Observed Trials is an esoteric motorcycle sport, devised in the very early days of motorcycling by the Scots I’m told, the same folks who invented golf. There are similarities in that one takes the most difficult route or method possible to achieve a task that should be a lot easier. In golf, one tries to put a tiny ball in a distant hole, an errand without any immediate indicia of usefulness, attempted with implements ill suited to the task and the lowest score wins.
In Trials, one takes a motorcycle, a device for transportation, and uses it to go places that no one in their right mind would think of transporting themselves with a motorized device. It is done on a course or “loop” that is essentially a trail through dense woods, with “sections” laid out around that circuit where the actual scoring occurs. In each section, scoring begins when the front axle passes a pair of markers and ends at the other end when the axle passes the exit signs. Between those points are natural obstacles, perhaps a rocky creek bed, a steep hill, mud, fallen trees sometimes several feet in diameter, boulders and tight turns…and sometimes all of the above. The rider is expected to keep his or her balance and continuous forward motion and not put a foot down for assistance. Each time a foot touches down , a “dab”, is counted as a point up to a maximum of three. Loss of forward motion, at least in the older style of Trials that I did, is counted as a failure, a “five”. A successful traverse, without touching down a foot or going out of bounds is a zero or “clean”. The rider is alone in the section and doesn’t know how others are faring until the scorecard is turned in each lap, so the real competition is with oneself. As in golf, the lowest score of the day wins. The whole event is timed, usually several hours, so that the rider also has to keep up a pace on the loop connecting the sections which may be anywhere from a few miles to twenty or more, often done five times. And, almost 100% of the time, the rider is standing up on the pegs, not sitting. Altogether a strange, difficult and punishing thing to do to a motorcycle and its rider.
I loved it.
I wasn’t one of the best, but I got fairly good at it and determined to test myself against better riders by participating in some “National” events. One of these took place in Arab, Alabama back in 1976.
On the first lap that day, I was sitting at the base of a long, twisting, jumbled rock, hillclimb section, waiting my turn. At Nationals in that time, the etiquette was that we amateur riders would give way in line to the professionals, who did this as a living. The fellow next to me was riding a Yamaha TY175, a nifty little machine that had opened up the sport to a lot of folks by its light weight, low cost and extensive dealer network. He was telling me in great detail why he would not be able to do well on this section because of the characteristics of the machine. The engine was too small, the torque insufficient, the frame and suspension were inadequate, the steering angle all wrong, etc. etc.
I was feeling bad for the poor guy when professional rider Debbie Evans (later a Hollywood stuntwoman in, among others, the “Matrix” movies), also riding a nearly identical TY 175, came past us in line, gave a brief nod to the scorer at the top of the hill and fired her bike up the section. In short order, she had cleaned it, never touching down a foot and never even looking like she was having any difficulty. She stopped at the top to get her zero and disappeared into the woods headed for the next section. I turned to my erstwhile companion. He wouldn’t’ meet my gaze and never said another word.