My hands are shaking. I’m trying to squeeze my head under a tiny square of shade along with twenty four other dirt bikers. We’re baking in the convection oven of a quarry site in southern Cambodia. The sides are terraced in loose, purplish gravel and the basin blocks even a breath of air. We are simmering in our own sweat. There’s no water down here. I’ve been hydrating all night and all morning but I feel the dryness at the back of my throat and the impinging lightheadedness creeping up on me already.
This the Hanuman Enduro and we’re waiting to begin the B Class hill climb. One by one we will throw ourselves up the terraces, climaxing in a steep lip at the top. We have two minutes to complete the run before the marshals time us out and pull us off the track.
Everyone is watching. This is the first race of my life. Somehow I’ve ended up in the B class, semi professional, it wasn’t my idea but I went along with it and now here I am, and these slopes are vicious. What am I doing here? Am I mad?
The marshals demonstrate the starting lights: red, red, red, green. Go on the green or get a penalty. I’m not worried about jumping the start, I’m worried about the first slope dead ahead: it’s a section of A Class track, but it’s the fastest way up. Everyone’s been taking it. Many of succeeded, not all. I am the only woman in my class. I can’t chicken out.
But I’m already exhausted from terror. I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to be there. How did I put myself in this situation.
* * *
When the green lights flash I drop the clutch and fix my eyes on the top of the slope. It looks like a sheer wall from here and I have to tilt my head back. I know the others have been doing it in second gear on the four strokes, but I’ve also seen some of them run out of revs just before the lip. I hit in first. I don’t remember what happens next.
I’m on top.
My landing is on a slight angle, I put a foot down, straighten her up, and focus my eyes on the next terrace.
I’ve got my eyes up on the top of the slope again when my front wheel sinks in the sand, pitching me forward. Dammit. It’s softer than I thought.
I drag the bike upright, which is easy, it’s a Beta Xtrainer, a beautiful bike, light and powerful, I love it but I’ve got no time for niceties just now as I extract the handguard from the sand. I know time is ticking so I hit the slope without a real run up but it’s fine, you can’t carry too much speed into it because it’s a series of step-ups, not a straight slope. I feel the front wheel lifting as I come up the final woop, my body is sliding backward and lifting off the bike, super-man style, but I trust the bike. It will get me through: I cling to the handlebars as we fly momentarily then we’re over the lip and I grab the brakes hard.
The front comes thumping down centimetres from the boundary rope. I need to back up slightly to get around the corner but I’m running zero PSI on the back so backing up is hard. I’m sweating, I know time is running out. I have the final, biggest slope to go.
I can’t seem to get the bike to pivot right in this soft sand, it just wants to go straight forward: the front wheel is turned but sliding sideways. I compress the forks and use the rebound to pull the bike backwards but it’s not working, I’m not going back far enough to make the corner. I hear someone yelling at me, “push it down, push it down” and I realise that’s what I’m not doing, I need to be shoving all my weight into the front. I tilt and shove her nose down into the sand and we’re out, we’re around, but I’m not in the ideal place for a run up to the big slope. I don’t have time to go back. I have to go forward. Two minutes, two minutes, I’m tired already, it’s so hot, I have to go.
It doesn’t work. I feel the back step out, I’ve used too much throttle, we’re sliding sideways across the hill now.
But it’s not over yet. The marshals are yelling but they’re not allowed to help me unless I say I’m done, but I’m not done, hell no I’m not done. I pick the bike up again and turn it around, I tell them to move because I’m going back down again. I get back to the bottom of the slope and my time hasn’t been called yet but I know it will be any second now. I swing around and go again. Eyes on the slope eyes on the slope – but I’m tired – I’m nervous – my clutch control is utter crap. Soon I’m falling face first down the hill, the bike has spun around behind me, my time is called, I’m done.
I’m exhausted, I’m high on adrenaline. I’m thrilled. I ride the bike off the track and high five the other guys who didn’t make it either.
The world has not ended.
The monkey is off my back.
Tomorrow is the enduro race. And now I’m ready.
* * *
I run to shake the hand of the man who has lent me the Beta Xtrainer to throw at these crazy hills this weekend. I thank him, buzzed and grateful. Never forget the people who give you your opportunities.