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“THE TRIAL FROM HELL”
By Bill Brokaw
It was Saturday February 23rd, 1957, and it was raining. Bad news! All the white lines laid out with powdered gypsum (called “lime” by tradition) the Sunday before were being erased by mother nature. The next day the first cross country trial ever held in the Los Angeles area, or anywhere else in America to my knowledge, was to take place. That place was Lake Mathews between Corona and Riverside in the L.A. basin. This huge and hilly region was available for cross country races with no restriction or permission involved. Things were very different back then. Lime was an indispensable commodity for motorcycle events from trials and field meets to hare and hounds. Routes were marked by throwing fist sized bags of gypsum on the ground from the paperboy bags we wore. Observed sections were marked continuously, as we now do with ribbon, by pouring lime from a can. In the southland, we rarely worried about rain. On that day though, our course was getting its face washed.
Trials clubs did not exist in February of 1957. My club was the Foothill Hawks. The “Hawks” held frequent field meets, scrambles, and hare scrambles for our members and, for “open” competition, held one each trial, enduro, and hare and hound each year. I came up with this bright idea of holding a cross country trial for our annual trial that year. As I was the only active trials rider in the Hawks, I volunteered to do all the layout work with the other members only participating as “checkers” and for signup on the day of the event. They were also to go out the week before and familiarize themselves with their appointed section and location. Seemed a good plan.
This was an exciting format and I wanted it to be as special as possible. The publisher of Cycle Action magazine was an artist of note and a good friend. He volunteered to do the advertising poster. It featured photos from the Scottish with an artistic and inviting layout. A scenic course of 35 miles overlooking beautiful Lake Mathews, with observed sections 10 to 40 feet in width over natural terrain, was promised. These were mailed out to the shops and 50 some active clubs in Southern California. Visions of pulling 75 to 100 riders danced in my head. At the time, trials participation had dwindled from the 125 of 1949 to around 40. Would this concept be a boost?
The week before, the club members showed up as agreed. I had envisioned that, as we rode the loop, they would all take careful note of the location of their respective section. Their duties included setting the in and out gates along with the signs advertising the trophy donors. It was a day of fun; too much fun. They roared with great abandon over the grassy hills and valleys, chasing each other like a bunch of kids. The numerous hills and valleys that the course traversed could be confusing to the inattentive. The loop was nearly twenty miles but a week later would seem much longer. I had made an optimistic misjudgement.
As the rain fell on Saturday, I phoned the members and explained the “lime” problem and asked that they get there an hour earlier than previously arranged. Despite predictions of rain all weekend, dawn broke clear on Sunday. Annie and I loaded our truck with our supply of the important lime and another member was bringing the balance of the supply. At daybreak we minimally limed the road from Corona to the site to save our supply. On reaching the site, Annie loaded me up to the max with bagged lime in my paperboy bag and I headed out on my AJS 500cc desert racer to reestablish the loop marking. My load expired about two thirds the way around and I headed in for another load, fully expecting that the Hawks would be there and ready to help. A number of competitors were arriving, but no Hawks! Out I went again with considerable anxiety.
Completing the loop marking, my return to the site was greeted by a mob of competitors and arriving club members. I found the club member who had the additional supply of lime. His greeting for me was that he hoped I had done a better job of liming the course than I had on the road from Corona. I explained why it was sparse and asked if he had fixed the problem. He replied to the negative. Gnashing of teeth.
Sacks of gate flags, section signs, and scoring clip boards for each section had been prepared and Annie was getting these to the checkers. I solicited some help in reliming the section boundaries. Loaded with more lime, we headed out over the hills at top speed, shortcutting as needed, to each section.
Back at the start site, riders were pouring in. The posters had done their job too well. 182 riders would be signed up, breaking all records. The sign-up had not been organized for such a number. The advertised first-man-out time of 9:30 AM was becoming an impossibility. The start was delayed a half hour.
Re-liming the sections was hastily completed, but not before the 9:30 AM start time. I learned of the time delay upon my return to the start, and heard from Annie that virtually none of the checkers were at all sure of their section locations. The 10:00 AM start time would give me some time, but also put the last of the 182 riders on the course at nearly 1:00 PM at the one per minute rate. Completing the planned 2 loops was not looking good.
Had the checkers found their sections and correctly marked the in and out gates? Who knows. So out onto the course I went, very glad I had chosen my hare and hound bike as my work horse. Full-race speed to the first section, only to find it vacant. Cross country to the top of the nearest hill for a look around. Spotted a rider and took off in wild pursuit. Overtaking him and learning who it was, I lead him to his section, dragging him as fast as I could get him to ride. Then to the top of the nearest hill again for another look around. If I saw no one, then to the top of another hill at full-race speed. Eventually one by one, the lost souls were found and led to their sections. Due to the openness, many had tried to get to their sections crosscountry rather than following the course, adding to the confusion. All of the sections were covered with three of them being set up as the first of the competitors were arriving.
The event was cut to only one lap for fear of darkness ending the event. Few complained and all seemed to have a great time. I was immensely grateful for the reliability of my AJS. In those days I was a top-ten desert racer. I had used that speed on much of this day and, shockingly, used nearly a similar amount of gas and oil to the Big Bear hare and hound. Had I had any mechanical problem, this event would have self-destructed. I learned that one man does not make a team, and a team was needed on such a day.
So the first cross country trial was in the books; a report was in the May issue of “Motorcyclist” magazine. 1957 was seeing the end of many of the Southern California clubs putting on trials. Specialization was creeping in. I could see that if trials were to have a future, a trials-only club had to be developed. Later that year, Annie and I established the Southern California Trials Club and started putting on monthly events. We did the advertising and printed results sheets on our mimeograph machine. It would be almost ten years before actual trials bikes would fully replace the geared down scramblers in dominant use during the fifties. The SCTC, active as it was, did not attempt a cross country trial. For me, that experience would have to wait for the first Ute Cup in Colorado in 1970; an event put on by a small but dedicated “team.”
Footnote: This experience was a lesson for me about being careful what I might depend on others for. If others do not hold a similar interest to mine about something, then extra caution should be exercised when depending on them. This proved true in my years in business. Although no hard feelings came out of this experience, you can recognize negative feelings were present. I have since recognized how destructive negative thoughts are and the importance of guarding against them.