When talking about motorcycles, the conversation often detours to the performance capabilities and wild high speeds that even vintage bikes can achieve. Anyone whose ridden a motorcycle in anger will likely admit how intimidating the experience can be. What if there was a slow-speed event that captured all the fun of motorcycles with minimal risk of an ambulance ride? Welcome to observed trials.
While in the midst of a heat stroke during the Barber Vintage Festival in Birmingham, Alabama, I wandered into the woods in search of shade and water. A haze of two-stroke oil hung in the air as I watched a line of riders lean their motorcycles on trees around trees circled with multiple colors of thin tape. After a few walk-throughs, one rider lined up and attacked the course.
Well, “attacked” is probably a bit of an aggressive word. In reality, the course was approximately 60 feet long and required riders to weave their nimble machines through the trees at a much more approachable 7-8mph compared to the riders that were ripping down the front straight at triple-digit speeds on the road course just across the parking lot.
The name of the game in trail riding is precision—careful and deliberate moves that allow the rider to traverse a tight, root-filled course without putting a foot to the ground. Should a rider need to dab a foot for balance, the judge watching will add one tally to the rider’s score. Each run has a maximum score of five, and there are multiple runs for each contest. Lowest score at the end of the runs wins.
Speeds rarely eclipsed five miles per hour, but the event captivated the whole audience. Riders carefully and tactfully slipped clutches and balanced brake pressures while shifting body weight around on the bike, all in an effort to guide their two-wheeled partner in an elaborate dance through the end of the course.
Competitors can ride any motorcycle they choose, but most opt for specially designed models conducive to navigating tight courses at uncommonly slow speeds. The frames have very low seats (if there is a seat at all) and the engines are tuned for power right off idle to help riders maintain momentum. Final drive gearing has sprockets the size of dinner plates at a Golden Corral, which allow the meager torque from the often sub-300-cc engines to propel both rider and bike at just a blip of the throttle.
In my eyes, though, the truly special part of this event was the general approachability of trials competition. Each run was comprised of five routes ranging in difficulty from “I’m pretty sure I can do that on a streetbike,” to “I’m not sure anyone can ride that.” Based on your skill level, you could take the course that challenged or aligned with your expectations for the day. Most riders wore half helmets, tucked bottles of water in the back of their riding pants, and exchanged tips and advice while waiting their turn. I can’t think of a better way to encourage rookies like me to join the vintage motorsports community.
It also helps that the whole thing is in the shade. Can’t forget that.