The Trial of Kathy Young Day 1

On February 2nd, an event meteor crashed into our electronic realm for Kathy and I. John sent a mystery email to reserve the last weekend of March for a special event surprise. There were few clues, and aside from a romantic getaway to Santa Barbara for the married couple (and me?), Kathy and I really had no clue where we were going that morning. We got into the car. John drove. Somewhere in the Los Angeles monster of freeways and oxymorons, John asked if we had ever been to Bakersfield. Bakersfield, I said, was nothing more than an extended gas station. I could hear Kathy's restrained gasp behind the seat cushion. John clarified that we were actually going 40 miles east of Bakersfield. Now we really were in trouble.

We swerved through the mountain pass to Lake Isabella and followed the drivable trail to a recreation park. There were dozens of cars and campers for what was supposed to be one of the biggest events on two wheels: El Trial de Espana. At first, both Kathy and I thought it was a refugee camp for men with a horrible intuition for short cuts. We thought we were as lost as this guy. John would only smirk.

Kathy and I had heard of the sport of observed trials: riders on custom bikes hopping in and out of impossible obstacle courses with the goal of wheelies, stoppies, and never touching the ground with feet. John had ridden trials while growing up in the desert and this particular event was well known to help foster some of the best talent the US had to offer.

We soon understood that while this was a competition on motorbikes, time and speed really didn't factor into the scoring. Riders garner penalty points for touching the ground, dismounting their bikes, or steering outside of the marked course. Similar to golf, the goal is to have the lowest score with a perfect 0 for riders who can navigate the course without touching the ground and staying in bounds. It was a trial of balance and grace.

The trials themselves were held over the whole weekend. Saturday would host the amateur and professional riders on a mild myriad of tailored courses. Sunday would be reserved as a brutal exhibition to push professionals beyond their bounds. Kathy and I were in for a ride. I was stoked. Kathy admitted that, given sufficient warning, she probably would not have come along for the trip. Now committed to a weekend of dusty air and gas fumes, the real observed trial of Kathy Young began: would both she and John survive the day?

While hidden behind some brush for shade and safety from the motorbikes in route, Kathy got a feel for the primitives of observed trials. The rider goes slow, bouncing the standing bike into close rotations and precise set points. Once the bike was directed and stable, the rider would accelerate up and over the obstacle in motion not unlike that on a pogo stick.

Once on top, brakes and balance were key to keep the wheels placed in favorable crevices. It really was the motorbike equivalent of golf such that every move was crafted to set up the next move. This was the rider's goal. The sport of observed trials also extends to the observers as well. Our job was to slowly believe that the stunts were real.

This was a typical course. Riders would be scored once they brought their bikes onto the course, so they would often walk the course afoot to plan out their approach. The riders were ready. We were ready.

It's a good thing Kathy had a good warm-up before her unexpected day at observed trials. Not only is she a seasoned yogini, but that morning she had a balanced treat of yogurt and fruit in the car. Well-balanced was not only for riders, but breakfast too.

The sport of observed trials is now huge in Europe, budding in the US, and had its historical roots as a cross-training technique for speed racers as a way to master bike controls. Motorcycle trials were inspired by cow trials held centuries earlier. Riders would navigate cows from boulder to boulder over incredible obstacles and incredible heights. The events were typically celebrated with food and music in the days of yore. The entire nursery rhyme "Hey Diddle Diddle" recounts these cow trials. Look it up.

Kathy was a very good sport about the first course -- too good actually. John knew he would have to plan harder to really try his darling wife. He diverted us from the rest of the courses for a snipe hunt designed to test her endurance. I'm sure that's what it was. Once her optimism began to slowly leak, John knew that she was ready for the rest of her trials.

From the end of the competition trail we were able to wade up the mountain to more trials courses. These weren't the courses themselves; they were just the bleakly passable terrain that linked them. Kathy may have been planning her own path through the rest of the day: back to the car, then to the hotel, then to the spa...

Somehow, she was able to keep up with John. He was quite a trailblazer.

Altitude affects people much differently. Kathy got a little winded while John's head somehow grew even bigger.

Good thing they both do love each other.

I don't know why she picked a breath-taking vista as the place to catch her breath.

Observed trials isn't restricted to the courses only. Together we watched riders navigate the trails less successfully than fluid. There was definitely a class structure to the riders. The weekend warriors looked like extras for a post-apocalyptic action film. They would brawl through simpler courses than the pros who were tattooed with commercial logos. Either way, they all were nuts to plow their bikes through these narrow clearings.

John was excited. Kathy was... surviving.

Keith Wineland has the look of a champion. I wonder why.

Strawberry Shortcake stood out as a fan favorite. At least he was Kathy's. We weren't sure if he was sponsored by a fruit rickshaw or a smoothie stand. Maybe he dedicated his riding feats for strawberry awareness -- something about the heinous race crimes beseeching red berries in Latin America.

Kathy was doing very well for her first observed trials. She had a good support team that stood by her the whole time.

For a couple grand you too can own a new trials bike. Currently, all of the bikes are manufactured in Europe and imported. Most models come with only one pair of standing pegs. If you expect to have your trials babe ride on the back with you, you'll realize very quickly that you not only don't have such a babe, but aren't going to pick up any at these events either. Sorry to dash your hopes.

Course planners look at this and say "Oh man, this is a great place to ride bikes". Riders pay money to agree. They're all nuts.

This was our first female trials rider sighting. Kathy felt better knowing that women had broken through the glass ceiling to compete alongside men in observed trials. Perhaps it wasn't so much as a glass ceiling, but thin ice below. She was smiling, however.

Kathy was now inspired to observe more trials.

Notice the deep focus Kathy exhibits as a trial observer. She carefully planned her standing space to incorporate both shade and audible range of the New Zealander referee. She was also out of the way for riders entering the track. Like all natural athletes, Kathy made it look so easy.

John and the New Zealander discussed the latest in trials hardware and cult following.

Russia took a marketing blow at the Olympic games with a noticeable lack of excellence. If the US expects to break into the national trials landscape, we need to imbue our youth with the finest training and support available. There's always next season.

Several courses were drawn on the same grounds for different rider classes. P directed professionals where to steer. E told experts to hop here. For the rest of us mortals, this looked like splitting hairs on impossible.

Although a competition event, observed trials is a weird form of man versus nature. The riders themselves are very supportive and often work together to plan a route. Meanwhile, the home team of rocks and dirt and trees stumps took quite a beating. I really thought this big rock would've given more of a fight, but it just let the visitors run right over it. Sad, really.

Man on gas-powered machine: 1. Dead stump: 0. Take that nature!

Still smiling, Kathy had a good chance to survive her first trial.

This was our first taste of world-class riding. Cody Webb navigated a long boulder stretch the hard way. Even the referee told me to get my camera ready -- few have paid witness to such incredible riding.

He needed some time to think about his next move. The boulder to his left was the next point.

The jump up to this boulder was several feet of sheer. Very few riders could convert the ridge from a wall into a failed obstacle.

If she did have to spend a weekend with the family, she was at least set on looking good.

He, however, was a more typical rider at the observed trials. The best riders were young, but after years of assault on their young rider frames, many rode with extra safety gear. Helmets were standard issue, as well as gloves and rigid boots. Those more cautious wore thick, protective mustaches to protect their teeth from rock battery.


Thankfully trial bikes are designed without seats. Otherwise this strawberry might have become seedless.

Strawberry made a good stand during his coursework. If you think he's a smooth operator on a trial motorbike, you should see him on a coin-operated hotel bed. It's all about throttle control and keeping your mustache clean.

Designing a professional observed trial course must be very easy. He only has to find the most ridiculous way to get between two points and tell the riders to sort it out. For the lesser classes, an interesting balance of feasibility and challenge is required. For pros, just challenge.

There are three simple rules to riding observed trial bikes. First, out-stare your object by balancing in front of the rock long enough for paint to dry.

When the rock blinks, rev the gas and pop the clutch to pounce on the rock before it moves.

Finally, brake heavily on the rock until you get the submission. Demoralized, the rock will give you its power and you will be better able to conquer other rocks like a true highlander... on a seatless bike... with no sword.

Not every jump was as success. Many of the riders employ spotters to help guide wheel placement and miscellaneous coaching. The spotter is also there to help grab the rider and bike combination for damage control when the trial is too much. For example...

His dad was able to help grab the front wheel while the biker bailed. Luckily, no one was hurt at the event. Just pride. But pride is not a person. Well, at least anymore -- since the accident.

Some riders had perfected the ET maneuver: the rider first hijacks a previously incapacitated alien and then harnesses the power of Reese's pieces to float over pursuing authorities.

Kathy was doing well. She hadn't had any food since her breakfast in the car and it was already late afternoon. Her trial was almost over. John had to work extra hard to try to lose her before the next course.

However, he had the car keys and freshly made cookies were waiting for her back at the hotel. Try as he might, Kathy wouldn't let him out of her sights.

Observing observed trials is an exhausting day. I'm sure those bikes are never as light as they need to be when facing a guilty verdict.

Years from now, a hysteric wife and vacationing children will be screaming at their father when he insists that the minivan can make it without any foreseeable road ahead.

Sometimes it is too easy.

Sometimes it is too hard.

By this point, Kathy and I had a good handle on observed trials to appreciate the nuances in riders and technique. We were better observers. This meant that while Kathy had survived her trial, mine was just beginning. Understanding how to observe trial riding was a first step towards photographing observed trial riding. Tomorrow would be my real test to capture professional riding, but if I had to pick my best shot of the first day, this would be it.

That's the smile of a winner. We were definitely coming back for more tomorrow. I'm sure that's why she's smiling. The luxury bath and fresh cookies waiting for her after a warm meal were just palpable anecdotes to a long day outside. I'm sure.