A student of enduro racing history – there must be someone doing a PhD on this topic somewhere – will not easily recognize the 440 Maico as one of the great enduro motorcycles of the late 1970s. Yet, in a peculiar set of circumstances it was – but only in a rather British way.
First, it is important to recognize that Great Britain is a small, and extremely overcrowded, island. Carol and I live in what is considered to be an isolated, rural cottage and yet we can see neighbors across the fields on all four sides. In short, we lack the huge, open RV areas which American riders enjoy.
However, there are always exceptions to every truism and in this case the country’s largest land manager is The Forestry Commission which controls 1.7 million acres – a back garden plot by US standards but, by a huge margin, the biggest areas of unpopulated land in the country.
The Forestry Commission, as its name implies, manages woodland. The organization was set up in 1919 because, immediately following the First World War, Britain’s timber supplies were in crisis. The threat of another U-Boat blockade, in a future war, cutting off imports altogether worried politicians at the time so the Forestry Commission was set up.
The remit was simple: plant, and manage, a lot of fast growing conifers so that the country does not run out of timber. Forget bio-diversity, encouraging wildlife, social inclusion or anything else – just give us millions of tons of pine!
Fortunately, conifers do well in the wet moorlands which comprise substantial tracts of uphill Britain and, doubly fortunately, this land is of low value except for sheep farming and timber production: a winning result all round!
So here’s the situation. The largest area of land available for British enduros consists of wet, very rough, boggy moorland crisscrossed by thousands of miles of crude access roads for the logging crews.
In between the blocks of pines are hard, fast, compressed limestone roads so that heavy equipment can reach the work sites.
If you want to win enduro races in conditions like this, it is no use whatsoever having a frisky, temperamental off-road racer with the power concentrated right at the top of the rev range. The ideal bike for the forestry conditions would be a smooth, controllable, torquey machine which pulled well through the bogs and ruts and yet still had plenty of speed for the fast fire roads and special tests. What you needed was the 440cc Maico – a bike with the lugging ability of a John Deere tractor and yet still with an 85 mph top-end speed.
However, in the case of the 440 Maico the bike is only half the story. The obverse side of the coin is a quite remarkable rider called Geraint Jones.
“The bike you tested was a bit of a special with a slightly shorter swinging arm and lighter front forks. It didn’t have a fault. It was good on the toughest going and was fast on Special Tests. In particular, it was great in really bad conditions. When I rode in Internationals, I used to pray for rain and mud because there was nothing to touch it in these conditions.
“I had a great relationship with Maico and they looked after me very well in terms of bikes and spares. I was also given some motocross bikes to sell at the end of the season by way of a bonus.
“Gareth did a great job with the 440 and it was perfectly reliable. One of the key reasons was that he stayed on top of the maintenance. Second gear used to take a real hammering in enduros and so Gareth would replace this as a maintenance item. Other than this, the bike had no faults.
“Modern riders find the drum brakes terrible but the 440’s brakes were as good as anything around at the time because we didn’t know any better. What does surprise young riders is how good the power is on the 440. It’s creamy smooth and would still be great today, in a 2015 bike.”
The problem with doing this test at the time was actually getting the bike to ride. Geraint had a truly manically busy racing schedule and so we ended up on a freezing cold winter’s day, at the end of the season, testing what was the most successful enduro bike of its day.
Here’s the story:
Although I had met Geraint Jones many times prior to writing this story, I had never spent a day with him and could not claim to be on close terms. I came away from the Jones’ farm most impressed with a talented, ruthless and dedicated rider: just the sort of man I would want riding for me if I were a manufacturer.
The Maico factory must also realize what talent they have in their hands, and to their credit they have given him an outstandingly good machine. To say that something is the best is an occupation fraught with danger and something which I only do with great reluctance. However, in the case of Geraint Jones’ bike, I am confident about putting the 440 comfortably as #1 on the list of the best enduro bikes in Britain. The motor was the fastest, most flexible two-stroke power unit that I have ever used; the suspension was quite beyond criticism and the brakes were so good that I was left wondering how one could possibly ride with lesser units. In short, the bike was the most complete racing package anyone could hope for.
Testing bikes is not always fun, and throwing a big-capacity enduro bike around in heavy rain, thick mist and near-freezing temperatures could well have been hard work, but the Maico made the conditions actually fun. When Geraint had long since gone back to his farm I was still playing about on the hills.
The key to the Maico’s success is that it enables the rider to make the very best of any ability he has. In Geraint’s case, the bike encourages him to simply destroy the opposition in any event in Britain whilst with me, it left me wishing that I was 10 years younger and just starting out doing National events again.
Testing the bike which has consistently proved itself to be the fastest enduro bike in Britain is not an easy task since, by its very nature, the bike is supremely successful. Even so, just how good Geraint Jones’s Maico was surprised me.
Its great strength lies in its completeness as a racing motorcycle. The frame, suspension, brakes and motor are all the best, or equal to the best, in the world and so its flaws – the heaviness of the clutch and gearbox – become fairly trivial criticisms by comparison.
The heart of the bike is the works-prepared 440cc engine. It is possible to become really silly in one’s praise of this motor, since its soft, crisp and effortless power is what every rider dreams of. Despite its lack of reed valve, the German motor pulls from zero revs with a huge spread of really strong power in the mid-range.
Geraint’s bike was particularly impressive in that not only would it pull in the manner we have come to expect from Maicos but would also rev on when necessary. Thus, there were two motors available for the rider to use during an event. The first was a woofling, docile beast which, in Geraint’s words, ‘cruised between checks,’ and the other a lightning-quick, racing engine which could be called upon for motocross special tests.
Many of the trifling little problems which afflicted the earlier Maico enduro bikes have been eliminated from Geraint’s works motor, which forms the basis of the 1981 production machines. In the interests of longevity the primary chain is now two single chains instead of a duplex unit and the primary chain case has a nylon block, to prevent wear if the chain has to be run slack. Driven as hard as the British enduro champion rides his bike, only two primary chains and one piston have been used in 2600 miles, which speaks well of the motor’s reliability. However, there is still a lack of primary kick starting facility and the clutch action, whilst smooth, is very heavy.
One solution is not to use the clutch, which is how most Maico riders solve the problem. The five-speed gearbox seems not to mind this at all and the changes are perfect, if somewhat heavy. Geraint says that the rider soon becomes used to this action, but I would still expect a sore left foot after a two-day event.
The frame of the works bike is almost identical to the standard product since excessive lightening of an ISDT bike is a dangerous pastime. The design is very conventional, with a simple duplex engine cradle and twin-damper swinging arm.
Credit must be given to Maico for coaxing the best of this traditional concept and arriving at a commendably low saddle height, despite 11 inches of wheel travel, front and back, and a nice, narrow seat which permits easy footing when the going gets really tough.
There are several pleasing modifications to the standard frame, but nothing that a meticulous privateer could not achieve. The footrest mounts are strengthened so that the footrest itself will be ripped off, rather than the mount, if a rock is hit really hard. The center stand has been modified by Geraint’s brother Gareth, so that it swings right up against the swinging arm and is well out of harm’s way in a deep rut or bog. When not in use, the legs of the center stand rest against two nylon snubbing blocks fitted on to the ends of the rear dampers. This is as high as it is possible to mount any center stand.
The factory has done a lot of detail work on the bike, much of which will be of direct benefit to the production bikes. The fork legs are knurled to prevent twisting in the yokes and there are a number of lightweight items fitted to the 440. The silencer is alloy, many of the bolts are hollow and the expansion chamber is of thin gauge metal. All this contributes to a very light 500cc class bike. Geraint is unsure of the precise weight, but he thinks it is around the 235-pound mark dry – which is truly feather light.
Inevitably for me, on the day that I got to ride the most exciting enduro bike in Britain, the heavens opened and the Jones’ farm almost disappeared in swirling mist and pouring rain. It was no day to ride a fire-breathing monster!
I need not have worried for the Maico was one of the easiest bikes to handle that I have ever encountered. The front forks were superb and transmitted tremendous feel, whilst the rear Ohlin dampers were equally good. This meant that I could push the Maico across the most slippery cambers and ruts with complete confidence because I knew precisely what each wheel was doing, yet I could hit foot-deep potholes at 60 mph without feeling the slightest jolt: outstandingly the best suspension I have ever used!
The motor was near perfect too, with a complete willingness to pull from zero revs at walking pace all the way up to speeds which were simply dangerous for a rider of my caliber. On Geraint’s practice hill-climb, I found that I could get a corner a little bit wrong and the motor was so flexible that it was possible to shut off and then accelerate again, without any discernible loss of pace.
Equally comforting was the finest set of brakes I have ever used on any off-road machine. They were dramatically powerful – either wheel could be locked at will with the merest hint of pressure – but were extremely sensitive. On one section of the course I slithered down a steep clay bank towards a stream, crossing with both wheels just on the point of locking. In an event, the section would have had half the entry upside down and on their bottoms but I managed it without putting even a foot down, simply because the bike was so controllable and responsive.
Finding fault with the Maico is very difficult. To be honest I could not improve it in any material way, other than transposing the kickstart to the right-hand side – a personal preference – and easing the gearbox action. The biggest problem with the bike is that one can get into a real tangle unless conscious care is exercised at all times. This is because the motor is so quiet and lightly stressed, and the chassis builds up such a feeling of over confidence in the rider. I found myself going far too fast for my own riding abilities on many occasions and, although I never crashed the bike, I frightened myself more than I would normally do in a track test. The Maico is capable of winning the 500cc class in the ISDT, and this needs to be borne in mind at all times!
Without taking anything away from Geraint, the bike enables him to make the most of his abilities. Not only is it the fastest, best-handling enduro bike in Britain but it also permits the champion to get away with things that would hospitalize him on a lesser machine.
Geraint Jones now owns, and is the Chief Instructor, in the Yamaha Off-Road Experience. This school gives riders of all abilities, from future World Champions to road riders making their first foray into the dirt, the chance to be personally coached by Geraint and his team of instructors using the latest Yamahas:
Interestingly, the school is located in the hills of Mid-Wales where I rode the 440 Maico and where Geraint honed his remarkable racing skills.