By Alecia Warren
Coeur d’Alene Press
COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — Weeks ahead, Tia Flynn is haunted by the race.
At night, she dreams of the course she has tumbled her motorcycle across for years, the hills she has crashed on, the rivers where her bike has been baptized into competition.
Feeding the addiction, she watches the online video of races past. She takes in the roar and growl of 1,000 bikes along an endless stretch of starting line.
“I’m biting my fingernails and my heart rate goes up,” she said with a laugh. “I’m all nervous, and it’s just six weeks away!”
But the psych-out will ebb.
The Coeur d’Alene woman knows that by the time she starts up her KMT motorcycle on April 1, the day of the notorious Desert 100 race in Odessa, Wash., she will feel nothing but sheer elan.
“There’s nothing else like it. When you’re out there, anything can happen,” said the mother of three, who has been racing dirt bikes since she was 12. “You just have to keep your head, but it clears your head at the same time. You can totally forget about everything, except what’s going on in front of you.”
This will be her 13th time since adolescence riding the toughest off-road race of the Inland Northwest. The course is 100 miles for men, 50 for women.
Tia fully acknowledges the course is dangerous, a mine field of rocks, crossed with deep rivers and bottlenecks where riders clog and crash.
She broke her collar bone one year, still managing to finish.
“It’s really miserable,” she said, oddly grinning and laughing. “It’s so miserable.”
Winning used to be her goal. But now that she’s 47 and her competitors younger every year, she is shooting to finish 10 in a row.
This year will be No. 10.
“I don’t know anybody who’s done 10 in a row,” she admitted. “They either crash out or get injured.”
“That’s huge,” is the opinion of Tom Wuest, president of Panhandle Trail Riders Association, of Tia’s quixotic goal.
Although Wuest has raced motorcycles since the 1970s, he can’t name any riders in the region who have conquered the course 10 times in a row.
It’s one starting line he hasn’t been to himself. But he still knows the mythical opportunities for self-destruction at the Desert 100.
All riders do.
“The Desert 100 is one of the toughest races in the northern region,” Wuest said. “It has very dangerous parts of it, and is technically difficult.”
If anyone can shoot for 10 finishes, he added, it’s Tia. She’s gutsy, he said, “definitely out there” with her riding.
“I would say the amount of time she spends on a bike,” he said. “She spends a lot of time in the saddle.”
And she has become a self-made spokesperson for female riders, he noted holding an annual women’s race that attracts more riders every year.
“Of all the women in our general area up here, her age group and her abilities, she’s in the top five,” Wuest said.
Tia just calls it a hobby. But it’s clearly something more.
In the Flynn family’s garage, Tia points to the several dirt bikes lined up. One for each of her three sons, one for one of their girlfriends, for Tia’s husband Eric.
One by one, she has persuaded them all to follow her lead.
“I saved enough to buy my bike, then I bought my son a bike and the kids shared it, then I saved and bought another one,” Tia said, adding that her new KMT is about $11,000. “I think the newest thing I own is my dirt bike. Everything else is used or bought secondhand.”
The spunky suburban mother, happy to talk up her hearing aid business, might not leave an immediate impression as a devout motorcycle racer.
But she loves being out in the open, she said, the freedom. She loves the fitness of it. And she grew up in a state of competition, encouraged by her motorcycle racing father, Stan Toland.
He won the Desert 100 over-60 class five times,” Tia boasted, wearing a jersey with Toland’s old name patch sewn on. “My dad was really, really good.”
Tia competed in about a dozen races a year for a while, though now she’s down to six. The garage is cluttered with all her plaques and trophies.
Weekends are consumed with riding, requiring a drive to Juniper in the winter.
There’s no imagining her without the bikes, said her husband, Eric.
“I don’t know anybody else who races as much as she does,” he said. “Oh yeah, it’s an expensive hobby. But she usually is the one flipping the bill for most of it.”
There’s just no race like the Desert 100, Tia said.
It became her holy grail after she got back into riding in 2000, following a cash-strapped, 10-year hiatus when she was kicking out kids, working in the Air Force and obtaining her doctorate in ideology.
“I started riding again, and I was like, ‘I’m going to win that Desert 100,’” she said.
She came close in 2006, when she snagged a second place trophy. And it’s worth noting that the women aren’t separated into age divisions, like the men.
But Tia’s trophies have gotten smaller each year since.
“I know I’m not as aggressive as I used to be,” she confessed, adding that many of her competitors are too young to vote.
Plus she’s still recovering from recent surgery on the carpal tunnel syndrome that developed from all the riding.
“I have like, no upper body strength,” she said.
So this year she’ll take it easy — as easy as one can across a treacherous 50-mile stretch.
She’ll fall back on her usual strategy, of picking out pink jackets or pony tails ahead of her and passing them one at a time.
She’ll keep telling herself to finish, to keep her head in the race. And she’ll try to enjoy what might be her last time on the course.