Trials Torque Articles
The 30-Year Road to Producing a World Champion
An interview with father and son team Shozo & Takumi Narita
The 30-Year Road to Producing a World Champion
Japanese riders participated in world-level trials competition for the first time at the beginning of the 1970s. Thirty years later Japan produced its first world trials champion, shortly after hosting the first Japan round of the World Trials Championships. These two milestones fulfilled long-held wishes of the Japanese trials fraternity and led directly to the position trials enjoys in Japan today.
One father-and-son team is at the very center of this history. The father, Shozo Narita, strove to popularize trials from the sport's early days in Japan, while his son Takumi carved his name in the record books as the third Japanese rider to compete fully in the world championships and is now section coordinator for the Japan round. Over two generations the activities of this father and son in the trials field have brought Japan closer to the rest of the world.
Part 1 The Dawn of Trials in Japan
The Story Begins
When did the story of trials start in Japan? Was it in 1953, when a BSA trials model was first imported into the country, or in 1955, when the 2nd Kochi Prefecture Trial Race was held using road bikes? Whatever we take as the starting point, the word "trials" first appeared in Japan during the 1950s.
In the 1960s trials received a big boost in recognition and interest when Geoff Duke was invited to Japan to promote motorsports and gave the country's first real demonstration of trials riding. During a glittering career spanning the 1950s, six-time world road-race champion Duke clocked up an array of new records and achievements to become the motorcycling superstar of his day, but he began his riding career in the BSA trials team.
Trials really got its start in Japan when this road racing star demonstrated trials riding at promotional events that attracted the attention of motorcycle enthusiasts as well as manufacturers and other industry players throughout the country.
In those days Japanese motorbikes where still at the developmental stage and there was not even the merest hint of a specialized trials model - in fact off-road bikes didn't exist at all. Keen riders modified high-performance, small-capacity sports models with high-exhaust kits and rode around the wilds on these 'scramblers' adapted for off-road use.
Needless to say there were no textbooks on trials riding. Riders just learned from introductory articles in motorcycle magazines and gave this new motor sport a try. One of those young motorbike enthusiasts was Shozo Narita.
"In the early 60s, around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, I was riding motocross in the Tamagawa area," recalls Narita. "I entered a lot of events and was pretty keen. But even in those days my riding had a trials-type style to it."
This is what motivated Narita to choose trials, plus the fact that he worked in the family business. "I realized I couldn't afford to go too fast and injure myself." This serious-minded young man soon had the chance to learn more about trials.
In 1964 the Motorcycle Club Federation of All Japan (MCFAJ) held the 1st All-Japan Trial, based on the 1st Chubu Region Trial of 1959. Although grass-race type events had been held sporadically, this was the first officially organized national event.
Around the same time, magazines featured Sammy Miller and his bike. Hailing from Britain, the birthplace of trials, Miller had achieved the rare feat of winning the three great titles of the trials world: the British champs, the Scottish Six-Day Trial (SSDT), and the FIM European champs.
In 1965 he recorded the first-ever SSDT win to be achieved on a 2-stroke bike. Moreover, the machine wasn't even British-built - it was a Bultaco Sherpa made in Spain. By the time he retired from top-level competition in 1971, Miller had won the British Champs for 11 consecutive years, the SSDT five times, and the FIM European champs twice, establishing an unprecedented record and becoming known as "the god of trials".
"I first heard about Sammy Miller through magazine articles," says Narita, who entered the 1st Kanto Trial in 1970. "Until then I had been riding in MCFAJ-organized events, but the Kanto Trial was run by a bunch of people who were determined to lift the level of trials in Japan."
This inaugural event was held on a dry riverbed near the Hajima Bridge over the Tama River. The Kanto Trial was a full-series competition, held on riverbeds at the Hayato and Sagami rivers in Kanagawa Prefecture as well as the Hajima Bridge site.
The Hayato River site in the Tanzawa Mountains, now the site of the Miyagase Dam, became famous as a spot that attracted big numbers of trials riders because of its ideal terrain and huge area. Narita entered the final round of competition held at the Hayato River. Later, his pregnant wife would accompany him when he went to the Hayato River, and in due course his eldest son Takumi would play on its banks.
September 1972: Kawasaki began competing in the British Champs and other events with a 450cc bike.
All the Japanese bike-makers except Honda used 2-stroke engines from their trail and motocross machines, patterned on the leading models of the day, Spain's Ossa and Bultaco. The manufacturers also hired the top riders of the time as advisors in the aim of achieving high levels of performance.
Honda Bials TL250: Sammy Miller
Whether officially or unofficially, all these riders came to Japan to demonstrate riding skills, like missionaries preaching to willing audience. When Mick Andrews, known as "the magician of trials", visited Japan in 1972 he ran a Yamaha-sponsored trials school aimed at training riders and instructors. One of the riders who took part was Shozo Narita.
"That was where I first saw a floating turn with my own eyes," says Narita. "I learned a huge amount, including how to move your weight when turning on slopes so that the load shifted to the uphill or downhill side when riding on cambers."
Fundamental trials techniques now familiar even to beginners were virtually unknown in Japan at that time. The following year, 1973, Sammy Miller made the trip to Japan and did demo rides in places including the Honda research facility. At long last Japan was gaining exposure to world-class trials riding. Yamaha's ultimate aim in running the Mick Andrews school was to train riders for competition, and from that time on riders had the option of setting their sights on full-scale competitive events.
"I wanted to give a bit more priority to the fun side of trials, so I didn't end up signing a contract with Yamaha, but around that time Yasuo Manzawa came to me and said, 'Honda also wants to promote trials and is looking for people to help out. Why don't you give it a try?'"
Manzawa - who later made a name for himself as a motorcycle journalist - was a founding member of the Kanto Trial and had been friends with Narita since they met at the final round of that event in 1970. As a result of this conversation, Narita signed a contract with Honda's Motor Recreation Promotion Division.
Held over six days at the beginning of May each year in Scotland, the home of trials, the SSDT is an event of great status and tradition, with a history stretching back as far as 1909. A key feature of the SSDT is that anyone can enter, from top competitors to regular riders, with classes set by engine capacity. In the 1970s thirty sections were set out each day on a course averaging around 200km (these days the distance ridden is shorter, but conversely the sections have become more difficult).
Riding 1,200km over six days, entrants traversed a desolate wilderness of rocks and mud. The competition was generally tough, with riders facing relentless onslaughts from terrain, weather and temperature. It is no exaggeration to say that the SSDT tests every aspect of human ability, from technique to willpower, strength, intellect and courage.
Facing this challenge were three entrants from Japan on the just-released TL125: Narita, Manzawa, and Toshi Nishiyama, who had been the first Japanese rider to enter the SSDT, in 1970.
"We got an inn at the Hayato River to screen some 16mm film of the 1972 SSDT before we went to give us an idea of the event, but what we saw were sections that were harder than anything I had imagined, and spectacular scenery. To be honest, I started to get cold feet before I even left," recalls Narita with a wry smile.
The SSDT was the very pinnacle of trials competition, and even in those days it had been running for more than 60 years. For the Japanese riders, entering such an event when they had only just found out about world-class riding techniques was no mean feat. In the end Nishiyama made it into the first class in 100th place and Narita and Manzawa finished in second class. In any case, they all managed to complete the event. Yet they were acutely aware of the gap between their own skills and those they saw in the wider world that the SSDT exposed them to.
"The first thing I noticed when I actually tried riding the SSDT was my lack of strength," recalls Narita. "In 1973 it was held at the end of April and we had snow, and it rained every day. Perhaps it was partly due to the weather, but my strength didn't hold out. At one stage the young Martin Lampkin (who won consecutive SSDTs in the late 70s as well as two European championships) saw me tottering with fatigue and called out, 'Are you OK?' My lack of technique was a decisive factor. As soon as I entered a section I'd score a 5, then fall off right through the section. Actually someone shot film of me doing this, and it got screened on the Yamaha stand at the Tokyo Motor Show!"
Young Buds Wither
Just before the SSDT, the Japanese riders went to watch a local event that Sammy Miller was riding in. There they learnt about a kind of trial that was quite different from their own style.
"That was the first time I saw his riding, and it wasn't the gentle style that we had imagined - he opened the throttle wide and the mud flew off his tyres as he rode. The event was organized in an independent sort of way and everyone took responsibility for themselves. Riders just rolled up by the start time and when they had finished competing they headed straight home, or off to the pub for a drink. They didn't have meetings before and after the event like us."
The following year, 1974, Narita entered the SSDT again on the pretext of testing a TL125 fitted with a 145cc bore-out kit. Unfortunately he had to pull out on Day Six with engine trouble, but he gained a lot from the experience.
"I learned about the pride of being a trials rider, and the attitudes that go along with it. I also discovered the joy of overcoming problems and issues for yourself. I realized that this was the fundamental attraction of trials."
A mindset of tackling the obstacles in front of you and learning the techniques that give you the guts to face them: this was the very essence of trials. When Narita and Manzawa returned from the SSDT, they set about promoting trials from that standpoint.
That year Sammy Miller made another visit to Japan to do a catalog photo shoot and run a training session at the Hayato River. Needless to say, Narita and Manzawa were there too, but in a matter of a year their role on the local scene had evolved from pupil to teacher.
In the early 1970s trials had seen a huge boom in Japan, but interest waned surprisingly quickly. Japanese motorcycle manufacturers all seemed intent on promoting the sport - but now we realize that they had a slightly different focus.
In building a Japanese trials scene from scratch, a lot of attention was paid to the world's top-level riders, which created a tendency to become overly competition-oriented. The fact that most trials bikes launched onto the market were fully-fledged competition models ultimately narrowed the appeal of the sport for entry-level riders.
Honda welcomed Sammy Miller as an adviser in developing its competition-oriented TL250, but the weight of the 4-stroke engine and its large capacity limited the bike's appeal and it failed to gain the level of customer support anticipated.
Moreover, the promotional activities of Narita and others like him were often run at driving schools or for the police and self-defence forces. These people wanted riding lessons that emphasized practical skills, so the instruction became all about learning techniques from a safety perspective. Sadly, these "trials" lessons differed from genuine spirit of trials.
Market logic began to reject the concept of highly specialized trials models. Although seeds sown in fertile ground had begun to sprout, their growth was stunted. A dam project on the Hayato River put an end to trials in that area in 1976, leading to a drop in competitor numbers, especially in the Kanto area.
Around this time two Japanese riders entered the World Trials Championships (upgraded from the European Trials Championships in 1975) - Fumihiro Kato on a Kawasaki in 1975 and All-Japan Champion Hiroshi Kondo on a Honda in 1977 - but their efforts failed to attract much attention.
The Path to the Future
"We wanted people to share the true enjoyment that we had experienced through trials," says Narita. That led Narita and Manzawa to come up with a plan for a two-day touring-style trials event in Iwate Prefecture. Launched in 1977, the Idemitsu Ihatove Trial is still flourishing today.
Organized with the assistance of keen riders and dealers the pair had met in the Tohoku region during their promotional activities, and with backing from Honda's Motor Recreation Promotion Division, this event began just when trials in Japan had hit rock-bottom.
"There were no trials models on the market (apart from the TY250), and people had deserted the sport of trials. Faced with that situation, we wanted to have one more try at getting back to the roots of motorcycle riding - having fun."
Entrants rode beaten-up Japanese machines, scarce imported models, or converted trail bikes. The scene looked like a return to the 70s heyday of the Kanto Trial.
"Some Honda people turned up on the just-launched XL250S, but as you would expect the big 23-inch front wheel wasn't suited to trials. I remember someone wrecking their bike part-way through. Since there were no trials models , quite a few people entered on trail bikes."
Yamaha's TY250 disappeared from the market in 1978. The same year Honda RSC launched the TL200R competition model, the only trials bike on the market. At this time people really wanted a trials model they could use at the Ihatove - it might seem like this was a wish held by a very limited number of riders, but in fact 1981 was the year that proved there was latent demand for trials models.
That year Honda launched a new, improved model based on the TL125, which they had continued to produced in very small numbers for government customers. It was called the Ihatove TL125SB. Contrary to expectations it became a hit, selling 7,000 units - far more than the 3,000 units envisaged in the initial sales plan.
Around this time another rider earned his place in the history of Japanese trials. Twenty-one year old Kiyoteru Hattori, who had honed his skills at the Hayato River and competed in International A-Grade at the All-Japan Champs, based himself in Britain and rode to 9th place in the Czechoslovakia round of the world champs and 16th in the SSDT.
Hattori continued to ride at world level for several years, and thanks to his performance Japanese trials riders once again turned their attention to the wider world. The Ihatove trial and Hattori's efforts breathed new life back into the Japanese trials scene at two opposite ends of the spectrum: grass-roots and top-level riding.
However, overseas riders were about to have a huge impact on Japanese trials once again. If Andrews and Miller had been like visiting missionaries, the next wave was to be more like a fleet of battleships sweeping into harbour.
To be continued in Part 2
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