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THE AMERICANS EXPERIENCE THE EUROPEAN TRIALS SCENE
by Bill Brokaw
Published in CYCLE NEWS, March 28, 1972 issue.
The American Trials team came to Europe for an education and got a healthy dose at Sancerre, France, and a healthier one at Tarrasa, Spain. These two events count for points to determine the champion of Europe.
Top finishing American in France, Mark Eggar of San Diego, limped in on a flat to claim 28th position. This writer, as the only other American finishing within the time limit allowed, could do no better than 42nd.
A flat tire stopped Glenn Neigenfind of Denver at the half-way point. Richard Bledsoe, Southern California’s number one rider, did some great work on observation but was running late to the point that a thrown rear chain on the last section caused his disqualification on time. Martin Belair, Jeff Koskie, and George Smith, the teenage entries from the Los Angeles area, were also felled by the timekeeper’s ax.
European Trials have developed into a tough, demanding type of competition. The established method of arriving at the time schedule works, but puts demands on the riders that we Americans are not accustomed to coping with. Gone are the days when Trials could be considered competitive trail riding.
Now, in England and Europe, the rider must attack obstacles that challenge the imagination. He must make cross country runs at high speeds on spindly-looking motorcycles with two-ply tires at low pressure, yet avoid tire and bike failure. He must make fast, accurate analysis of the non-stop zones or lose precious marks. After six hours of fast riding, running through the sections to study them before riding and the pure pressure of competition, the rider must still be sharp so that his final rides will be accurate, skillful attempts.
At Sancerre, France, with the ground wet from a previous night’s rain, about 100 International class riders followed by about 100 National riders left the start at one minute intervals. Malcolm Rathmell of Great Britain brought pride to the Bultaco works with an astonishing 36 marks lost. Mick Andrews, obviously fighting a shifting problem with his Ossa, again proved his greatness with a 56 point second place. Montesa’s Gordon Farley scored 60 points for third.
The mind-bending challenges at Sancerre included six vertical to near-vertical ascents of from one-and-a-half to five feet; round, baseball size rocks that were even hazardous to walk on; a couple of slippery root sections; a mud wallow that was a nifty mess along with all the usual tricky rocky stuff as you might imagine. The rock quarry that had three rock faces to climb and a ravine with a near vertical face of rock strata exposed were the scene of many disastrous attempts.
The Americans filtered into Barcelona by train from Paris and air from New York. There they made the Hotel Barcelona their headquarters. Bledsoe, along with Koskie and Smith, were lined up with their new Bultacos. Eggar was loaned an Ossa, and Belair, Neigenfind, and I picked up our new Montesas. The three factories are near to downtown Barcelona which made it quite convenient.
Fred Belair, who has been a tireless worker on the Spain trip from its inception, was along as coordinator, leader, interpreter and arranger. His terrific efforts kept the trip fairly snag-free. Montesa put a car at our disposal for the entire time and Bultaco provided a car and driver on many occasions. The three factories provided transportation for the bikes to France, a trip of 700 miles one way. The Bultaco riders went with the factory team. The Montesa factory team riders took turns chauffeuring the others.
Belair, holding an international driver’s license for cab and formula cars, instantly turned native and uncannily piloted our Seat (a Spanish car) into and out of situations of certain disaster. Fred even tightened his puckering string when the Montesa boys took over and tried to see how many road situations could be handled at 100 KPH or better. Wow!
We made the sign-in at Sancerre, France in good order. The place was lousy with cops. It seems that the French police are the main promoters of the event and the sign-in was at the police headquarters. You have probably heard about the super-skilled BMW-riding French highway patrol. They were the ones, and their helpfulness and courtesy was just out of sight!
Saturday evening we were fed a free “home cooked” type meal at the police headquarters. The townspeople that were assisting in the organization were there as well and attempting to communicate was a hilarious experience. Then after we were all briefed that the door marked “W.C.” was where the head was, we hit the sack in a quaint local hotel.
The next morning the 200 competitors readied themselves on one of the city streets. The noise was severe. The riders over there do not attempt to silence their bikes the extra amount as is now common in the U.S., nor do the organizers and manufacturers seem to be worrying much about it. Although at Montesa and Bultaco we found them dyno-testing some American spark arresters and silencers and some unusually quiet bikes were running around the Montesa factory. England has seen some recent events where failing a noise test bring extra points.
When the time came I was out on the course and found those French police at all the many road crossings. There were riders grouped at most sections, or “non-stop zones” as they are called in Europe. But in no case was there any extreme bottlenecks. Next week in Spain we were to learn the true meaning of the word.
The course led us over hills with picturesque views over the rolling countryside to the limits the smog would allow. Down past the vineyards and through the ancient villages. People watched us along the way and warmly responded to our smiles. The sections that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere had no shortage of spectators that were ready to cheer the good rides and help when you fiasco-ed.
After the finish the results were soon completed and the awards were given with much speechmaking, most of which we could not understand. Special mention was made of the American team since the French were quite amazed that riders from America would show up. Then the proud people of Sancerre uncorked the wine, poured generously, and passed out two free bottles to each contestant.
Then we proceeded to the “Cave” for the balance of the festivities. This is a giant hole in a hill where the wine is stored. There, more wine flowed and a blare of medieval trumpets heralded a parade of chefs and waitresses carrying three roasted pigs. The food was served and a live band played. The huge crowd included the land owners whose land had been used for the Trial. The promoters had established the feast as a tribute to these generous people. It was an event we were in no way expecting, as no parallel can be found in America. It was impressive.
Six, Monday morning, saw us on the road to Barcelona. The week at Barcelona was eventful with visits to the factories and practice sessions with the European star riders. Montesa and Bultaco were generous in providing luxurious lunches and dinners for us. Numerous factory people from many departments were friendly and helpful beyond expectation.
Pedro Pi hosted a fine dinner in his home, prepared by his charming wife. He did much philosophizing about English Trials that was fascinating to us. I hope to report this in a later article. Senor Bulto entertained and captivated us at a dinner in our honor. There we were excited to find Lane Leavitt from Northern California joining our ranks, by special invitation of Bultaco. All of the factory people were warmly hospitable to all of us with no regard to the brand we rode. We were very aware of the fierceness of the competition between these factories but apparently underlying this is the love of the sport that creates a common bond. Senor Permanyer, the President of Montesa, hosted an elaborate luncheon on the waterfront. From the restaurant we could view the building in which Columbus’ ships were built that discovered America. That is something to ponder.
Of interest to us, the factory riders rode surprisingly stock motorcycles. The changes were confined to some alloy goodies such as handlebars, which are available to anyone. Surprisingly, some of the bikes looked quite run down although I am sure it was only superficial. Actually, after seeing what these machines are expected to do, it is amazing they survive at all.
The 6th Trial of Sant Llorence Del Munt or as we more easily identify it, the Spanish round of the European championship, carries an established reputation as a tough event. It was presented to us as a tough event, particularly if there is rain, but time would not be a problem as eight hours was allowed before disqualification.
The town of Tarrasa, the site of the event, is about 45 minutes travel inland from Barcelona. The countryside is rugged low mountains with heavy foliage. The course looped through the countryside varying in elevation about 1000 feet. The weather did not help as it rained Saturday and again during the event. At the higher elevations it turned to soft hail. The ground was well lubricated and the rocks became muddy. As the course threaded its way along we rode on scenic rocky trails that would gladden the heart of any Colorado trail rider. Unfortunately we were going too fast to properly enjoy them.
The Trial was in no way a rerun of the French event. The French round was considered to be easy and after the Spanish event, “easy” and “hard” have new definitions. Not only was the event tough beyond belief but a new dimension appeared; the ugly dog-eat-dog professionalism.
That Ossa man, Mick Andrews did it to the boys again. Mick finished with a mere 80 point loss. That average less than a two point loss per section for the 48 sections. That sounds unimpressive until you consider his nearest rival was 26 away. The first eight places went to Englishmen except for third. Ignacio Bulto, son of the owner of he Bultaco factory, brought pride to Spain. Leading him by two points on another Bultaco was second placer Martin Lampkin. Fourth on a Montesa was Rob Edwards. Malcolm Rathmell, the hero of the previous week was down to fifth. Montesa’s Bob Shepherd was sixth; Allan Lampkin Bultaco-ed to seventh; David Thorpe Ossa-ed to eight. Alf Karlsson, a Swedish Montesa rider, was ninth.
Remarkably, second to ninth places were separated by only 13 points, much less than Andrews’ lead over second. Andrews dropped but 25 points on the second lap, which was 19 points better than David Thorpe’s 44 point ride, the next best on the second lap. Andrews is truly a superman. Only one rider finished within the seven hours allowed. Andrews was only one minute late. The riders were given a one hour grace period in which they lost one tenth of a point per minute for being late. The Bradford team of Lampkin, Rathmell, and Lampkin took the team award.
The American riders were headed by Lane Leavitt in 24th place. Richard Bledsoe finished 33rd, Mark Eggar 36th, Martin Belair 57th, George Smith 65th and I was a DNF.
After playing submarine, too much time was lost on the first lap. Leavitt was in serious trouble right off, fiasco-ing in nine of the first 12 sections. If you have watched Lane ride then you might slightly comprehend how severe the sections were for this fine rider to look so bad. But Lane pulled through like a trouper to finish with the most impressive ride of the Americans with six cleans, four ones, 20 threes and 18 fives. Bledsoe had two cleans but held his fiascoes down while Eggar showed great promise with seven cleans but 25 fives also showed less consistency.
This was the first ever Trials where the results were handled by computer, and a complete printing of the results showing what each rider had scored in each section and a complete tabulation, section by section, was handed out before seven o’clock. The route marking was the best I have ever seen. The general organization was at a level so advanced that assuredly this will become the yardstick event. The sections were set with impressive imagination and despite their toughness they were colorful. Have you ever climbed a waterfall?
But, all too often the human element rears its disorganized head, and this was no exception. The sections were set with the idea of it being a tough Trial if it were dry, but it was not dry and it was evident that no attempt was made for any alterations in case of rain. Four of the sections had an average point loss of over four and a half points per ride. When you consider there were only 107 entries and that included all of the world’s best riders, you can see what I mean. When you consider the vast number of fiascoes, then you can imagine how long it took to run riders through the sections. But the organizers chose to dump riders onto the course at the rate of two per minute with the promise that if you didn’t make it in eight hours you would be disqualified. One ravine with two sections end to end, that had to be cleared of a rider before another could go, was so unforgiving that I had to be helped four times before I was out of it.
All of this evidently brought on a twinge of conscience on the part of the promoters and a decision that flabbergasted me. Without a word to anyone they credited riders who finished out of the time limit with a finish and falsified the time to make it appear that they had made it on time. I am sure that this had no effect in the results of the top twenty, which was what was read to the members of the international jury, and met with no opposition or question.
Incidentally, Fred Belair was honored by being appointed to the international jury as the USA representative. Nine countries were represented. I have learned the hard way the rules that affect how a competitor judges to ride an event must not be changed after the event. No statement can be made as to which riders were affected by this change since it would be incomplete and therefore unfair. Possibly the popular opinion is that if the important riders are not affected then it is not important.
This brings us to an explanation of the ugliness I saw at Tarrasa that I just was not mentally prepared for. The law of the jungle prevailed and was accepted by all, it appeared. Since a section could handle riders only so fast, the only way a rider could be assured of not losing out on time was to choose between not walking the sections or bugging into line. The latter was the accepted method. The most successful method I observed was to simply ride to, or near, the front of the line from the side. If this meant to physically haul your bike over rocks, through bushes, over other motorcycles, that is the way. One Englishman who was slightly behind me looked friendly and I queried him if things were more gentlemanly in England. He smiled and said that to be sure they were but that it was a blood tough Trial and if there were no time limit we could be there all day. With that he put his bike in gear and shot a ways up the dirt bank I was parked against and slithered down on top of another competitor several places ahead of me, thus picking up about ten places, and that many minutes, while I found myself yet another minute back. Some of it is luck as well. When you are in a group of 20 or so, all jammed tightly together as possible, you simply do not all move forward at the same rate.
As a rider who has dreamed of competing in Europe or England for the last 20 years, I must say, the dream was better than the reality. I am not sorry nor disappointed. As a sports rider, I simply was not prepared for the total professionalism of the big time. I can readily understand why there were only 100 entries from Europe when Europe is the hotbed of Trials. For the future I must advise that we do not encourage a team of sportsman competing in the world of the professionals. Leave that for the riders who have reached the top and are looking for other worlds to conquer. The good local riders of Barcelona rival our better riders. In Spanish and English local events we could gain experience and great enjoyment and find valuable competition.
As a footnote, the Spanish are still remembering Southern California’s Bob Nickelsen and spoke often of how impressed they were of his riding in Spain last year.