Bicycle Trials History

Hopping Along - The First Decade

by Jim Ellis and Rich Brooks

Bicycle trials, or trialsin in Spain, or Cyclotrials in England, started slowly in America. Eddy Kessler, the Texas State Trials Champion between 1973 and 1980, and the organizer of four motorcycle nationals, recognized the possibility of getting youngsters into trials through bicycling. So, he started organizing local bicycle trials and in 1980 held the first U.S. Bicycle National in Amarillo, won by Steve McNeal of Alabama. The '81 National Championship took place in Kansas City.

In 1981 Eddy published a 12-page, pocket-sized, Bicycle Trials Guide which mentions that the Germans were one of the first to adapt trials to bicycles around 1974. I have no information on organized events in the U.S. during the 1970's or between 1982 and 1984, but presume that some bicycle trials activity was happening. If you know of such activity, I'd enjoy hearing from you. Jim Ellis 919-496-4663 evenings.

In Spain around 1980, Pedro Pi, a Montesa executive and rider, started trialsin. Pedro also designed the 20x20 Montesa trials bicycle, which evolved into the Monty. His son, Ot, earned several (10 as of 1996) World Championships and has become the world's leading "Bicycle Trials Ambassador." Fantic also produced a 20x20 trialer in the early 1980's. And, in '81 the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) was planning to film bicycle trials for "Stopwatch," their children's sports show.

Our first "star" of the sport was Kevin Norton, a motorcycle trialer from California. Kevin easily dominated the first two NORBA (National Off-Road Bicycle Association) National Championships, held in Durango, Colo., in 1985 and '86; and was the first American to compete in the four-round World Championship Series in Europe. The Europeans were phenomenal riders and their events were so difficult that Norton usually "fived" every section. Kevin returned with new techniques, and his influence as U.S. Champion included trials coverage in numerous bicycling magazines as well as design work on the Kuwahara Trials bicycle and IRC Trial Winner tires.

Ryan Young earned National No. 2 in Durango in '86 while competing in his first ever bicycle event! Here was a 19-year-old competitor that the bicycle world had never heard of, dressed head to toe in a full-length white riding suit with tall white boots and a "USA" helmet, riding a strange beast of a bike no one had ever seen before with such poise, balance, moves and confidence that the crowd followed him like a Pied Piper ... His long and tall, polished aluminum, double cradle frame bike with "triple tree" aluminum forks, sporting 26x24 wheels with drum brakes ... was the Maverick XT, the unique handmade creation of Bill Grapevine, a motorcycle trials pioneer from Leon, Kansas, who accompanied Ryan to the event. At that event Young and Grapevine demonstrated the classic marriage of motorcycle/bicycle technology and bicycle/motorcycle trials techniques. Though Ryan's formal involvement with bicycle trials was brief, his influence persists, as his protégé at the time was 14-year-old future National Champion Marc Brooks.

In 1987 Ot Pi, the World Champion from Spain, spent several weeks in the U.S. giving demonstrations and schools that inspired riders for years. Ot's protégés included Andy Grayson in California, Marc Brooks in Pennsylvania, and Tom McNeal in Alabama, who would share the victory circle at the 1987 NORBA National Finals.

World class rider Hansjorg Rey, a competitor of trialsin champion Jordi Tarres, moved from Switzerland to California in 1987 and immediately raised the level of all who rode with him. Rey won the National Championship with a narrow victory over Jim Trigonis in Durango. Kevin Norton was seventh, a testimony to Rey's influence on riders like Andy Grayson, Peter Delaney, Dave Arbogast, and Mike Craig.

The growing popularity of bicycle trials in the mid 1980's encouraged several manufacturers to "test the waters" with new designs, many of which saw very limited production. Besides the 24x24 Kuwahara and the 26x24 Maverick, Raleigh Bicycles build the Raleigh Edge. Designed by John Olsen, another escapee from motorcycle trials, the Edge sported 26x24 wheels and a five-speed derailleur. Olsen, an admitted trials addict and organizer in Washington state, has always favored trials bike that can be ridden rather than merely hopped, like the Monty. Prior to the Edge, John designed the 26x24 Montana Trials, built by R & E Cycles in Seattle. Several other manufacturers including Fat Chance, Mountain Goat, Moots, and Cunningham made a few trialers, usually tailored along mountain bike lines.

Serious trials efforts were initiated by Scot Nicol at Ibis Cycles in Sebastopol, California. Nicol experimented with 26x26, 26x24 and 26x20 designs before producing the Ibis Mountain Trial, a multi-speed 26x24 model. It soon became apparent, though, that the European inspired 20x20 size was far superior for hopping and other agile moves. So Scot downsized, bringing out the 24x20 Ibis Trials Comp in 1987. The turquoise blue machines were built in Japan but lacked a skidplate. That was readily solved by Mike Augsperger in Boston, a pattern maker and bicycle/motorcycle trials enthusiast/organizer who sculpted the prototype for the Ibis cast magnesium skidplate. In 1988 Ibis had a shipment of violet and orange Trials Comps built in Taiwan including some with 20x20 wheels. For 1992 Ibis has limited its trials models to specials in the megabuck neighborhood.

In the mid '80s Allen Carpenter, an Englishman in Boulder, Colorado, built some 26x20 trialers called Velocitechs. Carpenter also designed and built two Rokon powered sidehacks that he entered in the 1979 A.O.T.S.C.A. (American Observed Trials Sidecar Association) National Championship in Kansas City.

Two major BMX and Freestyle companies tackled trials in '88. Haro, with help from former U.S. Champion Kevin Norton, tore a page out of the Monty book and released the Haro Response. It featured 48-spoke wheels, center-pull brakes, and a BMX style fork. Their competitor, GT, hooked onto trials supporter Hansjorg Rey for help designing and promoting the GT Ricochet and Ricochet Pro. Rey, who had made his mark in Europe on Monty, specified Monty style full-length forks and side-pull brakes for the GT. The Pro featured a high quality three-piece crank and spindle assembly.

1988 saw NORBA restrict National Championship eligibility to Americans, effectively slamming the door on Hansjorg and other foreigners. Andy Grayson took the title that year in Sun Valley, Idaho. Andy repeated in 1989 in California followed by Marc Brooks and an Alabama rebel who's had his sights locked on Brooks for a couple of years.

Marc, who was unbeaten by Americans in 1990, won the National Championship in Mammoth, California. Concurrently, Marc's former mentor, Ryan Young, won the motorcycle championship, enabling the two Pennsylvanians to bring both trials titles to the east coast for the first time. Tom McNeal of Alabama followed with Aaron Faust of California taking third. Grayson skipped the '90 Nationals, but earned nationwide exposure performing trials demonstrations on the David Letterman and Johnny Carson shows in 1991. This led to an opportunity to perform trials demos for Chevy Trucks in '92.

Mt. Snow, Vermont, hosted the 1991 NORBA Finals. This first ever east coast National Final featured some of the most challenging sections ever seen in the U.S. Mike Augsperger and his wife Leni Fried, believe wholeheartedly in long, wide, completely natural sections. Quite the opposite of the one obstacle, stadium trial philosophy. The fatigue factor combined with a bit of rain elevated the low score into the 35 point neighborhood, much to Hans Rey's delight. Hans, who has had low score for the fourth straight year, was pushed by Marc Brooks. Brooks, as top American, took the '91 National Title as well as the Stock Mountain Bike Title. Several young and promising east coast riders made their first appearance in the nation's top ten, including Neil Willey and Ian Cooke from Maine and Chris Slentz of Pennsylvania. Tom McNeal and Aaron Faust repeated as National No. 2 and No. 3.

Each of our National Champions has ridden in the World Championship Series and our competence at that level steadily improves. In 1988 Mike Craig finished fifth in the Senior Class while Andy Grayson earned 12th in the extremely competitive Junior Class. Marc Brooks struggled to 14th in Europe in '89, but returned to finish a strong eighth place Junior in 1990 as well as sixth in the World Cup Indoor. Marc returned in '91 to finish 11th in the Senior Class on the strength of an eighth place in Germany. Tom McNeal spent a month in Europe in 1990 contesting the World Championship Series, earning a 16th in the Junior Class.

Finally, there are numerous "behind the scenes" heroes whose enthusiastic efforts have helped advance the sport. Among others, they include Scot Nicol of Ibis, Tom Hillard of Specialized Bicycles, Mike Augsperger, Bill Grapevine, John Olsen, Bob Lawson, Greg Morin, Brent Mullin, Nelson Crouch, Dale Young, Yeti Bicycles, Maurice Tierney of Dirt Rag, the Patrick family of Trials competition and Pedro Pi, a strong supporter of U.S. trialsin. Other heroes include the promoters, supporters, checkers, families and competitors who give the sport many great events and great times. Their efforts give America's present and future trialsin stars an opportunity and a venue for their appreciating talents.

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