By Dennis Lopez
Contrary to its formal name, Observed Trials, it’s a challenging motorcycle competition that, unfortunately, most people in the United States have never seen.
Unlike most competitive motorcycle events, trials – not trails – riding doesn’t involve speed but rather is focused upon balance, riding skills and motorcycle control.
A trials event is split into sections where a competitor rides through a fiendish obstacle course while attempting to avoid touching the ground with their feet. The obstacles can be of natural or constructed elements. Stuff like boulders, fallen logs, stacks of earth-filled tires or nearly vertical concrete walls. Not the kind of thing motorcyclists regularly meet on the street. And most modern Trials bikes don’t have a seat…reduces weight and allows riders more freedom of movement.
Every section has a designated route to test the skill of the rider. In local events, the sections often are divided into separate courses to allow the different skill level of riders, who compete in skill-rated classes.
Riders are scored by an eagle-eyed observer – thus the sport’s name – who counts how many times the competitor touches the ground with their foot. Each time a competitor touches the ground with their foot they are assessed a one-point penalty.
The possible scores in each section are between zero and five. If a rider makes it through a section without touching the ground with a foot, bike or other body parts, their score for that section is zero. Touch the ground once, they receive a score of one. If they touch down twice, they receive a score of two. Should they touch the ground three or more times, they receive three points, providing they make it without stalling the engine, getting off their motorcycle, going out of bounds or going backward. Failing to complete the section results in being awarded five points. The overall winners are the riders with the fewest cumulative points after riding through, on or over all sections.
Challenging as riding trial events are, it is a motor sport that Emmett resident and motorcycle shop owner Johnny Murphree sees as one of the fundamental and critical building blocks for making better, and safer, motorcyclists. In fact, he believes in it enough to not only ride in trials events himself, but to coach his 10-year-old daughter to ride Trials as well. And he says it provides valuable family time.
Murphree knows of the inherent dangers of riding motorcycles. He is a former national flat-track motorcycle racing champion who was dominant in his sport from 1996 until 2009. He also has ridden in the rough and tumble world of professional motocross and has competed in the extreme sports X-games motocross series.
“For kids, it’s really about doing something potentially dangerous with care and close supervision,” he says. “Trials riding allows everyone who does it a chance to fail at small things. This kind of riding really is the best kind of training because you learn the fundamentals.”
The primary fundamental, he says, is learning balance, something best taught at low speeds.
“It’s a way to learn and grow,” he says, “because you can slow down and do things right.
“Skills learned while riding Trials can be transferred to other kinds of riding. You learn to apply all the basic skills without an emphasis on speed.”
Murphree is quick to point out that hands-on learning and even the occasional mishap are a part of mastering those skills.
“We don’t live in a video game world,” he says. “There is cause and effect. Real world consequences for our actions. Riding a motorcycle is no different. If you fall over, there is the very real chance of a bruise or scrape, but it all is a part of real world living. Training can reduce your chances of having serious issues on a motorcycle.”
He sees the time he spends training and practicing with his family to be quality time. An opportunity for what he believes also is an opportunity for family closeness. Riding is something he, his wife and three children use as family time.
“We also ride trails and spend time together just enjoying where we live.”
As owner of Gem County Motor Sports in Emmett, he says part of his job in introducing new riders to the sport of Trials is try to match them to the right machine.
“Sometimes people come in with one thing in mind and after spending time listening and learning about them, we can guide them to a bike that is more in line with their abilities and skill levels. I hope to develop a relationship with them that evolves from being my customer to being a lifelong motorcyclist.”
Part of that is having an inventory of proper motorcycles for all ages and skills.
“My daughter rides an electric motorcycle,” he says. “No engine or transmission to deal with. She can just concentrate on learning to ride better without distractions like a clutch.”
Apparently having the right training and the right motorcycle pays off. Despite it being Marlee’s first competitive ride, she and her dad Johnny were part of a team that finished in third place overall.
For more information about Trials riding in the Treasure Valley contact the Treasure Valley Trials riders on Facebook.