Home (contents) → Miscellaneous → Off-road bikes
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
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.
Eleven times British Champion Sammy Miller, who refined the Bultaco Sherpa trials bike from its first development by Tom Ollerton and Oriol Puig Bultó (of the Bultaco factory) practiced on my local hill, as in this photo. See under External links later on this page for digitized film of Miller riding the slightly earlier Bultaco that I first saw him ride on my local hill. (Alan Pickering and Paul Dunkley also rode similar bikes.)
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.
Although bracken and gorse now (in 2021) covers the south-facing slope of the promontory that, in the mid 1960s, my friends and I named Sandy Point, in those days it was light-colored sandy material with stones embedded, as is evident in this photo just below where the people are sitting. The late 1960s/early 1970s trials riders rode straight up that face, starting from a clear patch among where the gorse was already fairly thick on its lower slope, and cresting the edge, which was sharper then than it is now. Pickering overcooked it on one occasion (I forget whether he was riding his Triumph or Bultaco) and his bike cartwheeled (somersaulted) at the top while he just maintained balance when he slid off, to stand on the edge. Crash! It do not recall that the bike was damaged. How much of that was accidental and how much was showmanship I do not know. For more of this terrain, see see South in On the hill part 1: South and central.
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.)
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 Greeves, a museum piece even then. (Its weird ‘leading link’ front suspension housed thick rubber bands!)
I tried Richard J’s Bultaco for comparison. Needless to say, it was far superior, despite being an older 4-gear type with a retrofitted slimline tank-seat unit.
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, linked farther down.)
To see what this biking area looks like in 2020, see Central in On the hill part 1: South and central.
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.
See also the Mick Andrews USA 1971 Trials Training school video link to YouTube later on this page.
I was captivated by motorcycle ‘scrambling’ on our small black-and-white television in the mid 1960s. The bikes in those days were large and heavy, with four-stroke engines, but it was a spectacular motion and it attracted some of the most go-ahead and adventurous people. In the late 1960s, manufacturers in Scandanavia and eastern Europe tried lighter weight two-stroke engines and, in doing so, set a trend for the following couple of decades.
Brian Wood went on to become the first and only British hang gliding superstar, often appearing on radio and television and in the press. Previously, like his American counterpart Bob Wills, he rode moto cross. See under External links later on this page for more of Brian.
Ken Messenger went on to start Birdman Sports, one of Britain’s first hang glider manufacturers. See under External links later on this page for more of Birdman.
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 fur 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.
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
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.
At my weekday accommodation in 1983, I was showing a colleague my bike in the street and some youngsters on BMX bikes showed interest in it. One asked if I knew how to do an ‘endo.’ Neither of us had heard of it, so he set about demonstrating one. He rode along slowly and jammed his front brake on, whereupon his rear wheel reared up. What was supposed to happen then is he should have balanced on the front wheel before easing off the brake to let the rear wheel back to the ground. Unfortunately, he overcooked it and went over the handlebar, the bike crashing on top of his upside-down form on the tarmac. Instead of rushing to see whether he was injured, my colleague and I were incapacitated with laughter. “Oh, that’s an endo ist it? No, I’ve never done one of those!”
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. The reflections at the top are manifestations of my lack of attention.
BMX had started in California more than ten years earlier. Escape Country featured a motocross track, as did nearby Saddleback Park, both of which were also hang gliding competition venues. Note MX racing Sundays under Bicycling.
The Bournemouth club track, at Iford, near Christchurch, was tight and twisty. (It was later rebuilt and I liked it less.) This photo shows the two-humped jump after the last big sweeping berm before the finish straight (although a straight with a slight bend). To learn to jump it, one practice day I and some youngsters filled the dip with car tyres (of which there were plenty at the track side) and we laid sheets of plywood over the top. Then, if you did not make it across, it was no big deal: Your back wheel landed on the plywood and you carried on. I found that by going high on the berm, I built up enough speed to jump across the humps and their central dip, eventually gaining the confidence to do so after we removed the ‘safety net’ of plywood on car tyres. In races, I was usually the only one among the older riders to jump it, others riding the humps, and I often gained the lead as a result. Unfortunately, in one race I was going so fast along the finish ‘straight’ that my wheels slid out from under me on the slight bend there!
Just after this right-hand berm was the table-top, where you pulled an extra half-G on the rise, then you floated across the flat top and down the other side, your wheels barely in touch with the ground, then you entered the last big left berm…
In contrast to the tight and twisting Iford track, 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.
Two burly black guys from the Midlands were at the 1986 nationals at Branksome and in the final, one of them was in front of me down the start slope when his chain snapped. All I needed was nip past him to be behind the leader and in with a chance of winning. However, even with no additional power, his sheer momentum kept him ahead of me on that gravity-assisted track until more than half way. At last in second place, after the final left hand berm there was a vicious quadruple hump that I had never jumped. It was time to try. I landed on the up-slope of the last hump and went over the handlebar, my bike cartwheeling ahead of me. I got back on and I still gained third place!
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.
While BMX race bikes impart an ‘off-road’ look and feel, they have only a single gear and poor ground clearance. They are not suitable for anything except racing on a prepared track or levitating from equivalently smooth jumps.
See also Generation BMX, a socioeconomic comparison of my generation with generation X and Generation Z.
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.
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. Fourth 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.
For more photos of the Scout, see my sub-page MTB.
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
Mr Moto Cross — my second Revell 1/12th scale Husqvarna motocross bike; built in 2017
Viva Protar, my Protar 1/9th scale Montesa Cota 247 trials bike
Birdman, the hang glider manufacturer started by former motocross champion Ken Messenger, in Birdman and Solar Wings of Wiltshire, England, on Hang Gliding History
Brian Wood, motocross racer turned hang gliding champion, on Hang Gliding History
Cédric Tempier moto trial entraînement avec Jérome Delair (YouTube video)
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.
Heikki Mikkola of Finland (Wiki entry)
Mick Andrews USA 1971 Trials Training school video on YouTube, with Andrews on his development 250 Ossa filmed by Norm Goyer largely on August 22nd and 23rd, 1970
Trials Guru “The Premier Trial Sport Website for photos, articles, news and the history of motorcycle trials”
Winter escape: The 1974 U.S. nationals in Hang gliding 1974 part 3 on Hang Gliding History for the context of the Escape Country advert
The Sammy Miller Trials Story Facebook video starting at 837 seconds for the 250 cc Bultaco Sherpa I and my friends saw him ride on our local hill in about 1970, although this was filmed in Scotland