the start line evaporated from my head. The race was over before I knew it. I had been lapped again, but at least I didn’t crash.
I practiced really hard before the second race of the season. I spent a full day on the track during a practice session. I learned the track better, trimmed my lap times and arrived ready to take it on.
The day before race day I get an ominous email from a friend. “Check out the new track layout.” What? New layout? Crap! I arrived early on race day and immediately headed out to look at the new track. It was heavily modified. I walked it once the prep crew had cleared the track. It was tighter, which hypothetically should work in my favor, but jumps and corners were less forgiving.
The first moto came fast. The Senior 40+ class was slotted as the second moto of the day. The track was still loose from the track prep and I wasn’t sure what to expect. As the gate dropped I actually got a decent start. The guy next to me caught his gate and I actually was ahead of two people going into the first turn. That quickly changed and even the guy with the bad start caught me. I kept at it and felt okay, but ended up lapped by half the field by the time the checkered flag dropped.
I lined up for the second moto determined to do better. Focus on the fundamentals, maybe don’t get lapped, or at least race someone for a lap or two. The start goes well for me, but a couple guys on the outside pile into one another and go down. Here’s my big chance. I pour on the coals. Or so I think. One lap later the downed riders come blasting past me. Crap, there goes that chance. I keep it together and hold on to last place again despite my best efforts to give it away.
February rolled around and so did the third race of the series. Despite a good practice session, I wasn’t getting any faster. At least not enough to keep the fastest riders from lapping me, and arrived that morning with a pretty decent cold.
A walk of the track revealed a couple subtle changes. Some slight changes had been made and they seemed to remove a couple slow spots for me. Practice went all right and the track was a little slick and loose and I was stiff and wooden. I tried to note where I could best stay out of everyone else’s way and still maintain some momentum.
The Senior 40+ class was big enough that they split us into two races. I was slotted in the second and mid way down the gates. The start was less hectic because the split class race meant the first corner was way less crowded. Nevertheless, I was in last by the end of the first straight. I was actually feeling pretty good by the third corner. Not fast mind you, but not scared-out-of-mind-barely-in-control either.
Then out of the blue there’s a rider off the track. He overshot a corner and ran wide down a berm. For a few glorious moments I’m not in last place. I figure I’ll hold him off for a while and maybe even eek out a 2nd to last, but reality screams back into the picture as he passes me a half lap later. The odd thing was the entire race felt smoother. Maybe it was the cold medicine or the lack of sleep, but even when I got out of shape on a couple of jumps I recovered and rode on; no drama. I clinched another last place, but felt strangely content.
The second moto the organizers mashed both Senior divisions into one race. This moved my gate way out to the end at #17. Not ideal, but I wasn’t really gunning for the hole shot. The start was big. The gate dropped and I shot forward for a brief moment, but then felt the crush of 16 other bikes headed for the same place I was. I wisely held back for a moment and let the melee happen without me.
We all emerged from that first corner unscathed and blasted down the front straight. Another traffic jam at the second corner kept me in the pack for longer than I was used to, but by the time we hit the rhythm section I was trailing everyone again. Ironically, I felt even smoother this race. The whoops were manageable and I didn’t get lapped until the very last lap.
The final race of the season came quicker than I realized. March was upon us and I hadn’t even practiced since the last race. I felt ready, but knew the lack of practice wouldn’t help matters. The track had received a final tweak for the last race and was actually nicer than it had been all year.
The Senior 40+ class was slotted as the 9th race. The track had gotten nicely firmed up by the time we lined up. Given my stellar performance all year, I stayed lined up on the outside, not worried too much about the start.
We were off quickly and I settled into the same routine following the pack through the first corner and straight, then watching them pull away. Leaving me to race myself for a few laps until the leaders caught me. And that’s pretty much what happened. It felt less than smooth, but the track revisions made it smoother and I didn’t get lapped until the very end. Still last place, but everything felt less overwhelming. I was starting to understand how to make up time or at least why I was slow. I was coasting in corners too much, and chopping the throttle too early. I still wasn’t clearing the bigger double and triple jumps. Fear and discretion were lingering. I might not be able to do anything about it, but I guess I took comfort in knowing the reason why.
We lined up for the second moto a couple hours later. It was bittersweet knowing this was the last moto for the winter season and I had survived. I had not exactly thrived, but I did have fun. The gate dropped and we were off. I actually hung with the pack a little better this time. The second corner appeared and what? I actually passed a rider fair and square for a few brief moments. He quickly passed me back, but for those precious seconds I had actually raced and beat someone. Everything fell back into place for the final laps. I finished last again, but felt happy and surprisingly composed on the track.
The season is over and final points tallied. Out of 25 riders I finished 13th. How did I manage a mid-pack finish with my firm lock on last place? Endurance. I raced all four races beating other riders who skipped a couple races. For me competition was fun, but I wasn’t in it for glory. I spent the winter riding in the dirt. Jumping, bouncing, sliding, and roosting.
I did something I had never even considered, racing MX, and done it over a winter. As we emerge from this albeit easy winter I feel ready to hit the trails and the street. My skills are actually sharper than they were in the fall, and I’m even more physically fit. That makes it worth all the time, energy and effort.
A smarter person probably wouldn’t take up a highly demanding sport in their 40’s, but I couldn’t help myself. It really was fun. With a little more practice and a wiser bike selection I could maybe finish better than last. I can hardly call myself a racer now, but the hook is set. I will return.