Tucked back in Smoky Mountains near Chattanooga is the Trials Training Center in Sequatchie, Tenn. and this weekend the top hard enduro motocross riders will line up to see if they can out punch Cody Webb, who dominated the Red Bull Tennessee Knockout for most of its previous 10 editions.
First, the stage needs to be set.
Imagine the most intense rally race – and then toss that image away. Hard enduro is a cross between motocross racing and what, at times, resembles mountain climbing with a pair of tires where one’s legs should be. The riders attempt to stay upright and go fast through terrain that would challenge an ardent hiker and they are doing this with competition breathing down their necks.
Why would someone want to do this?
“It’s kind of like the mud race or Spartan race,” Webb told NBC earlier this week. “I look at someone who’s a runner and they run a marathon and I think, what’s wrong with you? Why would you do that? To me it’s the excitement of always something new; something different, overcoming something.
“I pride myself on getting to the top of the mountain on my motorcycle and I feel like no one has been there before. It feels pretty good.”
Red Bull Racing’s Webb has had ample opportunities to bask in that feeling.
From 2013 through 2018, he was the rider everyone chased. After losing out to Tennessee native Mike Brown in the first two editions of this race in 2011 and 2012, Webb swapped his four-stroke, off-road bike for a lighter, cooler two-stroke. That, plus the experience of the first two races, made him unbeatable for the next six years.
In 2019, Webb was forced to sit out of the Tennessee Knockout with a knee injury. Last year, he finished second – making this the first time since 2013 that anyone bested him on the course.
“I did the everything I could,” Webb said at the time, after being beaten to finish line by Canadian rider Trystan Hart. “The best I’ve ever ridden and didn’t quite have it in me today. The hardest part is just charging 100 percent. It always ever changing, just so technical.”
The format of the race is as extreme as the terrain. Run in multiple stages, riders are knocked out after each round. They go out in groups containing both amateurs and professionals. Occasionally the amateurs are part of the obstacles when they chose the wrong line and skid down the face of the rocks.
The rounds themselves are contested on long sections of trail that measure up to 20 miles complete with rocky sections, hill climbs and a maze that looks a lot like a crop circle designed by extraterrestrials.
Once the field is whittled down to the best riders, they challenge a shorter trail. Note that says ‘shorter’, not easier. Event organizers are keeping an ace up their sleeve for the 2021 edition of the Tennessee Knockout. While parts of the trail will be contested during the qualifiers, other equally extreme portions won’t be ridden until the Main itself.
“We ride parts of it in the qualifying process, but the Main will be the first time we ride the whole part of that course, so the 30-minute final is just basically a sprint to the death and try and survive,” Webb said.
And all the while, riders are mocked by the landscape itself. From a distance, the mountains of Eastern Tennessee are breathtaking. It’s only up close their true nature is revealed.
The Smoky Mountains earned their name because of the high humidity that boils from the dirt after excessive amounts of rainfall. Last year, the trails were dry. The rocks were slickened by moss in the early stages of the race, but that eventually got burned off by the motorcycles’ wheels. This year, Mother Nature is going to add her two cents with rain forecast throughout the day on Saturday and Sunday.
Moss is slick. Mud is even more slippery.
“I’ve been coming here since 2000 off and on; it’s just super green and gorgeous,” Webb said. “It’s pretty much a perfect place for us to struggle and suffer on our dirt bikes.”
Suffer is not an overstatement.
Last year the multi-discipline veteran Ryan Sipes made his Tennessee Knockout debut and experience cramps in his abs badly enough that he would not have been able to ride in the Main, if he had qualified through the prelims. This year, with rain in the forecast Webb anticipates having to push the bike uphill for long segments. That will exhaust the riders’ quadriceps. Then there is the ever-present risk of arm pump for motocross riders. There there is not a single part of the rider’s body that will not go untaxed.
“There are some races where you ride right through and you’re not sore at all,” Webb said. “There are other races where I’m cramping and the next day you feel like you fell out of a pickup truck on the highway.”
If all goes well, however, Webb will stand on the top of the mountain for a seventh time and it will once again feel like no one has been there before.