Burned Clutches and Broken Dreams, But Someone Is Always Crowned The King…

Race day was unique for the 100th anniversary of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. The field was drastically reduced and that promised to get everyone up the hill before the afternoon weather came in. The only problem was that water from the previous night’s rain had not yet abated. This was obviously going to be a hindrance to any record attempts for those running early on.

Hail To The Fast

The run order for the motorcycle division is determined by class. Within each class the run order is determined by qualifying time, i.e. the fastest time during practice on the bottom section of the course. However, the fastest riders were not lumped in a single class this year. The riders with the best shot at the overall division win were two Victory’s: their electric bike piloted by Don Canet and the Project 156, back for its second attempt at the record. However, right in the mix was Bruno Langlois on a privateer Kawasaki, and Australian Rennie Scaysbrook was fast enough on the bottom section to out-qualify all comers. We had ourselves a race, ladies and gents.

The Victory Empulse TT (left) and Project 156 (right) ran neck-to-neck all week during practice, proving the gap is closing between combustion and battery. Photo: Victory Motorcycles

Because the run order (pdf) put the electric bikes first and the Project 156 second, the two Victory riders were going to deal with the wettest conditions of the day (at least in the motorcycle division). Bruno and Rennie were both in the Heavyweight class, putting them last out of the two-wheeled machines, or about fifteen bikes between Canet and Toye.

Much of this was secondary to me since I wasn’t there to spectate. We were less than an hour away and that meant I had to be focused on my own run. Pikes Peak is the only event I compete in where I have to deal with nerves. This year, I noticed a lot of that had to do with other people. Because there were barriers in place, we were given a small pit space to stage in that kept random people at bay. As a low-profile racer I don’t usually deal with people patting me on the back or wanting to shake my hand and it takes concentration away.

We pushed the bike into position and just to make sure the engine was happy I started it and drove the last 30 or so feet to the staging space. CLUNK-CLUNK-CLUNK. “That was the chain,” I said. “There’s no way it could be loose. I double checked it.” We pulled off the seat and not only was it loose, it was hanging at its loosest possible setting. If I had not driven it the final 30 feet, we wouldn’t have discovered this until we attempted to drive up to the start line.

Staying calm before the race was easier this year due to new staging procedures. Photo: Kate Kriebel
Staying calm before the race was easier this year due to new staging procedures. Photo: Kate Kriebel

We scrambled for our tools but ended up with plenty of time to sort things out, re-check the bike, and settle in for our turn to run. There were some race stoppages, some extra waiting. Riders were reporting extremely slick conditions. I looked long and hard to the summit. “There is no way the asphalt will be wet by the time we get up there. It’s pure sun. I’m going to run this like it’s dry until I see a wet patch with my own eyes,” I said to Matt. He had no problems with that.

Rising Sun Racing took off on their run and were definitely going for it. I knew that I was going to have to push hard at the bottom and the top to beat them, but that meant I wouldn’t have to attack the middle section where less time can be gained but a lot can be lost. I didn’t have anything to think about on the start line. The bike had been gone through, the settings had been set, I was in position, Matt was in position. Then the green light.

Green means go. Revs up, clutch out. No more waiting.
Green means go. Revs up, clutch out. No more waiting.

Maintain Focus… Mostly

I only remember pieces of the run, but I remember feeling happy with it overall. I left a lot on the table, but that’s what you do at a place like Pikes Peak unless you have something big on the line: big money pushing you or enough ego to override thoughts of self-preservation. I pushed as hard as I thought I needed to– a speed that should have been record setting pace– but I also kept missing upshifts. After a few missed shifts in important corners I started to worry and fell into the trap of “making time up,” but settled into a rhythm shortly after. You cannot make time up in a sprint race, you can only lose time by going over your limit and having to gather things up. I don’t subscribe to the 110% philosophy. If you push past your limit then you either moved where 100% is or you moved a crash barrier with your face. With Matt still learning the course and me still trying to find the limit of the bike (it has so much traction I just don’t know what to do with it) there wasn’t going to be any of that.


Then I missed a downshift in “the W’s” and really lost a lot of time. there was a moment where I looked at the guardrail and listened to the tires screeching but I didn’t want to give up the run.

I threw it out of my mind and continued on.

There seemed to be fewer spectators. Or were they just pushed further from the edge of the track? Usually we would have almost hit a few by now.  Stop thinking Johnny, keep riding.

Then, two dead marmots in the road. It was a sudden shock since we were approaching a 4th gear turn staring at nothing but sky. Fortunately our line only needed altered by inches to miss one of them. They are bigger than you think and hitting one at the moment of turn-in could seriously upset the bike.

Then we got into the final few miles and the eyeball-jarring bumps. The final right-hand sweeper is impossible to race unless you are willing to just hold your breath and see what happens. I was not, and ran at about 75% throttle. Then, the final hairpin and the only water we ever found on the course. We passed over it without incident and crossed the finish line, then into a pit of mud and pebbles. I remember yelling “middle!middle!middle!middle!” to Matt in the hopes he had moved to the center of the bike. In 2011 we did a full 360° spin when my co-pilot, Chris Rizzo (RIP) kept his weight on the chair tire and I couldn’t slow down in the gravel parking lot.

But it was pretty drama free as we came to a stop, until the steam coming off the engine started wafting up. The engine also smelled of burning clutch because I had been slipping it to get out of the hairpin turns and I started to think we’d done some damage. I yelled at Matt to turn the engine off (the dead-man’s switch is next to him, by the battery) and after a brief inspection, the drama was over.

In typical fashion we had no idea what was going on at the summit. Timing verified that we beat Rising Sun Racing by several seconds but Subculture Racing only made it to the first of four timing loops. Had they crashed? We also weren’t sure if we got the record. I had a different cellular provider and it looked like I might be able to get service. I opened the web browser and tried to search for the current sidecar record…

Stay In Touch For Part Two