by Thomas Day
One of Minnesota’s better-kept motorcycling secrets is that we are the home of an exotic bike distributor (the motorcycle is very exotic, and the distributor is somewhat exotic). Martin Belair’s US Montesa is the importer/distributor of Montesa trials bikes and he’s based in Minnetonka. Martin is a Southern California transplant who came here for the clean air and tall mountains. He’s also a Master trials rider from America’s golden age of motorcycling and an admitted “trials geek.” This is a special year for observed trials in the Midwest. Martin’s company is one of the sponsors for a two-day World Outdoor Trials event at Duluth’s Spirit Mountain this June. Martin is also responsible for training the Minnesota observers to world trials standards and he has planned many of the event’s sections. If you know anything about trials, you know this is an incredible opportunity for Minnesota motorcycling enthusiasts.
When I first met Martin at the Cycle World International Motorcycle Show in January, he was watching the Extreme Trials demonstration. Or rather, he was watching people watching the demo. He told me that what he liked best about these demos was the expressions on spectators’ faces when they first saw what a trials rider could do. It was easy to see what he meant. The demonstration by 1992 World Champion Tommi Ahvala drew large crowds. The things he did on his stunt rig are barely warm-up exercises compared to what Ahvala does on a trials section, so those spectators haven’t seen anything, yet. In June they’ll have a chance to be completely astounded.
Martin graciously gave me nearly an hour of his time and attempted to update my knowledge of modern trials jargon and philosophy. He was probably only partially successful because old habits die-hard.
MMM: When did you get started in trials?
Belair: I started riding trials in 1969. I rode my first trials event . . . I think I was nine years old, on a Hodaka Ace 90. I finished 17th out of 19 guys. We were desert racers. We had no idea what we were doing. We realized that right away, so we didn’t ride another trials for 8 months. In the meantime we got trials books and reconfigured our Hodakas. Put the mufflers back on geared them down. In those days people took bikes like Hodakas or DT-1s and modified them. We put obstacles in the back yard and we practiced. When I say “we,” I mean my brother and I. When we went back we were ready. We were competitive and we knew what we were doing. But we always laugh about that first event. What a sight we must have been! We were riding the sections with our goggles on. We had expansion chambers. I’m sure the trials guys must have thought . . . I just remember tearing miles of ribbon out, you know? Just wreaking every section. I’m sure they were just going, “What are these guys doing?” It was the best time to be there. It was a golden era. I spent a lot of time riding at Saddleback Park. There were so many areas to ride and the terrain was so good. The economy was there and everybody was riding dirt bikes. And trials was . . . that era produced the best riders America has ever produced. We had riders that were competitive in the World Championship. We produced the world champion from Southern California, Bernie Schreiber in 1979. Eight out of the top ten riders in the nation were from Southern California. It was such a hot bed. We had the terrain. We had sponsorships. We had healthy clubs because we had 200 people show up at every local event. It was everything. All those things that go into making a sport successful. Bernie Schreiber was champion. Marland Whaley was champion. Lane Leavitt, Don Sweet, Joe Guggliemeli there were so many good riders, competition was so intense. I go back and look at those results and it blows me away. A national in Michigan, I finished 7th place and I was four points off of the leader. It was very, very competitive. It was a great era.
MMM: Could you compare those riders to today’s riders?
Belair: It’s difficult. The machines now are so much better. The tires. The brakes. The machines help these guys look spectacular. The machines back then were tanks. You bring out one of those vintage bikes and put Tommi [Ahvala] on it and, yeah, he can do some stuff but nowhere near what he’s doing now . . . Back then to go over every little rock or log, was all this commitment and effort to work the bike through the section. And now, I could stand on the thing and point it and it does all the work. The riders, then, were great. Especially considering the machinery they used. I think the riders were incredible. I mean, we had tires that were rock hard. Today, tires are incredible. The riders now, obviously, are spectacular. They’re amazing. I think the riders, now, are definitely better. In any sport, they’re going to be better. But it’s hard to compare eras. We were awfully good, back then. The other thing was that we rode a lot more low traction. Lot more slippery. Trials was a winter sport, initially. And now it’s become a summer sport. So they’re riding in much more high traction areas. It allows them to do much more. We were riding slippery, slimey, mossy creek beds with rock-hard tires. It’s a different ballgame.
MMM: There was a strange mental glitch for me when I first came back to paying attention to trials a few years ago. I saw Lampkin was back up there. I thought, he has to be 100, practically.
Belair: I’ve had a number of people say, “that guy’s still alive?” No, no, no. It’s the kid [Dougie]. That is a great story. You know he was just awarded the MBE by the Queen, made a member of the British Empire? It was in all the British press. That’s quite an honor. That’s a big deal. That whole family, what a motorcycling family!
MMM: I’ve watched a few of the world rounds on the tube and videos. Dad sure looks like he’s tough on Dougie. They’re no-nonsense . . . they’re very good about getting the job done.
Belair: Dougie . . . having his dad there was everything. Now when you see them, his dad is much quieter. . . It doesn’t look like a sport you have to be tough in, but it is. At that level, it’s a knife fight . . .. It’s serious. Maybe knife fight’s a little exaggerating, but . . .
MMM: A mental knife fight?
Belair: Yeah, that’s what it is. I never had that, in my career. I was happy to be out there, I was competitive, I was riding, I did my best, I went home. I just never entered that strata of the Wayleys and the Schreibers. Schreiber, I traveled with him a little bit. We went to a world round in Pennsylvania in ’78. The guy would take a cold shower the morning of the trial. He told me, “In Europe, the morning of the trial I take a cold shower, I drink two espressos, I don’t eat breakfast, and, by the time I get to that first section, I’m pissed off.”
MMM: I’ll bet.
Belair: That’s what makes a champion. That drive. They’re freaks.
MMM: Trials has never really did “hit” in the US, right?
Belair: Not to the point that people expected, but it did get very, very popular. I remember big events in Southern California where there would be 200-300 riders in the novice class. And we realized then that there’s a saturation point. You can have too many riders in an event and everybody’s waiting in line to ride a section and nobody’s having any fun. Trials is a sport that makes sense on paper. It really does. But it’s a humbling sport. And a lot of people don’t like to be humbled. There’s no faking it in trials. You can’t put on all the gear and learn to do a triple and be a hero. If you can’t ride trials . . . you fall down in front of people. It takes a certain sort of, I call it, knuckle-head. It takes a knuckle-head to ride trials. I remember a friend of mine said, “Why would you want to go over those rocks? Isn’t there a road? Trials is pretty healthy right now. I think it’s in as good a shape as it’s been in a long time in America. I don’t know if it will ever be big mainstream. I don’t know if it has to be. It’s a great sport. The people who are involved in it are great. I don’t think there’s any more passionate, die-hard people than trials riders. To keep this sport alive . . . the amount of volunteer hours that go into it. It’s a passion. It’s growing. There’s a lot of people riding trials for fun now. Not necessarily competing, just buying them for trail bikes to play on too, cross-train. I see a lot of guys our age buying trials bikes.
MMM: The first national I went to was in Duluth four years ago, I was really impressed with the fact that there were nine year old kids and sixty year old competitors. I don’t know of any other motorcycle sport like that.
Belair: Not off road. That’s one great thing about it. We’ve got several national competitors in their sixties. You can do trials your whole life. It makes sense on paper. It’s beautiful on paper. You can ride in your backyard. You can do it with your kids. Your expenses are low. Your risk of injury is low. It’s a very acceptable form of motorsports for a lot of people because it’s not offensive. You’re not ripping up the ground. You’re not making a lot of noise.
MMM: One of the things I used to like about 70s-era trials bikes was that, for less than a gallon of gas, you could ride all day. Is that still the case with modern bikes?
Belair: It’s got to be the least expensive motorsport you can compete in. Your bike is going to last forever. A gallon of gas is what it costs you to go ride all day. You need a small piece of terrain. Like I said, it makes sense on paper. It’s such a logical sport. It makes sense in so many ways. I just don’t know if it has what appeals to the masses. It appeals to a special mind. A special personality that’s intrigued by the challenge of learning a set of skills.
MMM: Which apply to every area of riding.
Belair: They absolutely do. That’s what we see is a lot of people trying to improve their off-road riding by buying trials bikes. There’s a list of pro motorcrossers that are buying trials bikes. I’ve sold, to two private motocross teams, five bikes to each team. Not national level teams but regional teams. Five bikes to have his riders cross-train and improve their skills. It’s kind of funny, going back to what you were saying about low cost, one dad asked me, “How many hours am I going to get out of this engine?” I said, “Years.” He said, “How often do I have to do a top end?” I said, “Maybe a set of rings in three years.” You know? The guy didn’t believe me. It’s a different level of spending and it’s hard for people who come from motocross to realize how reasonable trials is. You buy the bike. What do you put on it? Maybe tires once a year, chain, and brake pads.
MMM: Is trials a small market just in the US or all over the world?
Belair: All over the world. Total production for all the brands . . .. you’re talking probably 10-12,000 units. Five brands, worldwide production. That’s small. So, Europe, obviously is the biggest market. Markets like France, Spain, Italy and England. Those are your top four. The US is the sixth largest trials market in the world . . . But 10,000 units, that’s small. You talk to any of these big guys here, that’s a minimum. For one brand. For one model. So it’s a small specialty sport. I hear good comparisons to . . . . people say it’s like fly fishing or archery.
MMM: I’m thinking golf.
Belair: It’s very comparable to golf. And I say to myself, “Why is golf so popular?” Because golf is a humbling sport. It’s a humiliating sport. And that’s what I think holds trials back. But for some reason golf has the money, it has the TV.
MMM: It took a long time.
Belair: It did, but now it’s mainstream and it’s cool and everybody does it. Golf’s a buddy sport, I think that’s one thing that really helps it. You go out there and you’re all bad.
MMM: Trials has that too.
Belair: Trials is definitely a buddy sport.
MMM: You have the #3 rider on Montesa?
Belair: Ryon Bell. He was #2 last year, #3 this year. Also Chris Florin finished 8th in the nation. He’s a kid who’s just progressing at an unbelievable rate. He’s an expert level rider. He was #3 in the expert class, nationally. He’s been on our team for several years, but, really, in the last year-and-a-half he’s gone from an expert level to a rider who will probably finish in the top five in the nation. Chris is from Florida. A weird place for a trials rider to come from. His dad built him a backyard trials jungle, logs and rocks, and that’s what he learned on. It’s funny, where Ryon Bell’s from, it’s absolute trials nirvana. You could hold a world round every ten feet, where he lives. British Columbia. And Chris comes from a pancake. How do you figure that?
MMM: How will Montesa’s riders do this year?
Belair: It’s going to be tough. Very competitive. Geoff’s going to be there. Fred Crosset is obviously the favorite. After winning last year, he’s the favorite. Ryon [Bell] is very competitive. I think Chris is going to break the top five.