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“El Gato Nips El Trial”
SCTA Trials Series
40th El Trial de España
March 28, 2010
Lake Isabella, California
By Ron Pocher
Photos by Don Williams
Fred Belair had a vision. After witnessing the expertise of the European trials riders firsthand, Belair realized that in order for the American hopefuls to continually show improvement, they would have to compete with, and learn from, their “old country” counterparts. Belair also recognized that if these young Californians were going to make the trek across the “big pond”, a certain amount of funding would be an obvious necessity. Fred created the El Trial de España with this sole purpose in mind. A record seven riders were able to make the trip one year.
Belair’s ultimate dream, which was to provide the basis for an American to become trials world champion, was realized at the hands of Californian Bernie Schreiber in 1979. To this day, Schreiber remains the only American to have claimed that title, but since its inception in 1970, the El Trial has helped send many to Europe and has more recently provided rather generous donations in support of the USA’s Trial des Nations efforts.
In off-road motorcycle competition in America, the national events and championships are the ultimate measuring stick, but as the “Alligator” is to the enduro world, the Ute Cup and El Trial are the “other majors” on the annual trials calendar. As always, the El Trial de España still carries plenty of clout.
When I asked Fred’s son Martin, at this year’s edition, what his favorite El Trial moment was, he didn’t hesitate in answering. “I would have to say 1972 when Sammy Miller won. It was real overcast and misting – more like conditions you would find in England and it was just a magical moment – getting to see Sammy in his element.”
To say Paul Oswald, Peter Croft and Bill Markham have been instrumental in keeping the El Trial running smoothly through the years is an understatement of the utmost proportions. While Oswald held this year’s title of Trials Master, and Croft served as Score Keeper/Historian; the two gents had some fairly qualified assistance in section design. Three-time national champion and two-time El Trial winner Scott Head, and longtime Montesa importer and national level contender in the 1970’s, Martin Belair, obviously know a thing or two about challenging traps and were readily on hand to donate their ideas. 1993 El Trial champ Tom Hamman and expert-level plonker Todd Bennett served as the event’s observers.
For the second successive year the El Trial was held amongst the massive rocks of the Keyesville riding area, which sits on the banks of the Kern River, just minutes away from the enormous Lake Isabella. This trials venue is a near-perfect setting for the historical event, with its spectator-friendly access and comfortable Sierra Nevada Mountain climate. Riding conditions proved to be a shade toward the dusty side, especially when compared with last year’s “spot on” moisture content, but probably never factored into the event’s final outcome.
The riding order for Sunday’s contest was determined by Saturday’s Pro class results. Ian “Big Foot” Delaney had the unenviable task of being first to tackle each of the seven traps on the agenda. Oswald and crew taped off four bordering-on-ridiculous sections, three of which would be ridden in both directions, forward and backward. Harry Oswald, Max Nelson, Eric Storz and Andrew Oldar followed Delaney’s lead and this handsome group helps form a worthy collection of the future of trials in America. California’s Cody Webb and Colorado’s Keith “El Gato” Wineland had to contend with some “special” lines in their Saturday duel, and since Webb had come out on top, he would be the last to enter each of Sunday’s traps.
Wineland and Webb, who was looking to win his fourth El Trial, gave the sizable gallery a taste of things to come, by both cleaning section one, while only Oldar and Delaney managed to escape with two’s.
Webb and Wineland continued their flawless demonstration through the first four traps by methodically picking their way through every inch of the technical routes for four cleans apiece. Oldar had managed to post one-point rides in sections two and three to sit alone in third with a 7-card. Storz was sporting the field’s only other “one” after negotiating section two with but a dab, to sit tied for fourth with Delaney, at 10 points each.
The plot thickened in section five. Wineland’s consistently fluid style helped him keep both feet on the pegs and he floated through the exit gates with his fifth straight clean. Webb looked to be on pace to again match Wineland’s mark, but ran into a spot of trouble just past the section’s half-way point. Webb eased down one of the trap’s steeper, long rock faces with a speed that would rival any sloth, but after double-blipping the following rock pile successfully, his landing required a bit more braking than he may have liked to remain within the ribbon, thus forcing his untimely dab. Now “The Cat” had the hammer.
The riders and their fans hastily scampered to the day’s final section with a rekindled spirit. Most of the group dropped down a hair-raising decline to start the sixth trap where various techniques were used to negotiate the rock-filled, bar-width crevice. After checking with the course officials, Wineland chose a route down the razorback ridge of the house-sized boulder. This allowed him to just clear the end of the tape, thus eliminating the previously mentioned tight quarters. Wineland creeped through the trap until he was faced with a steep “down”-“bridge”-steep “up” obstacle that had no room for error. The first two parts of this three part move were executed to his liking, but the traction on the steep uphill rock came up a bit shy, and though posed in a fighting crouch, Wineland couldn’t hold his balance and had to plant a pod to keep from tumbling. Now things were all knotted up.
This left Webb in position to take whatever conservative approaches he could to help ensure a ride-off. I guess Señor Webb won’t be ordering a batch of “Mr. Careful” t-shirts any time soon. Webb had his own little line for that downhill entry – he simply leapt from the higher rock to the lower rock fifteen feet below. Try jumping from the roof of your house and landing on top of a coffee can and you’ll obtain the proper perspective. Webb was able to find more bite on the uphill that had sucked Wineland’s boot from the peg, and now matched him on cleans as well.
Though cleans were hard to come by for the rest of the field, Webb and Wineland did just that on the final section to force the event’s first ever ride-off. Oldar punched the only zero amongst the younger set, when he managed to clean section five, setting off an uproar from the appreciative crowd. All seven participants were able to clear the huge, step-up gap that Webb conquered in both directions, and every last one of them sent the fans into a frenzy. Oldar ended up posting third with 15 points dropped while Delaney improved on his Saturday performance with an 18-point fourth place ride. Storz took fifth with 19, Nelson sixth with 20, and Oswald rounded out the class with his 29-point total.
It was only appropriate that the Gas Gas stable mates and TdN teamsters would get to battle head-to-head for the sword. The section that had previously been ridden just one- way, was chosen to host the ride-off, albeit in the opposite direction and plus a few ghastly upgrades. Belair and Head worked their magic and were convinced that they had come up with a “difficult” trap.
“When me and Cody were walking the section and looking at options, we weren’t really sure if it was even rideable” said Wineland. “But once I got in there it was like, well I got through that part and then I got through that, so I just kept going.”
It was Wineland’s idea to play a game of “rock, paper, scissors” to determine who would call the flip of the coin needed to establish rider order. Webb won after two scrums, by sticking with “rock”, and then promptly won the flip as well (calling “heads”), thus forcing Wineland to have the first go at the rocks.
After somehow making his way through about three-fourths of the section, Wineland had to finally take a dab at the top of an overhanging, uphill splatter but was able to conquer the two remaining big rock faces to leap out of the exit gates with a one.
About halfway through the trap, Webb found himself precariously perched on the slanted face of a tabletop rock, and had no choice but to take a dab to remain intact. The crafty Californian would have to negotiate the remainder of the section mistake-free in order to extend the contest. With practically no run and a sandy take-off, Webb just couldn’t quite clear the unforgiving ledge that Wineland had crested only moments before, with the aid of a dab that Cody no longer had at his disposal. Refusing to let his boots leave the pegs, Webb bounced back down with a “five” and the unwanted runner-up finish.
Wineland’s minder, Al Duke, witnessed what may have been a meaningful detail. “When Cody jumped off that last rock before the big up, I noticed that his front tire kind of smashed that little dirt kicker they had built up there and who knows, that might have been the difference” said Duke. “When Cody Webb just has to get up something, well you expect that he will.”
When congratulating Wineland a half-hour later, the jovial winner shared a thought with me. “You know I’ve always dreamed of maybe somehow winning this and now that I have it’s almost hard to believe,” said Wineland.
With his victory, Wineland was able to join a short list of trials greats who were able to place their names on both the Ute Cup and El Trial de España trophies. Geoff Aaron, Chris Florin, Ryon Bell, Mark Manniko, Scott Head and the immortal Sammy Miller all accomplished this impressive feat. Pretty good company. Like Tiger Woods during his “Tiger Slam”, Wineland, at this moment, has both of these cherished awards in his possession.
Like Fred Belair, a big part in Keith Wineland being able to realize one of his childhood dreams, was the fact that he even had the dream in the first place. Any American trials rider who couldn’t recognize the unequaled feeling that comes with achieving such a prestigious title is overlooking a rather important factor in this grand old game – the history.
Many Thanks to Don Williams of Ultimate Motorcycling Magazine for providing his photos from the 40th El Trial de Espana
PRO:1. Keith Wineland* (1/6); 2. Cody Webb (1/6); 3. Andrew Oldar (15); 4. Ian Delaney (18); 5. Eric Storz (19); 6. Max Nelson (20); 7. Harry Oswald (29) *Keith beat Cody in a “ride-off” - 1 to 5