[Originally published in Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly, July 2002 about the FIM Observed Trials World Championship rounds held in Duluth, MN. ]
Right here in Duluth, Minnesotans hosted a World Championship Observed Trials. Twice in the last five years, I've written up my experiences at national trials championships in Duluth. This event was my fourth professional trials event in the last eight years. After twenty years of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, it's been more than a bonus to have these events practically in my backyard. If this year's world round hadn't messed up my perspective on what I'd seen in the previous three trials, I'd be happy as a politician in a pork barrel.
The fact is there's not much comparison to be made between the world-class riders and the US-class guys. As good as our riders are, they don't come close to riding at the level that 6500 of us witnessed in Duluth, June 1st and 2nd. If you missed it, don't worry, we'll probably have another one in 10 or 20 years. Maybe. The last time a world round came near Minnesota was in 1979, when the event was held in Michigan. Around that same time, the United States' only world champion, Bernie Schrieber, was finishing up his career. I hope there isn't a connection between having a world champ rider in the country and having a world round in the Midwest. It doesn't look like there are any US champions on the near horizon for some time to come.
USA World Round Committee Chair Steve Ahlers designed the course and sections, with help from a lot of folks from the Upper Midwest Trials Association and the Wisconsin Observed Trials Association. Last summer, Steve visited the FIM technical people in California and attended world rounds in Washington and Europe for his training in world class trials course layout. He must have got it right because the FIM crowd visited the Spirit Mountain site a week before the event and approved nearly every section as Steve planned them.
Two days before the event, the riders began arriving for practice. On Friday they were given an opportunity to suggest course modifications. At the riders’ request, section 3, which was considered to be impossible for anyone except, possibly Adam Raga, was slightly modified. The FIM officials added some crash-protection hay bales to the bottom of section 12's monster jump. That modification was tested by some of the earlier riders and they found it to be useful. The riders were also allowed to position some "kickers," rock launch-ramps at the base of specially difficult steps.
4500 people attended the first US round, a pretty good turnout considering the couple hundred who usually spectate at US national events here. I heard several people comment on how few "locals" were at the event, Twin Citizens are not considered local. But even with non-Duluth Minnesotans counted, I think locals were pretty significantly outnumbered by visitors from as far away as our right and left coasts, Europe, Japan, South America, and, of course, Canada. I met reporters from Great Britain, El Salvador, Brazil, Spain, Portugal, France, and Germany in the pressroom and on the course. Thanks to MMM, Martin Belair, Steve and Sarah Ahlers, I got to hang out with those folks and step inside the tape for pictures and interviews.
One big difference between national and world events is the manufacturer participation. Every bike manufacturer was not only there; but there in force. Instead of a rider and his minder/mechanic and a U-Haul trailer, the manufacturers brought a significant portion of their engineering staff, a fully equipped 40' trailer, extra bikes, marketing and sales people, and one team brought their own chef. Honda-Montesa had a larger staff in Duluth than all of the 2000 US national teams, put together.
Saturday was a hot, dusty day in Duluth. The sky was slightly overcast, the sun bore down on the ski trails as if there was no ozone layer or atmosphere to protect bare skin, of which there was more than usual for this part of the frozen north. Even with the ski lifts running (taking passengers uphill only), walking a trials course is a workout. It was pretty easy to tell experienced trials fans from first-timers; the people hustling from section to section were the ones who knew how much there was to miss if you didn't get to see the leaders at each section on the first lap. The riders carefully walk the sections, the first time around, inspecting their routes and rearranging pebbles and dirt to hone their planned path. The second time around, they cook. You have to pick one or two sections to watch to see the best riders even once.
My favorite day one sections, on day one, were the wet and rocky sections, 4 through 8 (Winterer's Wonderland) and 9, 10, & 11 (Deck's Landing). I didn't make it to 12 or 13 before the leaders had past those sections, so I saved them for Sunday. I specially liked the wet sections when the temperature sailed past 90 Saturday afternoon. The bugs liked those areas, too, and I lost a bottle of Gatorade that two mosquitoes mistook for a full vein. No kidding, Duluth blood suckers are that big. Really!
Watching the world champs climb, leap, bounce, fly, and slide over and through water, rocks, and boulders the size of a living room is my idea of a perfect way to spend a spring weekend. The most common phrase heard on section 8 was "no way!" or "impossible!" After watching the first ten riders (the lower ranked riders go first), fumble, fall, and end up drenched to the neck, the first guy to clean the section left the crowd speechless. He was checked, scored, and heading to the next section before we all snapped-to and started cheering. From then on, the section seemed as tame as a highway. The top ten riders barely slowed from start to finish in a section that was impossible, even for them, to walk.
The whole afternoon went that way, the lower ranked riders made sections look as impossible as they were and the top ranked guys rode over them like they were paved. Since the top ranked US guy is Chris Florin, at #40, that didn't give the home crowd much to cheer. Most of the uncomfortable-with-prime-time US riders didn't even show up. The general feeling was that they're getting old and intolerant of losing badly. Geoff Aaron had a conflicting Team Extreme event, but no one I talked to said they believed Geoff wished he was here, instead of hopping minivans and portapotties at a mall. The 2001 US champ, Fred Crossett of Belgium, is a privateer and, being unsponsored, he's ineligible for FIM competition. The US riders who were in Duluth represented the youngest, hungriest riders who were willing to risk their reputations to be schooled by the world's best. And schooled they were. Our best showing, for the two day event was Chris Florin, who finished 25th of 26 on Saturday and 21st of 25 on day two. As a quick reference of the level of riding we saw in Duluth, Chris collected 120 points on Sunday while Takahisa Fujinami and Dougie Lampkin touched rock for 11 and 15 points. Fujinami put a stabilizing foot to the ground 11 times in two rounds of 15 sections, including 5'ing section 4 in the first round! In-freakin'-human!
At the end of day one, the winners were Dougie Lampkin, Takahisa Fujinami and Adam Raga. Points-wise, Lampkin and Fujinami tied, with 21 points. They tied on the number of cleans. Lampkin had six "ones" vs. Fuhinami’s four, so Lampkin won the day's trophy with a technical knockout. It took a little while to be decided, too. There were rumors that political games were being played, that the Lampkin family were haranguing the judges. The issue was less vicious and messier. A section was contested and the original scoring stuck. Since both of these guys ride for Montesa, I‘d guess that serious protests are reserved for the competition.
Riders, dealers, observers, and organizers do this sport for love, in the US. There is practically no money in it. In Europe, it's another story. This is a real pro sport, there, with millions of Euros at stake on the outcome of every event. So the level of gamesmanship is increased proportionally. Riders, minders, and mechanics whine and moan about every lost point. They'll do anything to get an inch on the competition. You know that people this involved know the rules of the game, but if they think there's a chance of intimidating an observer into giving pack a point or five, they pretend they're completely unfamiliar with how points are scored.
In years past, I've been a little discouraged with and disappointed in at the consistency of our observers in national rounds. In my opinion, they've been a lot too Minnesota Nice. Not this trip. Every observer I observed was downright testy when their opinions were contested. They called points quickly and, apparently, knew the rules better than the minders or some of the corporate guys who were trying to squeeze a few points out for their riders. Still, the mushy quality of some of the rules trips up the casual fan. When is a stop a stop? A stop gets either a point or five points, depending on the . . . stoppiness? (Jim Winterer says: "Actually, a very, very brief stop gets zero points, but a total, undeniable stop gets just one point. Going backwards is a five, but it has to be a pretty clear backwards.") Ok, the horse is dead. It was fairly clear that most observers ruled rolling backwards as "cessation of forward motion." Newton and, maybe, Einstein would be happy to see that. I was happy to see the cranky Europeans didn't take advantage of the nice Minnesotans.
While it's always true that trialers are the most meditative of motorcyclists, it's less true at the world level. These guys take their time walking and surveying the sections, but they flat out cook on the second lap. Riding the press truck, we couldn't catch the leaders simply driving from the end of one section to the end of the next group of sections. We rolled in about the time the last riders rolled out.
The Duluth organization could have changed up to five sections for Sunday. They picked two for slight modification. They made the top of section 12 a little more difficult and the top of section 15 a little easier.
The second day was completely different from the first. Sunday was cold and sunny, but quickly turned colder and overcast. It must have been a die-hard day, because about half of the Saturday-sized crowd turned up. It was a perfect day to be hiking Spirit Mountain, though. About 1/2 way to my first section and I was unzipping my jacket. I, mostly, hung out at sections 12-15 for the first lap. Twelve was nicknamed "up, up, and away (to the hospital)" for its 15' first step, terminating in another wall about 20' from the first step with another 10' step. Again, the US riders appeared, looked at the section, and moved on without making an attempt. The first few world riders took at shot at it, all made the big jump, but most failed to clear the 2nd ledge. The first rider to clean 12 was Spain's Marc Colomer. He ripped up the mountain like he was riding a rail. After Colomer, we saw 12 cleans in a row from the world's best.
Being the predictable sort I am, I headed back to my favorite sections at the bottom of Spirit Mountain and watched the water rides. I still consider section seven to be impossible, even though I saw it cleaned a dozen times and, on Sunday alone, riders took 22 zeroes on the section. I don't care; it's still impossible. After wandering around in the rocks and water, I hustled back to the last four sections to watch the leaders roll through to the finish. In the end, #2 plate Takahisa Fujinami beat World Champ Dougie Lampkin by 4 points for the day's win and for the Wagner Cup. His expression as he cleaned and cleared the top of section 15 will be stuck in my mind for a long time. I have probably never seen a happier person.
I stayed for the trophy girl kissing and the Champagne-squirting, took some more pictures of beautiful motorcycles, and came home. For those of you who made it to Duluth, I know you're still trying to comprehend what you saw there. For those of you who didn't, I think I heard this quote almost as often as "no way," "(insert friend's name here) is going to be so pissed that he didn't come." And so he should be.