Legendary works bikes are… well… legendary, but how do they stack up?
More from the all encompassing eye of one of the off-road world’s most senior journalists, always thought provoking, always interesting… what say you?
Despite being a bit of a Luddite I do occasionally take a break from etching type on wood blocks in order to check out two-wheel stuff on that there interweb. And amongst the reams of total tosh there is actually the occasional snippet that makes you think or puts a grin on your face.
All interweb forums start off promisingly but then rapidly degenerate into same old, same old. The pointless “What’s the best bike?” followed predictably by owners shouting, “Grindlay Peerless (insert your favourite make) is best!” giving no reason, apart from the fact that they own one. Pointless.
And in any case, it isn’t about the bike! Much fun as it is and satisfying as it can be to fettle and tweak (and throw money at) your comp bike, at the end of the day it is really all down to the rider. As I’ve said before, it was the great sage Martin Lampkin who drily commented to serial compulsive fettler Nigel Birkett: “All this tweaking is all very well Birky, but eventually you just have to get on and ride it!”
And many years ago it was a chance ride on Martin’s bike that proved to me it was indeed ‘all about the rider’.
Back in 1977 and we had just finished the Westmorland club’s Milnthorpe Cup, a cracking single-lap, 40-section event that drew Yorkshire aces across the border – Martin and Sid Lampkin, Malcolm Rathmell, Blackie Holden, Ray Sayer and many more.
Younger readers may be surprised to learn that back then everyone rode the same sections, national winners and novices alike, which was how riders like Martin lost around six marks and riders like me around 10 times that – if we were lucky!
To be honest, to me, that was the whole point of riding those events – you got to ride the very same trial as a world and British champion. What did it matter how many marks you lost? It certainly wasn’t about pot-hunting!
Anyway, after the trial Martin wanted a go on Birks’ factory 325 Suzuki and his Bultaco was leaning against a drystone wall. I hardly dare ask but managed to say: “Could I possibly have a go?” “Help yourself!” said Martin. This was it, clearly being held back by my bog standard 250 Beamish Suzuki, my talent deserved much better machinery and now, armed with a works Bultaco, I’d clean that tricky, slick, rocky climb through the trees.
Oh dear. The short version of the story is that I fared even worse on the Lampkin Bult than on the Beamish. I couldn't understand it. Sorry to say, but the truth is, there was no magic whatsoever in that bike – and my admiration for Martin soared. It was a sobering lesson, rapidly learned. Having said that, I’ll tell you another incident that was about the bike! I think. Birkett was out one day practising on the factory Suzuki, attempting a slippery, nadgery, rocky little climb. Try as he might he couldn’t boss it. In frustration he got on his dad’s 175 Yamaha, which Bill occasionally used for marking out trials like The Lakes Two Day. It had probably stood for months, been dragged out, kicked a few times and off he went. It still had the original nylon Japanese tyres on, probably on road pressures. And guess what, Birks cleaned that section three times in a row!
Still on the bike theme, when the legend that is Mick Andrews was busy winning every Pre-65 event going on his James, there were all kinds of rumours flying round and more than one (clearly envious) rider told me: “Well of course Andrews won, that engine’s more TY Yamaha than Villiers!”
Well, one day not long after this, after Mick had won a round of the old SEBAC Twinshock Champs at Back Cowm, Rochdale, (which I rode on a 240 SWM owned by super photographer Eric Kitchen) I got chance of a ride on the James. Sorry chaps, but I found no magic, just a very well sorted bike that went, steered, handled, suspended and stopped exactly how it should. No better or worse than other well set-up bikes I’ve ridden. The motor was smooth and strong – and that was it. The Magical bit was Mick! Aware of all the rumours about the engine doing the never ending rounds, Mick invited me down to Holloway as he was stripping the motor to replace the main bearings. So off I went – and guess what, inside it was all pretty much standard Villiers, just as I suspected after having ridden it just after a winning ride. No Yam crank, no six-speed gearbox...sorry chaps.
The James was of course just a really well prepped bike, ridden by a master.
Having said all that, there have been plenty of clever, trick, bikes down the years but unless they happen to have a suitably talented rider behind the tiller it is all ultimately a waste. And I should know, having been the first person in the world – the whole world – not to win a trial when mounted on the ground-breaking TY250 Yam mono... but that’s another story....