Trials Riding Then and Now :: Max King

I’ve just re-read a book that I’ve had for some time. Its simply called Trials Riding, but I doubt any of you have heard of it. It was written by Max King and published in September 1955.

The reason I want to share it with you, is that it gives a wonderful insight into how things were in those days, and to show how much and yet how little things have changed.

Max wrote the book because he felt there was nothing for the aspiring rider to turn to for advice.

He starts by explaining what trials is, the risks and costs, the enjoyment derived from taking part, and the tremendous sense of accomplishment from getting it right.

The first thing to consider is what type of bike to buy. Trials were very different then. There were long distance trials of about 300 miles and short distance events of about 30 miles. The long distance events involved observed hills and special tests spread far and wide, and keeping to a time schedule was paramount. The shorter events involved more sections and possibly several laps. Then there were also events such as the Scottish Six Days Trial and Welsh Two Day Trial which sort of fell in between.

So the choice was either one of the heavy 350 to 500cc four stroke bikes available, or one of the lightweights of 125 to 200cc, which were mostly two stroke. The former were much more suited to the long distance events and the latter to the short trials. In addition very often the bike had to double as daily transport, where again the four stroke was better. Whether two or four stroke, trials bikes were very little different to the sporting model road bikes from which they were derived, and it was often left to the owner to make further modifications to them. The lack of suitable machinery also encouraged many riders to build their own homemade specials. A further consideration had to be given to the new idea of the “spring frame”. Up till then all bikes were “rigid”, i.e. no rear suspension. The majority were sceptical of the benefits of the new technology, and it wasn’t until the increasing success of spring frames could no longer be ignored, that they were convinced otherwise. Very often the bike was ridden to the trial, the lights and other bits removed, and all put back again for the ride home after the trial.

The next topic covered was what to wear, and here it must be appreciated that the author is only concerned with England and their weather. Clothing had to be weatherproof, against wind and rain, and not easily torn, and allow for reasonable freedom of movement and have large pockets. In addition allowance should be made to wear several jerseys underneath on cold days. The typical thorn-proof Barbour suit was popular, but many riders opted for full length overcoats or flying suits. The choice of headgear was apparently much wider. The popular choices were gaudy woollen Tam-o-shanters and sleeping hats with funnel like ends with tassels, while more conservative riders opted for peak caps, berets and ski caps. Crash helmets were not compulsory and few riders wore them. Goggles were often part of the attire as they were needed for riding on the road, and often helped keep the headgear on. Stout leather boots were the recommended footwear although they were not waterproof and difficult to keep in good condition. The author favoured the Barbour suit, and under it he wore flannel trousers and a shirt with a collar, and a tie. Although he mentioned there was a lot to be said for wearing the tie, he unfortunately didn’t elaborate on it. The ride home after a trial had to be considered as often the rider would be wet and cold. Stuffing newspaper under the jacket was a common and very effective way of providing some insulation that could be easily discarded afterwards. Very few riders had the luxury of a car and trailer, a van, or pick up.

The next topic was what tools to carry, bearing in mind even the short trials were long by our standards. This is what Max King recommended carrying; a pair of pliers, a Mole spanner, some common sized double ended spanners, ring spanner, tyre levers, puncture repair kit, a pump, a rivet extractor, spare chain links, a spare footrest nut or spare footrest, a small screw driver, a length of soft wire, rubber bands, a plug spanner and a spark plug. Hence the need for a jacket with pockets! Often spare cables would fixed in place so that in the event of one breaking, the replacement could be quickly swopped.

Scoring was somewhat simpler then. Footing (once or more) scored three marks and stopping got you a five. This was later changed to 1, 3, 5, so as not to unfairly penalize a rider for just one dab.

Resolving ties was done by means of a “special test”, of which there were many types. The Brake test consisted of a short downhill section on loose ground between two lines. Riders started at the first line and freewheeled to the second line where they had to stop, and the quickest time resolved the tie. A single prod was allowed to get moving, but thereafter any footing would result in disqualification. A similar test was the Acceleration test, also between two lines. Here the rider had to first start his bike then ride to the second line in the shortest time. Yet another was a combination of the first two, the rider having to turn the bike around after the brake test then get to where he started in the shortest time. There were others too, but I’m sure you get the gist of it. Good advice was given in the book on how to tackle various types of sections, while acknowledging that the rider’s ability, suitability of his bike, and his temperament will play a large part in his performance.

This advice is no more true then as it is now:

  • ride with someone experienced,
  • practice regularly,
  • progressively push your limit,
  • be patient,
  • persevere,
  • gain confidence, and
  • be modest in your success.

While the author acknowledges that trial riding cannot be learnt from a book, I’m sure his book may have helped many riders make good choices, which is what he wanted.

So next time you go out on your modern trials bike with all the gear, spare a thought for those pioneers of our sport. We wouldn’t be where we are today without them.


Member for

8 years
Sounds like a fun read, can I make a copy Brian as it is probably out of print.. I lost 2 trials books in the fire that I am really bummed about..