Here is the first published story that I ever wrote. It appeared in the April 2003 edition of Rev Magazine. I have not looked at this in almost 15 years. Some of it I hardly recognize, as if someone else wrote it. Other parts bring back strong memories from my first ISDE.
I have left it all just as I wrote it back then. I have had to convert this from the original text, so there may be some typos from that process. I photographed the magazine, converted that to PDF and then to Word format.
“It’s that sound. I knew exactly what it meant, or at least I thought I did. It sounded like a freeway of motorcycles; each rider was going flat out. I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking I was through this difficult trail section and the course was going to open up. It never occurred to me that this sound was of motorcycles going nowhere at full throttle, each buried to its cases in mud attempting a hill climb. I calmly hit the kill button and removed my enduro glasses, carefully tucking them away. I knew it would be a long day — day four of the 2002 ISDE — just like yesterday was. This test took almost 10 minutes to complete yesterday and today it will seem like an eternity”
To say that riding the International Six Days Enduro (ISDE) has been a lifelong dream is almost an understatement. I am of the generation that originally saw Bruce Brown’s epic “On Any Sunday” on the big screen. Of all the fantastic images in this film, one stood out. It was the image of Malcolm Smith at the ’69 Spanish ISDT (the T was for Trials back then). Malcolm had that look on his face – that look that lets you know just how hard it is and that there is no room for anything but the task at hand. It’s his race face.
Today’s ISDE has changed much from those days, and yes, in general, the Six Days event is easier than it used to be. Despite the program’s demise here at home, it remains the pinnacle of off-road racing worldwide, rivaled only by the Dakar rally. Every great off-road racer has participated in the ISDE. For me it represents a chance to place my name — even if in a small way — with those of Steve McQueen and Dan Dillon. Don’t recognize Dan’s name? That’s because for every famous name, there are 10 you have never heard of, but who worked just as hard to get to this international off-road event.
I qualified to ride in the 2002 ISDE in Jablonec Nad Nisou, Czech Republic, as a member of the “Merced Dirt Riders” (northern California) club team. Originally, I planned to compete aboard a rented Gas Gas ec300, a bike I race regularly at home. Gas Gas would provide the bike and any parts assistance needed. I thought it was important to ride the bike exactly as I do at home, part of my plan to make things as “normal” as possible while half way around the world. In hindsight, any plan, no matter how well thought out, is only as good as its backup plan. While the Gasser was my choice for race bike, mine was tired from a full season of racing, so I did most of my training on my KTM 400. This training proved invaluable due to a pre-race mix-up.
The day before leaving home, I discovered that the organizers had me entered in the wrong class. Instead of the175cc+ Two-Stroke Class, I was entered in the 400 Four-Stroke class. A quick call to the AMA confirmed this and it appeared that it was their error. The rules state that you may not change classes, but I figured I could straighten it out.
I picked up my awaiting Gas Gas and spent two days prepping and test riding. I wanted to use my own tall seat and install a steering stabilizer, along with assorted protection items like a pipe guard, brake snake and hand guards. The organizers had a practice track laid out and I had a chance to dial in the suspension and jetting.
The U.S. team was scheduled to impound bikes by 10:30 a.m., Friday. At 11 a.m., I was told they would not allow my request to change classes. A little research pointed me toward a KTM 400EXC made available by an absent rider. It was the KTM or no race for me, so I rented the bike.
We rushed the bike through registration. I spent about an hour prepping it and installing mousse inserts and tires. Because I was late already, I put the bike straight into impound without even riding it. It had 1 kilometer on it.
Another American was in the same situation as I, entered in the wrong class. He needed a bike for the 175+ class. I gave him the Gas Gas, and like me he impounded without even riding the bike. All of my planning and preparation was pretty much out the window. Ironically, I was going to be riding the exact bike I used for most of my training.
The routine is something like this: We ride 150 miles per day, about 80 miles of trail. We ride toward checkpoints throughout the day, and are timed at each stop. There are eight special tests to conquer, and the rest is on the road. It’s like riding a national enduro with a 10-minute moto thrown in every hour, about seven hours on the trail, for five days in a row. There are also one or two tricky obstacles per day.
Today’s “Staircase” obstacle is a double set of concrete stairs descending from a ruined building. They are steep and separated by a small landing, with the lower set having a concrete wall on each side. If you get out of control on the first set you will hit the top of the wall on the lower set with your handlebars. The mud makes everything extra difficult.
Two other riders are beginning at the same time as I am. One is a world-class Swede on a Husaberg, and he checked out on us fast! The other is Patrick Kuipers, a Dutchman who rides a new Husky 400. He’s riding his third ISDE and is part of a well-organized team.
I’m concerned we’re going too slow, but we arrive 10 minutes early. As we went through the check, Patrick told me the time is tight to check 2. I reach check 2, down two minutes. Not a very promising start. The check worker tells me that everyone, including the trophy team, dropped time here.
If the top guys lost time and I lost only two minutes, I must be doing pretty well. I spend the rest of the day riding like it was a one-day race. One section is almost all pavement. We are road racing, right through towns on narrow two-lane roads. By the end of the day- I have dropped five minutes. One of my club Teammates, Kurt Wilcox, is the only American to zero the course — he reached all the checkpoints in the allotted times. It’s been a good day, but I used a lot of energy
Race officials, in an overnight decision, gave riders a 10-minute grace for their route times for yesterday. If you were behind by 10 minutes or less, your score became zero. This essentially throws out yesterday’s route. All of my work was for nothing, and I’m very disappointed. Ultimately it will have little effect on my score, but it is discouraging.
The course is the same as day one, but it has now been ridden on about 900 times. Yesterday’s nice smooth fields are choppy. The tests are full of both braking and acceleration bumps, as well as rutted corners. Trail sections that were smooth yesterday now show exposed roots and rocks. It all means more work to cover the same distance.
Race officials lowered the route speeds to prevent the insane highway speeds from yesterday; I zero the day. That evening I do my first ever tire change in combat conditions. I am slow, but I get it done in about nine minutes. As we impound our bikes, local police are there, asking each rider his number. I give the lady mine and she promptly pulls out a nice radar photo of me doing 80KPH in a 50 zone. She politely explains that this is simply a warning, but if caught again I will be fined. Some riders are stopped on the course and given tickets, which could mean exclusion from the competition.
It’s a new course today featuring “the mud hole”— and the allotted times are tight. Right before check 2, course officials diverted a drainage pipe into a bog to create an impossible hole. Course markers force the riders right through the worst area. Course workers use long pikes to grab a front wheel and pull a bike out of the muck. It’s great fun for the hundred or so spectators. For the riders, it’s an entire day covered in mud.
One of the tests is laid out at a ski area, with the course zigzagging down one ski run and back up another. The steep climb produces a deep rut, but that is by far the best traction verses trying to ride on the grass. Even though it’s dry, the rocky climbs are incredibly slick. The loose shale simply crumbles under the tires.
I need three attempts to complete one hill climb, and at another I have to get off and push halfway up. This takes its toll on my body and bike. Luckily there are enough road sections to allow for recovery time, but it’s also uncomfortably cold outside. As long as I’m riding, I’m fine. But once off bike, I am practically useless. Fortunately, my pit crew, Neena and my parents are there to handle every other facet of the race reparations.
The day drags on. I drop about 15 minutes, as do many of my teammates. I know the test times are slow and I am certainly near the bottom of the list of American riders, but I don’t worry about it. In fact I never even looked at my test times. I start to feel the drain on my body.
At the end of each day I feel mildly sick, and it is hard to get food down. We eat spaghetti immediately after impounding the bikes. Then it’s back to the hotel to clean up and eat dinner, but it seems impossible to take in enough calories. Thank goodness for Cytomax, I am practically living off it and it is keeping my energy up.
Someone once told me that after Day 3 it actually gets easier because your body acclimates to the stress. I relate this to Paul Krause at breakfast, but he says Day 4 is often the worst.
It rained overnight and we are riding the same course as Day 3. Most of the tests consist of hillside fields that have a mowed line around them. A layer of mud three inches deep develops over a hard packed surface, and it’s all mixed with wet grass. I think the mud is mostly centuries old manure fertilizer. It certainly smells like it and so do I.
This is very hard to walk on, let alone maneuvering a downhill off-camber corner. There is only one rutted line on the course and it is now more than two-feet deep. If you are not in this rut, your motorcycle will not move. But it’s not easy to ride in the rut, either. I hold my feet up and “ski” along, but it is so deep that my knees are often above the bars.
One test zigzags along an open hillside field. It begins by climbing in the rut and, as the turn arcs at the top of the hill, the rut disappears. The trail then heads downhill to a big off-camber corner before it starts to climb again. A group of bikes are stuck at the bottom because there is no traction. I bulldog the bike to the bottom using my feet as brakes. To get started up I put the KTM in second gear and let the clutch completely out. The bike isn’t really moving, just gently spinning the wheel. I’m still in the off-camber section of the corner so I have to aim much higher than I will actually end up. I still can’t make much progress, so I get off and push the bike.
Next comes a creek crossing with two lines leading out of it. In each line the rut is nearly three feet deep. I get through it by standing on the edge of the ruts-and heaving up on the bars while dropping the clutch. This gets me about four feet of progress with each attempt, by sheer physical effort. There are now riders stopped all over on the test. For many, this will be the end of the ISDE.
Having accomplished this, I can now head for the next test, the ski hill; it’s more of the same nightmare. The ruts climbing up the hill are so deep that I quit trying to ski along with my feet and simply tuck them in behind me and let my knees drag along the ground. It’s so deep that the motorcycle cannot fall over!
We lost at least 10 American riders by check 2, and I’m 22 minutes late. I quickly gas and go. After a few quick mental calculations, I realize that “houring out” (If you finish a day more than 60 minutes late, you are disqualified) is a real possibility. Scores can change and sections be thrown out, but if I stop riding, my fate is sealed, This is a long, cold and wet day. I spend almost eight hours on the course with no rest. I finished the day 45 minutes down. But I finished.
Things are rather quiet in the morning. The attrition from yesterday is obvious everywhere. The game plan now is crystal clear: Don’t screw up. The finish and a medal are within sight now. I convince myself it is just like trail riding back home — no racing, just a good solid pace. We are riding the Day I and 2 course backward. There are no surprises ahead, but it is still muddy and slick. I was too tired to change a tire last night, so I’m now riding my third day on the same rear and am paying dearly for it.
Finishing the first loop, I miss an arrow while passing a car, and I continue the wrong way without realizing it. There are no arrows and I know something is wrong. I try to ask, but no one is any help. We are headed to Parc Ferme for the mid-day check. I know the proper entrance and go in through it. I had accidentally cut out about two miles of course. It is not until I ask someone during the second loop that they explain to me where I missed an arrow. I have made a small mistake, and it is enough to get me disqualified if discovered.
The sun comes out in the afternoon and it feels wonderful. The course dries quickly and becomes enjoyable. I now finally feel like I’m over the hump and it gives me a second wind.
I get up early and go down to the information board in the hotel lobby to check the news for the day I look for my name on the exclusion list and it is not there. I am fortunate to have not been penalized for yesterday’s mistake. Many people have been DQ’d during the week for minor infractions.
The last day on the course is more like a 30-mile parade lap. The times are easy. Spectators line the course to wave at the competitors; it’s really a special feeling. The week has been a solitary riding effort. Now is the opportunity to reflect and enjoy this spectacle.
The final moto is the icing on the cake. As a novice MXer, I have never ridden in a moto to which anyone paid any attention. Now the course is lined with thousands of spectators. I told myself I was just going to ride around and have fun, but when the gate drops — a race is a race. I’m battling hard for a mid-pack position for about half the moto, then I realize my forearms are pure jelly. It’s all great fun and I don’t even care.
Out of 41 Americans, 22 have earned medals, including me. Each rider certainly has a story a unique as mine. Some will lament about the inability of the Americans to compete with the Europeans; I don’t really care. It doesn’t detract from the tremendous efforts of all the riders and supporters. For me, the Six Days remains the great amateur endeavor.
Chilly White was a spectator at the Australian ISDE in 1998, and he’s wanted to compete in one ever since. The Escondido, Calif , resident earned a bronze medal in the 2002 ISDE He couldn’t have done it without coaching and encouragement from Jimmy Lewis, Billy Uhl and Paul Krause, plus sponsors, including Motowest, Moose, Scott’s, and ESP