Off-road bikes

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Off-road bikes

Army motorcyclists patrolling Sussex Downs in about 1940

Off-road motorcycling during the Battle of Britain, 1940

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, motorcycle trials riding was the big thing where I live. However, the history of off-road biking goes back to World War 2 and before.

Modified civilian pushbikes

Photo of mountain biking in 1972

Riding my bike at Highcliffe on the Hampshire/Dorset coast

In 1970 the mountain bike had not been invented nor had the BMX bike. Using ordinary bicycles with wider handlebars and knobbly (but thin and inadequate) tires, we broke frames, forks, handlebars, stems, seats, and pedals.

I designed (on paper) a bike with suspension that resembles some of today’s downhill mountain bikes. However, having no capital and no collateral on which to raise capital to create even a prototype, the design remained on paper only. I am told that even in the USA—said to be the home of free market capitalism—you are similarly stuck if you have no access to private wealth. Maybe that is why it took another ten years before strong enough bikes reached us from California.

Trials motorcycles

Sammy Miller on a Bultaco Sherpa in about 1974

Sammy Miller in about 1973. Photo from either ‘Motor Cycle’ or ‘Motor Cycle News’. (I hope they don’t mind me using it!)

Eleven times British Champion Sammy Miller, who developed the Bultaco Sherpa trials bike, practiced on my local hill, as in this photo. I have seen modern down-hill full suspension mountain bikes descend this overhang, but no such bike existed in the 1970s.

As well as Miller (originally from Northern Ireland) other top riders who practiced there included Paul Dunkley (another Bultaco rider) and Yorkshireman Alan Pickering, who built his own bike with a 500cc twin Triumph four-stroke engine. Although it was undoubtedly heavier than the Spanish two-strokes, he was able to do everything on the Triumph that he could do on his own Bultaco, which was everything Miller could do. When he first appeared with the Triumph, the brazing or welding of its bare metal frame was visible, but some time later, it was gleaming chrome. (Possibly Rickman Brothers of nearby New Milton carried out some of that work.) It had a yellow plastic fuel tank bearing the Wasp logo, as was common on sidecar motocross outfits.

Top Australian rider Dave Pinkerton showed up one year. (Pickering and Pinkerton. Don’t get ’em mixed up.) As I recall, he was constantly wary of straying too far from the main track. If you get lost here, keep going for a mile and you will meet a main road or houses. Not so in Australia, where becoming lost in ‘the bush’ can be permanent.

The standard Bultaco Sherpa ‘slimline’ one-piece tank-seat unit was bright red with a silver stripe. (Its predecessor with a separate fuel tank was also red and silver.) Its principal rival, the 247cc Montesa Cota, had for years featured a bright red one-piece tank-seat unit, although it was not particularly slim. (Spain led the world in trials motorcycle development at that time.)

Green Bultaco at Sammy Miller's shop, Highcliffe, about 1974

Green Bultaco at Sammy Miller’s shop, Highcliffe, about 1973

Green Bultaco at Sammy Miller's shop, Highcliffe, about 1973

Side view

This Taco at Sammy Miller’s shop in Highcliffe, in an unusual olive green and cream, was (thankfully) the only example I ever saw in this colour scheme. (As I recall, Miller wheeled it outside just so me and my brother could photograph it.) The tank-seat unit in the left window appears to be red and cream, which in my view looks even better than the usual red and silver.

Miller manufactured an alternative frame for the Bultaco, which this bike has. As I recall, it provided slightly more ground clearance and it had a slightly steeper steering head angle.

In the window on the right is the rear part of a Montesa Cota frame and tank-seat unit. About this time, Montesa introduced a roughly 350 cc version for heavier riders and Bultaco followed with a beefier engine shortly after.

My first trials motorcycle was a 250cc Greaves, a museum piece even then. (Its weird ‘leading link’ front suspension housed thick rubber bands!)

250cc Greaves trials bike about 1970

Trying to make it go

I tried Richard J’s Bultaco for comparison. Needless to say, it was far superior.

Trials bike ascending a sandstone overhang in about 1974

Richard J ascends a sandstone overhang on his Bultaco in about 1974

Bultaco Sherpa in about 1974

Me on a 250 Bultaco Sherpa in about 1974

Turquoise fir trees, yellow sand, white clay, brown stones and red sandstone — all under a sunny blue sky — formed a backdrop to the ‘candy colored’ new bikes that could do things previously unimagined. (Such a contrast with the grey London streets where we lived when I was younger.)

In addition, this was shortly before trials bike two-stroke engines changed to mineral lubricants. At this time, vegetable oil was mixed with the gasoline, which gave the exhaust a distinctive aroma.

A peculiarity about these bikes — I do not know if it was general or just the Bultaco — is when the rider put the bike in gear (with the clutch in) the rear wheel turned a fraction of a degree, shifting the square knobs of the tyre tread in the dirt instantaneously, but without the bike moving. It’s funny how youngsters (as I was then) notice details like that.

About three years later, I taught myself to fly a hang glider on the hillside a few hundred yards from where the preceding two photos were taken. (See Hang gliding before 1976.)

250cc Ossa 'Mick Andrews Replica' trials bike

250cc Ossa ‘Mick Andrews Replica’ trials bike

250cc Ossa in black and white

250cc Ossa in black and white

Over the winter of 1979 to 1980, I rode a 250cc Ossa (another Spanish trials bike, this time developed by Mick Andrews). The added lights were so I could ride it on the road after dark. I did not have a car at the time. I sold the Ossa to buy a car and resume hang gliding.


Motocross, Matchams Park, about 1974

Motocross, Matchams Park or a nearby track, about 1974

The Hants* Grand International was a motocross event held at Matchams Park, near Ringwood in Hampshire (within cycling range of where I live). It drew top riders from around the world.

* Hants? Short for Hampshire. :-/

The only rider I recall individually is Heikki Mikkola of Finland. When not riding, he wore a wide fut hat, like a fur sombrero, and he was easy to spot among the group of riders walking round the extensive Matchams Park motocross course to familiarize themselves with it before the day’s racing began. With his short beard and living in the frozen tundra, he imparted the impression (to impressionable youngsters like me) of being part man and part Neanderthal. Yet, there he was, talking — and even joking — with the other (human) riders. In what language I could not guess.

The hilly and forested area around the motocross track was used for motorcycle trials competitions.

Yellow Husky at Matchams Park in about 1974

Yellow Husky at Matchams Park or a nearby track (Boundary Lane?) in about 1974

This yellow Husqvarna, I think at Matchams, looks to me like a 125cc version. Together with the predominance of youngsters in the photo, it indicates that this was a local ‘schoolboy scramble’. This was where future world champion Graham Noyce started. This might even be his bike. Anyone know?

BMX and mountain bikes

First mountain bike

First mountain bike

My first mountain bike was a Huffy High Country, which I bought in 1982. It has a long 47-inch wheelbase, a steel frame, and even steel wheel-rims. It is rather heavy.

Photo of a BMX racer in 1986

BMX bandit

In 1985, being unemployed and unable to run a car (and therefore unable to fly my hang glider) I took up BMX racing, eventually competing a national level—although only at my two local tracks. My bike was a 24-inch-wheel VDC Gorilla, which I raced in the 25-30 age group (or the 25-35 age class, depending on which of two national associations covered the competition).

This photo was taken during a race at the Branksome track. I digitized it by re-photographing a print—hence the reflections at the top.

The Bournemouth club track, at Iford, near Christchurch, was tight and twisty. (It was later rebuilt and I liked it less.) In contrast, the Poole track, at Branksome, was built on a hillside and was faster. I swapped the chainwheel for a slightly larger one (two more gear teeth I think) for races at Branksome. I am told that the Branksome track no longer exists.

The 24-inch ‘cruisers’ are faster than the more common 20-inch wheel BMX race bikes. Even so, the two bike sizes are not mixed in races. One reason is that the smaller 20 inch wheels have significantly less rotational inertia so they accelerate quicker out of the starting gate. Being in front at the start is a huge advantage.

BMX bikes have only a single gear and, perhaps surprisingly, they are not suitable for anything except racing on a prepared track.

Photo of a man riding a mountain bike

On the Charge Blender in 2009

My 2008 Charge Blender is a 26 inch wheel mountain bike with a chrome-molybdenum steel frame. It is lower geared than standard because I had a larger ‘cassette’ put on the back and a smaller chain-wheel too. It is altogether more capable than the Huffy High Country, which was designed and built a quarter of a century earlier.

During the latter years that I rode the Charge Blender, unknown to me, mountain bike technology underwent a minor revolution. I learned about it when I went to the bike shop for a new chain for the Blender in January 2017.

My Nukeproof Scout Race has the newer 27.5 inch wheels and an aluminium alloy frame. It is the 2015 model, although I bought it new in February 2017. Later versions have a lower ‘bottom bracket’ (crank hub) which might be better for stability when going fast, but ground clearance is more important for my kind of riding. Like the Charge Blender, it is a ‘hard tail,’ meaning it has front suspension only.

Nukeproof Scout mountain bike

Red is for Go!

It is longer than the Blender and has more suspension travel. It is nevertheless five pounds (2.3 KG) lighter than the Blender. It handles differently and when riding along tracks at speed, it imparts a sensation of floating over the ground, doubtless because of the lesser rolling resistance of the larger wheels.

It manages steep drops better than does the Blender; the long stroke forks absorbing the ‘big hit’ when arriving at the bottom of the occasional vertical descent without a round-out. It goes up (less steep) climbs much more easily than the Blender, partly because of its greater range of gears and the increased grip from the larger tyres. Third gear on the Scout is approximately equivalent to first on my geared-down Blender.

Lastly, it goes where you point it with much less tendency to veer off sideways too suddenly for the rider to react and maintain balance.

Nukeproof Scout mountain bike

New clear days

I took these photos before getting it mucky on my first ride on it. I added the red decals (transfers) and, because they were a dull shade of red, I over-painted them with acrylic gloss red. I also painted the previously bare aluminium badge on the front and I bought myself a new red cap to match.

The steering of the Scout is so light that, in late April 2017, I swapped its 60mm reach stem (the handlebar centre is 60 mm forward of the steering tube center line) with the Blender’s Husselfelt 40mm reach stem. The Scout handles better as a result.

Nukeproof Scout Race mountain bike

The 2015 Nukeproof Scout Race (in 2017)

For more photos of the Scout, see my sub-page MTB.

Mountain bike steep descent

One of several steep drops at this riding area

However, occasional clanking from somewhere in the drive chain became unbearably frequent and it turned out to be a broken ring deep inside the rear hub (two months from new). The Scout was out of action for two months while the shop endeavored to find a replacement part (which the manufacturer stopped using some time ago) during which period I reverted to riding the Charge Blender.

That forced move provided an opportunity to compare the handling of the two bikes again, this time going from new to old. It is not strictly a fair comparison because, as stated earlier, the Blender is much too highly geared for this kind of riding. (I did not realize the magnitude of the problem until now.) In contrast, the gearing of the Scout is exactly right. Gearing aside, the Blender immediately struck me as short, springy, and wobbly. Because of its shortness, fore and aft weight shift is critical: On one ride I went over the handlebar twice! Its springy wobbliness stems (according to experts) from its old-style wheel hubs and the frame being steel rather than aluminum.

The one area where the Blender scores is in its greater ground clearance. The distance from the ground to the hub is actually the same as that on the Scout, but its shorter wheelbase and shorter and stiffer suspension equates to greater ability to surmount rock steps and tree stumps with less likelihood of striking the chain-wheel or a pedal on the obstacle.

Related (internal links)

20th century Fauss, my review of the motorcycle racing movie Little Fauss and Big Halsy, 1970

Motocross in miniature: Building Joël Robert’s Suzuki motocross bike of 1970 in 1/12th scale


See also (external links)

Trials motorcycle climbing a tree

Tree climb

Best Trial Bike Stunts by Youtube Entertainment

Cédric Tempier moto trial entraînement avec Jérome Delair (YouTube video)

Cédric Tempier video still

Cédric Tempier video still

Sherco, apparently, is the new Bultaco. Slimline tank seat unit? It doesn’t have a seat. It doesn’t even appear to have a fuel tank!

By the old rules, he would be docked five points every time his front wheel stopped.

Trials Guru “The Premier Trial Sport Website for photos, articles, news and the history of motorcycle trials”

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