By Tom Niemela
“You can have any course you want, as long as it involves whoops,” should have been the opening line at the rider’s meeting for this year’s China Hat, hosted by Lobos M/C. Yes, Margaret, whoops were the main menu for this year’s event.
The Lobos once again pulled off another monumental and organizational challenge to set this classic and historic event off. This year the main ringleader who managed the event was Lobos’ own Lawrence Huntley. Lawrence is a mild-mannered fellow, who is a musician at his real job, but he’s one heckuva dirt rider and, as it turns out, is a great event organizer too.
This year’s course route was not unlike last year’s course, except dyslexic. It was basically backwards of last year’s course, where the first loop went through the faster and more open desert, and the second loop was more in the trees and tighter.
The Forest Service mandated lobos to a 350-rider limit and they actually had to turn people away in the last few weeks to a handful of procrastinators. Obviously this event has reached the ‘classic’ or ‘must ride’ status and for just reasons. The terrain is not difficult or technical to ride, the ISDE time schedules are usually attainable, it offers varied terrain and most all dirt riders are happy at least with some parts of the course.
One thing China Hat always offers is whoops-de-do’s, and plenty of them. They start out as big whoops and get bigger. In fact, I swear I saw a ’47 Buick at the bottom of one of them! When setting up your bike for this event, the ideal setup is adjusting your bike specifically for whoops, so lowering the back and raising the front is the norm. Evidently, the USFS’s OHV Coordinator, Dick Dufourd, let’s Lobos use only designated trails that are in need of trail grooming (to later remove whoops) for the event. Once the event is finished, Dick schedules the trail machines to go through the course and smooth them out. What this means is that the event always has the most used section of trail, however at least the event continues. Speaking of trail machines, I’ve ridden China Hat most every year since it’s inception at around ’82 or so, and since about the 90’s, all the trails are mostly all groomed to be ATV/quad width. The narrow single-track of the past is no longer, so when riding this event, the speeds are astronomically faster than the old days. This presents the danger of nastier, high-speed crashes, but the trails still can be fun railing the berms that the quads create.
The event was Sunday April 25, so the staging area had a gaggle of RV’s and campers of riders impounding their bikes and generally milling around the night before. A main key check for impound was passing the required 96db max sound test. This is a good thing, since loud exhausts continue to close riding areas, so lowering the required levels can only help. The evening benchracing was at the usual, WFO level, and the crisp smell of high-desert sagebrush and campfires permeated the air. Once the sun sets in the desert, it really gets cold, so people gathered closer to the heaters and campfires as the night progressed. It was great to see so many old friends such my Team Butthook partners, old NORA members, and other dirt riders that came out of the woodwork. Gunny and Laura Claypoole even had a new dog, amply named Brutus, to show off.
In the morning, there was a tinge of frost on everything. At the rider’s meeting, Lawrence went over the course and what to expect. Then Dick jumped up and talked about the Fort Rock/Millican OHV area and the work that has gone there lately. After the usual last-minute questions from the riders, it was time to race!
This year I had signed up on the same minute with my two buds, Frank Noe and Dan Hatcher. These guys are hilarious and great riders, plus we share the same enthusiasm for dirt bikes. Once our minute came up, we were off. Fortunately, there was moist soil below the top layer of silt on the course, so by the time we hit the trail, much of the dust was gone. Perfect! The first loop consisted of two special tests in the more open desert and it was scary fast at times, plus was riddled with mongo whoops. Unfortunately, the better trail was not used for the tests, but was still a hoot nonetheless.
After the first loop, we came in for the halfway gas and continued onto the second loop. Props to Ryen Reid for his help at the halfway point (he was on the injured list, so showed up to help). Then we were off onto the second loop, which also had two special tests. They were definitely slower than the first loop, but the whoops were just as deep and, at times, seemed deeper. Rarely would you get into fifth gear in these tests, but they were still blazing fast. After the last test, I breathed a big sigh knowing that all I needed to do was finish, so took it easy. This was good, as the course went through a lengthy rock garden, so I poked along enjoying the last stage of the ride and concentrated on not getting any flats. I casually glanced down at my clock and noticed it said 1:15pm. I then peered at my due time, which was 1:20 – Egad! I knew approximately how far away I was from the finish, so wicked it up into WFO mode. I had forgotten how the Lobos like to catch some riders napping and beef up the speed schedule on the last section and they had in fact caught me! I rode like a man possessed as the clock counted ever closer to 1:20. After what seemed like an eternity, the finish line loomed and I skidded into the checkpoint at 1:19:55. Whew, made it with time to spare! Frank came in shortly behind me on 1:20 and Dan slid into the finish at 1:20:57 – that was close!
After the race it was more benchracing and everyone comparing stories and lies of the race. As usual, Lobos did their typical fantastic job of hosting the event and a tip of the full face to them. Huge props to Lawrence and the gang for setting such a high level of quality for the riders! Props also go out to Dick and the USFS and his work with the club.