Jul 10, 2013

Look Ma, No Feet!


[Originally published in Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly, September 1998 about the AMA/NATC Observed Trials Championship rounds (#8 & #9) held in Duluth, MN.]

While the rest of you were in Brainard (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. I conned a friend into going with me, so I wouldn't have to pay for all of my beer.

If you're unfamiliar with observed trials, you won't have to search for finding company. Observed trials is about as unknown 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 (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.

If you're a typical motorcyclist, even the brand names advertised at a trials will mess you up. Alien sounding labels like Hebo, Gas Gas, Beta, Fantic, Gaerne, Elf, Clice, and Montesa (owned by Honda, but they don't seem want to admit it) are screened onto bodysuits and it's hard to tell the riders' names from the name brands without a program and a translator.

duluth_ahvala_smallWe started the day accidentally well. For our grease and caffeine fix, we stumbled into a Country Kitchen booth for breakfast. Not by any plan, it turned out that Geoff Aaron (the current US National Champion), ex-champ Ryan Young, and Ryan's father were seated behind us. After a few moments, their conversation shut us up for most of the meal. I think I learned more about life on the Road of Trials than I wanted to know. Aaron talked about riding classes and exhibitions, living out of the trunk of a car, and finding a way to eat and pay the bills on less money than most of us made while we were in college. Apparently, some people seem to think he ought to be grateful for the chance to do all this and give his schools and exhibitions for free. Go figure. Yeah, I realize that eavesdropping is rude, but I couldn't help it. They were a lot more interesting than anything we had to say.

Most professional athletes will say they ride for the sport and fun, but when you're making ten mil a year you are supposed to spew that crap. When you're the national champ and touring the country in a shared Ford Taurus, you're riding for love. Just like the last time I heard Geoff speak, to a group of kids in Colorado, I was impressed with what a decent, unassuming person he appears to be. I doubt that this country has a better representative as a national champ, in any sport.

Maybe 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 Finish 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 I was 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 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.

There are checkers littered all over the sections to make sure the rules are obeyed. I interviewed about a dozen of these guys and got a dozen different detailed explanations of how they score a rider stopped with a foot down. The difference between a three and a five is pretty unclear to these folks. In fact, the concept of "loss of forward motion" seems to be as muddy in trials waters as ethical behavior is to Republican Senators. There's a movement to turn observed trials into an Olympic event. It ought to be, because the scoring can be as ambiguous as diving, figure skating, gymnastics, and professional wrestling.

I saw this kind of erratic scoring four years ago in a Colorado national. Partly because of logistics, partly because of outrage, it's been four years since I went out of my way to watch another national. This isn't like racing, where the first guy in wins and that's all there is to talk about. This is more like Olympic diving judges, "I give heem a 9.9 . . . deed ju see hees Speedo?"

duluth_aaronRiders pick up a point each time part of their body, like a foot, 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. Supposedly, if you're stopped and touching the world with  anything other than the tires and/or the bashplate, that's a five.

That only happens when the sun aligns properly with a couple of planets and at least two stars go nova. Or when the checker decides it's hot and he's wishing he It doesn't matter how you score 'em, just do it the same way every time. I was told, by several knowledgeable types, that observers just don't have the guts to give up 5's. The rules keep changing to get around this human defect, but nothing has yet worked. Maybe the hole between 3 &5 screws them up. You can't get to five without passing 4 and you can't give a 4 in trials. Or maybe the scorers ought to keep counting to ten, when they run out of fingers and end end of numbers occurs (as we all know).

Later in the event, the mother of one of the top riders took a lot of time to enlighten me about why it's so difficult to get observers to call consistent 5's. It all boils down to "they don't want to be the bad guy." I wouldn't be surprised if they think they are doing the riders a favor by being lenient. If the rest of the world was as soft, that might be true. But I don't have any trouble imagining that going from wishy-washy U.S. championship scoring to a hard ass world event could really mess up our riders. The rule is pretty simple, if anything other than the tires or the bashplate touches anything when the bike is stopped, it's a 5. That means the rider, the handlebars, the footpegs, or anything else connected to the bike cannot be used to assist in balancing the bike when forward motion has ceased. The rules don't say anything about time, either. The observers often chanted a one or two second grace period, but it's not in the rule book and it sure wasn't applied consistently.

duluth_cliff_smallOn a fairly easy (for the Champs) section, an observer demonstrated that some people will abuse even miniscule amounts of authority. He was, apparently, a wannabe photographer. Like most everyone with a camera in hand, he seemed to believe that piece of equipment gave him a special privilege to park his butt in front of anyone else with a comfortable place to watch the event. But that wasn't enough for him. First, he stepped inside the section, planting himself near the middle of a difficult slab of rock and cutting off an easy line through the section. After he was nearly run over by one of the riders (and mocked by some spectators), he stepped back a micron or two and pulled the marker tape around himself in an arrogant imitation of a fat boundary stake. What do you want to bet this is another of those guys who can't call a 5?

Trials has a lot in common with the American Libertarian Party. The rules are obscure and the sport seems to work at alienating its possible audience. The audience, on the other hand, is there for the taking. It's a great spectator sport. You can get right up on the course. There isn't much, other than the obscure rules and erratic scoring, that prevents the sport from fascinating nearly everyone who rides a bike.

Taking a break from running from section to section, Brett and I had this conversation, as we were walking past a parked bunch of spindly trials bikes on our way to finding the concession stand. It's typical of the sorts of conversations we've had for the last twenty-five years.

Me, "It's a Honda."

Brett, "How do you know?"

Me, "Montesa and Honda are doing a bike together. See the 'HRC' on the motor cases?"

"What's that stand for?"

"I don't know, Honda Racing Company? Maybe. Whatever."

Brett looked at the motor for a bit and said, "It's magnesium."

"What is?"

He pointed at the motor, "The cases, they're magnesium."

"How do you know?"

"I read it. It says so on the side. 'Magnesium.'" He pointed to the cases, "See?"

I looked, it did, but I was disappointed. "I thought you'd found some cool way to detect metallurgy from the way the metal looks."


And off we went, in silence, to find food and drink.  Not necessarily in that order, since the concession stand had beer which I consider to be drink and food all in one container.

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. A lot 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 comes the Experts. The interiors of the sections have different routes for Support, Expert, and Champ classes. The Expert routes are significantly more difficult than the Support lines and the Champ routes and that much more difficult than the Expert lines. The Expert lines are 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 20mph burst of power in the sections, with a 2mph average. Top speed on the trails between sections might be as much as 50mph.) 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.

duluth_leapTommi 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 are 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.

I left the course at about 5:00PM. Headed back to the motel, clogged the shower drain with a pound of dust, and headed into Duluth. Brett wanted to cross the two Lake Superior bridges, so we did. I found a sporting goods store on the Wisconsin side of the lake, in Superior, and we both bought new hiking shoes. We cruised beautiful downtown Duluth (no joke, I love that city), ate at Grandma's near the docks, and took an evening ride north to Two Harbors.

I should have brought my camera. With a dozen or so fellow spectators , we caught a beautiful sundown, a monster freighter maneuvering into its iron ore loading dock, and a family of wood ducks swimming in the bay. That whole scene would have fit into a single picture. The ride back to Duluth finished off a great day and the last of our energy.

On the second day, I actually planned the hike to maximize seeing the Champs rounds. The Champs don't start till the Support and Experts have left and the sections are 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.

Sunday morning was cool and cloudy. I wore my new hiking shoes in an attempt to get around yesterday's blisters. Brett, being younger, stronger, and dumber, decided to continue breaking in his feet with his old shoes. This one time, age and experience did me some good. I went the day pretty much pain-free. Brett did a really authentic Chester's "wait fer me, Mista Dillon" routine for most of the day.

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, 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.

duluth_3_RidersThe first loop (of 3), on Saturday, on the first pass through the Champs-only #5 section, was an example of what keeps a lot of bikers away from observed trials. One rider used his left foot and peg for balance against a rock for several seconds, put his right foot down and rolled backwards a few inches, then waddled through the gate with both feet paddling all the way: he scored a 3. Aaron took a 5 (failure to complete) on this section. He did what got at least three other riders 3's; stopping with a foot down. He actually resorted to paddling his way through the last of the section, after banging against several rocks and nearly dropping the bike. Aaron left the section fairly upset, a few spectators (me included) were vocal about the scoring inconsistency. The next Champs rider, Minnesota's own David Reed, blasted through the section for an example of what he called "an honest 3." It was, too. Ahvala took a single point in the section.

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 tiebreaker. 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.

Brett and I took a short break and headed back to the Cities. The Minnesota Highway Patrol decided that the south bound I35 lane was moving way too efficiently, so they jammed traffic into one lane about ten miles before the road construction north of Hinckley. We toddled along at 1mph for an hour and a half before I convinced Brett that "freeways suck." The rest of the ride was decent and we got to the I35 W&E split just when it began to rain. A light shower washed the bugs off of my visor and did no harm. It really started to pour just after I pushed my bike into the garage.

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. [I can’t believe I was stupid enough to sell that wonderful motorcycle. It’s the only bike I’ve ever regretted selling.]

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