My Grade 5 teacher, whom I rather liked, wrote home to my mother in an evaluation report that I was very bright but “somewhat accident-prone.” A mere 22 years later, I still cannot whistle, play any sport (how ironic) or musical instrument (doubly ironic), or drive a car. I can’t solve a Rubik’s cube, either, but I can name any font you show me, win any home game of Name That Tune, and write. Yet it was only five years ago-- at age 28-- that I learned to ride a bike, if this can be imagined. I have made up for lost time, becoming, among other things, an expert on year-round cycling, and I am an avid follower the Sport of Kings (and of some Queens), trialsin.
Yes, trialsin, or observed trials, or bicycle trials, in which the object is to ride your bike over, through, and across an obstacle course without putting your foot down. Trialsin hopped into my life semi-epiphanously when I happened to catch less than 30 seconds of TV coverage of a European competition in which Ot Pi cleaned up. I could not bloody well believe my eyes-- a typical response, I might add.
But, you see, very little information on trialsin is available to the average enthusiast. It is the most obscure of the cycling disciplines, and one of the more low-profile sports worldwide. Here in Toronto, for example, we boast actual Australian-rules football clubs but no trialsin groups (though that has changed, as you will see). I’d only ever seen trialsin committed before my very eyes at bike shows, at one of which I interviewed trials pro Hans Rey. After scouring the airwaves for years, I have a collection of a mere 30 minutes’ worth of TV coverage of the sport. Yet I am a rabid enthusiast.
I subscribe and contribute to the MTB-Trials mailing list, and one day motormouthed Left Coast trials potentate Robin Coope posted:
This is the official announcement of the Toronto Alley-cats Scramble trials contest, AKA the Canadian Indoor Championships.
- Where: Warehouse at Yonge and Sheppard, Toronto
- When: April 25, 1998, 5pm to 9pm
- Format: Probably 3 sections x 3 laps, maybe four sections.
Right now we have about half the number of people we can accommodate, and there is about C$1700 in prize money on the line. Entry is free, and this also gets you in to see the Alley-cat race itself (the figure-eight velodrome) and a whole bunch of bands. Also, beer is cheap and good.
Judges: Alain Yong and his brother have volunteered to judge, but we need two to four more. If anyone else is interested in judging, let me know. For this you get free entry, free beer, and a free T-shirt.
Aha. Judges. Heck, I’m fair, and am always calm in other people’s emergencies. So I immediately dashed off a snatchmail to Robin asking for a judging slot. I wrote exactly what I was thinking when I finished my E-mail with "I don’t have a thing to wear." I didn’t. Ideally I would emulate Vernon Reid of Living Colour in sporting superfly Kawasaki pants to the event, with maybe my Esso shirt up top and cherry vegan Doc Martens.
But we do not live in an ideal world. I was despairing for my fashion statement, and beginning to wonder whether my judging would end up just as questionable, when I went for a sashay along the high street on garbage night and happened across a handbag. Rather, the handbag, the quintessential Platonic ideal of a handbag, big and pink and vinyl, with black straps and accents and taupe satiny insides and enough pockets for Mrs. Peel to store her beauty case with compact and hairbrush, GPS receiver, cellphone, traveler’s mah-jongg ensemble, lorgnette, spare nylons, snakebite kit, chewable B complex, Yahoo!® Visa® card, Sélection du Reader’s Digest, honeydripper, citrus zester, lotion corporel White Musk®, rosary, Filofax®, Vatican postage stamps, additional FedEx waybill, portable abacus, skate key, potpourri sachet, zarf, IUD, trail mix, lemon Perrier®, SX-70, talc, needle-nose pliers, Montblanc with peacock-blue ink, calling cards, Les parapluies de Cherbourg DVD, and shuriken. Tinky Winky’s handbag looks like Anne Shirley’s demure clutchpurse by comparison.
The very possibility of one-upping Tinky Winky made the prospect worthwhile. All right, I thought, now I have a reason to live. If I can’t find Kawasaki pants in my size by the weekend, I can at least breeze in cutting a much more femme swath than any of the courier grrrlz present, all of whom would be dressed, behave, and smell exactly like their skanky brethren. A string of costume pearls was briefly considered but adjudged to clash with chest hair.
As soon as l’homme Coope confirmed my slot in the judging squadron, and after I had found local sources of spools, pallets, and planks for him, I set about rustling up media coverage. The Alley-cats Scramble-- “totally sponsored by Dunhill," which also paid for trials riders’ transportation, accommodation, and prize money-- is a mass-marketed countercultural event in which couriers from various cities race on a custom-built over-and-under figure-eight wooden velodrome. While that’s happening, the worst and loudest hometown bands strum and whack their hearts out on a nearby stage.
I have better things to do than experience a glazing of the eyeballs watching messengers chase each other over a figure-eight track; I don’t bother chasin’ mice around.
Still and all, I must say that advertising for the Alley-cats Scramble (sic: perverse corporate orthography) is (typo)graphically sophisticated and cheeky, going so far as to picture the winner of the ’97 (and ’98) Toronto Scramble, Dirk Dijkhuis, riding away from us on his bike, giving us a better look at his manly Lycra-cosseted arse than his face.
The whole schmeer smacks of prepackaged rebellion and the mainstreamed underground. That isn’t something to lose sleep over: Middle-aged male music executives have generations of fine-tuned marketing strategies for selling teenage angst and nonconformity, and none of us should be surprised when other sectors learn the same tricks.
The ’98 event, having taken Toronto and Vancouver by storm the year before, cost a reputed half-mil to mount and very much included trialsinists as an afterthought. In effect, we were the sideshow to the sideshow. As a voyeur, I thought my Über-étranger angle would be of interest to various media outlets, including Big Life, Eye Weekly, The Inside Track, Newsworld Sports Journal, and even the mighty Toronto Star. My pitches went like this:
On April 25 here, within the mildly ridiculous spectacle known as the Alley-cats Scramble, a trials course will be set up as part of the nascent official Canadian trials circuit. As such, it won’t be an exhibition event, and none of the riders considers the event a joke. That, of course, is part of trialsin’s image problem on this side of the pond: If we see it at all, it’s grouped with so-called extreme sports (skateboarding, BMX, vert skating) or is presented as a sideshow to a sideshow, as at the Alley-cats Scramble. I’m set to be one of the trialsin judges there, which is a wee bit ironic, since I only learned to ride a bike at age 28 and cannot do even a trackstand, let alone any of this trialsin stuff.
This gives me a bit of an outsider-in-an-unknown-landscape vantage point that might make for an amusing piece. I’m suggesting a diaristic treatment. What happens when a sport seen as legitimate in Europe can grab a toehold in Canada only by allying itself with a pseudo-sporting event populated by skanky, widely disrespected courier types and funded by a tobacco conglomerate?
Though the story would be first-person, I’d get to interview the trials riders and the couriers and the spectators and find out who is and isn’t taken seriously-- and who’s more alternative than whom. Extreme sports are being relentlessly marketed by mainstream companies-- in fact, the ESPN2 cable channel in the States was set up mainly to present alleged sporting events of alleged interest to the tween generation-- but have not benefited from much credibility as actual sports. Trialsin, having been lumped in with that group, is saddled with breaking free of that image and getting past the preconception that anything the Europeans like (badminton, bobsleigh... cycling) we would not.
The Inside Track turned me down, citing lack of space; in reality, the producer also questioned my ability to produce a radio doc, even though I presented the piece as something they could cover with my being merely a source at the event. Newsworld Sports Journal had no access to a camera on a Saturday. No response at all from the rest-- typical professionalism in the Toronto media demimonde.
I vowed to press on regardless.
The night before the event of the century, while lying swathed in Mickey Mouse bedsheets with the cat glaring at me accusingly, performance anxiety hit. Holy smokes: I’d be placed in the position of judging the performance of superbutch bruiser trialsin dudes (trialsinistrixen are exceedingly rare) when I cannot manage a wheelie. (And I call myself civilised.)
The day finally came. I sucked in my courage yet chickened out with the wardrobe, settling on the Esso shirt and white jeans (which I knew would look like crumpled newsprint by the time I finished bumping into dirty obstacles). No purse: I brought the Trek courier satchel instead. Tinky Winky won this round.
I made my way to the venue and walked in. The venue occupied about 1/3 of a surprisingly undrafty Loblaws warehouse with all the ambience of the root cellar of a Turkish prison. While waiting to clear the guest list, a security goon asked if he could check my bag. “I just walked in the door and you want to check my bag?” “Yeah.” “I’m going to see if I’m on the guest list first. Then you can check my bag.” The goon and his friend, unaccustomed to anyone bigger than their girlfriends talking back at them, were flummoxed. I was not, in fact, on the guest list, but the conciergeuse let me in anyway. The goon then “checked” my bag, meaning he felt it up for the presence of booze rather than taking it away and keeping it aside until I left. I told myself to calm down.
The trials course was easy enough to spot, but it appeared deserted. I interrupted a massive hirsute man at the tattoo table reading a science-fiction paperback to ask him to mind my purse. (I wished there were a bag check.) I asked around for Robin Coope. No dice. Various Ramones wannabes engaged in noise pollution. I looked over the course’s three sections.
Robin was located. Even though I was late, I was the first judge to arrive and threatened for a while to be the only one.
Shortly a fresh-faced blond feller on a superspiffy Mongoose bike began hopping through the trialsin course. Fabulous clothes, strong legs, and an altogether stunning fin-de-siècle techno-biker look. Two other judges showed up, Dave Jirku and his brother. Dave and I chatted for a second; I took him for some kind of university whippersnapper.
Robin mentioned that various of the trialsin dudes were due in from a demo in Milton momentarily. Stacey, Robin’s girlfriend unit, vixen and webmistress, appeared habillée in fetching overhauls. Alain Yong-- the other judge and a mailing-list mainstay-- also appeared shortly. Robin and Stacey were then able to walk us through the sections (Robin, being Superboy, was able to climb and hop through most obstacles on foot; I spazzed out and simply watched) and gave us a crash course in trialsin judging. The goal in trialsin, as in golf, is to finish with the lowest score, though the number of cleans (sections traversed with zero points) and time taken to complete a section also come into play in settling tie scores. You start with zero points. Setting your foot down, a dab, nets you one point. Pretty much every infraction incurs one point, actually, except scrubbing your foot against a section (two points) or the more serious infractions (in and out of the course; both feet off the bike; riding out of bounds), which net you five, the maximum points per section. (Dab, clean, and five are also verbs: “Jesus, did you see Ryan clean that section? Three times! Cripes! I dabbed twice and fived the third time. I don’t know why I bother.”)
This was a lot of information to assimilate, and suddenly all the riders had appeared. I recognized the lovely and talented Mr. Richard Belson of Pointe[-]Claire, with his delightful nose and highly especial neck, and Ryan Leech, the teen prodigy who is a better rider already than anyone who knows him ever will be. Greg Forrest and Kevan Shaler from Vancouver were present; the blond kid turned out to be Lance Trappe from “deepest, darkest New Jersey.” (“Who’s the blond chick?" “That’s Lance Trappe’s girlfriend.” “Not for long she isn’t.”) Tom Jakab from Victoria was contestant number five, and the only one with anything resembling a physique. Pretty much every muscle you’d ever hanker for was tightly contained in Tom’s clinging, ratty jersey and shorts.
I sidled up to Lance and then Tom and did my stewardess routine (“Hi, I’ll be your judge for today. Coffee, tea, or beer? Would you like the chicken or beef? I’ll bring your order shortly. This is a non-smoking flight”), and both of them bought it, God love ’em.
For those of you who weren’t present, the physical appearance of our trialsin competitors may be mysterious, despite my occasional details. So let me offer some correspondences from the world of cinema. (No-tables version)
|Special for intellectual cinéastes!|
|Kenickie (Jeff Conaway) “You’ve got a lot to offer a girl”||John Milner (Paul Le Mat)||Pilgrim (Jan Fedder)|
|Danny Zuko (John Travolta)||Wolfman Jack (“as himself”)||Capt. Lt. Phillip Thompson “I wanted to screw my brains out tonight, but I’m not in the condition to fuck”|
|Rizzo (Stockard Channing)||Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) “Wimps get all the snatch”||Ullman (Martin May)|
|Tom Chisum (Lorenzo Lamas)||Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford)||The Captain (Jürgen Prochnow)|
|Moi||Principal McGee (Eve Arden)||Terry Fields (Charles Martin Smith) “I’ve been feeling sick recently, and that type of activity can really be hard on a guy”||Correspondent Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer)|
|Robin Coope||Mrs. Murdock (Alice Beardsley)||Steve Bolander (Ron Howard)||2nd Lieutenant (Martin Semmelrogge)|
While the lads were changing into their competition clothes (out in the open, in front of everyone, forcing a greater degree of immodesty than most of them would have liked), Robin told Lance to stop pre-riding the course. Stacey handed out our judging gear, comprising a hole-puncher, a digital stopwatch, a Sharpie® marker, and a plastic pill bottle on a chain containing a strange semisolid. “Our own vial of cyanide!" I exclaimed, the only judge with a sense of humour at that moment. No, she said, the vial contained earplugs, which turned out to be quite necessary, though I, in my nervous-nelly safety-freak way, was the only person to wear them.
We were also instructed how to punch 0, 1, 2, 3, or 5 on each rider’s vinyl scoretag (the score of 4 wasn’t even an available option on tags, deriving as they did “from the country that gave us Franco," in Robin’s words; 4 points counted as 3 in this meet) and instructed to Sharpie each rider’s score and time on Bristol boards attached to each section.
I was assigned to Section 2, the toughest.
I managed to flub my first contestant, Kevan Shaler. Some talentless band was pegging the VU meters a short distance away, and it was impossible for Robin to simply yell out “OK, start!" so everyone would be synchronized. I scored Kevan’s section correctly but missed the first few seconds of his time. But I caught up fast, I must add. There was some concern about what exactly constituted riding out of bounds; Robin himself couldn’t give a cut-and-dried explanation. Apparently it has something to do with the axle of a wheel heading outside the taped-off boundary, not the edge of the tire. (It was also not entirely clear if judges were permitted to steady wobbly obstacles for riders, though it did make sense to heed Ryan’s request to move a parked bike out of his way.)
My section ate riders for brunch. Ryan cleared it three times, surprising no one, impressing everyone. It isn’t enough to say Ryan makes it look easy; he makes it invisible. Ryan does not ride an obstacle course, he simply rides his bike. There happen to be obstacles in the way, which cause him as much disturbance as a neutrino whizzing through the earth. Not only that, he moves fast enough that I could barely keep up with him through the course, let alone watching exactly how he cleared the twin spools.
My heart went out to the other four riders, who struggled pathetically with the Spools of Death. It’s easy enough to jump into the first one, but getting out of that depression (in every sense) and into the second spool baffled everyone. Richard painstakingly glued one foot to his Monty and felt around with the other one, seemingly pulling groin muscles in so doing. He stood this way for upwards of two and a half minutes, and his exploring leg started to spasm after 30 seconds. I thought tears might next. On his second pass through that barrier, he turned around and asked whoever was behind him (except me: I sure didn’t know) how the hell to get past the two spools. No one had a plan.
Most riders fived on each pass through Section 2, though Tom managed the unlikely feat of fiving twice and cleaning once, which Robin did not quite believe. (It happened. I saw it.) And Tom is a man who rides trials with SPDs, though I’ll get back to his nonconformity in due course.
The spools and their discontents brought out an unexpected dimension of trialsin. Three of the five riders (Ryan, Kevan, and Greg, plus Robin) are technically part of Team Norco, but here in the real world it’s apparent that a trials team is a greater oxymoron than a wrestling or a gymnastics team. To paraphrase Helen Reddy, sometimes trialsin feels like you against the world. When you’re riding a section, you are utterly alone. Ain’t no one can help you. (If you want a support system, shut up and go race cars.) If you get in trouble, you have to get yourself out of it or give up and take a five.
Get yourself stuck and your embarrassment will be magnified because in all likelihood you’ve practised and learned trialsin by yourself. Trials, after all, is an obscure sport, and in most towns it’s quite easy to be the only rider. Or maybe your trialsinist friends don’t share your schedule. Trials is largely self-taught. You are a self-made rider. And you can be unmade by a pile of scrap lumber or an ugly old rock.
Yet the course is likely to be packed with people (outdoor trials events often have queues of cyclists waiting to ride a section; then there are judges, spectators, and hangers-on), and many eyeballs are focused on you. Don’t think for an instant that you can get through this thing unnoticed. Five it or clean it or anything in-between, the fact remains you’re still a worker ant under the magnifying glass on a hot sunny day.
Trialsin is to mountain biking as filmstrips are to cinema. Come to a halt while riding through a trail or down a hill and you lose momentum or crash. Come to a halt in trialsin and you can’t even put your foot down; you’re forced to balance for whatever length of time is necessary. If you’re really lucky, you can rock back and forth or cycle to and fro a few measly thumbwidths, but don’t expect any favours. Mountain biking is a continuous thrill; trialsin’s pleasures alternate stop-and-go with pain. Your trials riding is an experiment in 3-D time-lapse photography. The psychological symbolism is extreme: Hop over one obstacle and the next one might knock you all the way off your bike. All hail Sisyphus, trials pioneer.
The competition ended. Naturally, Ryan won:
- Ryan Leech: 1 point, 8 cleans
- Lance Trappe: 14, 2
- Tom Jakab: 26, 3
- Richard Belson: 26, 3 (unclear if Tom’s times were faster)
- Greg Forrest: 43, 0
- Kevan Shaler: 45, 0
Hairless milky flaxen Javexed argent snow-capped Lance Trappe cooled off shirtless, clutching his equally milky flaxen Javexed argent snow-capped girlfriend’s hand and chatting amiably, as if ready to drive home the Stars and Stripes in a nearby tract of land. His charm was adorable. Ever found yourself in a mixed crowd of Canadians and Americans when the two countries’ anthems are played? The Canadians might stand-- might-- if they’re patriotic or Tory. But the minute "The Star-Spangled Banner" plays, all the Americans present immediately spring to their feet, whack their palms onto their chests like Audio-animatronic mannequins, and sing lustily along. Well, hey, guess what: Lance did the “correct" thing and took a moment to give me a little wave or nod before starting each section, sort of like gymnasts bowing to the judges’ table after a routine. I was touched. It’s like having a 40-year-old call you sir. It strikes a humble Canadian as the undeserved homage it is, accentuating the charm.
Robin hammily MCed an awards ceremony. Cheques for actual cash money (though not always a lot) were handed out. Shit was shot. I revealed in confidence that I toyed with the idea of bringing along a tiara and sash, placing both on the lucky winner à la Patrick Stewart in Jeffrey and optionally breaking into song. Who was man enough to say he would have worn the tiara? Lance Trappe, come on down!
Eventually the group consensus pointed to dinner. We picked our way through the Saab-, Jetta-, Seville-, SUV-, and Pontiac-strewn parking lot surrounding this “underground" event en route to the official rental van. The lads loaded their precious hardware into the cargo bay, then loaded themselves. “No way I’m doing a Princess Diana in that," I said, and bummed a lift with Dave Jirku in what I thought was his Mom’s Prelude. Nope, it’s his.
With Dave and his brother up front and Alain “Don’t get all medieval on my ass" Yong and I tandooried into the back seat, we tried to find a joint that would serve plain enough food to keep queasy Richard from hurling and normal enough food to keep the carnivores happy. My suggestion of the intersection of Yonge and Mel Lastman Square was a dud. Dave counteroffered with Yonge and Eglinton. But this was a Saturday night. How in hell would we find parking?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Dave, you see, is a bit of a wag, and he figures that if you’re strapped into his car you will jeezly well deal with his banter. Like how lame Wham is, or why it is that Alain and I know exactly which of the riders has shaved legs (I know why I know), or how Catholics and Christians are synonymous. Then we got into this big jag about the moral values of my generation (I’m 33) versus his (he’s 24 and doesn’t see a meaningful difference), with my position being that the young kids today wouldn’t hesitate to rob you blind or punch you out if they considered it necessary. Dave is a college dropout who works in high-level Internet backbone setup and maintenance, though he still lives with his mom. Dave unabashedly favours the Stone Temple Pilots (complete with makeup-wearing vocalist), and consequently was weirded out by Pulp’s "This Is Hardcore" overheard on the radio. (It’s cinematic, I tried to tell him. I needed a VCR and the dead-stunning music video to prove it, I guess.) It became apparent that Alain, named after some French film star despite being Chinese-Canadian, is more mature, clever, and agréable at age 19 than I sure as hell was, and more so than Dave is now.
All right. We followed the van. The first parking garage had a roof clearly too low to allow entry to the tough-guy Ford panel van. We spotted another garage around the corner, and Robin inched the van through the entrance only to find its roof scraping against the garage’s. Already 3/4 of the way in, he hit the brakes. Someone got out and pushed the garage roof a few millimetres out of the way. Robin bailed completely, and we all backed up the ramp to score another parking spot. After several minutes of backstreet prowling of the kind tediously familiar to any north-Toronto restaurant-goer, we found an aboveground lot with two open slots (and a parked Plymouth Prowler we ogled).
After a lot of negotiation and after walking past a number of suitable restaurants, with all the riders shivering in their bike-porn T-shirts, tank tops, and shorts, we landed at Koo Koo Roo, the California chicken joint aiming to annex Canada. Richard was still a bit queasy, also embarrassed that I had chummily made him sit across from me. I can usually follow multiple conversations, but the riders’ talk was more in-group than I could handle. Alain, Dave, and Dave’s brother seemed to fit right in.
I asked Tom Jakab (he’s Hungarian: It’s Yakab, not Jacob) how he got the broken front tooth, one of which I also have. (Warning: Do not lean against the staircase of a playground slide with your elbows barely touching the banisters, because you will fall forward and wreck an incisor.) Tom chipped his own tooth doing a trials move. Apparently trialsin is a class issue. Tom’s a drywaller, not a university student or intellectual. He was the only B.C. rider present who wasn’t part of Team Norco. Golly, why is that? I had asked Robin at the venue. Well, Robin said in that lèse-majesté way he sometimes has, there are other qualities a rider needs in order to be a team member. I inferred that such qualities exclude smoking, a blue-collar job, lack of a university degree for an adult rider, a snaggletooth look with a hearty smoker’s laugh, and use of unofficially stigmatized clipless pedals. (Like suspension, there is no overt prohibition of SPDs on the books, but real trialsinists don’t use them, do they, now? Here I side with Dave, owner of a front-suspension steed: Ride what you’ve got.)
We returned to the Alley-cats Scramble later on. Alain’s brother showed up with the family car. Dave mellowed somewhat in his Prelude, and we discussed his next job. Since he hates the winter, maybe he should try for Austin, Texas, I advised. The lads returned, suited up, and put on a few demos for the largely disinterested crowd. Ryan fell of his bike uneventfully a few times. “He even bails gracefully," I said to Robin, who ignored my irony and responded with deadly seriousness that bailing gracefully is a necessary skill. Yes, Robin, of course.
As my pal Miss Adrian pointed out, there were more people over 40 in the audience than at a singles’ bar.
The day ended, and I spent the better part of a week depressed. I sent this explanation via snatchmail:
Last Saturday, I adjudicated at the Alley-cats Scramble trialsin meet, as most readers will be aware. Very enjoyable and relaxed while it was happening, despite the deafening punk-rock music playing nonstop. Yet surprisingly, now I feel a piquant postpartum depression, of the sort one experiences après une soirée passée avec un amant bouleversant. Or, perhaps more aptly, as in the Space: 1999 episode in which Moonbase Alpha passes a strange planetoid that endows everyone on the base with telekinetic abilities. Yet as the two celestial bodies’ paths irrevocably diverge, Alpha loses its collective and singular telekinesis, and everyone must slowly readjust to a life without a power, a strength, a pleasure, and an extension of the senses they had never enjoyed before.
Well, it took me a month, but you have now read the reportage.
I am also putting my money=time where my mouth is and have formed a Toronto trialsin posse called Rock & a Hard Place. There’s been some discussion on the mailing list about judging, and I wonder now if it is too much to imagine a future in which trialsin develops a coterie of experienced judges who travel from event to event. If you can’t beat ’em, judge ’em.
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Posted 1998.05.31, 02:22 ¶ Updated 2003.12.01