Despite being a spectacular display of rider talent, observed trials has never gained the popularity of motocross, enduros, and other genres of off-road motorcycle racing.
The province of a handful of fairly boutique European manufacturers who build bikes in very limited numbers, it’s a sport that seems forever destined to reside on the fringes of motorsports in general along with other equally entertaining variations like hill climbing, speedway, and ice racing. In the 1970s, as the four major Japanese manufacturers ascended to record heights in number of units sold, each introduced specific trials machines in an effort to corral that market segment and thus boost overall sales.
By the end of the ’80s, though, several factors caused the Japanese to cede that fragment of the market as the numbers simply didn’t justify the effort or expense. The handful of Euro manufacturers once again took control of that small piece of pie.
However, it seems that a healthy motorsports field almost demands the participation of large manufacturers who can wield correspondingly sized budgets for competition in the name of advertising.
Enter GasGas. A relatively small manufacturer from Spain, it got its start by making trials bikes before expanding its product line to include enduro machines. After edging toward bankruptcy several years ago, some restructuring brought it back from the brink. Still, it remained a fairly small player in the grand scheme of things, especially in US market share.
Now enter KTM. Having expressed interest in buying GasGas around the time of the Spanish concern’s economic turmoil before being rebuffed, the Austrians found the company more receptive to a buyout and completed the transaction last year. This expanded KTM’s portfolio—having acquired Husqvarna some years before, of course—and the three-brand umbrella group took on a new name: Pierer Mobility AG.
Instantly, the move catapulted GasGas to the top of the trials heap when you consider unit sales combined with corporate financial strength.
With this year’s ongoing COVID lockdowns, however, arenas to showcase product vanished. Here in the US, for example, the entire AMA/NATC MotoTrials Nationals schedule was canceled along with such high-profile (for trials) events as both the Eastern and Western Youth Nationals/Women’s Open meetings. Only three stand-alone events remained on the trials calendar, at least when it came to those of national interest.
Thus, GasGas North America called a meeting and considered ideas of how to get exposure for its trials bikes in an era with limited competitive outings. Already, it had taken the unprecedented step of building an extensive loan pool of motorcycles then giving a testbike to every major enthusiast outlet for a long-term loan as manufacturers routinely do for motocross and enduro bikes. But a long-term trials bike? Practically unheard of. After all, small manufacturers relied on selling every bike they could make; having a number of bikes that could only be sold at the end of the model year after being hammered was a financial luxury they couldn’t afford.
Before long, it became apparent that someone needed to hold another high-profile trial. However, no one in these meetings could come up with a promoter or venue that could pull off said event on such short order.
Gradually, meeting attendees realized that GasGas itself would have to host an event. By drawing on corporate brothers and sisters at KTM and Husqvarna, staffing was taken care of. This included longtime GasGas rider and 10-time AMA/NATC Observed Trials National Champion Geoff Aaron, now the trials team manager who had extensive experience with running his own extreme riding shows.
For a venue, the company happened to have its Supercross and EnduroCross practice/test track facility, which happened to have a few vacant yards on the far edge. (Literally around the corner from the offices in Murrieta, California, employees could simply walk there on their breaks.) With some dirt and obstacles added, it just might serve the purpose. After all, Aaron’s shows were based around a specially constructed trailer, and the indoor stadium trials in Europe took place in fairly small arenas.
With everything lining up so perfectly, the Inaugural California Trials Invitational, presented by GasGas, got the green light.
“Trials is a segment that we haven’t been able to participate in [before],” KTM Group North America CEO John Hinz acknowledged. “We haven’t been able to be part of the trials community because we haven’t had a motorcycle that fits in with that group. With the acquisition of the GasGas brand, we now have an incredible product that we can engage with and engage with this community of trials riders, and we want to grow the sport of motorcycling in general.”
He continued, “We acquired the brand and we started to put together all the pieces for the business so we were talking to dealers, we were setting up our dealer network, production had started on the trials bikes themselves, and as a team we sat down and put together the building blocks that we know. We wanted a race team to showcase the GasGas brand in trials, so we brought Geoff on board; he’s our team leader, really, at this point for the GasGas brand. We put together our race team with Daniel [Blanc-Gonnet] and Maddie [Hoover], so we were set to go to our first trials competition, then everything got canceled. So we’re like, ‘Okay, what do we do now? We’ve got to promote the sport; we have this amazing product, we have this incredible brand, and what do we do?’
“I sat down with our team and I said, ‘We’re going to do what we always do—we’re going to lead. If no one else can put on an event or wants to put on an event, then we should do it ourselves,’ and that was actually how this event came to be.”
It took Aaron and Schaefer Tracks several weeks to complete construction of the course with its five sections, and Aaron came up with a perfect blend of challenges for seven of the top men and three of the top women in the country. The invitees included GasGas’ Blanc-Gonnet, Scorpa rider Karl Davis Jr., Sam Fastle on a Sherco, Alex Myers and his brother Will on Scorpas, Beta USA’s Alex Niederer, and Sherco-mounted Josh Roper. For the women, Sherco ace Louise Forsley, GasGas’ Hoover, and Scorpa pilot Kylee Sweeten comprised the field. None of the competitors got to inspect the course until the afternoon before, making it as even as possible for all.
In the end, Davis claimed the $2,500 winner’s prize for the men over Roper and Niederer with Forsley taking home the $1,500 women’s check over Hoover and Sweeten.
Echoing everyone’s sentiment, Roper said, “It felt really good to get back into the rhythm and get the feel of what riding competition is like [again].” And this was done, of course, with no spectators other than staff, minders, and invited media—with everyone asked to practice distancing and masking up, of course.”
Despite the limited on-site attendance and live coverage restricted to a few individuals with their social media posts, Davis declared, “This is a pretty prestigious event already. I think this is probably my biggest win; everything behind it was so much, so over the top. I think it’s exactly what trials needs.”
“We’re proud of how it turned out today,” Hinz remarked. “For us to do this for the trials community and showcase this part of motorcycling…that’s what this sport needs. If we can engage people and show them something they haven’t seen before and connect them with a new style of riding or a new trials motorcycle and potentially develop a new talent and help them in their other riding—off-road, enduro, hard enduro—as a way to practice, as a way to have fun, or potentially even eventually connect and come and compete at a high level, that’s what we want to do. That’s growing the sport and building the sport of motorcycling.”