One of the most humbling experiences of my motorcycle career was attempting Trials Riding. Trials bikes are purpose-built motorcycles supporting a very precise and particular sort of riding competition. The sport is generally referred to as “mototrials” or “motorcycle trials” and is big in Europe, South America and other parts of the world, but has a more limited following in the US. If you’ve never seen a Trials bike ridden well, click HERE. This video will give you a good idea of what it is and what a skilled trials’ rider can do. It is highly exacting and rigorous riding focused on balance and control over speed.
Before I relate my mototrials riding experience, know that I took from that experience a healthy respect for those who learn to ride a trials bike well and compete in the sport. Later in my motorcycling career, I became good friends with former mototrials champion, Gary LaPlante. I rode with Gary and went on a few trips with him, and wrote about him and his riding school, MotoVentures, for different MC magazines. Gary’s off-road motorcycling training is superb. He is a masterful coach. I also had the good fortune to meet Geoff Aaron and do some publicity photos for him. Geoff is an exceptional mototrials rider and went on to gain sponsorship from Red Bull and now makes a career of giving mototrials riding demonstrations at Red Bull events. You can see more about Geoff here.
My trials training was done under the tutelage of Griff Wigley, one of the best teachers on the planet. Griff can teach just about anyone anything. He’s patient, kind, observant and somehow knows precisely the right thing to say at the right time. Griff is very civic-oriented and spends most of his time with non-profits, helping them build their communities, online and otherwise. There are few people who I admire more for their commitment to the greater good.
So, time for my trials story: Many years ago when living in the Twin Cities area, Griff volunteered to loan me one of his trials bikes and teach me some basic trials riding exercises. Taking him up on his offer, one Saturday morning I found myself some miles out of Northfield, MN near a park with a lot of trails.
Griff unloaded the bikes from the trailer, explaining to me their nature and operation. Trials bikes have super grippy tires running 5 – 8 lbs of pressure. Gas tanks hold less than 1 gallon, so they have a range of only about 50 miles. But with no seat, few use them for serious transportation. Top speed is less than 40 mph and most riding is done slower than 10 mph. The bikes weigh only about 150 lbs., putting them in the rarest form of motorsport vehicle, where the vehicle weighs less than the rider. The bikes have six gears, with the first four being super short with high torque. What and where riders manage to ride these bikes is mind-boggling. A trials bike can climb to the roof of a house. I’ve personally seen one ridden up the side of a semi-truck trailer to its top. I couldn’t wait to see what I could do.
After a morning of the basics, with Griff not letting me out of his sight, he allowed me to begin the afternoon on my own, working on the exercises he’d shown me: jumping over logs, balancing along a railroad tie, and riding over some big rocks.
At one point, Griff took off on a jeep trail that wound around and around the mountain, through some beautiful large pine trees, up to the top. I followed but, of course, could not keep up, and soon he was far ahead of me. About half-way up the mountain, I came across a log on the trail. I slowed, recalling Griff’s instructions on how to approach the log slowly, then blip the throttle as I pulled up on the handlebars, to raise the front wheel over the log. This time I grabbed more throttle than intended, and the bike reared up like the lone ranger’s horse. As the bike began getting away from me, I grabbed the handlebars more tightly, twisting the throttle fully wide open. The bike took off on its rear wheel without me, over the steep drop-off at the edge of the road. After checking myself for damage and finding none, I tiptoed to the side of the road and looked down for the bike. There it was, hanging from a tree limb, about 6 feet up from the ground.
Further down the hillside, I spied a bit of the road that circled the mountain. That was a good sign. I slid down the steep ten feet or so to the base of the tree and looked up. Sure enough, there it was, stuck about six feet up. I scooted down another few feet to the roadway below and waited for Griff to appear. Eventually, he did. As he rode up and stopped, he instantly realized I’d crashed and began looking around for the bike. I just stood there. He looked, not seeing anything anywhere. Finally, he said, “Okay, I give up, where’s the bike?” I took him to the side of the road and pointed up into the tree. There was his other bike. Griff looked for a while, then started to laugh and laugh. Then he finally said, “Wow, I wonder how many points you’d get docked for losing your bike in a tree.”
To understand what Griff said, you need to understand how scoring is done in trials competition runs. Each contestant starts with zero points. Points are added for errors. Dabbing a foot down adds 1 point for each dab, 5 points for going out-of-bounds, which are the sections marked with ribbons, 5 points for going backwards, etc. Like golf, the person with the lowest score is the winner. Griff had no idea how many points I’d “earned” for getting a trials bike caught over six feet up in a tree, a pine tree no less.
By the time we got the bike lowered to the ground, we were covered in pine tar. The bike was unhurt, but my riding prowess had taken a considerable blow. The next day I woke with every muscle in my body complaining. I could barely move. It eventually dawned on me that the skill, balance and physical conditioning required to ride a trials bike vastly surpassed other sorts of motorcycle riding, and I still believe that to this day. After I got into teaching precision riding, I often told students that learning to ride properly at slow speeds was critical. Unskilled riders often use speed to hide poor technique. Top riders know that executing maneuvers perfectly at slow speeds means you’ll always be able to do it right when the speed increases. BTW, in the years since this has happened, Griff has gotten into off-road bicycle riding. You can find his site here.