by Mike Savage
The biggest trial I face as a trials rider is explaining the name. Just about every time I talk to someone about trials riding, the first third of the conversation is devoted to explaining that it isn’t TRAIL riding, it is TRIALS riding as in OBSERVED TRIALS. Usually they get it when I say, “Think judge, jury and executioner, it’s trials not trails!” If their eyes are still glazed I try, “All my trials Lord will soon be over?” Once the syntax problems are cleared up, the fun part begins, explaining the basic intents and purposes of the world’s most civilized form of motorcycling.
I say the “art” of trials riding is civilized because, compared to, say, Sturgis or Thursdays at Dulano’s, the behavior at a trials meet is much more refined. There’s no naked people who should stay clothed, no burn-outs and beer and traffic jams and traffic cops. Nope, trials riding isn’t about cash or crash, it is all about skill baby, riding skills. Of course it is also about going slow, in fact, when you’re good, real good it is about standing still. There is no need for speed, in the conventional sense, with trials riding. And it is also about “walking” your bike up vertical rocks and ledges, the higher the better a rider you are. And the bike only weighs, typically 150 pounds, has no seat which means you’re always riding on the pegs. If all this seems a bit un-fun to you, don’t be misled. Trials riding is a blast, mucho gusto, really, really fun.
Here’s what happens at a trials meet. A Trials Master has plotted and planned a series of challenging sections through which the rider must negotiate his machine without rolling backwards, putting a foot down (called “dabbing”) or going out of bounds. These sections range from relatively easy, or, if the Trials Master has been the diabolic Duluthian Steve Ahlers, nearly impossible to negotiate without at least a few dabs. Each rider passing through the section can get one, two, three or five dabs. The rider with the fewest dabs at the end of the day is crowned the best of his class.
There are numerous classes from Novice to Expert to Champ and then there are the professional riders who make their money making the sport look easy. Fortunately the sport is far from easy.
But it is really, really, really fun. (That’s three really’s folks!) It is fun for the beginner like me and it seems to be fun for the pros. And, everyone in between looks like they’re having a blast as well. There are a lot of families getting into trials riding. The bikes are fairly cheap. A good used trials bike can be found for under $1,000. And as one former Motocross dad said to me, “Instead of tearing the engine apart two, three or five times a year, in trials I’m riding with my kids and I’ve never had to re-ring the bikes in five years!” Cool.
Another bit of coolness with trials riding is the bike handling techniques the sport teaches. Balance, timing, throttle control, braking, hill climbing, hill descending and sidehill traversing are all skills that the trials rider learns at his or her own pace.
The pace of trials riding is one of the things that makes it so sophisticated, almost urbane. Everyone is polite and there is no hurry. There’s not much in the way of high anxiety in trials riding. It isn’t a go-fast sport. In fact, more often than not, the slower you go through a section, the better. This isn’t to say there are never any adrenaline rushes. All you need to get the old heart pumping wildly is to roll the front wheel up to a challenging section entrance while all the other riders in your class are standing along the boundaries waiting to see if you make it through “clean” as they say.
“Cleaning” a section is riding all the way through without mistake. It is a really rewarding experience to clean a section in front of your fellow riders. In my experience, participating in the Upper Midwest Trials Association (UMTA) meets, there is both intense competition and significant camaraderie going on at all times. As a rank beginner at the sport of Observed Trials my skill level has been challenged by those with whom I ride. Simultaneously I have been befriended, helped, encouraged and accepted by every single participant I’ve ever met.
Most civilized indeed, wouldn’t you say?
If you don’t believe me and want to gather your own “evidence” about the civilized nature of “trials,” haul your carcass (See? We trials riders DO use civil language.) to Duluth next June 5th & 6th, 2004 and take in the second World Round Observed Trials event at Spirit Mountain which has some of the most excellent trials terrain in the nation. If you do go, you’ll get to see the world’s best trials athletes ride their bikes in ways that seem to defy gravity and you’ll gain a more comprehensive grasp of what this unique sport is all about.
Two years ago almost 5,000 people attended the Duluth event and found it to be guilty of providing most excellent entertainment.