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Common Tread

Man, motorcycle, and mountain collide

Feb 20, 2017

This year at an AMCA swap meet, I found myself sharing a bit of giggle-water with Kenny Buongiorno and Matt Rush, the guys who set up some of the Appalachian Moto Jam outlaw racing events I’ve been showing up at. When they invited me to a hillclimb in the snow, I agreed. A few days later, I began to wonder what the hell I was thinking.

Tire chains
Tire chains and knobby tires are mutually exclusive. Photo by Lemmy.
I started riding offroad seriously last year. I haven’t made it a full year just yet, but I’ve learned enough to get by, looped my bike, done an adventure ride with Spurgie, raced flat-track for the first time, and found that dirt people are plenty welcoming to dirty people. I am an idiot, and I’ll try anything once and most things twice. I fail at a lot of things, but I realized this was my chance to fail spectacularly.

I never did hear of a snow hillclimb. Hell, a regular hillclimb is hard enough, and now we’re gonna add in some slippery stuff? After poking around, I discovered that the place we were set to race is an old ski resort that had been converted to a motocross playground, but they still had equipment for making snow artificially, just to make sure the hill was good and slick and precarious.


My apparently invincible dirt bike seemed like the hot ticket for this event. I swapped my coolant, oil, and spark plug, and then pondered traction. When it comes to riding in crummy weather, a few options exist: studs, screws, chains, and spikes. I talked to a lot of people before I did anything, because… well, because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

At first, I had the idea to fit some snow chains to my bike, so I cut down an old set. I could fit them tight enough to avoid my sprocket and brake, but the chain snaked between my tires' lugs, which were taller than the chain, thus making the chain ... uh, a tire weight. Time to try something else.

Screw time
Ooof, my hand hurts. One of the odd spots on my hand that doesn't have a callus was treated to a blister - right where the heel of that driver hit me!

I wasn't sure if the special kind of screws developed for ice racing would help me, and I wanted to keep my investment real, real low. What would a Class C racer of way back when in the days of flatheads have done? (I mean, my two-stroker is a flattie.) They’d have pinched a penny so tight Lincoln woulda screamed, that’s what.

All done
All done! As it turned out, some was good, more was better, and too much was just about right. I wound up loading the screws in much heavier as the weekend wore on. Photo by Lemmy.

I sat down with the depth-checkin’ end of a dial caliper and measured my tire lugs: half an inch on the back, and slightly less up front. I ordered up #6 sheet metal screws, all three-eighths of an inch in length, assuming the coarsest thread available would give the screw a better chance at biting into the rubber. The screws were regular mild steel, so I figured as long as I kept them off the tarmac, I probably would get enough life from them for one race. I screwed ‘em in and then ran very high pressure — 28 psi — because I had no spare tubes and didn’t want to spend time on the sidelines.

As you've probably figured out, I prepped using the "consummate cheapass" method. But let's not mince words: I am old and fat, and if I showed any promise at any type of competition that did not involve eating pie, someone would have discovered me by now. My goal was to get outdoors, smell some two-stroke smoke, put on a little show by dint of stupidity and willingness to take chances, and then crush some beers with my buddies.

Line 'em up
Even though the practice line looked long, it moved quickly. Get your helmet on, and pray your spark plug doesn't load up while you wait! Photo by Geoff Barrenger.


I signed in and stared at the hill. My Lord, it was steep. It doesn’t look that way in the video, I know. It was steep. Trust me. Plus, like most ski slopes, it was covered in snow, a substance not known for its traction. I slid my way up to the start line. I throttled up and the flag dropped. I got about 100 yards deep and came off the bike as the rear end decided it wanted to lead the way for a little bit.

The crowd
Considering it was winter, there were a hell of a lot of people who came out, presumably because they wanted to see that hill get licked. Photo by Geoff Barrenger.

Two more runs yielded the same results. Let me pontificate for a moment on all the things I did wrong. Perhaps most importantly, the little flat spot of ground before the hill was crucial. If you didn’t pick up speed there, the snow just sucked you in. (In racing, apparently you need to go really fast. Who knew?) Next, despite the fact this is an uphill climb, putting weight over the front wheel was all wrong. Standing did not help at all. Success only came when I crouched with my ass hovering over the rear fender. Lastly, running high tire pressures was stupid. I should have just stopped worrying about popping a tube; I had spoons in my truck.

"Hey, did you see the fat guy on the dirtbike? He should have great traction, but he keeps falling down in new and interesting ways." Photo by Brittany Thomas.

On my third run, I got a little bit farther. I wound up the engine a bit and dropped the clutch with the hammer down. I let the front end do its thing, kept on the gas and made it about twice as far as I had been before. (Or I sucked half as much, depending on your perspective.)

Wheels up
This guy was super-fast, super-talented, and put on one hell of a show for everyone. Photo by Brittany Thomas.

Other riders were experiencing varying degrees of success. Some guys on old Harley 45s with a foot clutch (!) were burning right up the hill, while other folks on modern dirt machines with studs and knobs couldn’t do anything but fall over. Rider skill and bike prep were of nearly equal importance, it seemed. I sat around and had a beer after this run as the hill was groomed by a fella and his girl in a huge snowcat to great applause from the racers.

By the time I had made it to my fourth and final run, racing to the top of the hill had been opened. The flagman asked me if I planned on going all the way up.

"Buddy, I been trying to do that every time I been lined up in front of ya!"

He yanked that flag up in the air and I left the line spinning my tire and pitchin’ snow. I got up a good head of speed before I got into the rutty stuff and spun my way through it. Once I was clear of that area (where most of the older and non-off-road-oriented bikes couldn't get past), the going got a lot easier.

Crossed up
Even blind squirrels find an acorn or two. Photo by Jake Perez.

I was coming up the hill fast, so I began feathering the clutch to scrub some speed without letting the engine come "off the pipe." I realized I was hitting some good-sized whoops on the way up. (A few friends at the bottom said I had the bike pretty far up in the air. I didn’t press them for my altitude, but 490 combined pounds of KTLeM up in the air on a snowy ascent must be entertaining.)

Lem in the snow
"Crapcrapcrapcrap!" Photo by Geoff Barrenger.

I ripped past the first waypoint and continued, trying my best not to die. I hit a few more whoops on the way up and began actually having fun, because I was landing them! I got almost to the top, but the track crew was waving me off. As I crested my final berm, I saw the problem: A bike was down and next to it was its rider, lying in the snow. I immediately backed out of the throttle, and the bike and I finally went back over onto our natural resting place — our sides. I popped right up as the crew was loading my fellow rider into the back of a 4x4 quad.

I turned around and looked downdowndown. I could see the now-tiny crowd. I raised both hands in the air, and even way up there, I could hear the cheering. I was so proud! I made it! I was out of breath and exhausted, but I was in a place not everyone could get to. (If you watch the following clip, I made it to the same spot this rider did.)

After a brief moment of basking, I helped move the other guy's old Triumph to the side. (Take it out of gear, Lem!) My bike was pouring premix fuel out of its vent, and in my hurry to right it, I lost my helmet, which took a 20-foot slide down the precipice. It started to look like an old Keystone Kops episode up there.

A little higher up
This photo was taken right around the halfway point, I would say. It looks steeper from the top, somehow. Rear brakes and prayers were my main stopping forces. Photo by Geoff Barrenger.

Next on the agenda: returning without soiling myself (more). Some quick mental tallying gave me the angle of the drop: exactly 90 degrees.

I tried to start my bike, but just getting on it was difficult — it is very tall, and I couldn’t seem to get on it without almost going ass-over-teakettle. (The bike's seat is 37 inches in the sky, but my own crotch comes to 31 inches. Do the math.) Starting was not an option, I discovered. Screw it. I figured I could coast down; that two-smoker has no meaningful engine braking anyhow. I managed to get up in the saddle, and due to my rapid ability to compute sums, I didn't need my speedo to tell me my speed: 9.8 m/s^2. In some sort of defiance of the laws of physics, the rear brake pedal became simply a place to rest my right toes.

I ate shit two-thirds of the way down at approximately 432 mph.

The run up the hill pulled every screw out of my rear tire in the center strip. I got my bike into our makeshift pit and started replacing screws. I added a bunch more this time. I was totally bushed, so I popped a beer, took off my duds, and rolled my dirt bike into the pick-'em-up truck. I watched the other riders for the last little bit of daylight. The riders drifted up to the ski lodge to warm up, where we regaled each other with stories of success and failure.

We headed back to my buddy’s place, got loaded (beer, not bikes), and went to bed.

Puttin' up the dukes

The race was much less dramatic for me, partially because I was pooped. This racing thing is much more difficult when you're old and fat as opposed to practicing regularly.

In the morning, I ran into a few other Zillans, which was kind of fun. I watched a few of my friends race — some won, and some lost. I was only running one class. Being non-sanctioned by the AMA, the App Moto Jam guys likely have some heavy insurance bills to pay, so the fees ain’t cheap ($25 at the gate for two days, $40 for your first class, and $35 for all those thereafter).

Joe Zito
RevZilla's own Joe Zito slayed. He won a bunch of classes. He went up the hill, and he did it fast. No wheelies, no sliding. He simply pointed the bike at something, and then overcame gravity to make his old Triumph go where it needed to. Photo by Brittany Thomas.

I pulled up to the line, clicked into second, revved up my old bike, and dumped the clutch. I put the hammer down, and… I didn’t go anywhere! I watched the guy in the other lane holeshot me!

Neutral, it seems, is bad for starts.

I yanked the clutch, smashed down the shifter into first, and dropped the clutch. Happily, I was making up ground. I was almost through the slushy stuff, and then things went slideways. I went down with the ship. I got back up and was wrestling my bike back to upright. One of the race officials ran up to me and said “You won! Get off to the side and get down behind the start line for your next heat!” I was told by several people judges awarded style points for my graceful exit. I was winded, exhausted, and surprised as I stood my bike up. My “win” was more adequately described as “crashing closer to the finish line than the competition.” In what felt like a flash, I was on the start line again, running in the “bad” lane. I got beat before I got off the line. I was just plain old tired — the day before had taken its toll on me. The kid next to me (literally a kid, he wasn't old enough to buy a deck of smokes) zipped right by me. I fell down. That was the non-triumphant end to my winning streak.

I dug out a breakfast beer, and watched fellow Zillan Joe Zito destroy the field in a few classes. Here's some on-bike footage of Joe tearin' it up:

A post shared by Joe Zito (@zitos_vintage_cycle) on


I’m old. I reinjured my chronically messed-up shoulder. Unsurprisingly, putting the KTM back in the truck took a long time. A few days after I got home, my kiddo removed all the screws for me. (Thanks, Stinky!)

I am John Q. Public. I am not anyone, but now I am a racer. I won nothing but pride and the cheers of friends and strangers, which is more than I expected, and now, all I'm gunning for. You can do it, too. If you seek the thrill, all you need is a motorcycle and gumption.

Falling down
"I said I was a good writer, not a good rider." Photo by Jake Perez.

I’m headed back for another climb the final weekend of March.