Look, Ma, No Feet!
by Thomas Day
While the rest of you were in Brainerd (8/1/98), watching the road rockets, I went to the AMA/NATC Observed Trials Championship rounds (#8 & #9) at the Spirit Mountain Recreational Area in Duluth. Since I first stood on the pegs of a trials bike 25 years ago, the sport has been one of my two favorite motorcycling events. This was my second chance to see a national event.
If you are unfamiliar with observed trials, you won’t have to search to find company. Observed trials is about as unknown as an honest politician. The Duluth national event wasn’t advertised anywhere in the Twin Cities. Local events are nearly impossible to track down. I learned about our national rounds on the Internet (http://www.TrialsUSA.com). I also learned that the ’92 World Champion/’93 World Indoor Champion, Tommi Ahvala (Helsinki, Finland), would be riding in exhibition during this event.
One of the many reasons trials has never caught on in the U.S. is that Americans aren’t very good at it, on a world class standard. Twenty years ago, the World Championship was won by Bernie Schreiber. That was it for us, before and since. At a recent world round in the U.S., the entire Finnish team scored fewer points than the best American rider (more points = bad thing). This doesn’t mean that U.S. riders aren’t unbelievably good. The first time I saw Geoff Aaron, the current U.S. national champion, I was as impressed as the first time I saw Bob Hannah tear up a motocross track. Aaron and the other top U.S. riders do magical things on their bikes. They can balance and pivot on either wheel. From a standing start, they can leap to the top of van-sized rocks and get back down without touching the earth with any body parts. But a lot of Europeans have been riding trials for a really long time. The sport is fairly popular in Europe, which produces a larger pool of riders and a higher level of competition.
Another reason for the sport’s invisibility might be that observed trials is not much easier on spectators than an enduro. To see much of an event, you have to be prepared to walk long distances, over difficult terrain. Once you get to where the action is, you will probably have to do some rock climbing for a good view.
Finally, the rules are fairly obscure. The simply stated observed trials objective is to ride over impossible terrain, sections (sadistically nicknamed “traps”), without putting your feet on the ground, falling off the bike, or running outside of the markers. A section is a roped-off area with a pair of gates, the entrance and exit. Between the gates, there may be rocks and huge boulders, trees and logs, streams and waterfalls, walls of dirt or rock to climb or descend. Depending on the size and visibility of the section, there can be one or more observers (checkers) who score the riders. Spectators usually line the edge of the sections. The riders stop and walk each section, attempting to find the best lines through the obstacles. Sometimes the on-foot riders, their minders (guys who help the riders pick their way through the sections), and spectators create an additional obstacle to a rider.
Riders pick up a point each time part of their body touches the ground or some part of the section to aid in maintaining forward motion or balance. The maximum number of points you can “earn” from footing it through a section, like a Harley yuppie paddling toward a parking place in the Ember’s lot, is three. If you fail to make it through the section, you earn five points. If you are stopped and touching the world with anything other than the tires and/or the bash plate, that’s a five. If you get lost and don’t pass through a section, that’s worth ten. The best score you can get in a section is zero (a clean), like golf.
Saturday’s round began with a high school Support class. A lot of the kids were riding their parent’s bike. Some were riding their own. Some of these kids rode surprisingly well. After the kids, a variety of Support classes followed, mostly broken up into five year age groups: Over-35, Over-40, all the way to an Over-65 Support class. Riding this kind of terrain at any age over 25 is a lot more impressive when you see it in person.
After the Support classes came the Experts. The interiors of the sections had different routes for Support, Expert, and Champ classes. The Expert routes were significantly more difficult than the Support lines and the Champ routes were that much more difficult than the Expert lines. The Expert lines were rockier, steeper, and more convoluted.
Finally, came the Champs. It turned out that I didn’t have much trouble identifying Ahvala. For the two days, Ahvala rode in a class of his own. He was considerably faster than the rest of the Champ class guys. (This is trials “fast,” not fast-fast. You might see a 20 mph burst of power in the sections, with a 2 mph average. Top speed on the trails between sections might be as much as 50 mph.) Ahvala was also more efficient and more photogenic than anyone I’ve ever seen on a bike.
I must have hiked 25 miles on Saturday. I’m pretty sure I would have done as well without the course map. I carefully picked the longest way to see the least stuff. But I did get to see all of the Champs ride at least one section and I saw a Champ or two at almost all of the sections. My feet hurt so bad I promised myself new hiking boots as soon as I could get into town. When the last guys filtered through the section I had staked out as a burial ground, I staggered back up the foothills of Duluth to the scoreboard.
Tommi Ahvala, to no one’s surprise, kicked butt. He scored a total of 9 points for all three loops. If you haven’t yet got the gist, he rode 15 sections, three times each (15 sections times 3 loops=45 sections), and touched the ground 9 times (he scored 7 points on the first loop and 1 point each on the next two). Nine freaking times!
For tie-breaking purposes, the scorers also keep track of the time it takes the riders to complete the loops (6 hour maximum) and Tommi finished an hour faster than the next fastest American. This isn’t a no-account thing, either. The trails to the sections were tougher than anything most of us can ride, under any conditions and on any bike.
The first American was Ryon Bell with 22 points, second was Geoff Aaron with 31, third was Raymond Peters with 34, and fourth was Matt Moore with 53. From there, the American’s points totals jumped drastically. Ahvala scored fewer total points than the best American’s best single loop.
On the second day, I actually planned the hike to maximize seeing the Champs rounds. The Champs didn’t start till the Support and Experts had left and the sections were solidly churned up. This allowed time to fool around at section one, and watch everyone flail at this monster, while still allowing for a hobbling walk to the first Champs-only sections, #4 and #5.
Section one was a great example of why the best trials riders must start out the day thinking “this is a fine day to die.” For the support class, the beginning of the section was a 10 ft run at an 8 ft. tall rock, followed by about 6′ of braking room, and a hard right turn to a downhill to cross a road to another rock climb and out. The Experts got an angled approach at the first and second rock, a fairly narrow 180-degree turn after the first and a 90 after the second. The Champs had to enter the section and jump the rock with about a 2′ run, turn hard right, turn hard left over an outcropping, turn really hard right over another outcropping, go down the back side onto the road and up a perfectly vertical section of the 2nd rock, make another hard left and a right over more rocks, and out.
At the last Champs-only section, #12, Ahavla was so far ahead of the pack that he took time to clean this one twice for the photographers. He rode off looking fresh and slightly bored. Many of the first Americans to this spot looked whipped. Some of them were so tired that they hadn’t even bothered to walk the hardest sections, on their second and third loops. Some of them tried to ride straight through this one. I think Aaron and Bell were the only Americans who cleaned #12 on the final loop. They both took some time to inspect it out before riding.
At the Champs-only sections, Ahvala provided most of the highlights. He took an extra shot at sections he had cleaned the first time to provide photo-ops and to prove that there were a couple of ways to skin those cats. He also proved that he could ride this stuff for breakfast. He finished the day with a total of seven points. He took 1 point in his first round, 6 in the second, and cleaned the third with no points. If Ahvala is really too old to cut the world mustard, imagine fifty of the world’s best riders finishing this event with no points and the tie breaker going all the way down to who rode the event the fastest.
The best American was Geoff Aaron with 37 points (15, 14, 8). The second best American was Ryon Bell also with 37 points (18, 14, 5), but Aaron had more cleans than Bell for the tie breaker. Raymond Peters was third with 41 and Dennis Sweeten was fourth with 86. The numbers below fourth got really big.
When we left there was some talk about protested scores and the finishers could have swapped a place or two. The reality is that, like most officiated sports, it usually comes out even in the end. One thing is for sure, while the Americans are arguing about whose five should have been a three, Ahvala’s perfect loop and his two one point loops are hanging over all of their heads. Only one American rider had a loop with fewer points than Ahvala’s total for the day.
For me, It was a great weekend trip. I learned more about throttle control, traction, balance, and what’s impossible and what isn’t than I’ll ever put to good use. When the yard dries out, I’m going to break out my ’86 Yamaha TY350 and play on my backyard log pile.