It’s common in sports and fitness to use cross-training for developing new skills and allow for “Active Rest”. With this in mind, I was determined to learn if riding a trials bike would improve my off-road riding. I could have chosen several off-road schools which would have more specific training, but I have also always wanted to improve my balance and slow speed skills. So I arranged for a day of trials lessons at Motoventures.
The program is run by Gary LaPlante in Anza, CA, an outstanding desert area between Temecula and Palm Desert. Gary has an extensive motorcycle industry resume with proven competitive off-road mastery. His book, How to Ride Off-Road Motorcycles is a definitive guide to multiple forms of riding. He is leasing his parcel of virgin desert from an Indian tribe that has plenty of space for practice. The property has many large smooth rocks and boulders perfect for climbing and descending, and a long single track he has cut for trail riding. At 3,600 feet elevation, the air temperature is definitely cooler than the surrounding desert.
Motoventures provides the trials bikes, protective clothing (helmets, boots, knee and elbow pads, and other clothing) and fuel for the bikes and riders. The bikes were current Beta and Gas Gas trials bikes, in very good condition, ready to go!
Joining me for the class were Mark Longmuir and Roland Wheeler. Mark is a BMW R1150RT rider with no dirt experience and Roland races historic MX and road racing. Like me, neither had any trials riding experience. Given our background, our class would be taught at Level 2, between Gary’s Level 1 motorcycle beginner class and his Level 3 class, which provides advanced trials riding techniques.
Initially, Gary sets us up with gear and has a riders’ meeting. He presents the day’s schedule and discusses the need for safety and caution. “The main thing is that nobody gets hurt today”, he said. Taking a student to the hospital is one big bummer that must be avoided. Gary also stresses the need to be respectful of the bikes. “You break it, you buy it” is a Motoventures motto that is worth following.
The easiest way to break something is to whiskey throttle the short coupled bikes with your weight too far back. He teaches a relaxed riding position, standing tall with weight forward, shoulders following the handlebars. The idea is to carry our weight with our legs, allowing our arms to relax. At times, the three of us had to rewire our brains from dropping into racing crouch position, with me sometimes attempting to sit down on the nonexistent seat. Ouch!
Developing skill in the trials friction zone could be a lifetime quest. Good clutch control is necessary when riding below walking speed or when a sudden burst of power is needed. Clutch and front brake levers are operated with one or two fingers. Trials bikes do their best braking with the front brake, so becoming comfortable with it is essential. Gary admonished, “Get good at the front brake and fear no downhill. Many riders have crashed avoiding a crash (one they should have been able to ride through) because they have poor front brake skills”.
Gary had us practice the most basic body position and control operations in a wide-open area, with a few orange cones to steer around. Most trials beginners saw back and forth at the handlebar when attempting these tight turns. He teaches how to lean the bike into the turns and overhang the bike while counterbalancing. Initially this feels very awkward but surprisingly quickly is learned and becomes natural. Soon we are riding tight circles around the cones in good control and looking for the next lesson.
During riding breaks it becomes clear that Gary is able to articulate subtle concepts about bike dynamics and technique. This is reassuring and helps assimilate the lesson concepts. He quips, “Learn to do it right then practice.” The simple wisdom of this statement is appealing.
Next, we learn how to properly climb over a log. Momentum is your friend here. The idea is while standing, rock the bike to unweight the front tire, blip the throttle to lift the front wheel up, close the throttle before the rear tire hits the log, and coast over the log. Getting the timing down and the motions correct is very challenging. Roland proves this by looping his bike after too much whiskey throttling it. After dusting himself off and a minor repair to the rear fender, he was ready for more.
Riding slow and learning these techniques is exhausting. Before noon Gary’s three students were ready for lunch. During the downtime, Gary talks more about riding technique and prepares us for the afternoon lessons.
Once we developed some fluidity at climbing over small obstacles, we are taught how to wheelie and bunny hop. Wheeling these 150 pound bikes actually feels safe, coming after log climbing. Performing a bunny hop is done like doing a lazy wheelie, shutting the throttle off, and shifting weight. After plenty of practice, I can bunny hop over a half-dollar. Patience grasshopper.
Later, Gary discusses four climbing techniques, including; Roll-Up, Double Blip, Zap, and Splatter. The three of us are getting numb to the huge influx of information. so I suggest a trail ride as a diversion. We do a 20 minute single track ride, and Mark’s newness to off-roading is apparent. Mark struggles, but makes it around the loop while taking it in stride, and enjoys the challenge. He heads for the pits, and I am nearly wiped-out as well. But Roland is looking strong.
After a break, Gary takes Roland and me out to a rock outcropping for some tight off-camber practice. This makes for the capstone for our day’s lessons. After 45 minutes of counterbalancing around rocks I’m spent, ready for the pits. Roland retires a few minutes later.
One thing that's quickly apparent is the amount of concentration and fitness required to ride trials. Unlike road or trail riding, there’s no opportunity for mind wandering or relaxation. In a unique way, it’s a compelling workout, requiring endurance, muscle, balance, flexibility and coordination.
My day of riding at Motoventures could not be better. Gary has established a valid training approach refined while teaching thousands of riders. His trials techniques are absolutely fun and rewarding to learn, and do a great job of improving other forms of riding. Personally, I found a few hours away from the world while learning new riding skills was great therapy. I’ll be back!
For more information about trials motorcycling, contact Gary LaPlante at 877-260-6686, or go to MotoVentures.com.