by Thomas Day
Once again, Minnesota hosted two rounds of the AMA/NATC National Observed Trials Series at the Spirit Mountain Ski Area. This year, the Duluth event turned out to be the climatic moment in the championship. The Duluth organization managed to snag the last two rounds of the 2000 national series and the title was down to the wire. Geoff Aaron, on a Gas Gas this year and attempting to win a sixth US National Championship, needed one third place or better finish in this event to hold off Ryon Bell (Montesa).
Aaron had won both rounds (7 & 8) in Sequatchie, Tennessee and seemed to have it wrapped up. However, in the kind of move that makes spectators love watching him and must drive the factory guys crazy, Aaron was not riding his factory bike for the Minnesota event. He was riding a new, bone-stock Gas Gas that was probably no better prepared than the bikes ridden 90% of riders in the Support classes. On Saturday morning, one of the factory reps just shook his head as he told me, “He didn’t even move his shock or his motor over to the new bike. It takes at least two months to break in a shock and he’s only had the bike a couple of days.” Obviously, some folks thought Aaron was tossing his 6th championship into the wind.
“The Incredible Invisible Sport,” that’s what they ought to call it. Observed Trials (OT) is just not descriptive enough. Maybe paying slight attention to my griping about the lack of visibility from the 1998 Duluth event, I saw at least one event poster at a Twin Cities motorcycle shop. For some odd reason, I hadn’t seen a single trailered trials bike in a motel parking lot, so it looked like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
OT is made for spectating. Look at the pictures and notice where the spectators are, relative to the riders. We’re practically part of the sections. You can line up, inches from where a world class rider will pass or fail. You can even make smartass comments about how they cheated on a section and get a reaction. How can you beat that?
You won’t believe what Geoff Aaron or Ryon Bell or any of these top riders can do on a motorcycle, even after you’ve seen it with your own eyes. If Aaron was taking bets on his being able to leap a tall building with a couple of suspension bounces and a brick for a launch pad, I’d put my money on him.
Ah, the motorcycles. My how much difference two years makes. Last time I was here, I spotted one proto-Montesa/Honda (labeled Montesa everywhere but in Honda’s homeland) in the crowd of Gas Gas, Beta, Fantic, and ancient Yamahas. This year, they’re back!
Montesa, a Spanish motorcycle company that died in 1978, has “partnered” with Honda (Honda bought Montesa’s body and casket in the 1980’s) to produce frames and motors. Since motorcycle frames and motors are pretty much the heart and guts of a motorcycle, I think it’s pretty safe to assume Honda designed the bike. The Montesa Cota 315R is assembled and boxed for shipment in Spain. Whoever made the bikes, there were Cota 315R’s everywhere If this event was any kind of indication of their success, Honda must be pretty satisfied with its backdoor adventure into OT.
Two years ago, the Montesa-Honda was barely out of prototype status. This year, Doug Lampkin won his 4th consecutive World Championship on a Montesa-Honda and everybody seems to have jumped on that bandwagon. Next year, Montesa will field a Doug Lampkin Signature Model. Buy one and I will guarantee that you’ll have the coolest, weirdest bike in your block. It will be a $6,000, 150 lb. 250cc motorcycle with a 45mph top speed and more first gears than you can handle (at least 4 of ’em). The Montesa 315R is a 249cc bike. Go figure.
Bultaco, is yet another reincarnated Spanish motorcycle marque. The dead shell of the company was propped up by the Spanish government until the mid-80’s, when the logo was about all that was left of that great company. The “Thumb’s Up” Bultaco logo appears to be alive and well in Y2K.
This time two years ago, the Bultaco Sherco looked like fantastic vaporware. This year, if the bike that just dusted you along the spectator trail wasn’t a Montesa, it was a Bultaco. While the first year bike was a success and a decent bike, the 2000 model is the lightest trial bike on the market and the importer is making a serious dent in the established trials manufacturer’s sales. Ryan Young, the pre-Aaron five-times National Champion, is behind Bultaco’s PR and marketing success and the company has serious financial backing. A couple of manufacturer’s reps complained that Bultaco had absorbed almost all of the available advertisement space in the trials press.
This year, Scorpa-Yamaha had a new trialer at Duluth, but no Champ rider. Yamaha appears to be replicating the act that Honda has staked out. That tactic seems to be to do the engineering and let someone else deal with the distribution. Honda, for example, did all of the engineering for the Montesa, but is letting the Montesa brand name take the risk and the credit for the bike. Yamaha is doing the same thing with the French “assembled” Y2K Scorpa. The Scorpa has a Yamaha motor and frame. The price is $5780. Since the Big Four grossly overestimated the trials market back in the 1970’s, this may be how they are protecting their faces from another of OT’s vanishing acts. At any rate, I saw a couple of the Yamaha-Scorpa Y2K’s and it’s a very flashy-looking bike.
Two years ago, when it seemed that everyone was riding for Gas Gas, the National Champion, Geoff Aaron, was on a Beta. In Y2K, the majority of pros and experts are on Montesas and Bultacos and Aaron has moved over to a Gas Gas. (The Beta booth was still showing Aaron posters and the reps looked pretty lonely and dejected. In a “leading user” sport like OT, when you’re out, you’re out.)
In a number of ways, Geoff Aaron is smoothly contrary. He don’t find him riding the “bike of the year” and he’s known for taking hard lines through sections, just to show that he doesn’t have to follow the pack. Or because he is seeing something nobody else can see. Knowledgeable spectators keep an eye out for when Aaron is going to be at a section because you can always count on something specially cool happening when he rides.
I’m not going to argue that I might have a bias — I do. My favorite sort of athlete has always been the guys who make really hard stuff seem simple and impossible stuff look just a bit harder. After watching a gaggle of Champs struggle with a section, Aaron can sometimes make it look like someone applied an invisible layer of pavement over the section. Sometimes, he can glide through a pile of rubble so effortlessly that you’d think anyone could do it. Then, someone follows his route through the same section and goes wheels up for his trouble. I love to watch Geoff Aaron ride a motorcycle.
The first seven sections made for decent spectating and I wandered along with the Support and Expert riders, waiting for the Champs to get started. Saturday’s #8 section must have been the designated “I’ll pass for five points, Monty” bailout. I watched a train of Support riders line up to get their tickets punched, without attempting the rocks, after one rider did a 3/4 reverse gainer back down the first ten feet of this section. Bike after bike ended up with its wheels pointed to the sky and its rider scrambling, sliding, or falling back down this rock. Then, one guy cleaned it and the trail was staked for almost everyone who followed; almost everyone.
There were nine Champs at the Duluth rounds. Most of them looked like they were having a lot of fun, since the championship series was going to be determined more by a complete Geoff Aaron breakdown, rather than a magical great ride from Ryon Bell. But at least one of the Champs had something different on his face. Nebraskan Jess Kempkes often looked pained and disappointed. It might be that he was wincing from all the earrings. He’s probably working on his Trials des Nations look for Spain, later this year. Jess is one of the most adventurous and entertaining riders on the trials circuit and his look is probably just part of the persona he’s building. Whatever, Kempkes rode for a 3rd and a 4th this weekend and picked some spectacular routes through the rocks.
On Saturday, I was despairing for the sport. At 9:30AM, there were only a couple bikes in the parking lot and just a few more at the end of the day. Saturday, the parking lot wasn’t even close to full and it wasn’t hard to find a spot, on most of the sections, to spectate alone. Sunday, however, was a different deal. There were, easily, as many bikes as cars in the lot and every section had a good turnout of spectators. I guess “On Any Sunday” applies to spectators, too. Some of the Champs-only sections were impossible to get near, if you didn’t stake out a spot before the riders got to the section.
Maybe the crowd was a perception thing. The organizers, Upper Midwest Trials Association (UMTA), said they had about 300 paid spectators, both days. They suspected at least 100 more snuck in each day. I must have been following the crowd on Sunday. UMTA was satisfied with the turnout and they may try to turn the Duluth round into an annual event. They’re petitioning for a World Round in 2003.
If you still think that OT just isn’t a Minnesota sort of motorcycling thing, US Montesa is the national distributor and they’re located right here in Glen Prairie. Write ’em at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 612-937-8720. Don’t forget to tell them that I sent you and they should drop off my 315R Cota in Little Canada.
ROUND 9, Aug. 12th Champ class:
1. Raymond Peters (Bultaco) 2. Ryon Bell (Montesa) 3. Jess Kempkes (Gas Gas) 4. Geoff Aaron (Gas Gas) 5. Travis J. Fox (Bultaco) 6. Wilson Craig (Montesa) 7. Dan Johnson (Bultaco) 8. Andy Johnson (Montesa)
ROUND 10, Aug. 13th Champ Class:
1. Ryon Bell (Montesa) 2. Geoff Aaron (Gas Gas) 3. Ray Peters (Bultaco) 4. Jess Kempkes (Gas Gas) 5. Travis J. Fox (Bultaco) 6. Wilson Craig (Montesa) 7. Dan Johnson (Bultaco) 8. Andy Johnson (Montesa)
Along with the Champ class, there were 11 other classes for trialers from Expert to kids to over-60 riders. I heard the oldest rider was around 70 and the youngest was 8.
So, Geoff Aaron finished 4th on Saturday and 2nd on Sunday and he’s is the 2000 US National Champion, for the 6th time in that many years. The Trials des Nations competition in Spain is his next big event. I hope he and the other US riders (Kempkes, Raymond Peters, and Cory Pincock are also on the team) kick some butt this year. Don’t count on it, though. It’s a big time sport in the rest of the world, especially Europe, and their guys have been doing this at a world-class level for a long, long time.