IMAGINE MOUNTAIN BIKING in a construction dump where you traverse heaps of jagged rocks, tilted pallets and jumbled logs. Think about the teeth-jarring, white-knuckled precision, that perfect exhilarating balance of body and bike. Think about the ultimate “Look, ma, no hands or feet,” except in this case no part of your body can touch the ground, and the only things that keep you from the ground are those two fat tires and your supreme mastery.
The sport known as observed trials, or bike trials, involves the most technical part of mountain biking. The aim is to negotiate an obstacle course that is laid out to mimic natural or urban terrain, or some combination of the two. Natural means boulders, logs, waterfalls, dirt hills, sand; urban or man-made means stacked pallets, big wire spools, wooden obstacles, maybe an old Chevy.
Competitors are scored based on a reverse point system in which they start clean with zero and try to stay that way. Judges monitor the bicyclist’s handling, hence the term “observed.” Penalty points are given for infractions, including going outside boundaries that are marked off with survey tape, or letting a foot touch the ground “dabbing” or by letting hands or any part of the body use any surface for support.
Find the way
It’s not about speed and high-flying acrobatics, but control, balance and technique.
“It’s more of a martial art,” explains Tim Todd, a representative of bike manufacturer Monty USA. “With the BMX or the downhill or all these other sports, it’s crazy everyone is looking for this fast excitement. (Bike trials is) a whole different mindset.”
The concept sounds like extreme skateboarding, but it actually emerged from motorcycle trials. Pere Pi, a former motorcycle factory worker in Spain, has been credited with inventing the sport. He noticed his son hopping about on his bicycle and fashioned a bicycle to fit his style, explains Jon Maedy, event coordinator for the California State Trials Championships. The Spanish company picked up the prototype, but Pere split off two years later to open up his own factory in 1983.
“People have been trying to hop on stuff with their bikes,” says Todd. “(Monty’s) just pretty much credited for organizing it and making it a true sport.”
Modified bikes have shorter chain stays for better rear wheel balancing, fat rear balloon tires for absorbing impact and a bash plate or bash guard underneath the bottom bracket to protect the frame and hydraulic brakes. Also, there are hydraulic or disc brakes.
“Brake power is very, very important,” Todd points out. “When you’re jumping from one point to the next, you need to stop.”
Competition is divided into two categories: stock and modified. According to the governing National Off-Road Bicycle Association, categories are further subdivided to junior, beginner or novice, sport or intermediate, expert, pro and elite (the Sand Hills series in Brentwood has just entry-level, intermediate and expert). Stock competitors basically use mountain bikes, whereas modified category admits the specially built trials bicycles.
Slow going in the States
While observed trials has been around in America since the late 1980s, “it’s a closeted sport,” Maedy says. Maedy serves as the U.S. delegate to the international Biketrial International Union, headquartered in Japan where interest is significant, as it is in Spain and Germany.
In Japan and Germany, membership is about 50,000. Active trial competitors in the States probably number about 1,000, with another 2,000 recreational riders. In California, the numbers shrink down to about 60 regular competitors, and 60 recreational riders.
While a family-oriented sport in other parts of the world, Renee Anderson says the average age here ranges from 20-35. “You don’t really see 6-year-olds doing it,” says Anderson, who runs a mountain bicycle park in Brentwood’s Sand Hill Ranch with her husband, Phil. “A lot of the 11- or 12-year-olds don’t have the patience to bother balancing on logs.”
The appeal does seem to be growing, and Maedy says it’s recently attracted a contingent of skateboarders. It can be “extreme” one spot in a Lake Isabella course was close to a cliff edge but the course usually takes place on less risky terrain. At the most, Maedy says, the competitors incur sprains and bruises, and only the rare broken bone.
A way to wind down
Others like its convenience. “You don’t need to go out and find a place to ride,” Todd says. “I have a little spot, whenever I get writers’ block or whatever I’m doing, I’ll sit there and balance and play. When I’m done, I’ll finish up my stuff.”
There isn’t a national judging organization, but NORBA tracks competitor’s points and status. The Sand Hill Ranch mountain bike park, also the site of competitions for BMX bicycle riders and downhill mountain bicyclists, started its second observed trials season April 8. The Brentwood ranch might be better known to motorcycle race followers since the 1970s; the Andersons rent a corner of the property from Phil Anderson’s father, Tom.
With the small numbers, observed trials remain strictly amateur; nationally, the top purse draws at the most $1,000. The low-key status though might explain the camaraderie of the bike trials community. “Competitors are some of the nicest people around,” Renee Anderson says.
“Everyone supports everybody, and I think that’s the huge draw to the sport. It’s not one person trying to outdo the next person. Everyone’s trying to help the other person,” Todd says. Riders, who are allowed to walk through the section before riding it, often do it together and give each other advice.
“You’ll actually see the riders cheer each other on,” Maedy says. “There’s a real brotherhood among the riders.”
Vera H-C Chan writes “Off the Couch” once a month. Send suggestions to her via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to her c/o the Times, P.O. Box 8099, Walnut Creek, CA 94596-8099, or call her at 925-977-8428.