It was a 100-mile cross-country off-road race like no other, held every June from 1975 to 1993 in the dark north woods of West Virginia. Beginning and ending in the sleepy town of Davis, each race lap served up 20 miles of brutal riding — nay, survival! — through countryside home to waist-deep mud bogs and gnarly woods where tree roots as thick and stubborn as elephant legs consumed the trails. There was never time to relax as riders also faced fast-moving streams and abandoned saw mills, and struggled up and down steep hillsides in Canaan Valley before winding back to the start/finish line on Main Street.
The race was officially tagged as The Blackwater 100, but everybody in the off-road community knew it as “America’s Toughest Race.” The ominous moniker originated from the typewriter of Dirt Bike magazine editor Rick Sieman — aka Super Hunky — who, with Dirt Bike staffers Tom Webb, Paul Clipper and Dennis Cox, had left the sanctity of the magazine’s Southern California office to experience firsthand what Blackwater 100 promoter Dave Coombs Sr. concocted each year for hearty east coast off-road racers.
The Blackwater truly lived up to Super Hunky’s reporting, too. Consider the late Rod Bush’s description: The AMA Hall of Fame member and former president of KTM North America once described the Blackwater 100 as “the only off-road event where you feel you’ve ridden 1,000 miles when you finish, and you’ve really only gone 100 miles.”
Coombs (unofficially dubbed America’s Toughest Promoter) and his wife Rita had promoted various other off-road races in the region, but inspired by California’s Elsinore Grand Prix, the West Virginia event became an east coast fixture. And every year Coombs, with a chain saw strapped to his back, boldly rode into the wilderness to carve out a challenging, but creditable, course. Traditionally every race started on Main Street before leading to nearby Beaver Creek, then headed for the Blackwater River at which point Coombs and his trusty chain saw decided what direction the racers would go from there.
The racing was always tough, and more of the 400-plus riders who entered dropped out than finished. Indeed, the late Dave Coombs Sr. once told of a rider who became so discouraged in The Bogs — a mile-long stretch of mud, water and soft grass — that “he just walked out of there, and left his bike.” A couple months later some adventurous trail riders stumbled upon the lone bike and reported the find to Coombs who graciously retrieved it for the owner.
Blackwater’s winner’s list includes some all-time greats of enduro competition, too. Kevin LaVoie won the first two, plus the 1978 battle. The Lojak family was always well represented, including two overall wins by Ed (1984 and ’89), and Mark Hyde won the most — four times (1979, ’82, ’86, and ’87). Fred Andrews has the distinction of winning the final race, the 1993 event that, following threats of environmental impact litigation, not to mention potential injury liability lawsuits against corporations whose land some of the racers crossed during the race itself, marked the Blackwater’s demise.
The Blackwater 100 is gone, but tales of the race continue to this day. The legend will surely live for years to come. It wasn’t dubbed America’s Toughest Race for nothing. — Dain Gingerelli
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