TRIALS LEGENDS

‘Trials Legends’ is a special ‘section’ on Trials Guru dedicated to those people who have made the headlines, won events, won championships and promoted the sport of observed motorcycle trials the world over. Already we have special sections dedicated to individual riders such as: Yrjo Vesterinen, Lampkin of Silsden, Sammy Miller and Rob Edwards which will remain on this website as they are.

Over time we will expand ‘Trials Legends’ to include more personalities from the world of trials.

MALCOLM CHARLES RATHMELL:

Words: Sean Lawless – Lawless Media UK

Photos: Jimmy Young; Iain Lawrie; Mike Rapley; Colin Bullock & Barry Robinson

Malcolm Rathmell
Malcolm Charles Rathmell (Montesa) – Photo: Mike Rapley

A life less ordinary – Grands Prix motocrosser, world trials contender, successful businessman and mentor to one of extreme enduros biggest names – Malcolm Rathmell’s influence on off-road sport has been huge (although he’d probably say we’re talking bollocks!)…

Here’s a good one for all you off-road fact fans – who’s the only rider to race motocross grands prix and finish top three in the World Trials Championship?

I’d love to leave you feverishly flicking through piles of yellowing magazines or scouring the internet for an answer but – seeing as the next few thousand words are going to be all about him – there’s not much point.

To someone my age who started riding trials in the late ’70s, Malcolm Rathmell – along with his great friend, rival and sparring partner Martin Lampkin – is a legendary figure. To this day I can’t shake the image of a gloveless Malc, blond hair flowing out of his helmet, oozing style as he cleaned another rocky stream section on his Montesa. If Yorkshiremen did glamour then he was the pin-up boy…

Now 67 years of age and boss of UK Sherco importer MRS, his blond locks may be a distant memory, but he still looks in great shape and is as matter-of-fact as only a Yorkshireman can be.

“Morning Seamus,” he says. “You’re getting a gut on you!”

Cheers Malc! Good to see you too…

There’s a stereotype of Yorkshire people being blunt, straight-talkers – that ‘I say what I bloody well like and like what I bloody well say’ sort of thing – and Malc certainly ticks a lot of boxes in that respect. Not that that’s a bad thing. I’d rather hear an honest opinion than have smoke blown up my arse any day of the week.

“I’m Yorkshire born and bred and proud of it,” he says. “I was born in Otley, lived at Timble, went to school at Fewston which is a village near Timble. Otley School of Learning after that until I was 15 and then joined the Forestry Commission where I did a bit of everything for seven years. Fencing, draining, planting, felling – and it was good for practice. That was the best bit of it. You could spend your lunchtimes on your bike.”

We’re sat in Malc’s office in Bishop Thornton which can’t, as the crow flies, be more than 15 miles from his birthplace. Timble and Fewston are even closer and pretty much everywhere you look is prime trials country. Addingham Moorside and Pately Bridge are nearby, the towns of Yeadon and Guiseley are a stone’s throw away and then there’s Silsden – seat of the Lampkin clan – just down the road.

This is the heartland of UK trials and, born into a motorcycle-mad family, Malc was destined to ride although the path he’d take – trials or motocross – wasn’t as clear cut.

1980 Malcolm Rathmell caillich
Malcolm Rathmell (349 Montesa) in the 1980 Scottish Six Days on Calliach – © – Iain Lawrie, Kinlochleven.

“I’ve not really had a choice – bikes, bikes or bikes! I used to get a bollocking at school because first thing in the morning you had to write about what you did last night and five days a week I wrote ‘I rode my bike last night’. That was it.

“My dad Eric got me a rigid Bantam of my own when I was about nine which I put into scrambles trim and I scrambled that around a field for a couple of years.

“My father started riding local trials after the war and when I was a kid there was always a bike there so I’d siphon petrol out of his car and ride whatever bike was available. He was big mates with [TMX trials correspondent] Barry Robinson and Barry always had a bike or a couple of bikes stood in our spot. We lived in a cottage in the middle of fields and woods so it was ideal for spending time on bikes.

“Half the Ilkley Motor Club used to leave their bikes up at my father’s spot so there was always something there to ride. Whoever was daft enough to leave their bike there with petrol in got it used.”

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Malcolm Rathmell’s factory Montesa Cota 349 in 1982 by ace photographer, Barry Robinson

Eric was heavily involved in the Ilkley club and Malc was roped in at an early age.

“Dad was Clerk of the Course for all the Ilkley events and had a pillion on his Ajay so I spent my younger years doing laps of the Ilkley Grand National course and the Scott course on the back of him carrying a bag of flags. When he stopped I’d run off and stick a flag in.”

I once did say that Graham Jarvis was arguably Britain’s best ever trials rider who doesn’t have the surname Lampkin. However, after running through Malc’s record I reckon I got that wrong!

Malc’s won the British title six times, taken the same number of Scott Trial wins and won the SSDT twice. He was also European champion in 1974 – the year before the series was upgraded to world status – and for seven years, from 1971 to ’77, was never out of the European/world top three. Add to that his 11 world round wins and it’s an impressive tally.

But it was motocross – or scrambling – that a young Malc was most interested in.

“I was more into scrambling and most weekends we went to a local scramble. My dad used to do Tony Cook’s bikes. I think he was Yorkshire Centre champion a couple of years. He used to come up every week and have his bikes done – I think my dad had more interest in scrambles than trials.

“But both my mum and dad insisted that I learned to ride a trials bike because if you can ride a trials bike you can ride any bike. I went from a Bantam to a 150cc Triumph Terrier and then I got a Greeves Hawkstone when I was about 14 or 15. I had my own private scrambles track so I was there every night and Tony Cook used to come up Saturday mornings.”

After a shrewd deal to upgrade his machinery, Malc was then given the chance thanks to Pete Edmondson – father of former world enduro champion Paul – to get his hands on his most competitive bike so far.

“I swapped the two or three bikes I had for a C15 BSA which I rode for about six months and then I got the chance of a Tiger Cub from the brother of a butcher in Otley who helped me a little bit. He’d had a lot of problems with it and it had gone back to the factory because they’d forgot to drill some holes in the crankcases for the oil to return.

“So this came up in Pete Edmondson’s shop in Otley and with it having all these problems it was cheap so I cashed the BSA in for this Tiger Cub. Eddy gave me it on a glad and sorry – glad I bought it, sorry I can’t pay for it – which helped me for six months as I paid for it as we went along.”

Malc made his competition debut in a Bradford centre trial and in his first national – the Clayton Trial – when he was still 16 he beat Sammy Miller, the reigning British champion.

Despite this early success he was still more passionate about scrambling and started racing when he was 17.

“I had some decent rides on the Cub and got a bit of help from Henry Vale at the Triumph factory for a couple of years. In among all this the butcher that I spoke about had a Greeves scrambler which he never hardly rode so he lent me it.”

“At that time you did trials from the Scott to the Scottish and you did scrambles from the Scottish to the Scott. So Eric Atkinson – that was the butcher in Otley – lent me the bike for that summer.”

“You couldn’t ride until you were 16 so I did a full year of trials and then when I was 17 it was half trials and half scrambles and I went all right on this Greeves. Triumph was just finishing then and I needed a trials bike so Pete Eddy said that Bill Brooker down at Greeves was looking for someone up here to ride. We jumped in Eddy’s car, went down to Thundersley and came back with a 250, a 360 and a trials bike. That was a good trip.”

After riding for Greeves in 1968 and ’69, he signed for the Bultaco factory in 1970 for motocross.

“I did my first GP that year in Spain. At that time they only had one bike so they sent it over here for me to use and then for the Spanish Grand Prix I had to fly it back with me as hand baggage to Barcelona. I just wheeled it across the Tarmac. That’s how it was, it was a different world to what it is now. I don’t think I’d even to drain the petrol out of it.

“I didn’t do a full series – some clashed with events like the Scottish – and I did a couple the year after but I was doing mostly trials by then. I rode 250 British championship in 1970 and finished sixth or seventh, I can’t remember.”

Malc didn’t score any GP points but back then they were only paid out to 10th and among his competitors were riders of the calibre of Joel Robert, Sylvain Geboers and Roger De Coster. So while it wasn’t an earth-shattering debut it was a firm foundation to build on – but he was being steered in a different direction.

“It was old man [Francesco] Bulto who got me to change back to trials. Sammy Miller was about to retire and I think Bultaco wanted someone to replace him and because I was riding not bad in trials they picked me.”

What Malc doesn’t mention is that in between racing 250 GPs he also finished that year’s European Trials Championship in fifth, despite only competing in three rounds.

So for 1971 he alternated between motocross and trials – with plenty of success in both disciplines – before returning to trials full-time in 1972.

“My best scrambles results at that time were two thirds at one meeting in the British championship and I’d also won a couple of national trials. I suppose it was 50/50. My results were probably a bit better in trials but scrambling was more enjoyable. I should probably have continued with scrambling. With trials it happens, with scrambling you make it happen. Who knows?”

Malc was second in the 1971 Euro trials series. The same year he won the British Experts with a broken wrist sustained at the Scott Trial – where he’d also broken his ankle – and carried this form into the 1972 season when he was again second in Europe and claimed his first British title.

1973 Bultaco Malcolm Rathmell
SSDT winner in 1973, Bultaco Motorcycles made full use of the win to publicise their product world-wide – Photo: Bultaco Motorcycles

After taking his first SSDT win he slipped to third in Europe in 1973 and tried to get out of his Bultaco contract in favour of another iconic Spanish marque. Fortunately he failed and went on to win the European Trials Championship – “it was actually the Euro/American championship, the only one ever” – and begin a run of three consecutive British trials titles.

“I nearly changed [in ’74] because I’d been approached by Ossa that year but I did have a three-year deal with Bultaco. It was a very vague sort of deal – more of a handshake. I did have a bit on paper and it was only right that I stayed there in the end. I did try to get out of the contract but, fair enough, luckily it didn’t work because I went on to have a great year with Bultaco and left them to go to Montesa on good terms.”

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Malcolm Rathmell in the 1975 Jack Leslie Ellis Trial on the prototype 348 Montesa. Photo copyright: Barry Robinson

Malc’s switch to Montesa wasn’t widely regarded as a smart move but his experience, talent and technical knowledge made him an ideal choice for the Spanish factory as it looked to expand its range of machinery.

“I started in ’75 on Montesa with the late Jim Sandiford. The job was to make the Montesa better. I went there as a development rider on the understanding that they didn’t have a bike – they had a 250 but they didn’t have a big one – so my job was to make a bike.

“I spent quite a lot of time down in Spain and we worked with five and six-geared versions. I rode with six gears all year until the last round.”

Malcolm Rathmell World trial 1975
Malcolm Rathmell (Montesa) watched by Brian Higgins at the World Championship trial, Bristol in 1975 – Photo: Mike Rapley

The last round of the first-ever world championship was unbearably tense. For its inaugural year the series had visited 14 different countries but riders could drop their six worst scores and coming into the Czecho finale it was between Malc, Mart Lampkin and Yrjo Vesterinen.

Malc had won three rounds, so had Mart and Vesty had won four. The title was balanced on a knife edge but the Montesa factory had a surprise in store for its star rider.

“Pedro Pi was team manager then. They insisted on taking the bike back after Germany to go through it. I’d ridden the six-speed all year but they brought it back for Czecho and they’d put a five-speed box in it.”

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Malcolm Rathmell (Montesa) on Laggan Locks in 1977 SSDT – Photo: Iin Lawrie, Kinlochleven

Mick Andrews won the trial with Malc and Mart tied for second. When the number of cleans were counted Mart just edged it which gave him the title.

“I don’t know if they’d brought the normal bike back whether I’d have won it or I wouldn’t have won it – it’s no excuse, it was the same bloody bike anyway. We had the fastest trip back from Czecho ever – we were home for breakfast!”

Malc’s still got four prototypes with different frames, engines and gearboxes that eventually became the production 348. Montesa’s decision to hand him a five-speed version for the final round may or may not have been flawed but its choice of development rider certainly wasn’t and the 348 became the biggest-selling trials bike of all time.

After staying with Montesa in ’76 and ’77 – finishing second and third in the world – he was lured away to join Suzuki and became the highest paid trials rider in the world. Unfortunately, the bike wasn’t nearly as good as the pay cheque…

Great shot of Malcolm Rathmell
Malcolm Rathmell in full control of the Suzuki, which he found uncompetitive – Photo: Mike Rapley

“In 1978 they wanted someone to ride Suzuki and I suppose everyone was hoping the Japanese were going to come in with a trials bike. Kawasaki were trying at the time and Honda so the Japanese were having a go and it was an opportunity to be involved with it.”

Suzuki importer Graham Beamish handled the two-year contract which had a one-year get-out clause on both sides and, after a season that saw Malc slip to 14th in the world, both parties were thankful for it.

Definitely Malcolm Rathmell
Malcolm Rathmell on the Beamish Suzuki takes a flying dab – Photo: Mike Rapley

“We worked with Mick Whitlock to try and sort the frame out. Everything was wrong with it to be honest but having worked with Montesa I knew there was nothing that couldn’t be put right if we’d had the gear.

“With Mick we made new swinging arms, new frames – changed all the geometry. We copied a Montesa frame and god knows what else but it just didn’t work together with the engine and to get stuff done for the engine was impossible but Graham was absolutely brilliant and we remained good mates long after that.”

Used to working with a European manufacturer, Malc found himself becoming increasingly frustrated as he struggled to make the Suzuki competitive.

“The biggest problem was I’d been used to slipping over to Barcelona if I needed to do any work on it and with Japan if you wanted something changing it was three months and by then half your championship had gone.

“You went to Barcelona and got the welder out and got the hacksaw out and you did it. The downside was you’d be ready to go training at 9am and the bike wouldn’t be ready. So you’d wait and wait and by 3pm it would be ready – and then everyone would go to lunch! You wouldn’t start your day’s testing until 5pm.

“It’s still the same now – I think that’s just how the Spanish are – but they were great to work with. Just a little bit different from Yorkshire.”

So for 1979 he went from being the world’s highest-earning trials rider to one of the lowest…

Rathmell SSDT
1979 Scottish Six Days Trial – Malcolm Rathmell on the 349 Montesa – © -Jimmy Young, Armadale.

“Montesa had taken someone else on so there wasn’t a place but they’d do me a bike and bits and a bonus system. I won the Scottish and some world rounds so I thought it was a good time to sort things out and got another three-year contract with them.”

Finishing fifth in the world, Malc also won his fifth British title but after a decade at the top his star was waning. He won his final British championship in 1981 but slipped out of the world top 10 and needed a back operation. The following year he called it quits, returning once to ride the Scott in 1983 when he finished fifth.

Together with wife Rhoda he bought a hotel in Grassington and prepared to settle into retirement but even if he thought he’d finished with trials, trials hadn’t finished with him.

“The first weekend we opened it was the world trial at Pately Bridge so we were full of riders. We had 42 people staying. We had Bill Wilkinson behind the bar, Don Smith serving on.

“All the Spanish Federation team would come back to stay between the England and Ireland world rounds. We even had Jordi Tarres staying in the car park. They used to ride their Montys around the square and cause havoc.”

Like all sportsman of his calibre, Malc openly admits that throughout his career his prime motivation was winning but his Yorkshire pragmatism kicks in when I ask him whether he regrets not winning the 1975 world championship.

“Not at all,” he replies without a moment’s though. “It doesn’t bother me. I did what I had to do at the time and that was it. What you win you win and what you don’t is gone. I’ve no regrets about that at all. If you don’t do it you don’t do it. It’s your own bloody fault isn’t it…”

Double act!

Malc on Mart…

Malc and Mart, Mart and Malc. To say the pair were the best of mates doesn’t do justice to a profound friendship that lasted for over half-a-century until Mart’s untimely death in April this year.

Martin Lampkin LL 1977
Great friend of Malcolm Rathmell was the late Martin Lampkin seen here on his factory Bultaco on Laggan Locks in 1977 at the Scottish Six Days Trial – Photo: Iain Lawrie, Kinlochleven

“We first met in some beck or puddle in the early ’60s when he used to go with ‘Sid’ [Alan Lampkin] and ‘Ping’ [Arthur Lampkin]. He was too young to ride but he used to go with them to local scrambles and I used to go with Tony Cook so we crossed paths. We didn’t really know each other besides mucking about together.”

Their friendship didn’t really start until they began competing in the mid ’60s but their fierce rivalry (motorbikes, dominoes, cricket, darts – you name it, they wanted to beat each other at it) was rooted in mutual respect and, dare I say it about two Yorkshiremen, deep affection. For a time they even went into business together…

“In 1971 we started a coal round. We needed something to do when we weren’t travelling. Trouble was the customers when we were in Spain didn’t think it was a right good idea when they had no coal for three weeks so we had to take a bloke on.

“We did it through one full winter but it was in the summer when we were away that the trouble started. Daftest thing we did was buy another round – we couldn’t do one properly so we thought we’d have another.”

The pair had a totally different approach to riding with Malc’s finesse contrasting with Mart’s bull-in-a-china-shop style but both were hugely successful.

Naturally, as mates do, they also got into a few scrapes along the way and Mart was always the one to spin out a great yarn from their adventures including Dougie’s favourite story about the time the cream of British trials talent decided to stage a boat race.

“We were in the middle of a lake in Finland – Dave Thorpe [not the motocrosser], Rob Edwards, Mart and myself. I was in with Rob and Mart was with Thorpey in these two boats and we rowed out. Thorpey knew I couldn’t swim and had planned with Rob that he’d pull alongside, Rob would pull the bung out and leap in with them and they’d row off.

“Mart had got a 400-18 inner tube that he was sat on so just as the boat was disappearing he was going to chuck me this tube which he did do but only after I was sat there for five minutes waiting for the boat to sink. He was always telling that story, only he could make it last for three hours.”

Malc’s got a few anecdotes of his own, including the time Mart felt the long arm of the Spanish law.

“Me, Sid and Mart were in Barcelona one night and we’d had a few sherbets and were semi-lost trying to find our way back. Me and Sid found a wheelbarrow so I jumped in and Sid started pushing me – next thing I see Mart’s on this pushbike, riding round us singing ‘rain drops keep falling on my head’.

“All of a sudden this copper comes out of a bar, gets his truncheon out and whacks him hard across the back of his head. Mart had nicked his bike!”

Life after riding:

A brief update…

After six years running the hotel Malc and Rhoda were ready for a change.

Bristol Dirt Bike Show 1991, Jack Mathews, Mike Rapley and Malcolm Rathmell
Bristol Dirt Bike Show 1991, Jack Mathews, Mike Rapley and Malcolm Rathmell

Malc had stayed involved in the sport, managing the Yorkshire Inter Centre team and in 1989 he was training the ACU’s under 21 team which included Rob Crawford, Steve Colley, Graham Jarvis, Wayne Braybrook, Adam Norris and Rob Warner. His approach was ahead of its time with regular physical evaluations at Liverpool University and a bonus system for riders.

Then, at the 1990 British world round at Merthyr, he was approached by an Italian with a proposition that would change the course of his life.

“I came out of the hotel about seven o’clock in the morning and this bloke got hold of me and said ‘are you interested to do Aprilia?’. They were looking for someone to do trials and a little bit of enduro and that’s how we got back into it. We got a few bits of product and then Graham [Jarvis] came to live with us and it all started again.”

Scorpa followed in ’93 and, thanks to this association with Marc Teissier, when the Frenchman revived the famous Bultaco name that quickly evolved into Sherco it was Malc who he wanted on board.

Highlights

The best bits:

The historical importance of the Scott Trial can’t be under-estimated. The time and observation event – the toughest one-day trial in the world – is over 100 years old and Malc has been involved with it for more than half of this period.

From his early days helping his dad mark out the course to winning it six times to helping Graham Jarvis win it a record nine times, the Scott Trial remains close to his heart.

“I think my Scott wins are the highlight of my career. You’ve got to be organised and prepared – if you’re not 100 per cent then forget about it.”

Graham’s trials riding career is briefly documented earlier in this month’s magazine and Malc gets an even briefer mention as his mentor. No insult was intended – the feature is about Graham’s life after trials – but perhaps this is as good a place as any to flesh out their relationship a little.

It’s clear that Malc is very proud of the way his protégé has risen to the top of extreme enduros after moving to Yorkshire to live with the Rathmell family as a teenager.

“Graham stuck it out and there were times that I didn’t think he would. He got some stick but he always came back for more. He was semi-knackered when he left us. He had two knackered knees and a knackered back. I think everything he’s done now he learned from the Scott Trial.”

While Graham undoubtedly benefitted from having Malc in his corner, he also gave Malc the opportunity to once again travel the world with – more often than not – his old mate in tow. He doesn’t mention him by name but I’m guessing Mart’s on his mind as our interview concludes.

“I can honestly say I enjoyed every minute through my riding career and through Graham’s. It was good because I did it all again. It was like we had a second lap of everything.”

Who is Sean Lawless?

Sean spent over a decade editing publications including MXUK, Dirt Bike Rider and Trialsworld magazine.

After moving into event media for, among others, the Red Bull Pro Nationals, Goodwood Action Sports at the Festival of Speed and the Monster Energy Arenacross Tour, Sean turned freelance and is now Motocross Editor for Trials and Motocross News.

A regular contributor to magazines around the world, Sean’s interviewed some of the off-road world’s greats from Dave Thorpe to Ryan Dungey to Yrjo Vesterinen.

Specialising in off-road motorcycle sport, Lawless Media UK is run by Sean Lawless.

This article is the intellectual property and copyright of Sean Lawless/Lawless Media UK

 

 

1979 Malcolm Rathmell (Montesa)
Trials Legends – Malcolm Rathmell (Montesa) 1979 SSDT – Photo: Colin Bullock

♠ Trials Legend – DIEGO BOSIS (Italy) 1967 – 2012:

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Photo by permission and copyright: Pupi Alifredi (Italy)

Born on 19th October 1967, Diego Bosis was one of the top flight International trials riders in the 1980’s and 1990’s. He was victorious in the Trial des Nations with the Italian Team consisting of Bosis; Renato Chiaberto; Carlo Franco and Donato Miglio in 1987.

He originated from Bergamo, commencing his riding career at aged 12 in 1979 and won the 50cc Italian (Cadet) Championship at the age of 15 and again at 16. Bosis was encouraged by his father, Giacomo.

His world championship debut was in 1984 when he came in fourteenth position. His best world trials championship season was undoubtedly, at aged nineteen in 1987 winning the USA round, the first Italian to do so. He finished the 1987 season in second place to Spain’s Jordi Tarres (Beta).

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Diego Bosis (330 Montesa) on Mamore in the 1986 Scottish Six Days – Iain Lawrie, Kinlochleven.

Diego was Italian Trials Champion on ten occasions, he was also runner up in the world championship in 1987 and 1990, he was third placed in 1989, 1991 and 1992. He was probably best known as a Fantic factory rider.

Bosis retired briefly in 2006 and worked with the FIM Trials Commission from 2010 to 2011 assisting with section design for the World Trials Championships.

Diego Bosis'92 WTC
On board the Fantic at the 1992 World Round at Fort William (Glen Nevis) Photo: Iain Lawrie, Kinlochleven

In his career, Diego rode Fantic, Aprilia, Beta, Gas Gas, Sherco and finally Montesa.

Having spoken at length to Trials Guru’s John Moffat at the 2010 World round at Fort William, Bosis was prompted and ultimately delighted, to compete at the centenary celebration edition of the Scottish Six Days Trial in Scotland in May, 2011 just nine months before his untimely death on 14th February 2012, he suffered a cardiac arrest.

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On the Montesa 4RT at the Italian Championships in 2011 – Photo copyright: Pupi Alifredi (Italy)

At the pre-trial procession for the 2012 Scottish Six Days, James Dabill (England) read out a very moving tribute to Diego Bosis, which resulted in rapturous applause from the many hundreds of spectators in down-town Fort William, Scotland.

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Diego Bosis 1967 – 2012 – Photo copyright: Pupi Alifredi (Italy)

♠ Trials Legend – Nigel Birkett (England)

Nigel Birkett
Nigel Birkett (Montesa 348) – Photo: Mike Rapley

 

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Nigel Birkett (Sandiford Montesa) at the 1980 Loch Lomond Two Day – Photo: Jimmy Young

TRIALS FOREVER

It’s amazing that some people over a lifetime never change their train of thought. Cut Nigel Birkett in half and it’s trials all the way. Bill and Ada Birkett soon found their son Nigel was, from a very early age, inquisitive about anything mechanical he could find in his father’s coal yard at Broughton-in Furness. As with many young kids back in the day, their fathers would soon find them a motorcycle to ride and in Birkett’s case it was an ex-GPO (Royal Mail) James he would ride around the yard. The eight year old loved it and soon his thoughts would be how to make it go faster and riding it off-road. He would touch on scrambling, as it was known prior to motocross, before finding his way into trials riding. This was the start of an enduring relationship with the sport of trials as both a professional rider and importer and one he is very much involved with to the present day.

Words: John Hulme

Pictures: Yoomee Archive – Toon van de Vliet – John Shirt Snr – Nigel Birkett

His early recollection of the James was of how good it was in a straight line but it took him quite a while to master going around corners. Various other ancient British machines followed and by the time Nigel was thirteen he was competent enough to win his first schoolboy scramble, riding a home-converted 80cc Suzuki.

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Nigel Birkett was a ‘schoolboy scrambles’ rider to begin with

He still owns the winner’s plaque to this very day. He remembers the race well as there were only four riders but they were all mounted on superior machinery and it was a spirited win, shall we say, as he battled his way to the front with his elbows and feet coming to good use.

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Pressing on with the Dalesman, Nigel Birkett was a talented scrambles rider in his youth

That first race though had ignited some fire in his young belly! Knowing the young Birkett was happy to work on motorcycles his father purchased a previously crashed 125cc Yamaha two-stroke single cylinder machine. He soon took about the task of converting it into something which resembled a ‘Pucka’ scrambles machine. He rode it and was constantly modifying it and over the next couple of seasons he won many events mounted on it. His father loved his son’s passion for motorcycle sport and then purchased for him a 125cc Puch Dalesman which was a proper scrambles machine and he finished second in the British Schoolboy Championship.

He still remembers the ‘scrambling’ years with his late father as some of the best years of his life as they both just loved it. He entered the senior ranks and made a very good rider. He still believes he had the ability to make it as a scrambler but when he took up trials riding to keep fit in the winter he showed outstanding natural ability. He still wanted to ride in scrambles though as this was his real passion.

Crooks Special

The trials adventure though which would bring him success started way back in 1969 as a fifteen year old schoolboy. On leaving school he progressed, with his parents blessing, into the hands of Barrow Motorcycle dealer, the late Eddie Crooks, to serve his apprenticeship. Crooks was well known as a guy who supported many famous road racing names and was a regular podium finisher in the Manx Grand Prix for many years and won the 1959 senior race achieving lap and race records in the process. He had also tasted the off-road scene in the International Six Days Trial.

In 1963 Crooks Suzuki became one of the first authorised Suzuki dealers in the UK. The shop is still in the family with son Martin who took over at the helm when his father died in 2010. The high speeds of road racing never attracted Nigel but from working on the many racing machines and in particular the engines he soon turned the tricks of the trade he was rapidly learning to his own advantage.

In the upstairs store room at Crooks Suzuki a B120 model which had seen many parts removed from it over a period of time became the donor machine for the first trials project. Crooks Suzuki employee, Frank Whiteway, was well-known in road racing circles but soon noticed the young Birkett’s enthusiasm for learning the mechanics of a motorcycle and afforded all his knowledge and support for the new trials project. He was a fantastic help to Nigel and he remembers the times in those early days with much fondness. The frame was modified for its trials use and a pair of Metal Profile front forks was attached. A fuel tank from another Suzuki model, the AS 50, was also used. Frank then used his knowledge as the young Birkett helped to build up a trials version of the Suzuki Trail Cat motor using a piston from a Super Six road machine to improve its performance. The new Crooks Suzuki was a revelation and Nigel took the Centre trials competitions by storm. In 1971 at the age of seventeen Nigel took the Crooks Suzuki special to the Scottish Six Days Trial which began a love affair with the SSDT that’s still there to the present day.

Trials It Is Then

Eddie Crooks then gave him an Ossa trials machine and Nigel just missed a Special First Class Award in the 1972 ‘Scottish’. He was to have one final season in motocross riding a 250cc CZ and a 400cc Suzuki, but it was not very successful and he reluctantly decided that perhaps his destiny lay in the trials world after all. At the back end of 1973 he decided to switch disciplines and concentrate his efforts purely in trials. Focusing on the trials scene he was soon rewarded with some results, including top five finishes in the all-important Nationals.

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1973: Manx Two Day Trial on the Ossa– An event he would later win in the 1980s

He enjoyed riding the Ossa and applied some of his new found knowledge on making the machine better. During the first half of the trials season in 1974 the results continued to improve and Kawasaki team manager, Don Smith, noticed this talent and he was offered a works Kawasaki. Smith was involved with Alec Wright and the Kawasaki off-road team who wanted to hire a rider who would show the machine’s true capabilities.

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1974 on the Ossa

He had his first competitive ride on the ‘Green Machine’ at the Allen Jefferies trial in Yorkshire and was rewarded with a fine sixth place and Kawasaki was impressed. He was asked to do four World rounds and it was made clear that he needed to score a top ten finish and secure a point (before the official FIM WTC was introduced in 1975 only the top ten were awarded points) to keep the ride for 1975. He failed to make the points but finished in the top fifteen in Sweden, Finland and Czechoslovakia but rode well enough to claim tenth place in Switzerland and score that vital point. His trips to the events were the first time he had ever left England and gave him a taste of how life could be as a professional trials rider but then Kawasaki pulled the plug and it all ended on a sour note. Kawasaki cut their budget and tried to renegotiate their contract with Nigel and his team-mate, Richard Sunter, on a machine and parts basis with no World Championship events and no financial support which they both declined. Nigel was very unhappy with this situation as he had left the job at Eddie Crooks to work in a nearby Hovercraft factory at Millom. When he explained he needed time off to go to the World rounds he was told there would be no job when he returned! He had dreamt of earning enough money to ride trials full-time and now he had no job and no trials machine. So it was back to Crooks and the Ossa with Eddie smiling on the very green Birkett. He started again on the Ossa and found his old faithful easier to ride than the works Kawasaki and saw the season out with reasonable success.

 

5
On board the Ossa in 1974

‘Works’ Suzuki

Then came the run-in to the 1975 Scottish with Nigel contesting the BTC and Nationals and wondering whether the Ossa was up to the six days when Graham Beamish phoned Eddie Crooks with the offer of an RL 250 Suzuki for the event. Birkett was not that excited over the prospect of riding another Japanese machine after his Kawasaki experience. He rode the 250cc in one club trial just before the Scottish and was still unimpressed with the Japanese machinery.

6
Testing the prototype Suzuki in Japan

But a couple of days before the SSDT, Beamish rang again to say that the 325cc machines had arrived and did Nigel want one instead of the 250cc? He said yes without really expecting anything special and he expected less when he first saw them. They looked awful but when he fired it into life he got the biggest shock of his life as it sounded incredible. He did not acknowledge it at the time but Suzuki had pulled a winner out of the hat with this new engine. It had fantastic but usable power and would ‘pull’ the high gears like a tractor! He and team-mate John ‘Mecca’ Metcalfe briefly practised on the machines before heading to the Scottish in very high spirits.

7
Testing the prototype Suzuki in Japan

On day one the aluminium fuel tank split and Nigel wrestled with it for what seemed like ages and various parts dropped off but it was all put right that night in the Parc Ferme and he was in an incredible sixth position. On day two Nigel tightened the crankshaft flywheel nut which was working loose and locked it with a centre punch on its thread as he climbed into third place. At the close of day three Birkett had moved into second position just one mark behind leader and World Champion, Yrjo Vesterinen, and the Suzuki was running like a dream. The Japanese mechanic who had been sent to keep his eye on the two works machines was so excited that he insisted on trying to get Nigel and John Metcalfe to bed early! On day four though the challenge for the win was over as Birkett parted with too many marks and the motor in the Suzuki went ‘off tune’.

8
In Japan with team mate John ‘Mecca’ Metcalfe

He finished the event in eighth position convinced that the motor had a problem. He later found out that one of the reed valve petals had snapped off and gone through the motor like a dose of salts without touching anything. Suzuki had demanded a full report and made some thicker reeds immediately. Beamish-Suzuki, who was the off-road importer for the Japanese company, came up with a new two year contract for him. A brand new improved 325cc Suzuki was supplied.  Again he went to Europe to contest World Championships but this time he moved straight into points scoring positions: Sweden sixth, Finland sixth, Switzerland second, Czechoslovakia ninth and Germany eleventh, finishing the year in eleventh position overall in the series.

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British Trials Championship action on the 325cc Suzuki

Back home young Birkett continued to deliver the results in the BTC and National events. He was third in the Southern, third in the Hoad, won the Perce Simon and second in the Dick Farquharson.

Professional Rider

He carried the good form into 1976 when he won the Vic Brittan and Kickham National trials. His run ended just before the Scottish when Nigel had a big crash riding between the hazards at the Victory trial which resulted in a very bent rider and machine. A physiotherapist got him more or less sorted out in time for the Scottish but he was still badly bruised and far from match fitness for such an important event but he still managed to finish eighth. He and team-mate John Metcalfe were frequently trying different versions of basically the same machine. Metcalfe beat Nigel in the 1976 Scottish when the two were trying different rear suspension set ups.

Essentially Metcalfe’s worked well and Birkett’s did not. Then Beamish-Suzuki came up with a brand new modified 325cc. It was the one with the rear shockers sharply angled on struts from the swinging arm. Nigel didn’t like it but he still managed a splendid win in the Mitchell trial, the third round of the British Championship. The victory was no way for Nigel to prove his point but the fact was that he still felt far happier on the previous model. He eventually persuaded Graham Beamish to build a compromise for him. It was the 325cc with the old type rear end and the latest front end with an extra half a degree outwards on the steering head angle and it worked like a dream.

This machine formed the basis of the production Beamish Suzuki RL 250S. His three year Suzuki deal entered its final year in 1977 and they began to use the superb Mick Whitlock framed machines with the 325cc motors housed in them. This was effectively the last year of development before production but they had been three good years for Birkett. He had established himself as a professional rider with excellent development knowledge with lots of ability and commitment. That final 325cc Suzuki was a fantastic machine and totally different to the production Beamish Suzuki machines that were due to appear but he was told that they would not be renewing his contract. For 1978 Suzuki had invested heavily in Malcolm Rathmell to ride the new Beamish Suzuki trials machines.

All Change

It was all change in 1978 as Montesa importer, Jim Sandiford, offered Birkett a contract to ride the Cota 348 which at the time was a very popular machine. He really liked the new challenge and also his new machine. During a busy season he took many National wins as well as scoring some points in the WTC. For the SSDT a new pre-production 350cc model promised so much but he was plagued in the early part of the week by electrical problems and he was very disappointed with his fourteenth place finish. The ignition stator plate retaining screws were too long and when he thought the plate was safely in position it would move slightly, affecting the ignition timing. It was day four, Thursday, of the six day week before they traced the problem.

When the production Cota 349 arrived he hoped it would be as good as everyone expected but it was in fact very disappointing. In truth the wheelbase was too long which meant it gripped well but would not go around corners. Such was Birkett’s concern that he tried to make a Cota 349 look like a Cota 348. Montesa importer Jim Sandiford knew the importance to the buying public to see supported riders doing well on production machines and was not happy at all with the situation. His highlight of the year on the Cota 349 though was third place at the World round in Holland after also scoring points in Ireland at the opening round. Apart from these good rides his other results were not so good and in the August it was made clear to Birkett that he would not be renewing his Montesa contract for 1980.

The new white Cota 200cc was launched and Sandiford decided to mount Nigel on it for the remainder of the year. He was a revelation, winning two British Championship rounds, the Red Rose and the Travers and also taking fifth place in the tough Scott trial. The interest to sign the popular Cumbrian rider initially came from Italjet and also Sandiford but another Italian manufacturer, Fantic, knew that Birkett could achieve excellent results on the smaller capacity machines and they decided he would be the ideal pilot for the 200 model.

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1980 World Trials Championship – On the 156cc Fantic in Spain

He loved the new Fantic and scored some very consistent results including a sixth at the SSDT. His form had suffered in the WTC with the 156cc engine not proving powerful enough in the Fantic for the tough hazards. In August the new 240 model Fantic arrived and later in the year he took it to a fantastic second place in the Scott trial setting standard time.

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1982 British Experts on the 240 Fantic

He carried on through 1982 with the 240 model before the relationship deteriorated and he decided to look for pastures new. He was friends with John Shirt Snr who had heard that he was unhappy with the Fantic situation and sent him a 250cc ‘S’ model Majesty to try. Nigel decided that the Fantic situation could not be resolved and moved to the Majesty team run by Shirt Snr for 1983.

Turning Japanese

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1983 World Trials Championship – Britain: The start of the Yamaha years on the superb Majesty 250S

As fate sometimes plays a hand he ended up once again back on Japanese machinery. Shirt had hinted to Birkett that Yamaha may have a new trials machine coming along and that if he was on his Yamaha powered Majesty machines, maybe he could become involved with the development. It was in the February that ‘Shirty’ called Nigel to see if he would go to Japan to test the new machine for Yamaha. He was sworn to secrecy and had to sign a twenty page confidentiality agreement! He knew from his previous experience with the Japanese that producing trials machines was not their forte but when he witnessed the new revolutionary machine it blew him away. He spent nine days testing different variants of the new machine. Its single rear shock absorber system would change the world of trials forever.

14
1983 Scottish Six Days Trial with the Majesty 250S

He returned full of enthusiasm for the new machine and rode the Majesty until he debuted the new machine in the Jack Wood National trial near Sheffield. The crowds flocked to see the machine in action and it was only pilot error in the last section of the day at the top of ‘River Kwai’ which he attacked in the wrong gear that cost him the win. The Yamaha mono-shock gave Nigel a new lease of life.

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1984 at the SSDT with the new monoshock TY250S.

His maiden win was at the Travers but he set a new record in trials when he won the 1984 Scott trial, the first ever win for a Japanese machine in the tough Yorkshire event. He continued with the machine for the next ten years before the water-cooled TYZ was launched. It was good but nothing like the air-cooled version he first saw in 1983. He decided to make his own machine utilising the TYZ engine and components and the ‘Birkett’ machine was born.

15
April 1983, testing the prototype mono-shock Yamaha in Japan.

The idea was to build a rolling chassis kit where riders could upgrade their older machines but nothing became of it, or so he thought at the time. French motorcycle manufacturer, Scorpa, had shown an interest in the ‘Birkett’ machine around 2000 and in 2005 he became the official UK importer for the brand.

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The Yamaha TYZ powered ‘Birkett’ trials machine

This proved a success story in its own right and in 2011 he also added the Spanish Ossa brand to his business interests. Nigel is still very much involved in the modern day trials scene, sponsoring the young riders on both Scorpa and Ossa. He still continues to ride in the SSDT having started way back in 1971, has never missed out any years and has also finished all the events. He still competes and enjoys local events on a regular basis. Motorcycle trials have been very good to Nigel Birkett and no doubt it’s still a case of “Trials Forever” for the foreseeable future.

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John Holland  (left) with Nigel at the SSDT – Photo: Heather Mead Photography, Dingwall

Birkett Moto Sport

Nigel Birkett: “After the work with the Majesty mono-shock Yamaha projects I wanted to put something in place to secure my future employment and opening the trials shop in 1987 seemed to be a natural progression. I met my wife June in 1985 and we got married in 1990.  We have two children, Zack and Paige. We term the shop as a family business as both June and I work in it. Besides supplying many spare parts, clothing and accessories, I am also the official importer for Scorpa which I took on in 2005 and later Ossa in 2011”.

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Nigel Birkett at the 1990 Scott Trial on a 250cc Gas Gas
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Scorpa Importer – Nigel Birkett

 

Special thanks to John Hulme of Trial Magazine and Classic Trial for the use of his article on Nigel Birkett.

Nigel Birkett in pictures:

17
1984 Scottish Six Days (Yamaha)
18
1986 Scottish with John Dickinson (left) and Chris Myers (crouched)
19
1986 Scottish with fellow Cumbrian, Ian Abbott (left)
20
1988 Scottish with the Yamaha TY250R
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Scorpa Test Day for Trial Magazine with Nick Shield (Left) and Phil Disney (Right) – Photo copyright: Trials Media/John Hulme
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2013 Scottish on Laggan Locks with the Ossa TR280i – Nigel Birkett has been riding the SSDT since 1970 – Photo Copyright Trials Media/John Hulme
27
June & Nigel Birkett run their business, Birkett Motorsport at The Old Woodyard, Foxfield Road, Broughton In Furness – Photo Copyright: Trials Media/John Hulme – http://www.birkettmotosportukltd.co.uk/

Birkett Motorsport website: HERE

(All photos copyright – world-wide)

More ♠ Trials Legends to follow this summer on: Trials Guru – Dedicated To The Sport

 

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