November 21, 2008

Lessons Learned




It's time to pay homage to a few guys who have taught me the hard lessons of snowmobiling that you just can't learn from a video game. Guys who have taught and relentlessly reminded me of my place on the totem pole. There are a couple guys in particular I have learned to watch for on nearly every ride, both for tips and as a precautionary measure.

When you're required to clock in before you go riding, you have lots of opportunity to hone your skills. But then there are times that I have it pointed out to me which skills need some more honing. Like last January at Daniel's Summit in the northeastern corner of Utah. I was riding with Polaris mountain engineering team chief Marty Samson. Marty has a knack of turning confidence into paralyzing fear. Even when things are going perfectly well (especially when things are going perfectly well), Samson will take a turn for the worse. A sapling-covered creek bottom. A miniature forest of tightly spaced trees. Turning toward what is the exact wrong direction. Hurrying back the long way. Samson has more than a few tricks up his sleeve for making skilled riders drop their helmet-clad sweaty heads to the handlebars, panting for every breath. It's that challenge that makes him so fun to ride with. Until I found myself on that day on my stomach, lying on the right running board, throttle half-pinned and huffing in a chest full of exhaust. I was spent. Samson had worn me out completely. And it was 10 minutes to noon.

Jackson hillclimb multi-king Bret Rasmussen is another rider I've made the mistake of trying to follow. Rasmussen doesn't just lead you into the backcountry, he lures you. If you stick with him, he makes it worse. If you follow him, he dives in the bush. If you show up behind him, he'll take you on a shortcut from hell. And when you bury it next to him, he'll laugh as he walks over to dig you out, just to do it all over again. Late last January in Preston, ID, we literally rode from Rasmussen's back yard into his personal playground. There was nothing that looked too intimidating, but that's because I was looking at the open lines up the mountain sides. Rasmussen doesn't ride the open lines. He rides the lines that do not exist. And he rides those lines because he can get through them and onto the next one. The problem is that the rest of us can't. One time, while there were four or five of us splattered among the trees and bushes on one of his shortcuts, Rasmussen came back to see what the holdup was. He casually rode up next to us, surveyed the situation, helped a few riders out and said, "Let's go this way," before shooting through the trees and splattering us across another non-existent line.

Former Pro terrain champion Jack Struthers probably doesn't remember me from a bump on a log. Mostly because last I rode with him, I think I wound up as an actual bump on a log. Riding with Struthers is like bicycling through France with Lance Armstrong. He never stops, never slows down and never looks back. You either follow Struthers or you follow his tracks. Good luck with either one.

Jason Howell, former Arctic Cat mountain engineer, is extremely good at taking a simple ride up in the hills and turning it into Frodo's quest for Mt. Doom in The Lord of the Rings. I swear I've even seen trolls on some of the rides with Howell. He doesn't go from point A to point B without hitting the other 24 points in between. I've never been so astonished to cross my own track after thinking I'd ridden halfway across Montana. When you ride with Howell, you see most everything, heavy on the nasty stuff.

Troy Johnson was riding Yamahas way back before riding Yamahas was cool. Johnson taught me the trick to riding a mod sled with gauges: You have to look at them for them to do their job. Johnson was one of the first guys I rode with who taught me that tracks are what other people follow. In the dozen or so times I’ve gone into the Salt River Range with him, it’s been on a dozen or so different routes. And you know what he said the last time I talked with him? “Hey, I found another way back into Murphy’s that you’ve got to try with us.”

Chris Ruske, the face behind Ski-Doo's success with its Summits, is a master of self-control with a dark side of carnage. Ruske can guide you safely in and out of the roughest terrain in Colorado with the proficiency of a butler if the situation dictates. But if you suggest to Ruske that you'd like to see a little more of the backcountry, you will spend the rest of the year waking up in a cold sweat with images of tree branches and 2,500-foot climbs burned into your eyelids. On the return half of a ride with Ruske last spring in Colorado, I shot away from the group from one stop to set a fast pace back to the mother land. I was holding a pretty good clip, pushing it to the limits on every corner and zeroing out gravity on every hilltop. I figured I had a good two- or three-minute gap on the group, which I did, but what nearly made me choke on my coat zipper was glancing over my shoulder at warp speed only to see Ruske's helmet visor inches from my backpack. The former ice oval racer stuck to my snowflap for every inch of those several miles we raced back off the mountain. I probably misused the word "raced" because when we finally stopped, I was shaking my arm-pumped hands and gasping for each breath. Ruske was laughing. Never mess with an enduro champ.

Two guys I mess with on a regular basis—mostly because they ask for it—are Steve Janes and Mark Bourbeau. Former partners in crime in Pro hillclimbing, Pro cross-country racing and Pro banner stealing; these two have brought me along on rides for the last two decades, reluctantly and voluntarily. I have learned oodles from these two and even picked up some riding skills along the way (I'm a pro at getting sleds unstuck now and have picked up on their fine art of trash talking). Sure, there were painful moments. Bourbeau once handed my sister a $20 bill after she dumped me on my butt in the garage while I was bouncing on her sled as it got traction on the ice-covered floor. These two taught me that hard objects are traction and if you're leading and get stuck, you fall into the category of hard object. They taught me that not getting stuck gives you the right to keep going and mark up the rest of the mountain before anyone else gets there. They taught me that laughing at your most dire situation almost always helps you get out, as long as someone's in a worse spot than you. They taught me that keeping up means more riding for everyone. And they taught me that letting the young kid do all the riding on test days means more energy for them on the play riding days.

But these two have also taught me one of the most valuable precautionary measure lessons. That is when I'm upside down in a hole next to Samson's, Rasmussen's, Struthers', Howell's, Ruske's or Johnson’s track, check first for which of the Janes/Bourbeau duo was used for traction … and duck for cover from the other one who's certain to be coming by next.







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