Thirty years ago the user friendly Suzuki TS250 debuted onto the burgeoning European long distance off-road racing scene.
The year was 1976. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times (sorry Mr. Dickens). The swinging '60s was but a memory. Gerald Ford had formally ended the Vietnam War only a year earlier and everyone in Europe just knew for certain that no American could ever be competitive in road racing.
Motorcycling was changing beyond recognition - and not just because Californian Kenny Roberts was starting to look at the "Western Europe" page of his school atlas and starting to figure out distances between GP circuits!
Colored leathers, slick tires and liquid-cooling were all the rage, and the once sedate sport of long-distance off-road racing was about to explode. In 1976, the very description for the world's premier enduro showed its roots: "The International Six Days Trial."
The ISDT was a test of reliability for the motorcycle and consistency for the rider. Long-distance trials riders were smooth, technically accomplished and sympathetic to their machines. The central idea was to finish. The speed and acceleration tests then sorted out the best of the best - but getting the bike to the finishing line was the major achievement.
These ideas were predicated on the concept of European levels of reliability. Coaxing a Greeves or MV Agusta to the finish of a long-distance trial deserved more than a Gold Medal - a commendation from the Humane Society of the United States was more applicable.
Back in 1976, the new TS250, with it red gas tank and new components, was a winner with our correspondent right from the start.
Then the Japanese arrived. Boo, hiss, perfidious Orientals, sneaking up in the dead of night to assassinate the brave European manufacturers. Except that the truth is different. The Japanese made bikes which were democratic. Now, you didn't need the manual dexterity and sensitivity of a brain surgeon to nurse the clutch and gearbox through a day's off-road riding. Now, the mechanical aptitude of Leonard da Vinci wasn't an essential prerequisite to keep your enduro bike running. Now, even the most mechanically insensitive rider could go long distance off-road racing. And we did.
So, as the winter of 1975 came to an end, I found myself outside the world-renowned dirt bike emporium of Eddie Crooks Motorcycles. Eddie had sponsored me in 1975 on Fantics. These Italian screamers handled well, went well and looked beautiful. Unfortunately, their Minarelli gearboxes could not stand up to the pace of enduros and exploded with monotonous, and extremely dangerous, regularity. After one horrendous near miss, where the gearbox locked up solid and I barely scraped past a large pine tree - at over 60 mph - by the very narrowest of margins - Eddie gave the bikes backed to Fantic and he looked to Suzuki for my next mount.
The bike Eddie had for me to try was the brand new Suzuki TS250. New engine, fork, chassis, gas tank. In fact, new everything! It had a shiny red petrol tank, black engine and looked as cheerful and optimistic a soul as I had ever seen. It also started first kick - no more Fantic tantrums - and sounded purposeful. I rode up and down the back alley behind Ed's shop and that was it: I was sold. The TS250 was crisp, beautifully balanced and just felt so right. It's difficult to explain in any coherent way except to say that I knew instantly that it was a winner.
By way of a digression, it is worth explaining just how big a player was Eddie in the competition world. His bikes had won Isle of Man TTs, he had sponsored Phil Read and Barry Sheene amongst others, and was an extremely high-class rider on and off road. Quality machinery simply poured out of his tiny workshop. Eddie had also built up four years' experience of selling Suzuki TM motocrosser, so he knew exactly what was needed to make a dirt bike go fast. In short, fate was about to deal me four Kings and an Ace.
The TS250's durability enabled it to hold its own against its European rivals during the grueling long-distance enduro races.
I was asked to come back the following week when the Crooks' mechanics had played around with the TS. In just one week, the bike looked far more like an enduro bike and a lot less like a road machine with nominally knobbled tires.
A huge amount of weight had been lost through junking the steel fenders and heavy lights and replacing them with plastic items. A round-slide Mikuni race carb was fitted in place of the standard road instrument, and a free breathing silencer boosted the power tremendously. In a way, what was more interesting was what had not been touched. The front fork, frame and engine internals were all bog standard Suzuki - right down to the Autolube oiling system.
For me, the bike was in the right place at the right time. I was riding motocross fairly seriously but not doing very well, and was also playing about with road racing, grass track, sand racing and trials. Truly, a Jack of all Trades and Master of None. However, long-distances trials were in the process of becoming enduros and much more races than tests of trials riding ability.
The final part of the jigsaw puzzle was that in 1976 enduros enjoyed an incredible degree of tolerance from the Police in Britain and society as a whole. There were lots of events using ancient roads linked with tarmac sections and plenty of open moorland where outright speed was more important than the ability to negotiate snotty mudslots on trials tires. Enduros were designed for me.
I had just taken delivery of some outlandish red, white, and blue motocross jeans, Slade blasted out "Gudbuy t'Jane" out on the workshop radio as I prepared the TS250 and tucking my shoulder length hair into my Griffin helmet was a problem. Hey, the good times were here!
Back in 1976 enduros got off pretty easy in the law enforcement department. The TS250 performed well at events that included more conventional road surfaces.
In fact, it was difficult to believe just how good the good times were. The TS250 was amazingly competitive and ran quite easily with the KTMs, Bultacos, and Montesas which were all the rage. Best of all, the TS was simply stone-axe reliable. Then we came to the Welsh International Two-Day - the Big Daddy of British enduros.
I started on the same minute as Andy Roberton, who had previously won the event on a works BSA. Andy, being the thoroughly nice bloke that he was, and still is for that matter, agreed to give me a "tow." What this means is that a fast rider will ease off a little bit and allow a slower rider to follow him. Andy did all the hard work in terms of finding the optimum racing lines and I simply trotted after him like a faithful puppy.
Andy was riding the factory 250 Montesa - he was their number-one in the 500cc World Motocross Championships - and surprisingly, the Suz could keep up with it, even with me riding. In fact, right up to the end of the second day I was on target for a Gold Medal but lost Andy's tow on the Strata Florida and parked the Suzuki in a bog, something which would never have happened had Roberton still been navigating for us both. Even so, I think I finished 35th or 38th out of around 300 entrants - not at all bad for a converted trail bike.
My success was doing Eddie's sales no end of good and he sold literally hundreds of conversion kits based on "my" bike, as there was a stampede from riders who wanted a cheap, competitive and, most of all, reliable enduro bike which could be raced week in and week out without laying a spanner on it. Enduros were fun, affordable, and simply everyone was taking part. The good times really were rolling.
The TS250 ran well against popular Montesas, KTMs, and Bultacos it was pitted against.
Fast forward to 2005 and I am propping up the counter in Road and Racing Motorcycle's shop, drinking their coffee and gossiping about the Thundersprint and "Bikes We Have Known" with R&R's boss, Roger Sandoe. Joining in the conversation was Nigel Tullis, one of Roger's customers, who had just bought an original Suzuki TS 250 identical to the bike which formed the basis of the Crooks bike. Would I like a ride, just for old time's sake?
Well, these days there's no longer a problem with shoulder length hair - or much hair at all for that matter - and my motocross jeans are synthetic instead of natural goatskin. Worst of all, only fat, bald, old wrinklies sing along with Slade songs. Everything has moved on and 29 years is a long time - and it's been ten years since I rode competitively off-road. What if I've forgotten everything I once knew? What if I can't even start the Suz let alone ride it?
At first, it seems that my memory is playing tricks on me. Compared with modern dirt bikes, the Suz seems to be tiny. There's clearly no suspension worth mentioning, the ground clearance is minimal and there is miles of empty room around the engine.
Yet at the same time I can't suppress a smile. The deep red gas tank grins at me just as it did outside Eddie's shop all those years ago, the air-cooled engine sits squarely and honestly in the frame and the TS does all but wag its tail at me. Welcome home.
Everything about the TS brought a smile to our correspondent's face, including splashing through the puddles.
I sit on the bike. The saddle is low and it's easy to touch the ground. The bike envelops the rider in a way which is a million miles from the narrow saddle and athletic riding position of a modern dirt bike. This is couch potato racing, but very comforting nonetheless. There's no electric button on the TS but starting is not a trauma. Flick on the choke and one good prod later the 250cc two-stroke motor is rattling away like the good air-cooled motor that it is.
The noise of the engine - not the exhaust note - and the trail of two-stroke smoke from the exhaust remind me just what a crude piece of engineering the TS is in comparison with the high-tech four-strokes available today. The TS comes straight from the time when you could strip an engine at the side of the road - and often did - and when big improvements were easy to make.
Now it is time to stand up and be counted. Should I have kept my mouth closed and retained my memories of past glories? Now is the time to find out...
First gear engages effortlessly. I let the clutch out tentatively, terrified that my body might not do now what it once achieved so effortlessly. Then, a remarkable thing happens. Without any conscious effort my right hand opens the throttle and the rear end steps out. My left elbow dips and my right arm tightens to push the 'bars into opposite lock and straighten out the slide.
I wonder how this happened and who made my body react instinctively. Then it's in to third and fourth and we're tearing along the old fire road at 60 mph with the gravel hitting the bash plate and muddy water baking on the exhaust with an aroma better than fresh bread coming straight out of Mom's oven. There is a minuscule amount of suspension travel at both front and rear, but the feedback enables the rider to know exactly what is happening. In the time of appalling tires, it was essential to understand precisely what was happening if you were to avoid a trip to hospital. The feeling is very organic in much the same way that a rider feels his horse beneath him.
Getting another chance behind the controls of an old favorite, Melling fell right back into the swing of things once he instinctively pulled the old beauty out of a slide.
The same anthropomorphic sense comes from the engine. The TS is desperately, achingly slow compared with a modern dirt bike but it is entirely in keeping with the chassis. Nailed to the stop, the engine roars and rattles with enthusiasm and the TS wiggles and slides over the shale like a sailboat in a storm. The experience is wonderfully imprecise - a mechanical horse galloping through the countryside with the rider guiding its progress rather than the clinical precision exercised over his machine by the modern dirt bike racer.
I pitch the TS into a fast right-hander and the back end hangs out and the tire scrabbles for grip. Magically my hair has grown again and Slade are blasting out real rock and my body is tight with hard muscle and I'm running clean on time and my pit crew is smiling as I come into the check.
Life was wonderful and, if I never ride another dirt bike again, my heartfelt thanks to Nigel for the loan of his time-warping TS and to whoever controls our destiny for allowing me to be young and fit - and a dirt bike racer during one of the golden ages of motorcycling.
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