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Tested: Mick Extance Trials School

Tue, 14 Feb 2012

When it’s minus nine outside, riding motorbikes should be the last thing on any sane person’s mind. Riding them off-road, nearly two thousand feet above sea level seems even more stoopid.

But that’s where I was a week last Saturday. The day the mercury plunged. The day cold, snow-laden air blew in from Iceland. Me and my fourteen year-old boy jumped in the car at 6.00am to head for the Mick Extance trials school in the Peak District, not really knowing if we’d ever make it back. The emergency radio weather forecasts suggested we stay at home. But what do the Met Office know?

When we arrived at Black Shaw Farm (utterly stunning scenery on the edge of the Derbyshire/Staffordshire border) it was a long way below freezing and a biting wind made it feel even colder. A line of six beautiful Honda Montesa TLR250 trials bikes sat idling like whisper quiet sewing machines, steaming condensation chuffing out of their exhaust pipes. Well five did. The recalcitrant sixth was being kicked and kicked into action.

“They don’t like this temperature, I think it confuses the ECU,’ shouted a breathless (and steaming) Stu, the chief instructor as he tried to boot it into life. Neither did we but at least the carpeted garden shed HQ had a tea urn, rudimentary heating and (frozen) fresh milk straight from the farm’s milking parlour. We slurped hot tea as we got togged up in the provided trials gear.

There were five of us pupils and two instructors. Without further ado we ventured outside the shed and picked a bike each. If you’ve never ridden a trials bike (like two of our fellow pupils hadn’t) it’s a pretty alien experience. Weighing in at just 75kgs fully fuelled and narrower than a sheet of paper edge-on with wide handlebars and no seat, it takes a few minutes of riding to get used to them.

And these four-stroke Honda Montesas are even more alien. The power is soft but at the same time, immediate, quite unlike most two-stroke trials bikes. It took me the best part of the morning to get my head round it all.

But the experience will benefit anyone. I don’t car if your’re a professional police motorcyclist, you ride a Harley, you've only got two-weeks experience or you regularly qualify on the front row of WSBK races. Riding trials will make you a better rider. Full stop.

It’s all about grip, body positioning, clutch and throttle control and route planning. As you’ll gather from that previous sentence, it’s all about riding any kind of motorbike. If you master the art of never putting your feet down through a section, everything two-wheeled will seem easy by comparison. I think a day at a school like this should be part of CBT.

We started off by doing some stretching exercises which seemed a bit odd but at the end of the day after hours and hours of riding, the logic of this seemed obvious. A full day of trials riding is a proper workout.

Then, using a small part of the 200 acres of farmland playground that Stu’ calls home, we broke into the experience gently to allow us to warm up and for him to assess our varying levels of ability. The puddles in the tractor ruts were so icy they were solid, the soil itself frozen into a substance like concrete. Standing on the pegs, bopping along in second gear, we played follow-my-leader round trees, across becks and up/down gentle slopes.

Stu’ was keen to emphasise that there was no pressure to attempt anything you didn’t like the look of and if you fancied trying something that wasn’t on the agenda – fine. He was also pretty handy at identifying each of our comfort zones and pushing us to do things that would test our skills. Not a beasting, as such, more of a gentle shove.

Just before lunchtime we rode a couple of miles across fields and up onto the summit of the farm’s open moorland. Here we practiced feet-up, full-lock figures of eight against a fifty mile an hour, minus-ten gale. Despite the facial anaesthetic provided by the wind this was a bit of a light-bulb moment for me, especially with the realisation that upper body positioning was everything. Your body weight in relation to the top yoke’s nut is your whole life. But that’s no different to speedway, road racing or motocross, is it? Honestly, riding aside, the whole day was worth it just for the view we were treated to up here.

After hoovering up some calories and more hot tea at lunch the afternoon’s riding was about to become much more competitive and far more challenging. The heavy snow fall only added to the experience.

After a brisk obstacle course challenge (including trials limbo and a railway sleeper see-saw) we headed for the woods along a single track path with a frozen 90ft-deep tarn to our right. Things like that focus the mind, for sure. We were heading for the observed sections.

Some of these sections were literally impossible because of the ice but there’s so much variety on Black Shaw Farm that there were plenty of alternative sections to test our skills.

By now I was beginning to suss how to ride the Honda. Let it chug – doff-doff-doff – with minimal gas and then gradually pile on the throttle until it breaks traction and then roll it off a fraction to find grip again. Even in these conditions its capabilities were amazing. The bike was at least three times as good as me.

And there proves the challenge of trials riding. You can only get better with practice and encouragement. The bikes (especially these) are so, so, so good they’ll always be better than you – unless your name is D Lampkin or T. Bou.

We rode up rocks, through tree-lined paths, amongst gorse bushes and over sheet ice but the final section of the day – a river – was a killer. Just impossible. Its lower sections were gently sloping, straight lined and full of smashed ice and boulders. Then, half way up, there was a ninety degree left-hand bend followed by solid, sheet ice.

To be perfectly frank I was pretty knackered by this point in the day (about 3.30pm) but the impossible is always a challenge isn’t it? I had four or five goes at the section and whilst I managed to clean the lower reaches that ice beat me every time.

Heavy, heavy snow signalled the end of the day at about 4 o’clock. Our cars in the farm yard were covered in two inches of snow. But despite the icicles on my nose and pink, stinging hands this was the best day’s riding I’ve had for months. And for just £199 (riding over six grand’s worth of Honda Montesa) it’s probably the best value, too.

Hooked. Lined and sinkered. Anyone got a couple of tidy secondhand trials bikes for sale?

For more info on the Mick Extance Trials school, click this highlighted chap here.

By mark forsyth

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