By Thomas Day

No sport works harder to be spectator-hostile than US observed trials. If you aren’t a big mile hiker, you might as well stay home since you have no hope of enjoying more than 20% of a typical trials event. If you aren’t an expert puzzle-master, forget about deciphering the “spectator map” typically handed out at these events. If understanding the rules to the sport you’re watching is important, forget about that, too. After a few minutes of watching any US observed trials, you’ll quickly come to the conclusion that there are no real rules to this sport.

After watching the dismal performance of US riders and the terrible spectator turnout at the absolutely amazing 2004 and 2005 World Championships in Duluth, I took a hiatus from the sport. We, clearly, suck at this as a nation. If there were 100 riders competing in a world event, our riders would be in the last dozen finishers, consistently. Usually, US riders don’t even have the balls to compete in world rounds, at all. This year, for example, Pat Smage was the only US pro rider in the Trials Training Center event at Sequatchie, Tennessee in the first US World Round event since 2008. Smage finished 12th and 11th of 13 riders. Pat scored well over 100 points in each day while the top 3 riders had less than that his point count, collectively. Points are a bad thing in trials. A perfect score is zero; think “zero errors.” When our guys try to take on the world-level competitors, it’s pretty obvious that trials isn’t even a third-tier motorsport in the US. I suspect if there is a Hoverround Mobility Scooter Olympics, it gets a better participant and spectator turnout than trials. The last time we didn’t suck at the international level was 1979, King Bernie might be our only trials accomplishment; ever.

GeezerPart of our poor showing in the sport is that, nationally, the sport is not well promoted; and never has been.

Sections are designed to be obscure and confusing to the uninitiated; i.e.. spectators. “If you don’t care enough to know the codes, you aren’t welcome” is the message broadcast loud and clear to every new visitor to an observed trials event. For example, identically numbered sections are side-by-side with the “understanding” that spectators should know that if the section start is roped off it is a Sunday section, although on Sunday the Saturday sections were still open and unmarked. I walked by more than a few frustrated spectators on the Saturday event who were patiently waiting for riders who wouldn’t come for another 24 hours. When I mentioned them to one of the checkers, he muttered something about “fuckin’ rubes” and went back to examining his navel until the first batch of riders arrived. When I walked my dog back to the stranded spectators and told them the real section was just a couple hundred yards down the trail, they decided it would be more productive to head back to the Aerostich rally and watch a few of the presentations in the air conditioned chalet. To be honest, I had some of the same inclinations after waiting for an hour and a half for the expert and pro riders to get to sections 4 & 5. I’ve been putting up with the rock and roll star character of observed trials for 40 years and the prim donna attitude toward spectators still gets to me. (Just like waiting until 9:15 for an 8:00 show to start will remind me of why I rarely spend much money to watch a rock show in my impatient old age.)

The worst-riders-first order of events is super rider-friendly, but makes for long, boring periods for spectators. Mixing experts and pros with the intermediates, support riders, and other classes would make waiting a section more rewarding and would force the pros and experts to be more creative in their route planning, since they wouldn’t be able to make a committee decision on the test route for a section.

I fear this is all pretty academic judging from the current state of decline in US observed trials. There were a single handful of “pro” riders and not that many more expert riders in Duluth for the last two events of the 2013 NATC/AMA championship season. The people participating seemed as dedicated to the sport as ever, but their numbers are depressingly small. I heard factory guys complain of bare bones support for their riders and it’s pretty obvious that the incredibly costly commitment pro riders take on to ride the US series isn’t even close to a paying venture. Trials has become a motorsport of the bored rich, at the national level. That is never a good thing for a sport that pretends to want to become popular, just ask polo players about that, if you doubt my opinion.



  1. I like the entire magazine but get a charge out of the Geezer articles. Good job all around.

    Personally I always wanted to write only two things have stopped me – I can’t spell and I don’t know what to say.

  2. Letter From A Reader

    Dear MMM,
    I read Thomas Day’s Geezer with a Grudge column “Being Customer Hostile” last month and was surprised by his lack of understanding of the sport of Observed Trials. For someone as “experienced” as Thomas his whining about having to walk to a section, read a map, or needing to have a basic understanding of the competition he was watching was both funny (in a sad way) and another example of his apparently faltering mind.

    In previous columns Thomas has bemoaned the laziness of the American rider, but now the one time he’s asked to walk as a spectator he is outraged. He thinks the rules and set up of the events is designed to make it intentionally difficult for spectators, but offers no evidence of that other than his poor understanding of the sport. And then he descends into one complaint after another for some undecipherable reason. His sweeping generalizations about the sport, the riders, and the spectators only reveals his ignorance.

    I ask the question, why is Thomas really mad at Trials? Is he intimidated by a sport he isn’t competing in? Is he looking to pick a fight with the most obscure group of riders he can find so he can act tough, but doesn’t get buried in hate mail? Or is he just trolling because he knows the publisher of MMM is a long time trials rider?

    Victor Wanchena
    Concerned Reader

  3. […] read Thomas Day’s Geezer with a Grudge column “Being Customer Hostile” last month and was surprised by his lack of understanding of the sport of Observed Trials. For […]

  4. Clearly reading is a lost art. Show me where I said anything that resembled “the one time he’s asked to walk as a spectator he is outraged.”

    Obviously, it’s pointless to try to help US Trials figure out how to market this amazing sport that even non-riders love when they have a chance to see it. I’ve been an observed trials fan since Martin Lampkin’s prime years as a world champ. I rode for several years in the 70’s and early 80’s as one of the charter members of the Midwest Trials Association. I had a trials course in my Little Canada backyard until I wreaked a knee (doing yard work) and my doc advised me to lay off of it for a year to avoid getting a shiny new plastic knee.

    In 40 years of riding, spectating, and promoting, the sport has done practically everything possible to avoid attracting an audience. The argument that “we’ve always done it this way” is great if losing money, losing bike manufacturers’ interest in the US market, and making sure the number of people who participate in trials is as low as possible. If that’s not the goal, maybe a different tactic is needed.

    For a brief moment in the 1970’s, all four of the Japanese manufacturers had one or two trials bikes on their showroom floors. A couple of the bikes were even street legal. That didn’t last long and the fact that US promoters did such a pitiful job of selling the sport is a big part of why. In Minnesota, for example, the “Dealers” link on all four of the tiny hobby companies left making trials bikes leads you to broken links and non-existent hobby businesses. I was in Martin Belair’s home when Honda told him they were discontinuing trials distribution in the US right after the last world round in Duluth.

    If any motorcycle sport deserves to continue existence in a resource-limited, low carbon future, it’s observed trials. That will only happen if someone figures out how to sell the sport to spectators. Exactly those spectators I heard Duluth observers call “fuckin’ rubes.” Everybody is a newbie sometime and newbies are the heart of every sport that hopes for an audience.

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