All Rights Reserved © 2005 Thomas W. Day
[Once again, into the Duluth/Spirit Mountain breech. 2005 was the best year yet for the world trialers. The sections were incredible, the weather was British, and the riders were serious. The spectators were few and far-between. It was probably the last world event to be held in Duluth. This article never made it to print. Still, it's one of my favorite events and I'm still happy with the article.]
On Saturday, June 5, 2005, the first round of the two-day event could also have been called “Trials in the Mist.” For that matter, the second day also began in a heavy fog. Real observed trials happens in inclement weather and, because of that, Duluth in June provides the world’s best trials riders with a real test. The last two years this incredible event has provided some of the best riding in the world. Last year, we were rained on all day Saturday. This year, Saturday, again, provided a purist trialer environment: heavy mist and light rain to outright downpour, limited visibility, deep rushing creeks, walls of mud, and huge moss-lubricated rocks. For mortal humans, nothing about the sections in Duluth would indicate ideal riding conditions. For the class of motorcyclists who compete at the world championship level, the weather and the terrain was nearly perfect.
At the end of Saturday, Dougie Lampkin described the exact opposite conditions with more than a little distain. An earlier 2005 round in Japan was so easy that the top riders were separated by a handful of points at the end of the day. Even worse, the top riders barely collected a handful of points, with the fifth place rider, Antonio Bou, scoring only eight points. Like golf, observed trials competitors collect points for screwing up. A perfect score is zero, the worst possible score in a section is a five. A World Championship trials round consists of 15 sections that each competitor attempts two times (in two laps around the course). Scoring eight points in 30 sections is equivalent to shooting a hole in one in 15 of 18 holes on a golf course. If pro golfers played your local three-par rural course, they’d be as disgusted with the experience as Lampkin was with the Japanese event.
The Duluth organizers did not make that mistake. Saturday’s scores ranged from Lampkin’s 72 points to fifth place, Graham Jarvis, with 93 points. Any event that makes the world’s best drop that many points is seriously difficult.
With the above background, comparing the world event to a US national event is like comparing a McDuck’s burger to . . . food. In 1998, semi-retired, ex-World Champ Tommy Ahvala rode with the US national competitors at Duluth, in exhibition. While screwing around for the local press, showing off in the sections (often riding them several times to provide photo ops for camera hounds), Ahvala scored nine points in 27 sections, and finished nearly a half-hour ahead of the best US competitor. In the same event, the top US rider, Geoff Aaron, picked up 22 points and the fourth place US rider collected 53 points.
Fast forward to 2005, where the best riders in the world are seriously working at keeping their feet on the pegs and the best they can do is 72 points and you have some idea how incredibly difficult this event was. On Saturday, the only US rider with the motivation to compete in Duluth this year, Chris Florin (the #3 US rider), came in 14th of the 15 finishing competitors with 147 points. South African, Bruce le Riche (#5 US rider, riding for the US Trials Training Center), finished 15th of 15 riders with 148 points. The rest of the US trials champ riders were absent that weekend. I suspect lawns needed mowing, cars needed washing, video games needed playing, and other equally pressing tasks were accomplished.
The unhappy fact is, after watching a world event, you can’t go back to a US national without experiencing some kind of letdown. The quality of riding and the level of difficulty of a US event is drastically downgraded from the world competition. For example, the most points Chris Florin collected in the 2004 US Pro AMA series was 94.5 in Cotopaxi, CO for 45 sections. He placed 3rd in that event. His easiest 2004 event was in Sequatchie, TN, where he picked up 25 points in 45 sections and finished 2nd. In two sets of 30 Duluth sections, he collected 148 points on Saturday and 131 points on Sunday (several Sunday sections were eliminated due to flooding). Currently, after eight 2005 US AMA rounds, Chris is in 3rd place and Bruce is in 2nd, so they are clearly among the top US riders. The two US riders took up the last two places in Duluth, a few points behind 13th place Spanish rider Jose-Maria Juan on both days.
Sherco has a new 220cc 4-stroke, but no one was riding that bike in this year’s event. Sherco was still fielding their solid 2-stroke with the hope that another year of development and seasoning will bring the 4-stroke to competitive status. The downside to the 4-bangers is “spitback” (what happens when the throttle is applied between firing cycles), weight, complexity, and overheating at low speeds. Honda, obviously, has overcome those handicaps since they snagged the top spot for the weekend with Takahisa Fuginami and two of the top three spots on both days. Honda-Montesa is the only company running 4-strokes this year. The rumor was that the FIM was “encouraging” bike companies to phase out 2-strokes and would be following that with an outright rule. The rumor is a suburban legend. Martin Belair, the US importer, said Honda-Montesa is going 4-stroke voluntarily.
Saturday’s sections were wet and incredibly difficult. At some times, they were even difficult to see and practically impossible to approach without getting wet and muddy. Saturday ended wet and with Honda-Montesa holding the first (Dougie Lampkin) and second (Takahisa Fujinami) places. Spanish rider, Antonio Bou, on a Beta, snagged third place with 88 points and Adam Raga, another Spaniard, took fourth with the same score but three fewer cleans.
Saturday evening, I made it back to the room wet, muddy, and tired. Apparently, the night before the MMM crowd drank themselves silly and enjoyed a night of unrivaled debauchery. The night I spent with those folks was . . . uneventful. Probably it was because the living room couch was also my bed and I ruined the decadent mood by falling asleep on the floor, curled up at the foot of the couch. Old and in the way.
Sunday morning, after a day of the most incredible motorsports action ever witnessed in the US, the local Duluth newspaper had a single picture of the event with a caption. That’s it. The rest of the sports section was devoted to AP articles describing the NBA playoffs, pro baseball, and even stadium football. If the event had taken place in Detroit, the Duluth paper wouldn’t have said much less about it. Are Duluth citizens that much more concerned with what’s going on in other cities’ backyards than their own? Maybe I don’t watch enough television to know what’s really important.
Sunday’s round was a completely different event. The start was reset from 10AM to 11AM to give the sun a chance to burn off dense fog. The strategy worked and by noon we were all enjoying a warm, clear spring day on Spirit Mountain. The terrain was still world class because it was saturated with water from the previous day’s constant precipitation. That only made it easier for spectators to see the riders attempt impossible sections.
Sections 3 through 11 were all part water ride. The Knowlton Creek ran through the middle of each of these sections and it was running high after a night of non-stop rain. At the start of the day, Sunday’s section 5 was running 4-6” deeper than Saturday. That turned out to be the low water mark for the day.
On the first lap, Dougie Lampkin was only a few feet from the top of section 12 when he lost his balance and toppled over backwards, tumbling nearly twenty feet to the base of the section. He took a trip to the medical tent, came back with a brace on his hand, and returned to race for the finish. Last year, Dougie suffered a nearly identical fall in an equally dramatic section, breaking his bike and himself. To catch up, Lampkin had to race to the finish. The medical-treatment time he’d spent put him in a position where he might not have been able to stay within the time limit allowed for the event. In that case, every section he didn’t finish would add five points to his score.
Nature must love the Brits.
After a foggy, late start and five hours of beautiful Minnesota spring weather, the temperature fell and the fog returned at 4PM, an hour before the last rider, Dougie Lampkin, ran out of time. The fog dropped on us like a curtain and was followed by a strong wind, driving rain, and the thermometer lost at least 15oF. The wind picked up, thunder boomed, and the familiar feel of winter came back to Duluth. As if we had received an unearned blessing, the sky fell. From warm, sunny spring day to Noah’s flood in less than 15 minutes. I was perfectly positioned to follow the leaders from section 12 through 15 and the end, but to protect my camera and video gear I ran a 500 yard dash to the Chalet, where about half of the press corps was sheltered and wringing itself dry. My notebook had barely begun to dry before it returned to wash rag status. Two days of clever insights turned into a huge blue smear across a dozen pages. In the press room we were entertained by reports of tornado sightings a few miles south of Spirit Mountain.
Fujinami dropped his Montesa in the raging waters of section 8 and his bike was totally submerged. The minders had to rescue both rider and bike and “a team of bike doctors did CPR and brought it back to life.” (I’m quoting Jim Winterer, who provided this story.) By 4:30PM, the report was that the creek was “waist deep and rising” at section 10, the next-to-last water section. It was, by all reports, a flash flood on the course. Sections 3 to 11 all had some sections of water to deal with, so a short discussion between the riders and the FIM authorities determined that four of the water crossing sections would be abandoned and the scores of riders who had finished those sections would be dismissed. This decision was fortunate for Lampkin as it allowed him to skip several sections and rush to section 12, where he’d crashed on the first loop. Lampkin cleaned 12 and made short work of the next three sections.
In the end, Fujinami won the day, with 44 points, Albert Cabestany took 2nd with 49 points, and Lampkin took 3rd and the last spot on the winner’s stage with 53 points. This created an international incident as Adam Raga’s folks protested that Lampkin had intentionally ridden slowly enough to allow the water sections to flood, saving himself the time and points that those sections would have cost. The judges thought that was pretty devious, even for a Brit, and ruled against Raga’s protest. The sections were clearly unride-able, since the observers had abandoned their posts for higher ground and the section markers were either underwater or had washed away.
For some reason, this best-of-world-class event was grossly under-attended. Maybe it was the weather, but that would only explain local attendance. Maybe it is the location, Duluth isn’t exactly nationally known as a vacation hot-spot. Maybe it’s the sport. Only 1,500 spectators were on site to see the best motorcyclists in the world challenge impossible terrain on the world’s most maneuverable vehicles. That resulted in a $15,000 loss for the Duluth organization and that would seem like an insurmountable problem for the local supporters. After sponsoring three world class events in four years, the Duluth folks are solidly in the red. In comparison, the 1st round, in Portugal drew about 2,000 spectators, the 2nd round, in Spain, drew 5,500, the 3rd round, in Japan, drew 17,000, and the 5th round, in Andora two weeks after Duluth, drew 7,000. This year, the U.S. World Round will be in Tennessee. I hope they have better luck than the Duluth folks experienced. Observed trials is, obviously, not an up-and-coming Monday night on NBC sport. I can’t figure out why.
For those who left Duluth on Sunday night, the city provided us with a dense blanket of fog that didn’t dissipate until about Hinkley. Visibility was about 20’ for most of the first 20 miles south. I hadn’t biked to Duluth because I’d brought along a couple of large video cameras and my wife. I felt fortunate to be enclosed in a cage, listening to an Elmore Leonard novel on CD, and dozing while my wife drove us home. Like last year, I rented a Jackie Chan movie when we made it home and was bored, once again, that Chan was still doing his stunts on foot. Once you’ve seen martial arts performed on a motorcycle flying up a muddy cliff, you can’t go back to Hollywood.
 Trials scoring is a little like golf. The better you do, the fewer points you “score.” Each rider starts a section with zero points (clean) and picks up a point every time a foot touches the ground up to three points. If the rider stops moving forward, crashes, rides or puts a foot outside of the section boundaries, five points are charged to the section. So, in two loops and fifteen sections, the worst score a rider could earn in a World Round would be 150 points by either failing to attempt all sections or by crashing in all of them.
 A “clean” means the rider managed to ride the section end-to-end without stopping or touching the ground with a foot or other body part, scored as a “zero.” If the point totals are tied, the rider with the most cleans wins.