Gather ’round, young’uns, and listen while we take you back to the 1970s, when motorcycles sold so powerfully in the United States that the manufacturers were able to build more than a couple of 600cc sport bikes and cruisers. That’s right, motorcycle builders sold anything from street-oriented dirtbikes, dirt-oriented streetbikes, water-cooled, two-stroke triples, shaft-driven, air-cooled V-twins and bikes like these: Trials bikes built specifically to compete in observed trials competition.
Motocross exploded in the 1970s, but if you watched On Any Sunday (and if you didn’t, stop reading now and do it), you know that motocross was just one brand of competition. Observed trials competition was also getting big, and all the Japanese manufacturers were building bikes for it.
If you’re new to the term “observed trials,” it’s very different than motocross or off-road motorcycling, and the bikes built to compete are completely unique. Motocross bikes are built to go fast through mud and rocks and whatever else you run into on the trails. They’re overbuilt to take the punishment. Trails bikes are built to ride slowly and deliberately over a range of obstacles, and are delicate and extremely light.
Observed trials are basically a motorcycle obstacle course, which riders need to complete without touching their feet to the ground. The obstacles can range from huge rocks to fallen logs.
You’ve got to see it to believe it.
The competition is scored by an observer who counts penalties in each section.
The bikes are unique in that they’re designed to be ridden standing up, so seats go from nominal to non-existent.
They also run incredibly low tire pressures to present as much rubber as possible to the obstacle they’re trying to climb.
Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha and Kawasaki all sold purpose-built trials machines, and so did European manufacturers like Bultaco and Ossa.
Today, there are only a handful of trials motorcycle manufacturers, with most coming from Gas Gas, Beta and Sherco.