Trials bikes are very specifically designed dirt bikes that take some getting used to. Rider training at MotoVentures was a great way to get a sample.
Trials and Error
“You’re going to get your ass kicked today.”
The last time I heard those words from a coach I was still tossing around the old pigskin in high school. That, however, was the good-natured welcome I got from Gary LaPlante at MotoVentures when we visited for a day of training on trials bikes.
MotoVentures offers rider training on full-size dirt bikes, “fast bikes,” as Gary calls them. They also do off-road and dual sport tours using a full stable of blue bikes from sponsor Yamaha. As enticing as the 300-acre Rider Training Center is, I didn’t travel all the way to Anza, CA to sample Japanese equipment. And if I wanted to go fast then I’d stop in across the street at Cahuilla Creek Motocross park. I’m much more interested in trying my hand at the goofy world of trials – a form of competition that was the precursor to scrambles, motocross, Supercross, etc.
This old-school motorsport hasn’t changed much over the years, but the machinery certainly has. Gary is a GAS GAS dealer and purchases and restores late-model used bikes from the Spanish brand to conduct his seminars. My particular steed was a 2005 TXT 280 Pro.
There’s no doubt that trials is physically demanding, and the slow speeds only add to it with a lack of air flow for cooling. Physically I stand several inches above the six-time Arizona State Trials champion and nationally ranked trials competitor, but strength has little to do with successful trials riding. “You’ve got all the strength to be world champion,” he says while gearing up, “but what you need is timing, judgment, finesse and feel.” It wouldn’t take more than five minutes to prove him right.
“You can never move around too much on a motorcycle. The same goes for fast bikes.”
LaPlante used James Stewart as an example, but other top pros understand this concept as well. We attended Sebastien Tortelli’s Champ Factory Motocross School recently and he said almost the same thing, putting it into perspective on the MX track. “Motocross riders are lazy,” Tortelli said. “We don’t want to work any harder than we have to. That’s why you need to use your body correctly so the bike does what you ask of it.”
Body position is what Gary harps on the most, and the hardest thing for me to adopt. Just like any dirt bike riding, there are times for attack position and energy conservation during a trials competition. Most pointers Gary offers are easy to understand and implement, like keeping your shoulders parallel to the handlebars when turning or keeping the balls or arch of your feet on the pegs rather than toes or heels. However, letting my knees flop out was more difficult to internalize. It makes total sense with the concept of counterbalancing, but I’ve trained myself for so long to squeeze with the knees on fast bikes that Gary had to remind me through the entire day. Bowing the legs always results in better balance, tighter turning and increased bike control.
Trials Training Tip: Over-exaggerate your body positioning as much as you think possible when practicing, then back off 10%.
Counterbalancing is critical to trials riding. Without momentum to help stabilize you and the bike, the rider has to offset bike positioning with their own bodyweight. Most riders know about counterbalancing whether they realize it or not, regularly using three axis of movement. Standing/sitting and moving forward/rearward are the most common, but it’s left/right motion that can be utilized most effectively. This is where letting your knees out is key – it’s hard to lean away from the bike when you’re trying to pinch it.
Legs are the key to riding trials, and not only from a standpoint of balance. Trials bikes have limited suspension travel, so the rider’s legs must act as shock absorbers. Many of the top riders are tall and thin – proving that you don’t have to be particularly muscular, but extra leg flex can be a benefit.
“I believe trials’ day has yet to come in America,” offers LaPlante. The riding coach suggests that while traditional trials haven’t caught on in the States, there’s incredible potential for young athletes to branch out from current popular extreme sports. Two-wheeled sports like BMX and MTB would be a natural crossover with their emphasis on using the legs as suspension and finite lever control with both hands.
“Trials puts a lot of people off,” warns LaPlante. “It’s frustrating. Real trials is the nitty-gritty.”
It would be tough to describe my own riding display as either nitty or gritty, but even this small intro was enough to demonstrate how flustering it can be. I’m the type of person who hates getting beat by an obstacle. Hillclimbs, rocks, logs – they’ll haunt me until the next time I get to make an attempt. It’s the kind of mindset that leads to a lot of elevated frustration, but Gary assures that it suits trials perfectly because it also leads to greater satisfaction. If you’re the kind of rider who would just as soon ride around a tough section than over it, don’t worry, trials can change that. It’s natural to seek out the easiest line, and usually delivers a better result, but trials is the exact opposite. You’ll find yourself looking at the world differently.
Trials Training Tip: Relax! Stay loose on the bike to increase mobility.
Having a personal coach is one of the most beneficial experiences a rider can have. In addition to being one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, with a lifetime of accumulated experience and genuine enthusiasm for the sport, Gary is an excellent teacher. Though we had 300 acres at our disposal, we spent the entire day in just a few spots. First it was important to get a feel for the bike and try to get a little comfortable with the controls. Gary laid out a small loop and had me run it both directions to practice moving around on the bike. We also worked on balancing at a dead stop and bunny-hopping a fist-sized rock. Once it was established that I can, in fact, ride a motorcycle to some degree, we moved onto the real fun stuff.
As opposed to fast bikes, in trials the term “climbing” refers to any obstacle, not necessarily a large incline. Mastering a single rock is still considered climbing and trials riders use three major climbing techniques: Roll-up, zap and splatter. The splatter is the most advanced move; beyond my skills and reserved for experienced riders on serious terrain. It’s used for large vertical climbs that are too large for the roll-up or zap. Splattering is the signature trials move where the rider wheelies hard into an obstacle, throwing the bike into the face, nearly looping out and hitting the obstacle rear-wheel-first. This impressive technique is awesome to watch, especially with pros that make it look so simple, but I had to start much lower.
The roll-up is the most basic maneuver where a rider lifts the front end and places the wheel on an obstacle. Virtually no rebound damping in the fork causes the front wheel to spring up into the air as the bike continues forward giving the frame rails and engine more clearance. A roll-up is used for obstacles that are relatively small, but large enough that a simple wheelie approach would result in smashing the underbelly. It took virtually no time to grasp, merely a few attempts and it was time to move on (notice I said grasp, not master).
A well-executed zap will transfer the rear wheel from the ground to a point high up on the obstacle in a single motion.
Next up was the zap which I struggled with more. This technique is used for mid-sized obstacles or when there is a rock or bank with an undercut that wouldn’t allow for a roll-up. Here you want to approach an obstacle in the same manner, but with a tad more speed. The goal is to set the front wheel down and compress both suspension components simultaneously rather than just the fork. At the precise moment of suspension rebound, quickly transitioning your weight upward and forward, along with a stab of clutch and throttle, should bunny-hop the rear wheel directly from the ground to a point higher on the obstacle (above the undercut bank, for example). Performing this successfully was more of a reason for celebration. As opposed to the roll-up, even by the end of the day I never felt like I had the zap figured out very well.
Trials Training Tip: Rear-wheel awareness is critical. The rear tire has a tighter turning radius than the front. Get used to keeping track of where your rear wheel is. This will become more critical when in delicate sections.
Once the basics had been covered it was time to put them to use on some different scenarios, but first it was back to the truck for lunch and much-needed cool drink. I was sweating and we hadn’t even gone for a ride yet! The meal and refreshments are provided as part of the MotoVentures experience. Putting together a section, whether in competition or just fun-riding, Gary suggests a checklist for success. Terrain reading, line selection and execution are all critical to cleaning a section. It’ll do you no good to ignore any of this trio. We worked on all three throughout the afternoon, though with the insanely grippy decomposed granite rocks and soil, referred to as “hero dirt,” terrain reading was pretty simple. Working on line selection proved how versatile the bikes or an obstacle can be. As a former nationally ranked competitor, Gary’s skill set dwarfs my own. However, he was able to challenge himself on the same obstacles simply by changing his line selection and methods of execution. Trials makes a rider open their eyes to possibilities not previously considered.
I went in to the training session with a pretty high interest in trials specifically, not just basic bike handling skills, but after my ride I was more than tempted to drop coin on the 280 Pro. If you’re a person who enjoys a challenge then you probably will too. As far as I could tell, the bike performed flawlessly, and all of MotoVentures’ bikes looked to be in excellent repair. Check out the sidebar for some of Gary’s tips on how to purchase a used trials bike.
For a full day of personal instruction, $300 is downright cheap. Using the Champ Factory as an example, you can expect to pay $150 per hour for one-on-one time with Tortelli. Also, unlike motocross or enduro schools like the Shane Watts’ Dirt Wise Academy of Off-Road Riding, finding a bike to use is going to be very difficult. You can probably borrow a buddy’s MX bike for a day or two if you really want, or even rent one fairly cheaply from a local dealer, but how many people do you know with trials bikes? The $300 fee is even measlier considering it includes bike rental, plus the use of a trials-specific open-faced helmet and boots. You can buy the same bike used during the ride, but it gets better. If you purchase a new or used bike from Gary, he’ll toss in a day
MotoVentures targets riders who have some fast bike experience and are looking to diversify. Many of Gary’s clients are older riders who are looking for a less abusive way to get their two-wheeled kicks.
of riding for free. Just make sure to call him at MotoVentures (and he’ll lay out the whole thing. Of course, if you already have a trials bike, you can still go riding and it only costs $195.)
I attended a Donnie Hansen Motocross Academy several years ago and the instruction was extremely useful. In terms of overall motorcycle riding ability, I feel that training on a trials bike provides more. We’ve all heard the saying about needing to slow down to go faster, and trials forces you to a crawl. It’s impossible to escape or overlook errors when you’re trying to be that deliberate. Best of all, the bike-handling skills gained from trials riding are transferrable to any form of two-wheeled sport, so anyone can benefit from it.
Don’t worry, Gary doesn’t really want to kick anyone’s butt, he just wants to share his enthusiasm for the sport of trials. If you don’t have a serious interest in at least trying this form of motorcycling then you should. It’s a sport that has a low environmental impact, excellent cross-training applications and can be done in your backyard. Though frustrating, hard work at times, I’ve yet to ride anything that matches such a high level of technical and physical challenge, fun and sense of personal accomplishment.