On your bike, son – family bonding on a motorbike
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When speaking to my son, I try to avoid sentences that begin with the words: “When I was your age…” on the basis that it eliminates the need for him to roll his eyes and start thinking along the lines of “Who gives...?”
But once in a while you discover that your children are not simply indulging you in sharing a particular, long-held passion but have been drawn to it as a result of their own genuine interest. Such was the case with my own son Cosmo, who (entirely of his own volition, I promise) recently became hooked on trials riding, a once-niche form of off-road motorcycling that’s now enjoying a cult following among extreme-sports fans.
My obsession with it began at 13 – exactly my son’s age now. My hero was a middle-aged, slightly chubby individual called Don Smith. He had jet-black hair cut in the pudding-bowl style and mainly rode in mom jeans, a waxed jacket and a fisherman’s sweater – usually with an unfiltered cigarette hanging loosely from his mouth as he coaxed bikes up rock-strewn streams, through muddy ruts and over the fallen trunks of giant trees on his way to major victories at home and abroad.
As many champions do, he retired and wrote a book. It was called Ride It! The Complete Book of Motorcycle Trials, an early copy of which I spotted in the window of a west-London car accessories shop while cycling home from school. It was strongly priced at a fiver, and I spent many an anxious moment worrying that it would be secured by another trials fan who was also trapped in the concrete of the metropolis instead of being out on a wind-blasted moor practising his bog-crossing technique on an off-road motorcycle.
I guess, however, that no such kindred spirit existed in my part of town, because after many weeks of saving (this was 1976, by the way) I was able to secure the display copy of Smith’s book, which emerged from the window with its cover faded by the sun and gently draped in the gossamer threads of a few fly-strewn cobwebs.
Despite having neither a bike nor anywhere to ride one, I proceeded to study and absorb the book’s contents with an intensity that my teachers would not have believed me capable of. I spent hours and hours marvelling at the freeze-frame black-and-white smudges of Smith practising by hopping his Kawasaki KT250 over the top of a Coca-Cola can without touching it with either wheel – and then doing the same thing with a 40-gallon oil drum laid on its side.
My son’s trials-riding heroes are cut from a rather different cloth. Today they have cool names such as Adam Raga, Adrian Guggemos and Toni Bou and wear brightly coloured skintight outfits that follow every contour of their finely honed bodies; their bikes and kit are often emblazoned with the ubiquitous Red Bull logo; they are almost invariably light-hearted and handsome and, when off-duty, they post Instagram shots of themselves lounging with their smoking-hot girlfriends in the Mediterranean sun.
I won’t deny that I did somewhat steer Cosmo towards motorcycling. I bought him an 80cc Yamaha scrambler when he was, er, three, and, by the age of six he was “flying solo”, having mastered the art of kick-starting and come to terms with the nuances of clutch and gearbox.
But it was only at the start of the first UK lockdown in March this year that I found him trawling eBay for trials bikes for sale. My own 250cc Sherco model was sitting in the garage and, seeing as we were set for weeks of confinement at home – where we’re fortunate enough to have a few acres of land that makes prime trials-riding territory – we settled on a used but handy 125cc GasGas for him.
It was money well spent. We whiled away much of our free time throughout the summer honing our riding skills, creating and uncovering new “sections” in what was formerly a large area of badly overgrown and unmanaged woodland, maintaining our bikes in the workshop and, when it got too dark to ride, taking inspiration from the almost supernatural skill displayed by Bou, Raga and co on their social media feeds. (A typically eye-popping clip shows Bou accelerate from a standstill in a rocky river bed, launch himself onto the top of a vertical, 3m-high rock and pogo on the back wheel while contemplating his next move – watch it.)
For my part, trials riding with my son has got me back into an activity that I have always loved, which actually demands very little space in which to practise, a relatively small outlay to get started (£1,500 gets you a decent second-hand bike) and which is easily as effective for keeping fit as a serious gym session.
For Cosmo, meanwhile, riding a trials bike has not just provided fun and exercise but, subconsciously, enhanced his strength, concentration and sense of balance as well as teaching him to face fear (try riding a bicycle off what looks like just a small, vertical drop to find out why), to constantly push the boundaries of his skill and to understand how to look after and fix machinery.
And, while I appreciate why most responsible parents prefer to keep their children away from motorcycles for as long as possible, there’s one thing I’m certain of – I’d far rather see my boy blasting his GasGas up a muddy slope than twiddling his thumbs on an Xbox. For me, that really would be a trial.
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