There is absolutely no doubt everyone at the North American branch of KTM, Husqvarna, and GasGas are dyed-in-the-wool, hardcore (bordering on fanatical), motorcycle enthusiasts—it shows.
For instance, counter to current COVID-19 trends and sensing an opportunity, the three brands have actually ramped up their marketing during this challenging time, and it has paid dividends. So, it came as no surprise to me that having just acquired the GasGas brand at the start of 2020, the decision-makers in North America decided to fully commit and go ahead with the (socially-distanced) inaugural California Trial Invitational Presented by GasGas. The location—the three brands’ world-class test facility in Murrieta, California.
Attending from around the country, the list of national-level riders was impressive. The Men’s Pro division had Alex Niederer (Beta), Karl Davis Jr. (Scorpa), Daniel Blanc-Gonnet (GasGas), Josh Roper (Sherco), Alex Myers (Scorpa), Sam Fastle (Sherco), and Alex’s younger (just 15-years old) brother, Will Myers (Scorpa). The ladies were represented by the leading women trials riders in the country: Maddie Hoover (GasGas), Louise Forsley (Sherco), and Kylee Sweeten (Scorpa).
These courageous and highly skilled young people were to be challenged by a frightening obstacle course designed by 10-time NATC/AMA National Trials Champion Geoff Aaron. He is also the GasGas Race Team Manager. His dastardly imagination had me looking at massive boulders, piled up logs, and enormous concrete pipes. The dizzying heights they were placed at, had me gaping in awe. Before anyone took to the course, I assumed they’d be riding around the features, not over them. Watching the amazing gravity-defying feats on two wheels is riveting.
Somewhat naturally, the event was very well organized. Sponsored by GasGas, the six podium finishers shared a $10,000 prize money purse. Clearly, none of the riders do it for the money; indeed, several of them are still students. However, it is a testament to the GasGas commitment to growing the sport that they put up the prize money.
Unlike a typical “outdoor” trial, where the riders circulate at their own paces, the California Invitational course is laid out in five sections, with each rider taking the section in turn. When each rider has taken a turn and gone through, the points are added to the scoreboard, and everyone moves to the next section. When all sections are completed, they then start again and ride another ‘loop’—a total of three.
The challenge is to complete each section ‘clean’, without putting a foot down and scoring zero points. If you do dab a foot, you get a penalty point. If you fall off, ride out of bounds, or otherwise fail to complete the section, you get five penalty points (called ‘a five’). The goal (obviously) is to finish the three loops with the least amount of penalty points.
This easy-to-understand concept is anything but easy to execute. There is no pre-riding, so each rider on the first loop is attacking the course for the first time. Everyone gets to walk the section—if clambering up ridiculously steep hills can be termed that—and it is interesting to see how each rider carefully measures out the tight clearances between objects, trying to figure out how best to tackle them.
Successfully achieving a clean section requires astonishing balance, total focus, and precise throttle and clutch control from the rider. Often, the bike is at a standstill—atop some gnarly piece of concrete, wood, or rock, and with a nasty sheer drop off either side—with the rider having to literally jump the bike in place as they maneuver it for the next climbing attempt. It is amazingly precise; this sport is measured in tiny increments, and a wheel off by a couple of inches can spell disaster.
Akin to golf caddies, the riders have ‘minders’ who carefully place themselves very close to the obstacle. The role is two-fold. First, they try and suss out the right line or nuance the rider should try and act on to clean that part of the course. The second, and much more valuable, function is to catch the motorcycle should it all go wrong, as it often does. This allows the rider to jump away without the machine falling on him, and the minders wear heavy-duty gloves to perform the task.
It’s a measure of the sport’s camaraderie that at times, other competitors ran over to act as minder if things got hectic. This is a tight-knit group of people; they clearly like each other, and have massive mutual respect.
Section 3 started with a sheer wall of stacked logs, I’d guess around 10-feet high. In my world, if there’s a gigantic wall ahead of me and I’m riding a motorcycle, I tend to avoid it. Not so these riders. Actually, judging by the laughable (apparent) ease that they lifted over it, they not only attacked it with vigor, but it also looked like it might have been the easiest part of the section!
Some obstacles require an instant burst of speed, followed by immediate stopping. The front and rear wheel need to be, at any given moment, either whipping up skywards so the bike can hop over an obstacle, or enable it to turn on the proverbial dime.
The machines themselves are compact (but not small) dirt bikes with 300cc, single-cylinder two-stroke motors. Smaller displacement motors are available too, but the pros need every little bit of grunt they can muster to negotiate the obstacles at the highest level. Clearly super-easy to transport in the bed of a truck or on an SUV with a trailer-hitch rack, there is nothing superfluous on these lightweight trials bikes. Every little detail is gorgeously crafted and finished or anodized—industrial art at its best.
The top-of-the-line 2020 GasGas TXT GP trails bikes are gorgeous looking machines. The tiny, liquid-cooled 300cc two-stroke engine is clearly well-designed; it looks like a jewel. It produces instant power on demand, and both Maddie and Daniel clearly had that little extra bit of oomph to climb over obstacles as needed. The GasGas is beautifully balanced, as every effort has been made to centralize what little weight it carries. Heck, there isn’t even a seat!
The 21-inch front and 18-inch rear wheels carry highly specialized Dunlop and Michelin block-pattern knobbies inflated to just five psi or so—the rear is a tubeless radial. Incredible levels of grip are instantaneously required at either, or both, ends of the bike. How the tires don’t get ripped from the rims and torn into shreds is beyond me. However, the fact remains that the rubber handles the stresses well and finishes the day, apparently none the worse for the abuse they have taken.
The riders and minders themselves wear fairly standard-looking dirt-bike gear. Helmets are unobscured by goggles due to the low speeds. Some riders wear full-face helmets, and others don traditional open-face. I hope they had some kind of armor under the jersey, and the stretch pants are tucked into flexible and grippy special-purpose trials boots that protect their legs, ankles, and feet.
Clearly, the ability to read the course before anyone has tried it for the first loop is a huge help in winning an event. Get an early lead and, as everyone improves with each loop, try and minimize mistakes and hold on to that lead. Both Karl Davis and Louise Forsley used the strategy well, opening up a quick lead in the (lack of) points standings in their respective divisions. Neither were headed all day, and both ended up atop their podiums, but it was tantalizingly close.
In the men’s division, Josh Roper started out slowly, but by the last loop he had upped his game and almost caught Karl Davis for the win. Roper missed victory by just three points. The women were headed by Forsley all day, though Maddie Hoover was always a danger. Clearly, Forsley had to stay focused, which she did.
Observed trials is a fun, family-oriented sport to participate in, and relatively inexpensive as the bikes don’t require any modification and minimal maintenance. Riders tend to be their own mechanics, though dad is often involved for younger riders and friendly dealers stand at the ready to help as needed. They often start out young, sometimes as young as three years old; Will Myers is just 15, for instance.
Trials is brilliant from a spectator’s viewpoint as you can get literally right up next to the action and see every detail of the ecstasy of victory, and agony of defeat at each obstacle.
On a blazing hot day in the California sunshine, several highly talented young men and women put on a breathtaking show of skill and courage that left me questioning my ability to ride a motorcycle.
GasGas put on a great event that I have been assured will be an annual gathering. Poignantly, all the GasGas staff in attendance wore a #BeLikeScott pin to honor the character of a young colleague who passed away recently. I didn’t know the young man, but I’m sure he would have been touched by the sentiment sent his way.
I’d also like to give a big shout-out to the two commentators who did a brilliant job of explaining the nuances to all the action while we were watching; it really added another dimension to the whole event. I can’t wait for the next one!
Photography by Teejay Adams, Arthur Coldwells, and Mark Kariya