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  • Craig Messenger

You Shall Know My Velocity

Disclaimer #1: I am very good at riding motorcycles, however I fall just short of the threshold for qualifying as ‘great.’ If only it wasn’t for this crippling iron deficiency. Sometimes life just gives you lemons. Still, this story will be much more interesting if you imagine me as like the Babe Ruth of motorcycles – so just, yeah, go ahead and imagine me as that for a while.

photos by Berto

The title of this story is a rip from a Dave Eggers book, and it’s also a demoralizing taunt I will explain later on. However most of all it’s a playful callback to when my friend Davis meddled in affairs he couldn’t understand, claiming that - within the bounds of a baseball at bat - ‘speed’ and ‘velocity’ were two different things. His notion could have lived on forever, unabated by the righteous hand of truth, if a physicist as renowned and well practiced as your humble narrator was not in the room. But seeing as how I was indeed there, hearing the very laws of my own personal religion being so slandered, I rose to protect the gospel of science, swiftly correcting my friend’s mislaid assertions.


He responded with:


“I actually think maybe it’s ‘exit velocity’ that I’m thinking of. I think that one’s different.”


“Davis, my dear comrade, you may be a fool at all times, but when you start talking of physics, you’re a fool three times as foolish.”


He has been silent on the subject ever since. Now, motorcycles.

 

A lot of people are familiar with the strange phenomena of punching or running in a dream. How your dream self decides to rise to the moment, battling otherworldly beasts or sprinting to save small orphans from burning buildings - only to find that your punching and running abilities have stalled out at about a third grade level.


I’ve heard people say that, in their dreams, it feels like they’re running or punching through gelatin - some atmosphere of high viscosity. And this tends to kind of ruin their respective story lines.


I have personally never dealt with this particular issue. In my dreams, I’m Mike Tyson and Usain Bolt. Little bit of Denzel sprinkled in there too.


But I don’t escape drowsy torment, as my dreams are afflicted with a different handicap: I am absolutely terrible at riding motorcycles. Sluggish, plodding, the tortoise analogy would apply so long as the tortoise never actually won the race. I’m oftentimes riding so slowly that I get stuck on the face of jumps, never even making it to their 5 foot tall summits, awkwardly rolling back down them cloaked in shame. On straightaways, my dream-self flirts with the minimum speed required to remain upright and keep the whole two-wheeled magic going.


The other riders around me, circulating the same dream track? Stylish, heroic, moving at supersonic speeds - the very embodiment of grace and skill. ‘Nightmare’ doesn’t even come close to capturing the tragedy and horror of the situation: by day imagining that you have some modicum of proficiency in a very important discipline, only to be betrayed as a model of ineptitude in that same noble sport by night. Now you understand why I don’t sleep well before races.


And these night terrors are something that I’ll have to contend with a little later on as I attempt to catch some Zs before my race day at Mammoth Motocross – recognized as the most esteemed and rigorous competition by the upper echelons of today’s society – but we will start out by rewinding, beginning with the entertaining events that took place a few days earlier.


Practice Day, 3:00AM


The race at Mammoth is a fifty some-odd year tradition, the longest continuously running motocross race in America (if we overlook that time they had to cancel it during the wretched Year of Perfectly Average Vision). It is the most competitive amateur race in the West, and basically all of the greatest riders of all time have raced here as kids or teenagers.


Yet they still haven’t figured out the parking. Maybe next year. The track is nestled into steep hills more appropriate for snowmobiles and bears than cars, so parking is tight, especially when you consider that there are like 3 or 4 semi trucks jammed in here to accommodate the factory riders. But instead of selling parking passes or expanding the lots like the rest of the civilized world, they just tell you ‘hey, get here at 3AM, you’ll be fine.’ And so at 3AM I found myself tucked under a wool blanket in the van, breathing in race gas fumes that smelt particularly radioactive while trying to doze off. The stuff is so potent that you can actively feel part of yourself dying with each waft, but I’ve also convinced myself that inhaling this aroma is probably my best path to gaining spidey powers, so I pressed on.


I wasn’t super confident heading into this weekend because I messed up my ankle at my qualifying race in April and so I had only been back on the bike for a couple weeks. Riding and racing up here in the altitude can quickly lose all novelty if you are not in at least decent shape, so I did my best impression of a bootcamp to cram in some training. I spent most of the days of the last two weeks awakening before the midsummer sun and trekking towards far inland locales, as I have virtually no responsibilities in this cushy life besides my aforementioned duty of defending the good word of Sir Isaac Newton, and that can be done from pretty much anywhere.


The best and really only worthwhile tracks in Southern California are carved into the hills of Native American reservations for reasons that I don’t understand and probably wouldn’t want to, but the only rub about all of this is that the penthouse apartment that I type these journals in is an awful long ways away from any top notch reservations (city planners, bane of my existence). So I found that, time-wise, my real commitment during these days of bootcamp was actually to driving, and the whole motorcycle riding thing was just a brief, relaxing recess between the hard toils of commute.


By around 8AM I was finally let in to my ultimate parking spot in the pits and I had a bunch of frenetic work to do to get the bike and its pilot ready for the first practice at 9AM, but I’d be quite a rude host if I didn’t stop and give you a tour of what is widely regarded as the most scenic track all the world over.

 

The main feature of the course is that it’s built between two tall hills, and the valley in between them provides a clearing to see the actual Mammoth ski slopes in the background a couple of miles away. The first time I raced up here in 2017, the late June slopes were still draped in white and they provided a backdrop that looked pretty incredible.


The circuit only ascends one of the two tall hills, drawing several flowing lines up and down it. This hill has a few turns on it that are bounded on their insides by huge tree trunks, and cardboard pads tied to the bark mark the spots where especially intrepid riders have rubbed their shoulders and paid the price. At the steepest section, the course rounds a sharp 90 corner and then blindly drops almost straight down to the base of the mountain a few hundred feet below.


Once we ride the hill’s elevator to the lobby floor we drop back into the shaded valley for the infield section, which holds at least a million trees. Parts of the track here live in full shadow during these morning hours. The defining section is four consecutive S turns that are shielded from audience view and provide the stage where most of the passes take place as riders cross lines and block each other.


The last two lanes of the track border the area’s second tall hill, which is lined with large boulders that create a type of amphitheater for all of the eager fans to cheer on their heroes. If the track holds a million trees, it boasts a billion rocks, and these two lanes are the rockiest of all. The stones fly off the rear wheels of neighboring riders every lap. The biggest rock I saw all weekend came spiraling off the end of a Kawasaki. It was an elongated oval shape, 12 inches long and it had laces and a Wilson logo.



9AM rolled around and I started my first practice session, began feeling out the course. There are minimal changes year to year so I memorized the layout within a lap or two and then started working on different lines, trying to find a good flow. The Mammoth track gets rougher and bumpier than any other track I’ve ever ridden, mainly due to how loose and sandy the top soil is compared to the rocky, hardpacked base just beneath it. All riders get substantially slower when the track gets rougher, so success comes from minimizing how slow you get, if that makes sense.


But more so than just getting used to the track and conditions, the practice day is about training your mind. I don’t take the races super seriously or anything, I just do them for fun – but the racing ends up being the most fun when you take everything on track super seriously and then revert to not caring about it at all as soon as you leave the course. So, while practice day is just that, practice day – it’s prudent and entertaining to still go as fast as you can basically the entire time. It’s also important to begin practicing The Golden Rule of racing on this training day.


There are several actual, official rules for the races, like what the different flag colors mean and other terms of etiquette, but the most important and universal rule is unofficial, and that rule is to never look behind you. The rider that turns his head to survey the scene behind him has already lost. He’s racing backwards. He’s prey.


So no matter how loud a pro may rev his engine at you in a slow corner, or no matter how worried you may be that one of your worst foes has caught up to you, if you have any ounce of competitive spirit you stay looking ahead, making those aft opponents believe that you don’t even know that they are there.


There are also other fun mental games that come out of this, because it is still quite obvious to know when someone is coming up on you without looking back at them. So when I sense that I’m being gained on or closely followed, I imagine that like a grizzly bear or serial killer or some other comparable atrocity is what is on my tail, and this trick gives the subconscious a boost to find some extra speed for running away.

 

About midway through the practice day I called my mom to let her know how everything was going. My mom gets quite anxious when I enter these races, mainly because she is a sworn enemy of motorcycles. She attended the government sanctioned Anti-Motorcycle Master’s Program that they recommend to all prospective mothers, graduating top of the 1995 class.


“Don’t you get bored, just going around in the same circles all day?” she asked.


“Mom, you’ve walked the same loop around that golf course every day for the past 25 years.”


“Because it’s therapeutic for me Craig!!!!!!!!!”


And that really is the point. It’s a type of therapy. Because when I’m stressed out, or upset, or just had my scoop of ice cream fall on the floor, I think about riding motorcycles. Being out on the track, flowing from corner to corner, popping over bumps, moving at great speeds and with greater elegance. It’s a lucid, calming dream to think about, to escape to – the exact opposite of those sleeping nightmares I described earlier.


Sometimes I’ll even be driving to the track, stuck in traffic and all annoyed and think to myself “man, I just wish I could be out riding right now.” And then I’ll come to my senses and realize that I am within but a few short moments of indeed riding, and this happy realization smoothes out life’s rough edges.


However, between these cotton candy daydreams and the actual experience of riding motorcycles, there is an experiential tax. Only on the most charmed days am I actually in a flow state on track: feeling like I’m really riding well, giving my best approximation of those midweek fantasies. But in the pursuit of that ideal – in the effort to minimize the dozens of mistakes and errors I make each lap – the rest of the world falls away and nothing else matters. While I’m striving towards that unreachable goal I can accept that I sacrifice perfection for realism, because at the same time I get to convert make believe into real life.

 

Back on track for the afternoon sessions, where the track is at its worst. These are the times where the differences between the pros and the proletariat are most noticeable.


I am personally capable of brief periods of intense speed before I inevitably hit a bump sideways or miss a rut entirely, at which point catastrophe seems not just near but imminent, and in those hairy moments several things pass before before my eyes, the worst of which being the memory of Nurse Tatiana coming back into my ICU room again and asking me, in a thick Russian accent, “house yore pain?” And this is a compelling enough warning for me to slow the pace down on this beaten track and leave the fast lap times to the professionals.


But that doesn’t mean that I can’t still toil with some of my fellow amateurs. You should know that each time I pass someone I yell out the title of this story in a very whiny, old English accent – a practice that tends to break the resolve of even the strongest of men. This is a particularly useful tool because passing someone of a similar skill level to yourself is simply a choice. We both have decent technique, similar fitness, maybe I have better hair but he has nicer eyes, so in order to pass I simply have to choose to still accelerate in a brief moment where he has chosen to brake. This gives me a certain type of dominance over him.


Nearing the end of the day I was battling with a guy for basically a full lap. I had caught up to him and was poking around, looking for a way through as we started climbing up the hill. At the corner on top, I faded outside and then cut back down inside looking to get my front wheel ahead of his, but he was clever and countered with a swift block, causing me to shut off early.


Starting towards the downhill, I had my strategy in mind. I was going to rail the outside corner and sail past him as we navigated the steepest portion of the downhill. Plunging towards the turn, I could see him setting up his own mistake, tracking towards the slow inside line. I made the move, drawing even with him as we entered the corner, and I couldn’t resist getting my taunt in, even if it was a bit premature.


“You Shall Know My Velocity!”


I then used my momentum to shoot past him as we exited the corner and started falling downhill, but he was racy and grabbed a handful of throttle, drawing near me as we picked up vertical speed.


“What?!” he yelled out, unable to fully hear my catchphrase over the distracting engine noises.


I was caught off guard by his gamesmanship, not appraising him as an adversary that would fight back so valiantly, and so I knew that I had to further humiliate him in order to make this pass stick.


As we neared the final third of the downhill, I could sense that he was slowing down and I knew that I had to keep on the gas a little bit longer, trusting in my well honed late-braking abilities. We both traversed the jagged bumps and rocks waiting for us at the bottom of the hill, with my bravery and skill leading me to them in first place, and I found this a fitting time to answer his previous question.


“My Velocity!! Know itttt!!”


And while I scooted away the final syllable trailed off, losing decibels and hertz as it lingered in my foe’s head – a sound he would long remember, that bitter melody of defeat.

 

I headed back to the house from the track and cleaned up to have dinner with Berto’s family, which we were having at Burgers – the premiere restaurant in all of the Sierra Nevadas. Burgers has been around forever but they underwent a big renovation a couple years ago, adding in a new second story area that encompasses: a huge, inviting bar wrapped in oak wood and metal trim, floor to ceiling windows that highlight the range we are nestled into, and a gigantic dumbwaiter to traverse the vertical space between the dining room and the kitchen. The restaurant was packed, as the race weekend and good weather had brought a wave of travelers in who had nothing short of excellent taste in food.


As we sat down and ordered some drinks, Berto’s grandmother couldn’t help bragging about me, revealing to our waiter that I was racing this weekend, and this statement by her started a chain of events that would alter the waiter’s life forever. He responded to grandma’s statement with an innocent, welcoming smile, asking me:


“Oh nice, pro class?”


I instantly closed my eyes and demonstrably dropped my head, so disappointed in our waiter, so reluctant to do to him what I knew I was about to do. But I couldn’t control myself. I patronizingly opened my eyes and started to explain:


“Really, see, that’s a very risky question for you to start out with, Mr. Waiter.”


The waiter was still smiling, wrongly assuming that I was beginning only a playful little game.


“See that’s a very risky question because if I were a pro – which, who knows, maybe I am – but if I were one of the noble talents in the pro class here, your innocent assumption wouldn’t even flatter me. It wouldn’t flatter me but more so simply bore me, as I would just answer ‘o, why yes, I am a pro’ with no theatrics, as I would have truthfully answered to all the other acquaintances in my life who have asked me about my profession in the past. If I were indeed a pro. Which, there’s obviously no reason to think that I’m not.”


The waiter’s face had grown sort of blank as he tried to follow what I was saying. I could tell that he was just about to jump in and respectfully apologize or something, which would have only served to make this interaction even more awkward, so I cut him off before he got the chance, and continued with:


“Now, on the other hand, if I were not a pro but rather a top level intermediate just on the verge of turning pro – which, I certainly very well may be – then I indeed would be flattered by your assumption of lumping me in with the renowned group known as the pros, and in one second of your time progressing me to the professional ranks which I have spent years and decades of my own time working towards.”


The waiter’s expression brightened, maybe even showed a blush, and he seemed to think that he now understood what I was getting at, but just before he could fully revel in believing that he had complimented me I quickly erased any semblance of comfort he may have been feeling by explaining that:


“Of course, however, the top level intermediates on the very edge of turning pro are the smallest minority of racers, and so it is statistically unlikely that you would garner this type of flattering reaction in the audience of your question, even though it is entirely possible that I myself could be one of these rare, top level intermediate types that are susceptible to such flattery.”


By now I found myself standing up, looking my waiter nemesis in the eyes as I conducted a type of sermon in this packed, high quality restaurant.


“Now, my good waiter friend, on the other other hand, let’s consider the third, remote possibility that I, the very subject of your giddy question, were not a pro nor a top intermediate but merely a middle of the pack member of the C division, an amateur’s amateur, as far removed from the purse paying positions as you, my dear comrade, are from providing service to the Queen’s finest banquets – which it’s certainly feasible that I may indeed be a part of this lowly group, we can’t just rule it out completely. Well in that case, your assuming question would not simply bore me nor flatter me but only serve to twist the knife of my own novice, to remind me once again of the giant wall erected between me and expertise, to begin our relationship in the world, yours and mine, with a mutual disappointment, yours in me for my lack of motorcycle skill and mine in you for your horrendous abilities in the question-phrasing department.”


By this time the waiter had long since walked away but I was undeterred, continuing my monologue to no one in particular, and you can be assured that the entire crowd at Burgers restaurant (located at 6118 Minaret Rd, open 11AM-9PM daily) was entranced, listening to this mad patron performing his strange soliloquy.


“So I will conclude my long-winded answer to your question by not answering your question at all, but by rather asking another, a practice frowned upon in most conversations but one that I feel is my only appropriate recourse here. And that question to you, gentle waiter, is: would you like to rephrase your question?”


The entire sold out house – the group so enthralled by the expert wording of the clearly insane yet admittedly entertaining man standing up amongst his cringing family and friends – then turned to the besieged waiter who was now stationed behind the well-crafted bar wearing a true deer-in-the-headlights look. He grew paler and paler the longer he remained silent as the crowd and I refocused our gazes more and more sharply on him. He started to visibly sweat.


I offered him one more chance to break the mounting silence, to save his face, raising my eyebrows and mischievously cocking my head to the side – and this was the moment where things just became too much for our little waiter to handle. He swiftly ducked under the protecting bar and scurried over to the wall to enact the only plan he could foresee preserving his tattered dignity. He opened the handsomely crafted dumbwaiter and threw the two patty melts that were sitting inside of it haphazardly over his shoulder before squeezing his adult body into that escape hatch. He rode its constricting confines down to the safety of the kitchen, and never again did he pose such a poorly designed question to anyone, let alone to the Babe Ruth of motorcycles.


Race Day


There were a few other adventures that took place in between these track days, containing but not limited to: a lovely little picnic at Crowley Lake, a bar crawl, touring Berto’s mom’s new house, and the absolute domination I laid down on my friends on the Sequence board, but I do know that I have a propensity to tend towards the verbose, and I figure I should stay more on track here.


Race day began at 5:00AM, as I took a chilly bicycle ride to the track in the last few moments before dusk. The road to the track from Kelley’s house is well paved and exclusively downhill, which means I negotiated it at a quick pace, and this is something that you’d think would be convenient and thrilling for a talented racer like myself. It was actually a huge problem. Because it was 40 degrees out and I wasn’t wearing gloves.


Within 2 minutes I knew that I had made a terrible, terrible mistake but I carried on, knowing that I had to get to the van ASAP before the track gates opened. By 5:06, done with the hills and now treading on flat ground, I began to worry about permanent damage. I looked down and my right hand was completely blue, which was actually a welcome sight because my left hand had already turned purple and seemed like it was well on its way to frostbite.


By 5:11 I arrived at the van but had to stand outside, still in the cold, for a few more minutes because I was pretty sure that I was going to throw up from the pain of it all. Luckily during those nauseating moments the engine had warmed up, so I could finally go inside and fire up the heater to thaw out my fingers. They mostly regained their feeling. If I’ve made any typos in this story, you now know the reason.


All the suffering was worth it because I got an A+ parking spot in the pits. I unloaded all the gear and set up a nice little shaded area for my two #1 fans who would be joining me here later to document my successes and triumphs. It’s around this time that the nerves started flooding in, and so I took to wrenching in order to reign in my thoughts.


The pre-ride inspection is fairly in depth, consisting of checking the most critical bolts for proper torque, setting tire and suspension air pressure, and scanning the wheels for any cracks or loose spokes. I was a bit unnerved to find that my front rim had a minor dent in it, and I started freaking out for a few minutes before a google search revealed that yeah, it’ll probably be fine. The kid parked next to me on practice day had a large crack in his rear rim and I don’t think he even stopped to notice it once. He was fast as hell. Full on mullet.


I got my stretches in and then dressed for the part. I’ve heard some riders say that they get all psyched up putting on their protective gear, that the process of donning all the pads and the helmet and the boots makes them feel like a gladiator going into battle. Like they are a very important weapon about to be unleashed.


I don’t know about all of that. I usually listen to Dua Lipa while I’m getting dressed.


Author, center frame, instilling fear in all of his peers

We have a short morning warm up practice on race day, and my division was scheduled to be the very first group on the track, which was both good and bad. It was good because riding a perfectly smooth, early morning Mammoth track is maybe the most fun anyone could have on a motorcycle, but it’s bad because by the time my race comes around the track's conditions will be nothing like this.


I had a good warm up session and felt sporty, but I was also trying to not push too hard and use all of my energy before the day even began. They flew the checkered flag and ushered us off of the track, and while we were all winding back to the pits, a little kid stood on the side of one of the lanes, holding his hand out for each of us to high five. He had that uncontrollable smile that kids have when they are in bounce houses.


I had forgotten that I had taken my goggles off and hung them around my wrist, so when I smacked the kid’s hand while riding past him they fell off onto the ground. I turned my head while I slowed down and could see that my little fan had picked the goggles off the ground, dusted them off, and was running towards me with that little boy gait, like he could fall over at any moment. I made a deal with him that he would give me my equipment back as long as I gave him another high five. He sent me off with a joyous, genuine exclamation of “goooood luck” that only a beautiful little kid could give, and I then found myself adopting his bounce house smile.

 

Berto and Kelley showed up, and they took some pictures of me for photo albums of the future while I got ready for my race. They joined me over in the staging area and Berto collected my Finalist pin while Kelley prepared my starting gate. She had seen all of the other mechanics and dads stomping on the dirt in front of their respective riders and told me that she was going to offer me the same service to let the other riders know that I wasn’t to be overlooked. No starting path has ever been prepared as well or with as much care.


They both reconvened next to me and asked “so like, are we gonna get sprayed with a bunch of dirt now?” And I told them that yes, they were, and that they should run away out of the splash zone. They did. And so did all of the other friends and family and mechanics, having done all that they could – leaving each of us racers to be alone, on the precipice of what we had been preparing for. Halfway down the start straight a track official held up a large card over his head, indicating 30 seconds until go time.


Unfortunately they save the worst boss for last, as the starting gate is the most formidable opponent of all: a chamber of anxiety, a pulpit for every worry and reminder, and seeing them written out here below makes yours truly feel that, even outside of restaurants, he is susceptible to moments of insanity.

 

Card’s up. Red light. Check the fuel. Did I torque the wheels? Transponder’s on. Balls of your feet. Gloves feel weird. Easy on the clutch. Breathe. Weight the pegs. Toes in. Inside up the hill. Outside back down. Look ahead. Breathe.


The track official turned the large card sideways to indicate 10 seconds to go.


Card’s turned, Red light, Shoulders back, Ease your grip, Check the winds, Smile more, Find the time, Eat your veggies, Keep Tahoe Blue, Lift with your legs, The Golden Rule.


The track official ran off to the side of the course, 5 seconds left.


Red light No added sugar Sit up straight Keep in touch Earn a living Smell the flowers Stay out late Get some sleep Where am I Send your prayers Dinner tomorrow Be sure to floss Was that her See the world Watch those eyes


Gatedrop. Green light. Goodbye.


For the next short lifetime I lived in the fleeting little space between start and finish, where I traversed the hills and the corners, passing quite a few trees and even more rocks, running from things I couldn’t see, chasing something I could never find - and I did so as the sanest person alive, purged of my thoughts, rid of my mind.