Racing Dirtbikes: Reflections on Cross-Country Racing

  • 13 Hare Scrambles
  • 1 Enduro
  • 3 Racing Series
  • 4,300 miles of driving
  • 65 hours behind the wheel
  • 30 hours in the woods
  • Nearly 1,000 miles of off-road riding
  • 4 savage mudders
  • 2 Second places finishes
  • 4th Place finish for KXCR B Open Class
  • 22nd Overall PM Racer in the series


I vividly remember my dad sitting me down as a kid and explaining to me, “there’s always someone better than you.” There’s always going to be some kid that hits a baseball better or runs faster, that’s just how life works. If you think you’re hot stuff. If you’re confident you can ride circles around everyone you know in town, sign up to race a local off-road riding series… and get humbled. 

Two years ago when I signed up to ride my first off-road race, I thought I knew how to ride a motorcycle. I rapidly discovered I didn’t know shit. Even racing in C class, there were lots of folks with superior skills to mine. Moving up to ride in the “PM class”, those A-class riders feel untouchable from where I’m at. Moreover, even if we’re all having a great day, a little moisture on the ground tends to bring us all to the edge of skill level and endurance. You may be racing other humans, but as I’ve written elsewhere, you’re racing nature and yourself more than anything. Along with that, show me the best racers in the world, given an unlimited amount of time, nature will always prevail. “Embracing the suck” is much easier said than done, but when it’s over, those moments are the most memorable.

Test Your Metal

For many of us, public failure is an experience we want to avoid. Wearing mismatched socks, getting toilet paper stuck to your shoes, and dumping your motorcycle in the parking lot tend to induce feelings of embarrassment. Unfortunately, that aspect of human nature can also prevent us from taking risks; which in turn tends to prevent us from experiencing life’s greatest “highs”.

Public ridicule, embarrassment and shame are obviously things we all want to avoid. What many of us don’t realize, is that much of those “expectations” are in our heads. Falling off your motorcycle off-road sucks, but you know what? We’ve all fallen off a motorcycle; we didn’t exit the womb as professional motorcycle riders. The vast majority of us had to practice to avoid public calamity… and like the fight against nature, if you follow the best riders long enough, you’ll witness their mistakes and discover they too are mortal.  

I say all of that to say, if you’re into motorcycling as a self-improvement project, you should give racing a try, regardless of your age. Yes, there are inherent risks to racing, as with all rewarding activities in life. That said, I’ve never learned so much, so fast, and found such a welcoming community as I’ve discovered in racing. 

Discover a New Family

I’ve spent no less than 24 months in a designated “combat zone”. If I’ve learned nothing else from my time in those places, I’ve learned that mutual suffering builds bonds. Why am I encouraging you to race if it involves suffering? “Suffering” is a matter of perspective; to the American teenager, the internet being down for two days is suffering. To GI Joe, digging a hole in the dirt to bury a wire in a 110°F heat, that might be suffering. To a motorcyclist, sitting on the starting line as the skies open up on a 50°F day is suffering. All of these things are “hard” but sufferable. What you don’t immediately realize is that there are others enduring misery with you.

Over time, the stories of this shared suffering builds relationships as you laugh about the struggles and absurdity. Together, we’re humbled by nature and competition each passing Sunday, and that mutual suffering builds unbreakable bonds and lasting relationships. Folks welcome newcomers with open arms because we’ve all realized, racing is “hard”, but “showing up”, knowing it’s cold, it may rain, and worse, you might not even finish, is actually the hardest part. 

Know Your Motorcycle

It’s one thing to have a motorcycle for a long time and know its character. It’s something else to push the motorcycle to its limits, know its capabilities, and spend hours keeping the machine running to the best of your ability. There’s nothing like riding a high-performance machine in the environment it was intended for. Unfortunately, performance comes at a cost, and in the world of off-road, it means hours dedicated to replacing and refurbishing parts and consumables that wear out. I’m of the mindset that this is arguably the worst part of racing. I enjoy wrenching on bikes, but it doesn’t hold a candle to riding bikes. Even when the weather stinks, riding is better than working, but waiting on a necessary part or breaking a bolt really drains the fun from riding. 

All that said, it’s incredibly rewarding knowing that you’ve invested the time in keeping your bike in working order when you cross that finish line on Sunday. You might be the last bike that finished that day, but it’s very likely, someone else is getting a DNF (did not finish) because of a mechanical failure. There’s a sense of accomplishment in that, moreover, you gain an understanding of what maintenance activities are critical and when they’re not. When can a chain go one more round, and when that sprocket needs replaced, less you get stranded on the trail with a derailed chain. It takes a lot of work to keep the bike going, but over time it’s one less worry in your mind when you’re sitting on the starting line. 

Believe in Yourself

There’s a famous line from Rocky Balboa that I absolutely love:

“It’s not about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward.” 

It’s a cliche movie line when you live in reality, but it goes through your mind when you’re picking your bike up for the fifth time. If you don’t try, you’ll never fail; but if you never try, you’ll never know what you’re capable of. It’s unlikely I will ever be a professional motorcycle racer at this stage in life. However, after two seasons of off-road racing, I have skills today I wouldn’t have gained if I didn’t try racing. After racing, I still find intimidating obstacles out on the trail, but I now know that I have tried and failed, and tried and succeeded in the past. This has made me more willing to tackle more difficult trails as the rewards are worth the effort and things feel achievable. Believe in yourself. We’ve all started from zero, we’ve all fallen over, many of us have thrown in the towel, but the reward is climbing back on the bike eventually and ultimately conquering our fears. 

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What’s a Dual-Sport Motorcycle?

You’ve probably heard the expressions “enduro” or “Street & Trail” in the past, but today I suspect most folks use the word “dual-sport” to describe a motorcycle that’s intended for use both on and off the pavement. On and off-road riding? Sure my Scrambler does that; but does that make my Scrambler a dual-sport motorcycle? Well, I suppose it depends on who you ask. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

This is the KLR 650. To many, the KLR is the king of all dual sports. Ask around, any motorcyclist with any off-road chops has heard of the KLR; Many will suggest that, along with cockroaches, KLRs will inherit the earth after our mass extinction. Forged in some ancient dwarven cave, the KLR is powered by a single-cylinder, 650cc lump. Climbing up to the seat, you’ll notice plush suspension, assuming you didn’t fall over because you can’t touch the ground. Below the front fender, there’s a run-of-the-mill 21-inch hoop shod with some flavor of knobby-ish tires, and because it’s a KLR, there’s a milk crate hiding about somewhere. For a little over six-grand, this juggernaut could be yours.

Let’s look at the opposite end of the spectrum for a moment, shall we? Here’s the KTM 350 EXC-f. This top-of-the-line motorcycle from Austria is probably as close as you can get to flat-out race bike while still saying “Why yes officer, here’s my license and registration.” Tipping the scales around 250 pounds, this bike is only a few bills and a “DOT light kit” away from the starting line at the local hare scramble.

To some, these two bikes may look the same, to others the differences are evident. To me, these motorcycles are lightyears apart; one’s a race bike with a plate, the other arguably an adventure motorcycle. That said, when you look at each manufacturer’s website, you’ll find them labeled as “Dual-Sports”.

So what’s a dual-sport?

At a minimum, off-road riding capability and the necessary equipment to make the motorcycle street-legal. In most U.S. States, that means headlight, tail light, indicators, mirrors, horn, a street motorcycle title, along with plate and tag.

By that definition, the Tenere 700, my Scrambler, and the TW200 would all be dual-sports. A Harley Sporter with a determined rider could be a dual-sport for that matter. Should dual-sports be lightweight? Do they need specific wheels or tires to be categorized as a dual-sport? What makes a motorcycle off-road capable? The KTM 390 Adventure and the Kawasaki Versys 300X are both lighter than the KLR, are they also dual-sports? Perhaps this “street and trail” expression needs a little more definition.

If appointed dictator for life, I would say a Dual-Sport is:

A single-cylinder motorcycle designed for off-road use, with 21″ front wheel, and comes fitted with street-legal equipment and sold with a street title from the factory.

By that definition, despite its off-road capability, the multi-cylinder Versys 300 is out. Like the Versys, the 390 Adventure is sporting a 19″ front wheel, even worse, it has cast wheels, which is another reason I put it firmly in the Adventure category. Bikes like the Tenere 700 and the KTM 890 Adventure R start encroaching on the specifications and capabilities of the KLR. Both bikes tip the scales shockingly close to the 2021 KLR, and both have 21-inch spoked wheels out front. However, in both cases, these bikes are sporting twin-cylinder engines, and for as much as I love them, they’re still designed for more pavement than trail use.

That same metric will also exclude a perennial favorite, unfortunately. If you go to Yamaha’s website under dual-sport, you’ll find the ever revered TW-200. Like Suzuki’s VanVan200, the “TeeDub” is a micro motorcycle that is far more capable than most could ever imagine. If not for riding the TW through my favorite parts of the Danial Boone Backcountry Byway, I wouldn’t even be writing this article right now. Folks have ridden the mighty TeeDub across the country. A beast of burden that’s well prepared to be loaded with camping gear or hauling a deer out of the woods. All that said, with its 14-inch rear wheel and balloon tires, I would wager to say the TW200 was designed as a “farm bike”, a more useful answer to the mini-bike, than it was intended for modern public (American) roads.

Despite said exclusions, the Royal Enfield Himalayan still fits the necessary criteria to be a Dual-Sport, even with its heft and limited suspension travel. With that in mind, perhaps I’ll add another qualifying statement to this definition. To fall under the umbrella of dual-sport, the motorcycle should be capable of finishing a hare scramble. While I still suspect the 890 Adventure or the TW200 could accomplish such a feat in the right hands, most of us mortals agree, it would be a futile attempt on our part.

What kind of dual-sport motorcycles are there?

We can split hairs all day, but despite my attempt to narrow the definition, there’s still a massive gap between the lightest, heaviest, cheapest, and most expensive motorcycles under this multi-purpose tent.

Folks come in all flavors, but I find dual-sport riders typically come from former racers and off-road riders, or street riders that are dipping their toe into “woods riding”. As a result, I typically sub-categorize the dual-sport segment into two groups: Dirt bikes with plates, and leggy street bikes.

Long-time readers know all about the CRF250L I owned for 10,000 miles. While not as capable as Yamaha’s WR250R, I wager to say that the Japanese 250cc dual sports are the heart of the segment. The 250L would set you back around five grand new. It had 9-inches of suspension travel, tipped the scales just over 300 pounds, and asked that you change the oil every 8,000 miles. It was a lazy street bike, but could carve a corner with the best of them. It was a capable dirt bike, but certainly on the portly side. Jack of all trades, master of none is unquestionably its mantra.

Now let’s take a look at KTM’s 350 XCf-w. Kailub Russel rode XC version of this bike to go on to win the AMA Grand National CrossCountry series in 2020. I imagine it looks familiar, as KTM offers virtually the exact same bike with factory DOT equipment, and a sticker that says “EXC-f”. Like the race bike, the street-legal EXC weighs 65 pounds less than the CRF250L, needs an oil change every 500 miles, and will set you back an additional $6,000 over the little red pig.

In the middle of this field are bikes like the DR200 and KLX230. Both of these bikes will get you through the woods without a lot a fussing; maybe some lifting, and cussing, but they will gladly take the flogging and ask for more the next day. Moreover, when you’re hustling along the pavement, you’ll be whistling in your helmet, albeit not breaking traffic laws, but you certainly won’t be changing oil at the end of the trip, maybe not even after the next one. Those race bikes, on the other hand, will pull dank whoolies, cross logs with ease, and unabashedly tear up singletrack, whilst vibrating the fillings out of your skull on the pavement and will likely need a refill of the dino juice Sunday evening.

Speaking plainly, while I’ve been specific and deliberate to draw a fine line in the sand about what constitutes a dual-sport, the range of bikes that fall into that circle is vast. Between weight, suspension travel, horsepower, comfort, and price, there’s a massive chasm between the big-bore 650s designed in the 90s, versus the most modern street-legal European race machines. It’s also easy to suggest that the antiquated 650s are the closest to the adventure category considering weight and street manners, while the European bikes parody their race-ready brethren, the capabilities and price vary wildly across the field.

What’s a Dual-Sport for?

Ultimately I think the dual-sport segment grew out of the need for street legal equipment to connect the trails. As more and more backroads became paved, and the distance between trails became greater, street-legal off-road machines gained better and better road manners. Similar to how street motorcycles found off-road chops to define the adventure segment, bikes like the DRZ-400 and the WR250R have defined the dual-sport segment with equal capabilities as both commuters and off-road explorers. That I think is the epitome of what makes a dual-sport a dual-sport; definitions aside, the ability to ride on-road and off-road equally. Capable of tackling single track, while also capable of crossing the country… mind you, not in a hurry.

Stay tuned for an in-depth trip down the rabbit hole looking at every bike in this segment…

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Shinko Off-road Tires: Longterm Review

At the beginning of this year, I contacted Shinko Tires about their off-road offerings. Since I had plans to compete all season in Kentucky Cross-Country Racing (KXCR), Shinko sent me 3 tires to test. Full disclosure, Shinko didn’t ask me to publish any particular content, use any specific language, or even link back to their website. The words that you read here are all mine, Shinko only asked that I ride and test the tires and share my thoughts on my channels. Moreover, as the season progressed, I purchased, with my own money, 3 additional tires, coincidentally Shinko branded buns. With the housekeeping details out of the way, let’s talk about some “tars”.

216MX (Extreme Offroad/Enduro/Desert tire)

90/90-21 & 90/100-21 (DOT & FIM)

Last year I ran the Michelin Starcross 5 medium for the entire season. Comparing the 216 to the Starcross 5, I felt more confidence under heavy breaking and as advertised, felt like the 216MX fatty “danced” a lot less in the endless wet roots found on the KXCR courses. This season, the fatty front has seen 8 Cross-Country (XC) races in the Bluegrass state. I took a peek at the hour meter yesterday and realized this tire has been on the Husky for 46 hours. After all the rocks and nonsense around KXCR’s training facility (“The Holler”) in Clay City (KY), and Dayton Dirt Riders, I’m retiring this 216 after the next race. The rocks have finally started taking a toll on the knobs after nearly a full race season. Despite some tearing, I was surprised to find that the breaking edges of the knobs still look sharp considering how long they’ve been mounted. After consulting the Shinko website, I discovered that these tires are actually DOT; I had no idea prior to this writing. While I am concerned about these knobs flexing on the twisty pavement of the Kentucky backroads, at some point I may buy a full set of the 216s for my Dual-Sport to see how they hold up to featherweight adventure riding.

Considering the diverse conditions I see here in southern Ohio and Appalachian Kentucky, the guys at Shinko thought it best to send me a front tire intended for enduro and extreme off-road terrain. Shinko sent the 216MX tire in both the “Chubby” 90/90-21 and the 90/100-21 “Fat Tire”. Historically I’ve run a 90/90-21 front tire on both my CRF250L, so I chose to run the “Fatty” 216MX for this year’s XC racing season. According to Shinko, the 90/100 “fat tire” has a “fuller” profile to avoid deflection through rocks, over roots and other obstacles.

I’ve loved the 216s to the point I will be hesitant to try something new for racing. After all of this time, I think the biggest downfall has been “tire flex” at low pressure. This, like so many other things, is a combination of factors. I run ultra-heavy-duty tubes. Folks that run tubliss, bibs, or traditional “heavy-duty” tubes will likely encounter different behavior from the same tire. Because I run tubes, I try not to get below 8 PSI when racing, with the exception of serious mudders. incidentally, I was running the 90/90-21 216 MX at the John Vincent mudder this year and stopped to let more air out of the tires during the first lap. Unbeknownst to me, I apparently let virtually all the air out of the front. With the ultra-heavy-duty tube and a rim-lock, the front wheel felt really low, but never felt flat, despite having no air in it the next morning. The 216 obviously does a great job of clearing mud, and under “normal” circumstances feels great (in my unsophisticated hands), and only struggles in the worst conditions. Having run both, the 90 and 100 width tires, the 90 definitely feels a bit more “twitchy” by comparison, especially on the slick stuff. I have no empirical evidence, but I suspect the “fatty” also flexes a bit more and helps clear the treads.

520 Dual Compound (Intermediate to Hard Terrain Tire)

120/100-18 (Not for Highway Service)

When discussing the Kentucky terrain conditions, Shinko recommended the 525, however, because of supply chain limitations at the time, they suggested I give the 520 Dual Compound tire a try. The Husqvarna’s manual calls for a 110/100-18 size rear tire, however, Shinko sent a 120/100-18. Long-time followers know, I have no qualms with trying various tire sizes, so this was a no-brainer for me. Moreover, I suspect a lot of folks run 120 width tires for trail and cross-country riding (more on that in a minute).

The 520 was my first experience with a “hybrid” soft compound off-road tire. As anyone that knows me will tell you, if I see a rocky creekbed or a boulder field… I’m hitting those lines with the dirt bike. With that, Dayton Dirt Riders has a rule, they don’t cut trees. If a tree falls, you go over, or you go around; that’s the way it is. Between rock ledges, river rock creekbeds, and endless logs, the 520 was well at home at my in my favorite riding areas.

Beyond enduro obstacles, my mind was blown by the way the 520 put power to the ground. In the fluffy loamy soil, the 520 tractored up the Appalachian foothills in “The Holler” with gusto. I could definitely feel the traction improvement considering the combination of the wider profile and the softer compound that could spread out over the dirt.

As the racing season proceeded, the 520 was forced to face off against the dreaded Kentucky Clay. “The Holler” in, aptly named, Clay City is kind of KXCR’s “home track”, like Dayton Dirt Riders, the clay soil is baked all summer by the sun until it’s hard as a rock or it’s ground to moon dust by the races. When it rains, the top surface of the clay holds onto the water, and yet the rain won’t penetrate the deeper levels of soil, which turns the course into a skating rink. This unfortunately is where I finally started to experience the limitation of the 520DC. As long as the rear tire had enough wheel speed to stay clean, things were pretty good. If I slowed down, the more compact knobs would become loaded. Clay is obviously a challenge for all off-road tires, so I blame my skill level much more than the tire. That said, I do feel like the softer knobs would flex and fold on the hard clay instead of dig like a traditional compound tire, but more on that than a second.

525 Hybrid Cheater (intermediate terrain Enduro/Extreme single-track)

110/100-18(Not for Highway Service)

After the first 5 rounds of XC racing, I noticed a lot of tread wear on the 520. Being a directional tire, I decided it was time for something new. Considering several of my racing buddies run the 525 Hybrid Cheater, it seemed like the natural successor to the 520.

Shinko says the 525 Hybrid “Cheater” is intended for intermediate terrain, enduro, and extreme single track. Like the 520, the 525 “cheater” is a softer compound for more tire flex. The 525 has lines square knobs, unlike the directional chevron patterns seen on the 520. The 525 knobs are also spaced further apart for more efficient cleaning; which was the biggest reason I chose it.

After 5 additional XC races through the Bluegrass and 1 in Ohio, I was happier with how the 525 handled the Miami River clay and avoided being loaded up on the race track. Like the 520DC, the softer compound really shined in the rocky hill climbs and creek beds.

Inversely, the limitation of the 525 appears to be tread life, and while not a severe as the 520DC (which feels softer, but I don’t have a durometer to check), the 525 knobs also felt like they fold on the polished clay. Tread life obviously has a lot to do with the hamfistedness of the rider. At the same time, one would expect a soft compound tire to struggle with longevity. In addition, per my comments above, 110/100-18 is the prescribed tire size for my two-stroke. After experiencing the 120 width tire, the wider tire definitely felt more confidence-inspiring, both in power delivery and cornering. Compared to the 520DC, I felt like the 525 had more wheelspin in the corners and hills climbs after the track had been beaten down over a few laps.

To test my theory about knob “folding”, long-term I want to try a standard compound 525 with a 120 width and see how I like it. I have a strong suspicion, despite my interest in the Shinko 546, the wider, traditional rubber 525 may be the best all-around solution for the highly variable terrain I ride.

504/505 Hard Terrain Tire

80/100-21 Front & 110/100-18 Rear (Not for Highway Service)

As the summer progressed, Red River Scramble was rapidly approaching. For first-time readers, 5 years ago a bunch of Instagrammers meeting for pizza and adventure riding turned into an annual rally near Red River Gorge, Kentucky. Between pre-rally reconnaissance rides and 4 days of the toughest dual-sport routes I know, I wanted the gnarliest off-road tires I could get my hands on, but still strong enough to permit me to ride like a hooligan on the pavement.

Again, I went back to look over Shinko’s offerings. Shinko sells the 244 and 804/805 tires, but I felt that neither of those DOT offerings would be ideal for a lightweight dual-sport and the copious mud and sand I see in the gorge. While not DOT approved, I landed on the Shinko 505 after seeing several friends run that tire at previous events. I was concerned the front knobs might not be firm enough to handle braking on pavement, but in the interest of “science” ordered the matching 504 anyway.

From sandstone ledges, bottomless Jeep pits, rocks, creekbed sand washes, and The Holler in “Clay City”, I couldn’t be happier with the 504/505. After five days of riding like a moron off-road and on-road, the front knobs still look like new, and the rear knobs aren’t half worn. The leading edge of the rear tire is beat up from some wheel spin on the rocks and braking on asphalt, but after 30 minutes with the “knobby knife”, they’re sharped up and ready for more.

The tight knob pattern of the 505 naturally struggles in the sticky mud and clay, so wheel speed is critical. That said, if the trail is dryer than it is wet, or you’re in the sandy loam of the gorge area, the 505 puts down solid traction. Having seen the 505 on the trail in the past, I was most impressed with the performance of the front. I expected those knobs to be fully loaded with clay and mud at the first sight of damp trail. The only time I really struggled was the swampy section of The Holler known as “no man’s land”. The 504/505 combo was so good, I want to take them to a race during the dry season to see how they fare.

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Dirt Bike Tales: First Half of KXCR 2021

“Pain, anguish, adversity, struggle, exhaustion, defeat, financial stress, maintenance nightmares… growth, adventure, challenges, community, accomplishment, satisfaction.”

Something I wrote on Instagram a few days ago. Since my departure from the military, I’ve never had such a passion for something, nor have I been punished so severely for that passion, as I have with motorcycles. The highest highs and the lowest lows, “embrace the suck” is a strange rhyme that I hear a few days after a gnarly mudder and the fever sets in again…

I apologize for my absence here on the blog. Aside from extremely heavy doses of “life”, this season I’m trying to make every round of Kentucky Cross-Country Racing if I can. With that, I’m also helping KXCR publish recap videos for the series. Each round I record footage of the morning races, drone shots of the property, and shoot my afternoon race from the saddle for as long as the battery will last.

I’ve been working toward better and better video content over the last few years, and support KXCR has been a great exercise to help hone those skills. Even if you’re not into motorcycle racing, I’d politely ask that you go over to KXCR’s YouTube channel and take a peek at this year’s teasers. Needless to say, I’d love to hear feedback here and on the channel (note: the round 4 video is my favorite thus far).

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Hare Scrambling 101: Your First Cross-Country Race

So you bought a dirt bike after some nagging from your riding buddies? You’ve noticed photos on Instagram of your friends crossing logs and splashing through the mud with numbers on their helmets. Suddenly you’re feeling more and more curious about this whole racing thing, but you don’t know who to ask or where to start?

Last spring I bought a race bike and spent the year competing in a full season of local cross country races (hare scrambles). I’m obviously not a pro, but here’s a year’s worth of lessons I’ve learned, most of which, the hard way.

What’s a Hare Scramble?

Short Answer:

An off-road motorcycle race of varying distance and time where competitors ride laps around a marked course through wooded or other rough natural terrains.

Long Answer:

Unlike the wide-open, well-manicured tracks and jumps of motocross, by contrast, Cross-Country races traverse a more rugged track laid out through the woods. Race organizers walk and mark a track with arrows and remove minimal obstacles to make the course as challenging as they see fit for their given series. Courses may be immaculate, sweeping double track through the woods, or tight technical single track through rock gardens, over logs, through muddy creeks, and everything in between.

To start the race, competitors line up in rows based on their skill level. Faster riders start in the front rows, slower riders toward the back. With this setup, racers are directly competing against other racers in their class, but must also navigate traffic from the rest of the competitors on the course at the same time. Most local series have a “trail rider” class for people that want to pay a few bucks to ride the course but don’t want to compete for points.

To start the race, the announcer will give the first row of competitors a 10-second warning, after which the flagman waves the green flag. The officials will repeat this process until all the rows are released onto the track. From there, competitors will complete as many laps around the course as possible until the time has expired or the leader has completed the predetermined number of laps.

Why should I start racing?

I make a lot of jokes, but the cliche rings true, “Dirt bikes. The most fun you’ll ever have hurting yourself”.
Racing isn’t for everyone, and despite my jokes, while a possible threat, pain is not a requirement for racing. For those of us with a competitive spirit, or anyone that’s always looking for more opportunities to challenge themselves, racing a dirt bike is tough to beat.

Race weekend is also a family affair. Lots of folks roll in the night before, unpack the RV, start a fire, and camp out. Mom, dad and the kids may all be racing in their own classes. At the same time, as you meet the same people weekend after weekend, you start realizing you’ve also built a racing family. You may be competing against the same people every round, but you’re still fist-bumping your biggest rival at the finish line, even if you don’t finish first.

Here on the east coast, public riding locations are a bit scarce and often mean a long drive to reach. Racing in the local off-road series means getting access to exclusive trails on private property. A given race series may return to the same property each year, but will also cut a new course to keep things interesting and preserve the land.

I will never minimize the value of taking riding classes or getting a coach. With that, I cannot overstate the fact that racing teaches riding skills at an exponential rate. Certainly, you can learn bad habits, however, by watching people that are faster than you, you’ll discover new ways to overcome obstacles. Moreover, as stated elsewhere, the eagerness to conserve energy almost forces you to learn to ride better because you’re simply tired of feeling exhausted.

What do I need to get started?

A mechanically sound off-road motorcycle, reliable bike transportation, some cash in your wallet, and a positive attitude.

You’ll also need to know where to go. Here in southwest Ohio, we have no less than three racing series to choose from (OXCR, IXCR, and KXCR). While not exactly local, there’s also the AMA Grand National Cross Country (GNCC) series here on the east coast (there are rounds in Indiana, West Virginia, and Ohio that I know of). Tapping some friends on the shoulder and some googling will undoubtedly lead you to a local series.

From there, spend some time going over your bike. Spend a few bucks to fix those nagging repairs you’ve been putting off. Get a fresh set of brake pads, and if you haven’t already make sure you have a good skid plate and some handguards. An investment in a good set of knobby tires is also a wise decision. If it’s dry, about any tires will do… if it’s muddy, that extra cash spent may mean the difference between making a hill climb and picking up your bike for the third time.

How do I prepare myself for racing?

I’ll repeat this until I’m blue in the face “The first rule of Zombieland is Cardio”. I started racing after adventure riding for a few years. It’s a diametrically different experience. To me, adventure riding meant riding hard trails, but it was almost always a group affair, and you’ll always end up taking a break somewhere. Racing means giving it everything you have until the clock stops. In my case, that’s riding flat out for 2 hours in Kentucky. You’re tired, and when you crash, you’re even more tired from picking up the bike. Exertion is cumulative, each time you drop the bike, the more tired you’ll be, and the more mistakes you’ll make because you’re exhausted. The more fit you are, the less you’re affected by pushing hard and picking up the bike, and most importantly the fewer mistakes you’ll make later.

That said, this isn’t a requirement. I sat on my butt a lot in 2019. I obviously didn’t finish well because I was tired, but still finished. I don’t recommend signing up for a gym membership before racing, give it a go and see if you like it, and use that as motivation to get in shape if you’re having a good time.

With that, there’s fit and there’s bike fit. Per my previous comments, the body wants to put in the least amount of effort possible. Cardio is good, but not at the expense of seat time. Riding the bike in hard conditions can simulate bike cardio and help teach you the skills necessary to keep the bike upright in bad conditions.

Attitude is Everything

Most of us mortals are highly unlikely to make the podium on day one. Racing is humbling. I thought I knew how to ride when I showed up at my first race. Boy was I wrong… A few turns in, I questioned if I’d finish at all. Riding home, I questioned if I’d ever race again. That evening I questioned if I had fun. After a week or so I realized I had a great time and couldn’t wait to do it again.

For some, staring defeat in the face is a motivator. They feel pushed to keep going, just to finish. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea, so don’t lose sight of what makes motorcycling “fun” for you. There’s nothing wrong with signing up to “trail ride” a race and just enjoying access to fresh singletrack you’d never get a chance to ride otherwise. Looking back at a few tracks I’ve raced, I wish I could have slowed down to enjoy the view. Most importantly, don’t sacrifice your body or your bike just to cross the finish line. Also, there are course marshalls all along the trail to help keep people moving along the track. I’ve seen course marshalls ride bikes up gnarly hill climbs for trail riders so folks can keep going.

What skills do I need?

This answer is going to vary for everyone. From my perspective, I struggle with starts, sharp turns at high speed, and generally staying on the bike. I find most people struggle with hills, both climbs, and steep descents, and especially what to do when they’re “stuck”. It’s worth your time to find a place to ride locally and practice all of these things. Get stuck on purpose, try obstacles you find intimidating, and work on improving your balance on and off the bike. Doing difficult things slowly will pay dividends later.

It would also behoove of you to know some basic maintenance on your bike. What to mess with when you’re having a hard time getting it started. Knowing how to fix a flat tire would also be a wise skill; not necessary for the first race, but it will likely make it more enjoyable if you get a flat, versus packing up a broken bike and going home. I also recommend you know what basic tools you need to work on your bike so you can bring some with you, including a few small tools while racing. I bent foot pedals, twisted front forks, and knocked handguards askew a lot in early races, that stuff is pretty annoying when you’re already struggling in a race. A set of vice grips, zip ties, and an Allen wrench can often get you out of a pinch.

What gear do I need?

You’ll get varying advice from everyone, but I’m firm on good moto boots, a helmet that fits correctly, a roost guard (chest protector), and shin/knee guards.

Goggles are another must. They come in all shapes and sizes and don’t forget the tear-offs. You’ll also want to practice wearing goggles with tear-offs in some crappy situations. If you’re not used to your goggles fogging, you’ll want to be prepared for that, it’s going to happen on race day.

I personally recommend elbow pads. Maybe I’m old, but I see a lot of racers skipping those. After busting my elbow on hardpack dirt that stung the next day, I’m glad I wore elbow pads.

Gloves is kind of a given, and there are a million to choose from. For typical motocross racing, I see a lot of folks wearing the motorcycle equivalent of Mechanix gloves. I personally pay a bit extra for a heavier set, which also includes a knuckle guard. I beat my hands up pretty good picking the bike up off rocks and whatnot, so it’s one less thing I want to worry about. Your mileage may vary.

I highly recommend you invest in a water bladder of some kind. After years in the desert, I wear a Camelbak religiously, but it really depends on how well you hydrate, fitness, and all that.

Lastly, you may want to bring an action camera. Most of us aren’t going to become professional YouTubers, but sometimes watching the race after the fact will show you where you made mistakes and can improve. The video might help you see better lines and what the faster riders are doing that you’re not. If nothing else, you and your friends can laugh at the carnage.

What’s the first race going to be like?

Here in southwest Ohio, I’m usually a two-hour drive from the closest race. I get up early, load the bike on the Jeep and head out with enough time to get gas, and take at least one break on the way there (be it breakfast or a necessary “pre-game pitstop”). Having been through this process a lot, I usually show up about an hour before the race starts. First go-round, I recommend you allot for as much time as possible (more on that in a second).

When you roll up to the entrance there will be a gate fee. Locally it’s like $10-20 (it may be per person; I’m always solo so I don’t know). I always ask the gate person where the registration booth is, you’ll be headed there first. You’ll likely notice a large number of RVs and Campers in the parking area. I try to find a spot that’s close to registration, or at least somewhere with firm ground and easy to get out of when it’s time to leave (I’ve raced a lot of mudders and seen people get stuck).

You’ll want to take your helmet up to registration as soon as you get parked. For your first race, you’ll pay a registration fee (~$40), and you’ll need to buy your race transponder (~$10). The transponder is a sticker that goes under your visor that keeps track of your laps when you ride through scoring. I also recommend “pre-registering” if you know you’re going to show up “rain or shine”, which lets you skip ahead in line, which may be exceptionally long depending on weather and time of year. Locally, registration will also give you “cheek” numbers for your helmet; these are used as a secondary method to keep track of how many laps you’ve done to make sure electronic scoring is accurate. Lastly, you’ll get a “row sticker” for the back of your helmet; this sticker will tell you where to line up at the start and is based on whatever “Class” you told registration you wanted to compete in.

Once you’re paid up, head back to your bike to get things prepped to ride. I always bleed my forks and check tire pressure before a race. A moto race stand isn’t necessarily required for this, but it sure makes the job easier. I typically start the bike and let it warm up some while I start getting dressed. I make sure my action Camera is working, fill my Camelbak, and packed with a few hand tools, then head over to the starting line.

Depending on how early you arrive, you may have time to watch some of the preceding races. I get kicks out of watching the PeeWees race, every time. A lot of those kids have more talent on a dirt bike than I ever will. You may also want to scope out the food truck, for a pre-race snack or to know where it is for some grub afterward.

As time gets closer, you’ll see other riders headed toward the start in droves, just in case you’re not sure where it is. You’ll see rows marked with big numbers and you line up with the rest of the folks competing in your class. I try to look over my bike one last time, make sure the gas is “on”, etc. I also take this time to stretch a little bit.

Eventually, you’ll hear the announcer talk about the course, some tips, and rules, and then they’ll play the national anthem. And then you wait. This is the worst part of the race for me. You’ll be standing in line, waiting for the race to start, anticipating what’s about to happen. That’s when nerves finally start getting to me. It’s obviously better now after many races, but I’m anxious every single time.

The announcer will say “10 seconds”, and the flagman will wave the green flag for the first row. Starts are typically “dead engine” starts, so you can kick start your engine as the first few rows take off, to make sure it’s still warm. The flagman will wave a red flag for everyone to shut down, and then the process repeats until every row is on the course.

A hot tip from my buddy Jake, “You can’t win the whole race in the first turn, but you can lose it all right there”. Remembering that I have to be at work the next day, I tend to hold back a bit to let the “hard-chargers” get upfront to bang bars and whatnot. Do what you feel comfortable with obviously. For me, hanging back means dealing with more traffic as the course tightens up, but it beats being run into.

From there, you go around the course as many times as you can until time runs out. As you reach scoring, you’ll see a flagman waving yellow “caution” to have everyone ride single file, slowly through the timing gate. They will also wave white and then the checkered flag depending on how many laps you get in (I’ve seen just checkers in the past).

You’ll be tired, you may be miserable, but hopefully smiling. Ideally, you’ll still finish, but even if you don’t, the course marshalls will help you get back to the finish (they have tow straps, tools, ATVs, and whatever it takes to keep riders safe and get them home). Regardless of how you finish, you should feel accomplished, most people stay home on Sunday, but you’re trying something “hard”. From here it’s the long ride home, and ideally… that’s when race fever sets in.

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Harley-Davidson Is Doing It Wrong

In recent days Harley-Davidson has trickled out more information about their new “Hard Wire” plan. While there is a lot that goes into this, including information consumers aren’t privy to, the plan in general sounds like “cut expenses, maximize margins, and concentrate on core products”.

From most other companies, that might be dabbling in markets outside their main customer base, I would say this strategy makes perfect sense (coming from a guy that’s never run a company). Unfortunately, Harley-Davidson has a very clear track record of NOT drifting away from its core products. Buell was closed, MV Agusta was sold, the V-rod was a one-off project, and I’m sure there are other stories akin to these.

So what’s the problem?

Harley-Davidson shareholders are unhappy with the company’s performance.

Why is this happening?

I’ve written about this before, but there is a myriad of reasons, and I suspect all of them are correct in one way or another. Harley’s are expensive in an age where wages have not kept up with inflation (allegedly). Boomer and Gen-X helicopter parents have given birth to a generation of tech-savvy, risk-averse children. Millennials want to have “experiences” and not accumulate “stuff”. Boats and motorcycles are no longer the status symbol of choice… and the list goes on.

As a guy born on the leading edge of the millennial generation, the son of a Harley owning baby boomer, in my mind there are a couple of obvious reasons this is happening:
Harley-Davidson has an image problem and only sells premium cruisers.

Translation: Until recently, Harley-Davidson commanded “premium” status but more recently began to signify the pinnacle of “Keeping up with the Joneses” in the Millennial eye, if not just “the bike my grandpa rode”. One could feasibly buy two new motorcycles for the price of one staple Harley-Davidson, each of which offering a wider range of riding capabilities.

Before I go any further, I want to clarify: I like Harley-Davidson motorcycles. I’ve never owned a Harley, but I have ridden many of them. For folks unfamiliar, my first “motorcycle” was a cruiser. I was a member of a military motorcycle club for a while and like to think I understand that demographic and what many cruiser owners enjoy about motorcycling. Cruisers are not currently high on the list of “how I like to motorcycle”, but I suspect they may be again someday.

I’ve also gone through a phase of “Harley isn’t worth the money”, “I’d never buy a Harley”, “they’re not that good of a motorcycle” and (insert trope here) but have come full circle at this point. Motorcycles are tools, each of them does something different. A day on a motorcycle is better than a day at work, every time. What everyone likes best about motorcycles is very different, and the bikes moreso. This sentiment will mean more in the words that follow.

What do I think Harley-Davidson is doing?

According to the news, they’re cutting expenses, trying to maintain profits, and focusing on what they think they’re good at. This means concentrating on selling bikes with larger margins, eliminating low profit bikes, and most importantly, deliberately trimming the number of units built each year, limiting the supply in an attempt to prop up demand from a shrinking customer base.

All of that to say that I believe what they’re actually doing is trying to appear “profitable” to appease shareholders and strategically position the company for purchase by a larger company that can inject capital into the brand so that it can evolve and survive. photo

All of this makes me think of when I first started looking at motorcycles. I didn’t want a bike that “everyone else had”, so I looked at Triumph and Indian motorcycles. The latter is of particular interest in this case because, at the time, dealers were scarce, prices were high, and I suspect the number of units sold each year was low.

I bring up the “King’s Mountain” Indian era because that is who I believe Harley-Davidson will become. If Harley-Davidson stays on this road, I believe they will become irrelevant. The Motor Company will become an American boutique brand offering a premium product for a niche market that appreciates that image and can afford to pay for it.

Now, if Harley received the correct injection of capital, perhaps it too could have the Cinderella story that Indian is currently experiencing. That said, while there are lots of Indian motorcycle dealers around the country now (my closest is an hour away), they too are still struggling with their identity. The FTR 1200 is a step in the right direction, but Indian is also a very slow-moving ship, selling primarily heavyweight cruisers, both in kilograms and pounds sterling. If they don’t get it in gear soon, they too will be facing similar financial hurdles.

It doesn’t have to go this way.

Where did Harley go wrong?

Someone sitting behind a desk, looking at financials did what they always do with publicly traded companies, they fired someone recommending they evolve and experience a fundamental change in values. They slashed every project that appeared unprofitable (that’s any research and development project as it by definition hasn’t realized any profits), asked what their best selling products are, who their primary customers are, and said “let’s focus on selling these products to those people”.

Amid the “stick to what we’re good at” conversation, people sitting behind desks missed out on some key strengths.


Have you ever seen anyone with a Honda tattoo? I’m sure they’re out there, but I’ve never seen one. However, I’ve seen dozens of Harley-Davidson tattoos. People love what the Motor Company represents so much they permanently mark their own bodies with a logo. That’s marketing and brand loyalty that most brands would kill for.

Harley-Davidson is a marketing machine, like none other. Jensen Beeler of Asphalt & Rubber has said that HOG (Harley Owners Group) is a major topic of discussion in business school because it’s been so successful in keeping a customer base loyal to a brand. Say whatever you want about their motorcycles, how fast they go and how they sound, like “Kleenex” and “Coke” the word “Harley-Davidson” and “Motorcycle” are interchangeable for a lot of Americans.

Dealer Network

The best article I could find suggested that there are over 700 Harley-Davidson dealerships in the US; roughly 2 for every major metropolitan area. I can think of 3 right off hand here in Dayton; 4 more in Cincinnati 45 minutes away.

When shopping for a new bike, I hear many riders lament that they would purchase motorcycle brand “X”, but they don’t have a dealer in town and they worry about having problems with the bike. Aside from having a shop on every street corner, Harley-Davidson is also known for its stocked showrooms, merchandise, and proximity to the interstate. The orange and black showrooms are strategically located to dominate the attention of prospective riders and build a network that sets fear at ease with regards to getting parts and service.

Simplicity and Ease of Ownership

I have a Triumph twin that requires valve clearance checks every 12,000 miles. In the past, that meant I was tearing it apart twice a year. Do you know what would have been less work and cheaper? Buying a Sportster.

Akin to “they leak oil”, I often read comments to the effect of “unreliable” and “1930’s technology” when the latest Harley article is published. For whatever reason, people seem to think that push-rod engines are antiquated technology and shouldn’t be on motorcycles. I assume these comments are made by people that don’t adjust valve clearances every season. Again, engines are tools, for different jobs, and like all things, design features come at a cost. Two-strokes have double the power of four-strokes but also require top-end maintenance twice as often. Inversely two-stroke maintenance is cheap because the system is simpler, so which do you prefer? In the case of Harley-Davidson, their engines don’t spin very fast, are under-square (stroke is longer than bore diameter), and have push-rod valve trains. Straight-fours spin well over ten-thousand RPMs and make 200 horsepower, but have cam chains and manually adjusted “shim-under-bucket” valve tappets. Not to mention the painstaking process of removing the Tupperware and electronic gadgets necessary to get to the engine. Performance comes at a cost, not to mention, most of that performance cannot be realized at legal speeds. Longer stroke means gobs of torque, resistance to stalling, but pushrods limit RPMs and therefore truncate horsepower. However, pushrods with hydraulically adjusted valves means never opening an engine until it’s time for a major overhaul. Different strokes for different folks.

Infinite Customization

Look, neither studs and leather nor farkles and techno-wiz-bang-ery do much for me. However, that’s absolutely “a thing” for a large portion of the rider population, regardless of riding taste. The Starbucks brigade and the asphalt pirates both enjoy bolting stuff to their bikes and geeking out over it in the parking lot with their buds. More power to them. The selling point here is that if there’s something you want to do with your Harley, someone has tried it before, and someone is ready to sell you the parts to get it done. Want to slam your bagger or scramble your sporty? No problem. Moreover, this circles back to dealer network and market share, it’s less work to find “how-to” walkthroughs for wrenching on your Harley, and as I just said, part sourcing is infinitely easier and is likely right up the road.

So where is Harley now falling short?

First, if reduced supply is what is going to maintain demand and by extension profitability, then I expect dealers to close. That whole spiel about dealer network becomes a moot point. There’s an argument to be made that this was going to happen anyway. That’s certainly a possibility, and we can discuss that further at some point as well, but in the meantime, that’s a business plan with brand wounding potential. To the layman, news of dealers closing sounds just as bad as profit losses.

However, with regard to simplicity and ease of ownership, they may be maintaining that streak by focusing on high-margin touring bikes, but I suspect the new engine platform is radically different. The new revolution max engine appears to be an overhead cam design. This isn’t Harley’s first foray into DOHC architecture, the V-rod was a performance engine, and that’s actually why I’m concerned about this choice.

Under Levatich, “more roads to Harley-Davidson” felt like a branching out approach to bring more riders onto the brand and “100 new bikes” to offer models these new riders were interested in. The MoCo was already heading down that road when someone pulled on the reigns and suggested they trim expenses. These new platforms, like the Pan America, were already too far along to halt production. Harley suddenly seems very tight-lipped about “Bronx” and the host of other new models we expected to see at this point. This new engine platform is likely a radical departure from the push-rod big-bore V-twins that will continue to dominate the showroom. In a culture where folks have said “that’s not a real Harley”, I have a hard time believing the rank and file dealership staff is chomping at the bit to sell this new bike that Harley suddenly seems reluctant to talk about. Meanwhile, crusty Aerostich clad spacemen will suddenly be entering showrooms to see this new Pan America, adding a whole new customer demographic that is typically diametrically divergent from their “core customer base”.

What would I have done differently?

In short, use the marketing machine to promote the simplicity, reliability, and capability of the brand. Branch out into new riding segments, but focus on the strengths of the brand to differentiate, not imitate the motorcycles from the competition. Simultaneously, embrace the millennial mantra that a motorcycle is a vehicle to an experience.

Again, some folks may scoff at “Harley-Davidson reliability”. Initially, those people are not likely to be future customers. That’s okay, not everyone wants a certain type of motorcycle. However, when more and more people start seeing bikes like the Pan America in the wild, they see what the bike can do, and suddenly realize it’s a viable option for the kind of fun they are looking for. That’s the key, people must see it to believe it. People have seen leather and chrome for generations. That’s what Harley was selling, and what the majority of the American motorcycle population was looking for. The Bar & Shield needs to shift the marketing machine’s focus toward what Harley owners have known for a long time; having a Harley means simple maintenance, ease of ownership, and bikes that have character in spades.

I agree Harley-Davidson would be wise to slow down on loud pipes, copious chrome, and slammed suspension. However, I think evolutionary change is a better game plan for the brand than radical swings in product offerings. I fear the Harley faithful are confused by what the brand is doing and the naysayers still shy away from the “new” products they’re selling. However, as I’ve published elsewhere, if the brand embraces a scramblerized and “sportier” Sportster, it’s low effort from the engineering department and incremental change among the customer base. Aside from looming emissions standards, these are changes Harley and be doing now, not waiting on a new model release. With that, a cruiser chassis with an advanced new engine is unlikely to stir interest from non-traditional customers. However, a simple, reliable V-twin in a more neutral chassis could merge into a solid “standard” motorcycle, with the potential to become Harley’s Bonneville. At the same time, I’m not saying Harley shouldn’t evolve into more advanced technology, but as other brands are doing, new engine platforms must go into multiple chassis. I also think it’s important that a brand and its engineers don’t forget where they came from and abandon the entrenched strengths of the brand to reach new customers. Harley-Davidson needs to evolve, but it cannot wake up tomorrow and stop being Harley-Davidson.

While I certainly don’t speak for all Millennials, in general, I find most of my peers are value-focused shoppers. They already have the latest smartphones and televisions and frankly don’t need expensive infotainment and navigation systems. TFT dash and Apple CarPlay might be moves in the right direction, but where the bike is going to take them and who’s going to join them is the real kicker. To Harley’s credit, the marketing machine is already starting to move in this direction. Advertisements now include helmets and fully geared riders, along with a wider demographic.

With that, Adventure and off-road riding is obviously a growing segment, and there’s no reason Harley can’t throw their hat in that ring. Most importantly, you don’t need a $20,000 motorcycle to do it. A Sportster with some knobbies can do as much off-roading as a 1250 GS Adventure (ask me how I know ). Harley is right to get into the premium adventure market, but they would be foolish to abandon the younger crowd; a population that has less money to spend, but the youth to afford “bad decisions” in the name of “it makes for a good story”. Buying a simpler, more affordable Harley means more money for gas and tires, and more beers with their friends around the campfire, and wrenching in the garage because it’s feasible to do so. As folks get older, they shy away from risk but typically have more disposable income. That adventure touring motorcycle starts making a lot more sense, and the creature comforts that come with it.

Harley-Davidson might be wise to maintain its premium status. I won’t debate that, it’s a business decision for people with experience in “business”. Triumph made a hard shift in that direction in 2016 with the new Bonneville platform and subsequent models since. Best as I can tell, it’s working for them. However, selling a premium bike that’s not as expensive as a car, is also an option (again, the Triumph Street Twin).

Moreover, an expensive bike with “new” technology that still weighs a ton is a non-starter. If the bike is affordable, but maintaining the bike implies selling an organ, that reputation is going to get around and become another deal-breaker with a generation of future buyers. (I.e. the Ducati of a not so distant past). It’s essential that Harley-Davidson attract the attention of the Millennial generation now. If they wait until Millennials can afford premium touring machines, they’ll be confronted by the memories of “their dad’s bike”, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. That is why I’m concerned about this “5-year plan” the MoCo is on now, if they wait much longer, I fear the ship has sailed.

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Are Motorcycles a Path to Rehabilitation?

I’ve been sitting on this story for a long time. It’s been rolling around in the back of my mind for several years now (like a BB in a boxcar), but I’ve struggled to put pen to paper. After reading one of Chris Cope’s recent blurbs I decided it was time.

After spending two years in the middle east, I returned home for the last time to start a “new” life. Reintegration into civilian life was not a smooth transition. Fortunately, some strange things happened, and unbeknownst to me, the obsession of riding brought about positive change despite shitty conditions. I believe this change is possible for more people. So much so, that I wanted to get this message in front of a larger audience. Today the full story is up on Revzilla; if you would take a few minutes to give it a read and share it with your friends that you think might benefit from it:

Returning from war: How motorcycles made me whole again

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Icon Raiden Jacket and Pants: Adventure Gear Review

New for 2020, Icon has gone back to the drawing board for a full redesign of their Raiden gear. Now in its 3rd generation (arguably 4th), this year Icon has made a host of changes to the venerable Raiden adventure gear, including materials, layout, features, and fitment.

In the interest of transparency, let me cover some official business. A while back, a good buddy over at Tirox linked me up with the marketing folks at Icon. I bought a full set of the Icon DKR kit a few years back. That gear tackled the Daniel Boone Backcountry Byway, tropical storm Irma at the Dragon Raid, and the lion’s share of the Ride 365 challenge. After crashing in that gear in February of ’19, it needed replacing. Budget, availability, and exposure to new things led me to try out a different set of replacement gear. However, after some conversations with folks over at Icon, they sent me a set of the new Raiden gear to test out.


For folks already familiar with Icon gear, I’m sure you’re curious about sizing. In my experience, Icon gear (designed in Portland, Oregon) is generally more relaxed than most of the popular European brands. My previous Icon DKR jacket was a size medium, and if I was honest with myself, I probably should have been wearing a small. Based on advice from Icon, after consulting the sizing chart, I actually went with a size large in the new Raiden jacket. The new jacket is more tailored than the previous generation DKR jacket. That said, at 5’10”, 180 pounds, I feel like I’m between sizes. I could probably fit in a size medium, but might be a little cranky when piling on layers for cold weather riding this winter. However, the new Raiden jacket fits comfortably in a size large with the thermal layer installed.

When I ordered my original DKR pants a few years back I went with a size medium but had to ship them back for a size small. Today Icon’s over-pant sizing chart puts me directly in size medium for the new Raiden pants. I want to emphasize “over-pant” sizing, these pants are designed a little more relaxed so you can wear the pants over casual clothes and so on. For summer riding, if you prefer riding commando… you may want to select a size down. In my case, I want to wear these pants with thermals in the winter, so they’re about spot on.


Those familiar with the previous Raiden Patrol and DKR iterations, the new Raiden gear again arrives with a waterproof outer layer, a full suite of D3O armor (including back protector), and abrasion-resistant materials on the joints. The pants again arrive with optional suspenders, or zippered jacket attachment if you so choose. Just like the jacket, pants also come equipped with D3O knee and hip armor as standard features.

The “monkey paw”, magnetic closure, handkerchief waterproof pocket, and hydration system from the DKR series has been removed this year, in favor of a revised ventilation scheme and better hot weather performance. The overall material is a little thinner than the previous generation, including a redesigned mesh “comfort liner”; much different than the loose, baggy comfort liner you’re accustomed to seeing on summer-weight gear from competitive brands (more on that in a minute). Meanwhile, ADV staples like spacious handwarmer pockets, zip-in thermal liner, and rear pouch are all back again with this rendition of the Raiden Jacket.

Airflow and wet weather tolerance were both hallmarks of the previous generation DKR Jacket (the former not so much for the pants, but I’ll circle back to that). With this latest iteration, Icon has shifted and redesigned the chest vents for increased airflow. The vents now have a cord and hook “stay” to hold the chest vents open. Along with removing the “monkey paw”, additional vents have been added to the wrist to facilitate more active venting up the sleeve and out the armpit and rear exhaust vents.

Per my previous comments, the magnetic closure from the DKR series jacket has been replaced with a traditional zipper closure (with rain gutter). In line with the tailoring of the jacket, the collar has been redesigned for a closer fit with optional cinch cord and a new velcro closure, in lieu of the DKR push button. The collar also has 3 different cord and hook “stays” to choose from that hold the collar open for extra airflow on the hot days. Similar to the collar, cord and hook adjusters have been added to the bicep for better fitment and to keep the elbow armor in place. The Elastic waist pulls have been replaced with 4 nylon adjustment straps to snug up the jacket when the temps drop. That before mentioned thermal liner also zips in independently on both sides; meaning it’s also meant to be worn separately from the jacket.

While the evolution of the jacket is noteworthy, the changes to the pants are the most significant. The previous generation DKR pants were thicker than the DKR jacket but lacked the thermal liner. Like its predecessor, the new Raiden pants have heat-resistant materials on the inside of the leg to protect from hot exhaust, weatherproof outer layer, bibs, handwarmer pockets, and full-length zippers to make it easier to put the pants on over boots. The stirrups from the DKR pants have been removed in favor of a 3 button, elastic rain gaiter, along with velcro ankle closure that accommodates larger adventure or motocross boots. The new Raiden pants also come with additional thigh pockets and side exhaust vents.


Beyond the spec sheet, after spending countless hours in the saddle with this new Raiden kit (including Red River Scramble and another Iron Butt), it’s evident that Icon put significant emphasis on improved summer tolerance with this latest generation of all-season adventure gear, while still maintaining the Raiden reputation for exceptional wet-weather performance. The newest rendition feels”lighter” than the previous DKR kit; both in weight, flexibility, and temperature tolerance. Impact zones are lined with 500D Cordura Nylon while the inner “comfort liner” is thinner than the previous version and fits closer to the outside layer which increases airflow inside the garments. Velcro closures, taped seams, and waterproof materials are sometimes abrasive to the skin, so I was initially concerned about removing the traditional, thick, mesh comfort liner. Surprisingly, this new Raiden gear still feels soft to the touch. Similar to the DKR gear, the D3O pockets are again made from soft microfiber that doesn’t rub your knees raw on a long day’s ride. All this combined with the relaxed fit, the Raiden gear is simply comfortable to wear.

My most recent experience with competing adventure gear included an internal waterproof liner (versus external). I admit the interior waterproof liner typically means the hot weather tolerance, sans liner, is much more comfortable (75°F and warmer). However, when it comes to getting stuck in an unplanned rain shower, it’s more of a process to get the rain liner installed on the side of the road, or worse, putting a rain jacket on over the gear; completely defeating the purpose of the “included” rain liner. Not to mention, you now have a soaking wet jacket on top of a rain liner, while still (mostly) functional, it’s inconvenient if nothing else. Somewhere in eastern Virginia a few weeks back, the skies opened up, including a little hail. Needless to say, I was happy to have the versatility of the Raiden gear’s exterior waterproof liner while avoiding the fuss of digging through the pannier for rain gear. I zipped the vents shut and I was ready to brave the elements.


Styling is certainly a matter of taste. Icon’s signature graphics and vivid colors are unquestionably what drew me to the brand years ago. On the flip side, I want to give Icon props for dialing it back a notch with their adventure gear. This is a gross statement and brave assumption on my part, but I think overall the ADV crowd is a bit more conservative than the typical urban street rider (perhaps something to do with age and the cost of entry?), so I think this is a good play on their part. That aside, I am a fan of the copious high-viz yellow details and color combinations offered thus far.

This latest rendition of Raiden gear has blended the best parts of the previous-gen DKR gear with more popular features seen on competing adventure gear. The wrist vents are a welcome addition, with the removal of the DKR’s monkey paw, the new wrist vents get substantially more air through the arms and across the torso than the previous model. Furthermore, while I love the idea of having pockets all over for every contingency (like a former jacket of mine), the reality is that most of my pockets go unused, so I think it wise that Icon skipped the excess clutter in favor of improved chest vents. Originally I thought I would have preferred the chest vents provided direct airflow on the rider, however, I think Icon made the right call to make these passive vents. I say this because front-facing zippers are about guaranteed to leak during heavy rain, so the passive venting in front of the rain liner keeps the rider dry while providing a pocket of cooler air.

If I’ve not mentioned elsewhere, I’m quite comfortable here on the D3O bandwagon. In a world where “back protector sold separately” is the standard verbiage strategically hidden in the item description, it’s nice to see Icon including a full set of D3O armor in both the jacket and pants. These days it seems like manufacturers are skipping the back and hip protectors as a way to trim cost from the gear (and yet not lowering the price), Icon hasn’t taken that shortcut. With that, Icon is still including a removable thermal liner with the Raiden jacket. I’ll accept arguments that a thermal liner is superfluous for the fully electric winter gear crowd. While I also have electrics, I’m still pretty old school most of the time and simply don’t want to fuss with all the extra steps necessary to get riding. I really appreciate that heated gear when I’m crossing state lines in February, but for the daily 20-minute ride to the office, traditional sniffle gear is plenty effective. Moreover, that stand-alone Raiden jacket thermal was a welcome company when I was sleeping on a couch in a hospital room during my wife’s last stay in recent weeks; I’m sure it will be equally welcome next to the fire on an adventure weekend this fall.

Like so many things with the motorcycle community, I do think some folks will struggle with fitment. I know riders that want gear to be form-fitting, with armor exactly in place; with others much more interested in how it looks and keeps them dry than how safe they feel. With images of sliding on asphalt still fresh in my memory, armor positioning and safety are very prevalent in how I review gear. However, it’s not uncommon for my posterior to occupy the saddle from sunup to sundown, and as trendy as skinny jeans may be, I much prefer the relaxed fit of Icon’s gear. Finding the size that splits the difference is key. The new bicep adjustment on the jacket is a welcome addition that adds flexibility to the new Raiden jacket. Personally, I would like to see Icon add a second adjustment on the forearm to really lock that elbow armor in position when I expect riding to get spirited, however, per my comments above, with my puny arms it’s about spot on with a thermal installed. Looking at the preceding DKR pants, options for armor position adjustment were pretty scarce. I used the stirrups on the old gear to keep the cold air and water out, but also to reinforce the knee pad position. The rain gaiters and the adjustable ankle closure are a big improvement for function and fitment on the Raiden pants; combined with the fact there’s now spacious accommodation for hardy dirt-worthy boots and still keep the rain out.

Speaking of which, this iteration of Raiden pants is a big step up from the former DKR variety. The ankle closer and rain gaiter alone are welcome additions, but the thigh pockets, exhaust vents, and material changes are icing on the cake. The conveniently located thigh pockets make it a lot easier to fish out my wallet at the gas pump. As far as materials go, as I mentioned before, the reduction in the comfort liner weight makes the material feel “lighter”, but not just that, the former DKR pants had a sewn-in thermal layer the DKR jacket lacked. That integrated liner made the DKR pants a bit toasty on those summer days, but still not warm enough to combat the sting of the midwestern winter. This generation of Raiden pants has the same outer material thickness as the jacket, along with the addition of exhaust vents. I do wish the pants came with a zip-in thermal liner, however, they are sold as “Over Pants” and I have a closet full of sniffle gear that gets the job done.

As far as cold weather is concerned, we’re just now getting our first frost warnings of fall. Thus, I haven’t had the chance to put this gear through my usual winter abuse. That said, I’ve now punished enough gear through midwestern winters to get a gross feel for what to expect. Due to the spacious neckline and collar closure on my old DKR jacket, I found myself wearing a neck gaiter at much higher temperatures than previous jackets. With the more tailored fit of the Raiden jacket, the collar is more form-fitting, which does a much better job of keeping cold air out when closed completely or holding the collar open for more air on the 90° commutes home from the office in July. At the same time, while I sometimes bemoan velcro because it breaks down over time (I don’t care what they say, a moron designed the Army Combat Uniform). However, I think the change to the velcro closure on the Raiden Jacket was on point considering I struggled to close the DKR button collar one-handed.

While not crash-tested, and hopefully never, I think prospective buyers will appreciate the Icon’s upgrades to the Raiden gear this year. I think most folks struggled with sizing and fitment in the past. To reinforce what I said earlier if you’re going to wear this gear in primarily hot weather, and not as an overgarment, you’ll likely want to go down one size from the size chart. However, if you’re going to wear the Raiden kit as a 3-season winter setup with thermals and so on, I expect folks to appreciate the more tailored fit of this year’s gear per the Icon sizing chart. Either way, I can’t praise Icon enough for evolving the Raiden line based on feedback from the customers; this new gear is virtually everything I would have asked for from Icon after spending years in the DKR gear.

2020 Icon Raiden Jacket (Gray HiViz)

2020 Icon Raiden Pants (Gray HiViz)




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Ride 1000 miles in 24 hours: Why Would Anyone Do That?

With the mercury hovering in the mid-sixties, my teeth chattered in my helmet as I watched the damp fog rise out of the cornfields and waft onto the highway. DCIM129GOPROThe morning sun finally started to emerge above the tree line as I pulled into a Sheetz station just outside of Wheeling to top off. Tap dancing in the parking lot to get the blood flowing, I scarfed down a Shmiscuit in desperation to find warmth. I left Dayton geared up from head to toe but apparently not enough because somehow the morning air was just sapping body heat right out of me. I’d been on the road through almost 200 miles of darkness, and still had a full day of riding to go.

The above tale is how my morning started out last August;Triumph Scrambler 1200 XE Virginia Farm MotoADVR a 500-mile ride to Virginia to go test ride a Scrambler 1200 (Big thanks to Triumph of Harrisonburg), just to turn around and immediately ride back home. A 20-hour ordeal full of highs and lows, with more hours in darkness than I’d like to repeat. Having said all that, I’m gonna let you in on a little secret: I hate riding on the interstate. The highway is monotonous; chocked full of disinterested traffic, making for otherwise unremarkable, dull experience. If I had to describe my favorite type of (paved) roads, it would probably be a tangled ribbon through a mountain pass or a neglected goat path through Kentucky Amish country. But what if I said, I like to ride the interstate for (almost) an entire day about once a year? Like truly enjoy it, to the point I’ve done it multiple times, with intentions of more.

Iron Butt Paperwork MotoADVRShivering in the cold, monkey butt from the long hours on a factory saddle, and soggy feet from failed waterproof boots doesn’t sound like fun to most people. On most days, I’m in complete in agreement; but I can’t deny, I get sick kicks out of doing “hard” things. Like anything else, difficulty is a matter of opinion. In my case, I find riding a motorcycle from sunup to sundown over long distances difficult; more specifically, documenting an Iron Butt Ride.

For some, the prospect of riding 1,000 plus miles in one day is unthinkable; for others, it’s not even seen as a challenge. Triumph Scrambler Appalachian Mountains Virginia MotoADVRTastes in riding are as diverse as the people that do it; in my case, I’m not spending a moment on flat, straight pavement unless the payoff is worth the tedium. Thus, where I’ve discovered the challenge: having the tenacity to endure the boring, repetitive nature of the “all-day” commute. With the right bike, and the right setup for the rider, finding comfort for an Iron Butt ride isn’t nearly as difficult. With the right route and enough entertainment, the scenery, and some good podcasts, staying entertained for 18 plus hours isn’t necessarily difficult. However, riding an ironing board the journalists call a “styling exercise”, having your GPS take a crap, feeling your footpeg coming loose at 80 MPH (allegedly), and riding into a hailstorm make for exciting, if not challenging events.

Certainly, you don’t need to ride a thousand miles in a day to find excuses to have breakdowns and endure the elements, you can do that anytime. I, however, I’ve discovered that I like to use a long-haul ride as a confidence booster for recent maintenance I may have done. The bikes I have parked out back in the “pig pen” tend to hang around for a while, and thus have various “afflictions” that need tending to from time to time. Triumph SCrambler Valve AdjustmentAfter the slow tedious process of getting the Scrambler back up to speed after it spent years as the breadwinner, I wanted to give it a proper shakedown, which ultimately gave birth to the before-mentioned trip to out to the Shenandoah Valley and back. Do you ever get the feeling like you rode away and forgot something? I get that nagging feeling after I’ve installed a new clutch, adjusted the valves, and so on. The fear that I perhaps forgot to torque a bolt to spec or I didn’t balance a tire correctly. It may nag me for a couple of days when I think I “feel” something on the ride to work and so on. To shake off the “demons” I like to “prove” my craftsmanship by “testing” the machine with an all-day ride. Assuming I don’t ride “shotgun” back home in a tow truck, that usually puts the doubts to rest.

Triumph Scrambler Gas Station MotoADVR“There has to be a better way”. My wife is so tired of hearing me say that… about everything. You see, I have a sickness, my mind is preoccupied with finding the most efficient method of accomplishing a task. When asked why I would attempt to ride such distances just to come back home the same day, it finally dawned on me, I enjoy the challenge of finding the most efficient method of getting from point A to point B in the least amount of time. I’m a navigation nerd, so I enjoy looking at maps and figuring out which gas stations are conveniently located right off the exits, and ideally, are open 24-hours. Trying to ride a thousand miles in a day means finding the best way to pack the bike with the most important things where you need them; rain gear stored on top of the tools in my pannier and snacks right under my paperwork in the tank bag. I try to make a habit of going over the bike the day before a big trip, that way I can confirm that all the essentials are packed in that before mentioned tool kit. Icon Raiden Jacket Scorpion EXO-ST1400 MotoADVR“Smooth is fast” definitely rings true here as well, which means forming habits to scribble notes in your trip log about where you’re stopping and what your odometer says when you roll into a stop; topping off the gas tank and not misplacing your keys or your credit card. Speaking of credit cards, being pressed for time means you learn how to think on your feet when your newfound routine is disrupted as your credit card is shut off for “fraud alert” after stopping at the third filling station in three states. You learn how to stay hydrated while riding and what not to eat to avoid those awkward emergency bathroom breaks. Bad weather and bathroom emergencies also help highlight any issues you may have with your chosen set of riding gear; over pants and adventure boots are all fun and games until that “oh I gotta’ go” thought hits you.

As with taste in roads, the definition of “a good day’s ride” depends on who you ask. I remember being exhausted after the 160-mile trip to grandma’s, but I also know people that don’t stop for breakfast until they’ve emptied the 7-gallon tank on their ST1300. Harley Heritage Softail Triumph Scrambler Stecoah MotoADVRTraining, or forcing yourself to tackle a thousand miles in a day shows you what you’re capable of; it demonstrates the destinations you could potentially reach in a day and tells you how much ground you can safely cover in a pinch. With that, like many of you, I have limited vacation time. As much as I would like to spend weeks taking my time and stopping in all the no-name towns around the country, sometimes I need to burn down the highway to get somewhere. Living in the Midwest means I have to commute to the type of roads (and trails) that I prefer to ride, having the experience of a full, non-stop day in the saddle means I can potentially reach destinations in a day instead of two, and still be rested to enjoy the fun riding the next morning. This obviously isn’t for everyone, but I see this as another tool in my toolbox when time is at a premium.

Lastly, I have to be honest, I also find a strange satisfaction out of doing seemingly ridiculous things. There was certainly a time when that passion was fueled by an adolescent “I’ll show them” attitude (i.e. who would ride a Scrambler off-road). Right or wrong, I think that mentality shifted to “I want to prove to myself” that I can accomplish “X” task. Triumph Scrambler 1200 XE Triumph of Harrisonburg MotoADVRAt first, it was “will this Scrambler survive 18 hours on the interstate?”, and now I’m asking myself “Will I blow up my 250L if I ride it non-stop to Denver?” I have no doubt a lot of this sounds self-serving, but if done for the right reasons, as with my previous point, it allows you to prove to yourself what you’re really capable of. Again, this isn’t for everyone, but there’s no doubt I enjoy riding motorcycles because it’s not easy. That interest pushed me into racing and continues to motivate me to ride through the night to work up to tackling 1,500 miles in 24 hours or less, and perhaps one day an Iron Butt Rally. For me, off-road racing has been (mostly) a physically demanding endeavor, whereas distance riding has been a mental test; both addicting as it turns out.

For me, what started as a “bucket list” challenge created habits that evolved into modus operandi, and ultimately a passion. What about you, is an Iron Butt ride on your bucket list? If you’ve documented a ride, do you plan on riding another? Or does this all just sound like a terrible way to ruin what makes motorcycling fun?

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Husky in The Holler: KXCR in Clay City

Savage… If I were to sum up “The Holler” in one word, that’s the word.

Humbled… by mother nature; but also the tenacity of my fellow racers.

Grateful… for the opportunity to learn new things, meet new people, and expand the family of racers.

Do hard things.

The greatest things in life are things that you work for. Beat up with a broke bike sucks, but when you find yourself in that position on the far side of the finish line, the sacrifice is worth the effort. It’s a lot more comfortable on the couch watching Netflix on a rainy day, but the experience gained by doing things previously thought impossible is invaluable. The price paid to learn new skills typically means you won’t be replacing those parts next go-round. On the flip side, that means you can raise the stakes, and again, the reward. For most folks, this is a long way from their definition of fun. Even if slogging it out in the rain in the Kentucky Clay isn’t your cup of tea, I still suggest you push the envelope on what you believe is possible. On or off the motorcycle. Remove “can’t” from your vocabulary. At a minimum, force “can’t” into a shotgun wedding with a semicolon. “I can’t do this; YET.”

Looking at the forecast on Monday, it wasn’t looking good. I was dreading another “mudder” in the bluegrass, especially on a two-stroke machine more prone to wheel spin than her docile stablemate. Saturday night the forecast held a glimmer of hope; hope that storms would pass by Clay City. Saturday has dumped a lot of rain already, and there was no such luck Sunday morning. If you’ve not heard me say this elsewhere, I hate being wet. Sliding around the trail with loaded tires and a wet crotch is an insult to injury. Despite wanting to stay home, a little voice in my head said this was “good training weather” and “an opportunity to succeed.” A little peer pressure didn’t hurt either. My buddy Bill decided he was going to give racing a go. Despite knowing the weather the same as I, he wasn’t backing out.

Placing tear-offs on my goggles, I knew it was going to be bad. What I imagined didn’t remotely prepare me for what lied ahead. Sliding backward back down one of the first hills… I rapidly realized the quagmire I got my buddy into…

KXCR Round 2: “The Holler” was an 8-mile course laid out through the Appalachian foothills in Clay City, Kentucky. Husqvarna TE250 KXCR The Holler Bill DeVoreThe course was spectacular. I can only imagine how fast and yet challenging it would have been if remotely dry (we may see this fall). Stuck in traffic on the hillside of an epic climb, I realized I needed to get out of gridlock fast before it got worse. I push the engine too hard and didn’t go fast enough to keep the Husky cool so it overheated. To my shock, I was only passed by one rider while I caught my breath at the top of the hill. I picked Ellinor out of the clay at least twice on the way up that hill; at which point I told myself the goal was simply to finish. I managed to get some pretty decent footage of the race, but there’s no doubt a lot was lost to mud covering the lens. That lost footage included 3 failed attempts on a hill climb around mile 6. The camera died with a clean lens right before my successful run.

I crossed the finish line with 7 minutes to spare; enough time that I was actually permitted to do a second lap. I thought about it for a moment and realized I barely made it up two of the climbs, especially that last doozy. Wasted, I took my single lap as a “win”, assuming it would mean being towed back to camp if I tried to struggle on. 141 racers lined up in their rows for the start. Bill and Drew KXCR The Holler Adam76 crossed the finish line. I finished 6th in my class (Vet C 30+). I’m pretty confident there were at least 20 people in my row. I grabbed a sandwich and went back to the finish line to wait for my buddy Bill. Suspecting I may have oversold the whole “racing experience”, I was concerned about how he was managing. His first motorcycle race ever, he also finished 6th his class; with so many DNFs, that also meant he beat half the field (and everyone that stayed home). I don’t know if I’ll manage to drag him back to another race, but I know I’m really proud of my friend; it was a test of my mental fortitude, I can only imagine staring down those conditions as a first-time racer. A true testament to his ability and resolve.

The Husky still needs some tuning. I’m messing around with the suspension to get things where I like them. I’d say a set of radiator braces and probably a fan are in order if I’m going to keep up this mudder madness. I made a joke with the racer organizers that I’m probably going to wear a Hawaiian shirt to the first race that’s not a mudfest, just to celebrate. We all laughed… I hope my bluff gets called. Despite the savage conditions, it was worth every minute. I was punished and totally tapped multiple times. Crossing the finish line never felt so sweet. A couple weeks from now we’ll be lining up again. I can’t wait.

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