Classic trials advice for first time motorcyclists
So you’re thinking of entering an MCC trial? Good for you! Our events are open to any biker with a driving licence.
The MCC has been running classic long distance trials since before the First World War and they are still a great test of rider skill and fortitude. They’re also great fun and a great adventure.
If the thought of a breakdown, or difficulties on the trial is putting you off, don’t be; there’s always another competitor who’ll stop to help. The Club is full of very friendly people, so if you’ve any queries, someone will offer an answer, or provide assistance.
But, no organised assistance of any kind, except that provided by the Club, is allowed. So friends or family can’t turn up with a can of petrol, or an inner tube.
"MCC trials are a great test of rider skill and fortitude..."
"They’re also great fun and a real adventure."
Which bike to use
Take a look at the bike classes first to see where your bike will be allocated. If you’re an experienced off-road rider, then classes A to E, which compete in the main trial, should be no problem. If you’re unsure about your abilities, try Class O, which can provide a good introduction before you move into the main trial next time. If you’re more interested in keeping to scheduled times, opt for class R.
Class O leaves out the first part of the night run, which is from one of three starting points, to a common assembly point. While some Class O sections are easier, this class shares some sections with the main trial, but still offers a challenging ride.
Class R is tarmac based with the competitor’s choice of tackling some of the milder sections. The class is newly introduced and the challenges could differ slightly between the three trials.
With a better idea of what bike you’d like to use, consider the choice of bikes. People compete in our trials on all sorts of bikes, from the latest BMW GS to the humble Honda C90. Triumph twin-powered models, Enfield Bullets, Ariels, Matchless and all sorts of classic machinery are still ridden competitively. The most popular bikes are 250 to 400 cc trail bikes, such as the CRF250 and DRZ400.
The next factor is your off-road ability, physical strength and stamina. Riding a 200 kg (440 lb) bike on tarmac can be a doddle; picking that bike up on a steep, muddy hill could be demanding and, for some, impossible. A heavy machine is always more challenging to handle on the rough than a light one.
Whatever bike you choose, it must have adequate ground clearance, good lights, reliable electrics, good starting, a road-legal exhaust, a fuel tank of about 9 litres and preferably folding footrests.
Inadequate ground clearance will have you struggling to control the bike. Electrics that pack up at the first whiff of rain will leave you stranded (we compete in England; it rains). Dim 6 volt lighting, or corroded headlamp reflectors will make navigating in the lanes dodgy. An engine that is a poor starter will have you sweating at the kick start, or sitting on a flat battery; worse still, holding up other competitors on a section. A loud exhaust could get you excluded. The less noise you make, the better for our image and our public relations.
Heated grips aren’t essential, but many competitors fit them. Ensure that your electrical generator can cope with their load.
"Modern bikes are pretty bullet-proof, but depending on your bike’s previous history, things can still go wrong"
"People compete on all sorts of bikes, from the latest BMW GS to the humble Honda C90"
The basics are obvious and we’re not going into detail here. We know you’re going to give the bike a service; grease the suspension; check the front fork seals, wheel bearings, chain and sprockets, cables, etc; the usual stuff. Note that your bike will be scrutineered at the start so make sure your bike will pass without any ‘issues’.
Our trials are also a test of reliability. Modern bikes are pretty bullet-proof, but depending on your bike’s previous history, things can still go wrong. No-one wants to be a non-finisher due to some trivial fault that could have been sorted out before the trial.
If you are riding an old classic bike, the chances are that you’re switched on mechanically and electrically so you don’t need our advice. Most problems are electrical related; if you’re not so clued-up, pay particular attention to the following:
Check electrical connections; clean and grease with Vaseline as necessary. Ensure that all the earths make good electrical contact. Replace any crimped cable joins with a soldered joint and heat shrink sleeving. (Corrosion of the copper wires inevitably works its way down the inside of the insulation sheaf so you might have to replace the whole wire.)
Handlebars and levers
Another subject about which there are many opinions; if you’re unsure of your set-up, do some research. For what it’s worth, here’s our advice…
The handlebar and lever position on our events has to fulfil two functions; an on-road, rider-seated position and an off-road, rider-standing position. You may have to compromise a bit, one for the other. Levers must be ball-ended for safety.
You’ll spend a long time on your bike, most of it on the tarmac, so you want to be comfortable. Adjust the bars so your arms and shoulders are relaxed. Don’t assume a hunched position because you’ll end up with neck and shoulder ache. Find and assume a relaxed riding position. In the sections and a lot of the access paths, you’ll be standing; poor leg position will produce twanging thigh muscles.
Adjust your levers for when you’re going through a section, i.e. while you are stood up on the footrests. That position could be with the fingers, back of the hands, wrists and forearms all forming a straight line with the fingers resting on top of the levers. The final position is the one that that works for you so experiment with different positions.
If you use a lower powered machine, gearing needs to be low enough for the sections, including re-starts, but not so low that you cannot maintain a 45 – 50 mph cruising on the open road where you need to cover long distances. If you’re riding to and from the event, you might think about different size gearbox sprockets, for example a 16 tooth for the journey and a 15 tooth for the trial.
In brief, you need to fit a trials pattern tread. The most popular tyre currently in use is the Pirelli MT43, which has the required characteristics of grip, flexible walls and wear rate.
For machines needing tyres with a higher Load Index or Speed Rating or machines with rim diameters different from the 21”/18” norm for trials tyres, additional options are detailed in the Approved Motorcycle Tyres List (MCC Events \ Rules & Regulations \ Motorcycle Tyres)
What you can’t fit are MX, or Enduro type tread patterns (too aggressive).
Soft compound trials tyres, e.g. Michelin X11 are not recommended as they wear excessively and can shed tread blocks on our trials.
Read the MCC Standing Supplementary Regulations (SSR) for more information on tyres.
While we’re talking tyres, we might as well mention inner tubes. These can be purchased in different wall thicknesses. There’s plenty of people with opinions on what thickness to install, but what you fit is up to you.
Finally, on this subject; wheel balancing. A lot of people will tell you off-road wheels don’t need balancing. That may be true for the bikers that are riding down the local country lanes and byways open to traffic. However, cruising at 50 – 60 mph on the A303 for tens of miles with the handlebars vibrating will give you a slightly different opinion.
Competition numbers must be fixed to the back and front of the bike so that they’re in an upright position on a firm, flat surface. The method of fixing mustn’t spoil, or hide the figures. Ensure that they won’t fall off and can be seen clearly by officials and observers on the sections. Laminating the numbers in transparent plastic, or something similar, is a good idea to stop them turning into papier-maché if it rains. The overall dimensions of competition numbers are 110 mm high x 150 mm wide.
You’ll need some sort of weather-proof holder, or laminated sheets to display the route directions. There are some fancy route holders on the market, or you can make your own. A handlebar-mounted clock alongside the route holder will enable you to keep track of time. Some competitors use electronic route books and navigation devices, which is permitted.
Tools and spares
Carry only the necessary tools and spares. The more you carry, the heavier and bulkier the bike. Keep it neat and light. A guide is as follows:
● Brake and clutch levers
● Headlamp and tail bulbs
● Puncture inflation aerosol, or sealant, e.g. Tyreweld, Slime
● Inner tubes (a lot of punctures are due to splits from running on low pressures and hitting a rock)
● Puncture outfit
● Tyre levers
● Selection of spanners specific to your needs
● Clutch, brake and throttle cables, or inner cable and solderless nipples
● Engine oil (are you a two stroke running on petrol?)
● Chain lubricant
● Chemical metal (for a punctured engine case)
● Cable ties and gaffer tape
● Good torch and a spare one, or perhaps a head-torch
● Tyre pressure gauge
"You’ll need some sort of weather-proof holder to display the route - you can make your own"
"Riding a 200kg bike on tarmac can be a doddle; picking that bike up on a steep, muddy hill can be demanding and even impossible"
Take your bike out for a shakedown ride at night in the condition the bike will be at the start. Don’t leave it until the last minute!
If you can, find what tyre pressures work for you on various off-road surfaces. Every biker has an opinion on pressures and we’re not going to debate that here. Suffice to say; high pressures on mud will most likely have you with the wheels slipping; low pressures on rocks and boulders will most likely give you a concussion puncture.
At the event
What to wear and bring
We’re stating the obvious here, but warm, waterproof clothing, boots and gloves are a must. It can get pretty chilly in the early hours before dawn and some trials have experienced continuous rain.
Thermal underwear is a good investment and Gore-Tex is highly regarded. Mitts are usually warmer than gloves but you’ve got less feel. Spare gloves are a good idea.
However, although that extra layer of clothing may keep you warm on the night run, you could sweat and overheat in the day, fighting your way up a section. Watch the weather forecasts just prior to the trial, then dress accordingly.
A high visibility vest, jacket, Sam Browne belt, or similar are recommended. Misting up of the helmet visor; always present due to rain and sweating biker, can be solved by a demister spray, or a Pinlock insert in the visor.
Whatever you carry, wrap it in a waterproof bag if rain is forecast.
A guide is:
● Mobile phone, fully charged and emergency numbers
● Soft pencil (to fill in your Control Card)
● Energy bars, or a nibble of some sort
● Soft tissues to clean the visor
● Wallet with some cash
● Trial documentation
● Trial documentation, which must be kept dry, is:
● Control card
● MCC membership card and ACU Trials Registration Card
● MoT certificate
Sleeping and eating
Be well rested before the trial. If you can get your head down for a few hours’ deep sleep before the start in the early hours, the whole experience is so much better and safer. If you want to stay awake and alert, rest is no substitute for sufficient good quality sleep. There are plenty of planned opportunities for refreshment along the way.
How are you getting to and from the trial? Are you going to ride from your home to your chosen start, trailer the bike and your kit, or use a van? Is there anyone else in your area who is travelling to the start and might they be willing to share? Where are you going to park this transport during the trial? The Finish is usually a long way away from the Start. If you need some help deciding, ask the Club.
Arrive in time
Arrive at least an hour before your start time; earlier is even better. You want enough time to get your bike scrutineered, sign in and relax before the off. If you’ve ridden your bike to the start in rain, or cold conditions, you might want time to warm up.
At the end of the trial, you’ll be fairly knackered so, depending on how far you have to travel home, or unless you’ve got someone to drive you and your bike home, you’ll need to consider overnight accommodation. Book early to make sure you get a room.
To carry your overnight kit, a tank bag, or tail pack, or both, can be useful. Load any kit on your bike if possible. Some bikers use rucksacks, which raise your centre of gravity, or bumbags, which get in the way. Take your pick, but carry the bare minimum.
The Club holds the Club Supper on the Saturday evening of the Exeter Trial. It’s well worth attending; an opportunity for good food, good company and new friends.