Up, Up, And Away!
by Bryon Crandall & Tony Marx
The Indianhead Cycle Club runs a handful of hillclimb competitions every summer at its clubground behind the municipal ball field in Redwing. This year the club will also be hosting a national event on Sunday July 15th where over 50 fire-breathing, nitro and alcohol-burning bikes will race to post the best time from bottom to top. Promoter Barry Bignell invited MMM to come out to one of their open practice days and was nice enough to round up a bike for us to goof around on.
For the record, I have only ridden a dirt bike twice in my whole life. No previous experience to draw from to help me get this wild looking bike up this very intimidating looking hill. My heartbeat had been gradually increasing ever since earlier in the morning, when I found out that they were actually going to let Tony and myself loose to try and get to the top.
That was the first place that Barry took us, in a six-wheeled ATV. The hill, as I mentioned before, looks very intimidating from the bottom. It’s when you’re at the top, looking down, when the fear of looping over backwards starts creeping in. The upper part of the run has got to be around a 50-degree slope, with the second bulldozed rut/jump about halfway up. While people practicing for the next day’s race are rushing up the hill, the image of plaster casts and traction pulleys keeps coming to mind. So, after a quick tour, and a couple of horror stories, it was back to the bottom to see what we will be riding and give this thing a go.
One bumpy-ass downhill ride later we are introduced to the poor guy who agreed to lend us a bike. Dan Prede and his son Aaron greet us and ask what bike we want to ride up the hill. “Maybe a 125 or something small, since neither of us has done this before.” I suggest. “Why, what’ve you got for us?” asked Tony. Dan smiles a wicked-type grin, and points right behind Tony and me to a stretched out CR250. “A 250?” Comes from both of us. “Yep,” laughs Dan. It’s at this moment that I start regretting the morning coffees and all those beers I had the night before.
So after a five-minute test ride, and a lot of pointers from Dan and Aaron, it’s time to get in line. Naturally I insist that Tony go first. It was his idea in the first place. As Aaron is helping him at the starting line, I head halfway up to watch. Tony waits for the all clear, revs it and goes. Well, he made it three quarters of the way up before shutting it down. That’s all I will say. I wouldn’t want to embarrass him any further.
Now it’s my turn. Pushing the extended 250 through the line, I get some last minute advice from Aaron, then promptly forget it, as I am now staring up at this 300-foot hill, wondering how these guys make it look so effortless. Clutch, throttle, two trenches cut in the middle of a cliff, no problem. Blue Cross covers this sort of crap, don’t they?
The guy in the control booth gives me the nod, and I take off towards the first jump. Needless to say, the pucker factor is pretty huge at this time. Staying on the gas, I go over this first rut, which feels more like a drop-off than a jump. Then the hill steepens as you reach the second and larger trench. Actually catching some air, I instinctively closed the throttle as the rear wheel started dropping down. Big mistake. With the increasing incline, unless you’re carrying some speed, you have to fight to gain traction again. This is where the fishtailing starts, and I find myself heading towards the fence, about the same place that Tony wound up on his first run. I really didn’t feel like dragging the bike down the hill, so I put my foot down, gave it the goolies, and fought that sucker up to the top.
With no broken bones, and unsoiled underwear, I can now see why folks do these hill climbs. They are just plain fun. Not too many other venues offer you loud, stinky bikes, good people, and the expectations of bodily harm. I did say unsoiled, right?
So here I am. Sitting on a dirt bike that’s about 3 feet longer than it’s supposed to be, staring a hundred yards up a hill that I struggled to climb on foot ten minutes ago. Ten feet to my right a guy is plopping the rear tire of his bike into a 8-inch deep trench that points straight up the hill. The bike looks to have the engine and frame of a CBR900rr coupled with trick off road suspension and an extended swingarm. The 12-inch open headers blast small craters in the dirt behind the front tire as he ceremoniously revs the motor to redline twice and holds the throttle pinned on the third crescendo. Ground shaking, engine screaming, ears bleeding, he shifts the bike into second gear, bangs out the clutch and rockets up the hill, grabbing third gear after he sails over a jump near the top. All in under 6 seconds.
Having never ridden a dirt bike before, I am now thoroughly intimidated. Lacking proper off road gear, I’m completely dorked out in my new Firstgear street jacket complete with back protector, a Shoei helmet, combat boots I bought in Europe ten years ago, and a pair of leather Hallman pants that my dad used to race in before I was born. I look to Dan, who owns the bike I’m riding, and he holds up his pointer finger indicating I should stay in first gear and arrive alive at the top. I clutch out and head up the hill toward the first jump. The bike hops over, landing easily and continuing to carry me upwards. Thinking how easy that first jump was I don’t bother speeding up for the second one which is a bit more dramatic than the first. I end up nosing it into the steepening hill and the front tracks off to the left before the rear has even landed. Heading left, I over compensate and end up fishtailing dramatically a few times before going completely sideways and heading towards the fence. Luckily I opened my eyes just in time to note that I was heading straight at one of the guys working the hill who was crouched like a linebacker and seemed totally prepared to catch me had I not remembered to chop the throttle 5 feet from the fence.
The worst part about not cresting the hill is that you have to walk the bike most of the way back down the hill, in front of everybody, to exit. Earlier Byron and I had taken the bike to an empty skating rink to practice riding the Honda around and Bryon seemed a little sketchy starting out, so I was fully expecting him to either blow the start and tip over, or wad the thing up on one of the jumps. What I was not expecting was him to make it up in less than 10 seconds on his one and only run. Despite what he may claim, he started, jumped, and spun the thing to the top like he knew what he was doing. He had thrown down the gauntlet. I had to try again.
I spoke with Dan and Aaron about how to best navigate their bike to the top and they gave me all sorts of advice. Keep the throttle pinned. Look for the low spots on the jumps and keep the rear on the ground. Drop it on the left side so you don’t wreck the pipe. Ride straight up the hill this time. All good advice I guess, though I forgot everything except the part about staying on the gas all the way. Which I did, clearing the second jump and only getting squirrelly in the really loose dirt near the top just before cresting the hill.
I’d like to thank Barry for letting us come out and run his hill and Dan Prede for loaning us a bike for the day. I’d also like to encourage you to head down to Redwing early on June 16th or July 15th and get good place to sit somewhere near the second jump. It’ll be the best seat on the hill. If you have any questions about the Nationals on July 15th or are interested in bringing your own bike out and giving it a try, then contact the Indianhead Cycle Club at 715-684-4821.