On Valentine’s Day I brought a knife to a gunfight. In the cool mountain morning, the hard enduro group were gathering with their two stroke animals – TE300, Gas Gas EC300s – and I was there too. I’d brought a four stroke, which wasn’t the end of the end of the world; a seventeen year old four stroke KTM 250 EXC which sometimes ran well and sometimes… just didn’t. I’d cleaned the carb and everything, and I was desperate to ride. I knew I was going to get my ass kicked but if you never try, you never learn. I needed to learn to ride enduro. If jumping head first in the deep end was the only opportunity on offer, I’d take it.
* * *
I was riding with a group of mostly Thai guys, with a couple of foreigners sprinkled in. I managed to scale the hill from the back garden without ill effect, and thanked the gods of motorcycling for this initial absence of pain and humiliation. Immediately we were threading along single track on top of the ridge, then cut into the hill sides with jungle falling away steeply first to the left, then to the right.
When the track forked I hesitated, unable to immediately make out which way the bikes in front of me had gone into the thick jungle. She who hesitates is lost, and I immediately lost my balance and dropped the whole KTM, footpeg first, onto my left toe. With my short legs and the tall bike, any loss of balance was going to end badly; my toe swelled up, bled internally and prepared to shed its nail. Dammit, I thought, and dragged the bike upright and set off again. My friends had appeared behind me but I was adamant that I had to do this on my own: “no help, no help!” I shouted.
The rule is, one help = one beer, a rule which, while never enforced, is a constant source of mirth in the hills of northern Thailand. “One help, one beer!” echoes through the single track with clouds of two stroke smoke and fits of laughter most Sundays.
Anyway, at this point my Giant Loop rubber boa fender straps jumped off my fender, subtly dumping my tools and snacks into the bushes. It wasn’t until the next hilltop breather that I noticed. It was a disaster: I couldn’t afford to lose tools. I had to go back. Fortunately, one of my other friends had blithely ridden out of the garden without his goggles, so we turned back together with a plan to rejoin the group a little later.
The goggles gotten, the lost tools found, we got back on the trail and tracked the guys down to a village shop, several beers in already. We topped up the bikes, going through the ritual of mixing two stroke in a water bottle for the Gas Gas, and I topped up myself with electrolytes and water and sugar.
As a side note, don’t use the GL rubber boa fender straps for dirt biking. If you do, you’d better dirtbike without hitting any big bumps or dropping the bike at all, because every time you do, your damn tools will jump off into the bushes.
When we set out from the beer shop, we headed down a trail we’d partially explored together on a previous weekend. I had been riding the KLX150 that day, struggling to comfortably stand on the pegs on the little bike. It had felt foreign and unstable. Today, on the KTM, I was comfortable, and I even got a nod of approval from one of my compatriots; last time he’d been advising me that I needed to stand on the pegs and get my balance, and now I had made that breakthrough. We threaded the needle along the steep single track, no problems at all, and then the track ran out. What to do? Ride down the creek bed, of course.
There ensued kilometres and hours of slippery gouged rocks, fallen timber and vertical creek banks. First, the giant fallen timber kicked my ass, because I couldn’t pull a wheelie. No wheelie, no log jump, no bueno. At first I yelled “no help” and then eventually I changed my tune. Okay, I needed help. When it comes to dragging motorcycles over giant trees, I lack the strength, and so I need the skill.
With=my friends stepping in at the difficult fallen timber, I got along fine in the creek bed for a while. Up down, over the rocks, it was a wild ride but I was doing okay. Then my clutch arm began to ache; not my hand, but my whole arm, all the muscles right up through my tricep. The clutch on that bike was so heavy. I rode through the muscle fatigue until it turned into pain. I started losing fine clutch control. At the same time, the bike started running worse and worse. If I didn’t keep the throttle open, it would die. In this terrain, it meant constantly feathering the clutch. My arm was on fire.
I battled through. Don’t be weak, I thought. Don’t be weak or they won’t let you come again and then you won’t learn anything and you’ll stay a useless road rider who can’t wheelie for shit.
At one stage I lost momentum on some rocks and fell into the deepest water in the creekbed. I felt myself going over, saw the water and sacrificially threw myself in first. Half a second later I was up to my chin in cold water, holding the KTM above my head, shouting “GET THE BIKE GET THE BIKE!” Lord love them, my friends came through, pulling the bike up and off before my strength failed me. I was wet to the crown of my head, but the bike was dry, and that was all that mattered.
As the afternoon waned, the bike was running worse and worse. At one point it cut out at I dropped down off a steep bank into the stream. My forward momentum halted as the bike stalled with the front wheel in the creek and the rear wheel on the eroded bank; I knew I was toast. Slowly I tipped sideways, and I had to bail – a fall from height, this was not going to end well – I landed in the creek bed and then the silhouette of the falling KTM blocked out the sun above my head. Oh no, oh dear. I scrambled for my life. The bike came crashing down in the sand where my head had been. Everything was fine.
By the time the creek had turned into a decent-sized water course, I was toast. My left arm was cramping and all fine clutch control was history. From now on, the clutch was either in or it was out, and it wasn’t pretty.
The light was fading when the KTM wouldn’t start again. The battery was finally depleted from repeated restarts, and so I stood there in the jungle, kicking that bike over, again and again, with mounting desperation. Come on baby girl, I said under my breath, start for me. Nothing. Come on you bitch, I said, start for me. Still nothing. Eventually some of my friends came back and had a go; I was tottering with exhaustion. The bike wouldn’t start for them either. It was 4pm, the jungle starting to darken slightly as the sun dropped over the lip of the steep valley.
Finally, the most mechanically magic among us managed to kick that bike into life again. He looked at me with pity and told me to go and ride his TE300. His beautiful TE300, fuel injected, electric start, light as a feather, springy as a… springy thing. Look at it, just standing there in the river like the door to the promised land.
I stumbled over to it, speaking sweet nothings to that bike. My sweet darling, let’s not fall over in the river okay, let’s get home together nice and dry… And dear reader, we did. Clutch as light as a feather, I babied that beautiful creature down through the river, down through the sand and rocks, and then we floated up the steep bank and out to the double track.
We rode out of the jungle past caged houses filled with monkeys. There was no one around. I have no idea why the monkeys were caged, no idea. It was just another inexplicable fact in my cloud of exhaustion.
We stopped at the first village shop for a celebratory post-carnage beer. I was elated. Exhausted, destroyed, and elated. I had fallen so many times, but every time I had gotten up again. I was a better rider than I had been at the start of the day. I couldn’t wait to do it again.
* * *
But it wasn’t to be. Nobody wants to wait while I drag an almost-vintage KTM through hell, as they nimbly cruise past on their two strokes with their actual strength and actual skill. The next time the hard enduro group went out, they told me not come because it was too hard, and everyone felt sorry for me.
My heart broke a little.
‘Why?’ I said. ‘Why do they pity me? I fall down but I always get up again. They weren’t always as good as they are now. Surely they used to fall down too, and no-one told them not to come anymore, not to try.’
My confidence and optimism vanished like smoke.
I wasn’t wanted because I wasn’t good enough; I didn’t get it right the first time. Thus I would not get to learn.
From that day, my confidence dissolved. I didn’t want to ride with anyone anymore. I didn’t want to be pitied. I needed their help but I didn’t want help they didn’t want to give, and I didn’t want to be a burden. I felt self conscious and pressured and my hands shook every time. I began having panic attacks in the jungle. I began looking at the obstacles I feared, and visualising my failures, and living the failures that I visualised so well.
‘Just leave me alone,’ I said. I just wanted them to go away and leave me to try, and fail, and try again without being pitied, without being judged. Oh, look at her, too weak and female.
It made me angry, and sad, and depressed.
I want to practice, I said, I want somewhere safe to practice, but the response was always, ‘what’s wrong with this? this is safe’. And it would be on a ridgetop with a bunch of trees to run into and a cliff to fall off.
I stopped riding with groups. My confidence was finished and my potential shrank back to the limits of my abilities.
* * *
I knew what I needed to do. I needed to learn to ride trials. I would never, ever be strong enough to get away with bad technique.
Just by watching my friends ride enduro, I could see who rode trials too. You can see it in the smoothness, the control, the way of riding which expends minimum energy and uses skill over strength. I wanted that – I needed that.
I set a new goal.