Tucker’s in-house videographer Carter York lays down his camera and takes on the Tennessee Knockout Extreme Enduro.
By Carter York
My affinity with the torturous world of hard enduro and endurocross is unreasonable; I will be the first to admit it. There is no tangible reason to submit yourself to riding over rocks, logs, and other jagged creations of Mother Nature in the sweltering heat of Tennessee. Despite an overwhelming cons-to-pros ratio, I’m not alone. People like myself pay for the right to beat up our bikes and bodies.
The Kenda AMA Tennessee Knockout Extreme Enduro, hosted at the Trials Training Center in Sequatchie, TN, has been running for nine years. The inaugural event took place in 2011 with the hard enduro world in its infancy. The Erzberg Rodeo, perhaps the most infamous of this style of event, has been hosted in Austria since 1995. Off-road motorcycle riding, in general, has been more popular in Europe forever, but the grass is increasingly becoming equally green on both sides of the fence. More of these events have popped up in the States over the past few years. There is an apparent appetite, however perverse it may be, to compete in these events.
The appeal of spectating these events is relatively obvious. Who doesn’t want to see a motorcycle piloted up a 45-degree hill littered with boulders more massive than a Volkswagen Beetle? The Tennessee Knockout, or TKO, is perhaps the most successful at harnessing the entertainment potential of spectating a hard enduro. The final takes place on a short course with sub-five-minute lap times that allow the spectators the opportunity to see their favorite riders duke it out throughout the 30 minutes plus one lap race. The final takes place on Sunday at 3:30 pm and features the best hard enduro riders in the world. These athletes are indeed in tune with their machines, to the point of the motorcycle being merely an extension of their body and mind. It’s incredible to watch them navigate the course, especially after riding the terrain yourself.
I’ve been racing off-road on the local level since 2007 at the age of 12. I began racing endurocross and hard enduro in 2015, and have had success both locally and nationally, but not to the extent I would desire. I suppose no one meets their expectations, but that’s another topic altogether. All of this to say I’m competent on a motorcycle, but I’m not an elite talent of any sort. The only reason I bring this up is to say that when I watch riders like Cody Webb, who was forced to sit out this year’s event due to an ACL tear recovery, my mind is consistently blown by the level of coordination, commitment, and pure skill that these athletes possess.
Speaking of ACL tears, I suffered the same injury last July. Just two weeks before the 2018 TKO, I managed to completely tear my right ACL while just messing around after practicing endurocross all day. I have suffered many injuries, but this takes pole position on both mentally and physically challenging me. My job as videographer for Tucker requires near-constant traveling and has limited my ability to train. I was nowhere near 100%. Nonetheless, I decided to give the event a go.
In the 2017 event, I managed to finish 17th in the first knockout on Saturday and advance to the second knockout. A radiator puncture led to early retirement, and I was unable to advance to Sunday. Some pro riders are “invited” to race on Sunday, meaning they do not have to race on Saturday to qualify for Sunday’s events. Amateurs who are not invited need to race Saturday to qualify. New for this year was the notion of prequalifying for the second race on Saturday via previous rounds of the “Extreme Off-Road State Championship” comprised of seven hard enduro events across the United States. A short, roughly 3-minute prologue course was laid out for riders to traverse on Friday to seed their starting positions in Saturday’s first knockout, or the second knockout if they were prequalified. I could dive into greater detail of the prequalifying system, but at the risk of sounding pedantic, I’ll move on. It is undoubtedly confusing, but the organizers have good intentions.
For those of us plebeians who had not prequalified, Friday’s event set the tone for how your weekend was going to progress. The course started with a fast and curvy grass track, then plunged into a long creek bed featuring a never-ending rock garden. Though not overly difficult, it was just challenging enough to reach up and grab you out of your preferred line choice. Having not seriously raced for well over a year, I had quite a few cobwebs that needed to be shaken off. A three-minute sprint through rocks at a national event was not an ideal opportunity to do so.
I made it through the grass track with little trouble. I felt confident, heading into the rock garden with a clear plan in my head from walking the track. My girlfriend Haley, an accomplished rider in her own right, walked this section with me and implored me to consider other options than the smoother right side of the creek. I told myself that there was no way that I would miss that line after seeing it with my own eyes.
As you may have guessed, I missed that line. My brain was processing the track with terrible lag. I was only noticing where I was after I had already gone through it. Things were happening all too fast for me. I sat down, put my feet out, and bounced through the section like a pinball. It was embarrassing. By the time I got to the end of the rock garden, I had come to realize I had been holding my breath for the entirety of the course. I managed to keep it on two wheels and ride through the remaining segment, and made up some time in the endurocross section at the end. I qualified 61st out of the 232 non-prequalified riders who raced. Since racing the prologue was not a requirement and merely gave you a better starting position for Saturday’s racing, some riders opted out of competing. It was not a good showing for me, but it meant that I would start Saturday’s first knockout in the 11th row. The Saturday knockouts started six riders to a row, and rows started once every minute.
Knockout #1 on Saturday featured a 19-mile track with some challenging sections, but nothing that would be out of the ordinary for a difficult off-road course. This was one of the driest years of the event, so the track was faster and less technical than usual. I came off the dead-engine start second in my row, but quickly succumbed to nerves and suffered from debilitating arm-pump. I was quickly shuffled to the back of the pack in my row and even fell behind some of the row that started behind me. I eventually made my way to the finish 96th in times, completing the loop in a little over 80 minutes.
Hoping that the nerves had passed, I lined up for the second knockout. The top 180 finishers from the first knockout advanced to the second. I again started in second place within my row, but I quickly made the pass on the rider in front and began picking off riders who started in the rows in front of us. I felt much better, almost back to my old self. Unfortunately, I managed to take a very hard tumble shortly after that.
After reviewing my GoPro footage countless times, I’m still unable to decipher what caused it. Long story short, I pounded myself into rocks and dirt at a relatively high rate of speed. It was quite painful, but I managed to remount and only lose about five positions. I was a bit flustered, and my riding reflected it. A couple miles later, my shifter came loose to the point of falling down and rendering me unable to shift at all. Of course, this happened when I was in third gear. Had the shifter stuck in second gear, I probably would have continued. I was unable to ride the terrain in third, so I had to stop and get out my 8mm socket from my fanny pack (hate on it all you want, this is why I carry it!) to fix the situation. I lost time, but only two people passed me. Right around this time, my fitness, or lack thereof, began to rear its ugly head. I was exhausted. My legs began cramping, then my arms, then my neck. I had been hydrating with copious amounts of fluid and every supplement we could find, but it wasn’t enough. I pushed through the remainder of the course, which had several more challenging sections added to it than the first go-around. I crossed the finish line in agony with nothing left to give. But I finished, and that’s technically the furthest I have ever made it through this sadistic weekend. I received a silver medal along with the other riders who completed the second knockout.
Knocked out from advancing any further, I grabbed my camera and captured the remainder of the weekend’s festivities. The women’s main event took place later on Saturday, featuring some of the most skilled ladies on two wheels. Rachel Gutish, Shelby Turner, and Nicole Bradford rounded out the podium. These three were invited to compete against the men on Sunday and took the opportunity to do so!
Germany’s Manuel Lettenbichler showed up to represent FMF/Red Bull KTM in Cody Webb’s absence, and he was the class of the field Sunday. While Wade Young bested him in time in the second Knockout, it was clear that Lettenbichler was the class of the field. “Manny” walked away with the victory in the final, besting the Sherco squad of Mario Roman and Young in second and third, respectively. Colton Haaker, who has been working on improving his hard enduro skills, finished fourth. Canadian Trystan Hart rounded out the top five.
While I did not advance to Sunday’s racing, I was okay with the result. I knew that I was horrendously underprepared and could not expect much more out of myself. Pain and adversity are just part of this sport, and you have to learn how to push past it. It’s masochistic, but walk through the pits and speak with every rider that finished, and you’ll find precisely zero people that regret attending the event. My parents are even on board, and I thank them for their work and dedication to my decision to beat myself to a pulp. There’s something unique about the hard enduro rider, as unhealthy as it may be.