In early 2017 I made the short-haul flight to Barcelona in Spain for a round of the FIM X-Trials World Championship at the magnificent Palau Sant Jordi Stadium. It was a very special occasion as the Barcelona Indoor event also celebrated 40 years. The organisers had invited many people associated with the event in its long history, including one of my all-time favourite riders Bernie Schreiber. As the only American World Trials Champion, he is still as popular now as he was back in the day. I had last seen Bernie speak at the Scottish Six Days Trial in the mid-eighties but, as I glanced across to a table of activity, there he was, as busy as ever, signing autographs for an excited crowd reminiscent of the days when he was contesting the world trials championship. Nothing had changed. Yes, he was a little bit older, but as we shook hands, it was as though time had stood still. Words: John Hulme • Pictures: Francesco Rappini, Eric Kitchen, Yoomee Archive, Claudio, Toon Van De Vliet, Mauri/Fontsere Collection and the Giulio Mauri Copyright
Inext came into contact with Bernie in Toulouse at the 2018 X-Trial, where he told me he had been invited to travel to Great Britain to compete in the Bultaco Reunion Trial run by the Westmoreland Motorcycle Club. As many of our readers will tell you, they had a fantastic day at the event as for the first time in many years. He was back riding with his fellow works riders and meeting with his many friends he had made over the years. After the event, the Classic Trial Magazine office telephone rang many times, and we received emails endorsing how good it was to see Bernie back with the boots on and riding in trials. For those who want to know a little more about Mr Schreiber, read on!
Come and have a look
The introduction to the ‘Dirt’ took place after a friend of his father suggested they come and watch his son on his trials machine. Both Bernie and his father were excited at what they had seen, and a converted Kawasaki 90 was soon entered in a competition, and he beat his friend’s son to finish seventh. It was now a life of trials at the Schreiber household.
The next step was to a Bultaco Lobito 125cc in the early 70s, and soon the success came along. He had the trials ‘bug’. In Los Angeles, the largest Bultaco dealer, soon offered him a contract to compete in trials on a more professional level. As with many of the Spanish factories at this time, they would send representatives to help them develop the trials market, and the USA was no different. He impressed Bultaco enough to be offered the opportunity in 1977. As a 17-year-old he travelled to Europe to compete in the FIM World Trials Championship. After the long-haul flight across the water, he arrived in Brussels to be met by the Belgian Bultaco importer Marcel Wiertz — he was wearing a tee-shirt in the cold of February.
Speaking in American/English, communication immediately became a problem and the cold, wet weather was not what he had anticipated. After a few days of adjusting to the climate, it was straight into a trial.
His first event was typical of the European trials scene at that time of the year with cold weather and muddy conditions greeted by many trials fans who lined the hazards to watch the American in action on the Bultaco.
As the world championship season arrived so did the sunshine, and he loved his time in Spain. After struggling in the cold and wet opening rounds in Ireland, Great Britain and Belgium, he showed his full potential to come home third in Spain with the sun on his back, making him very happy. Bultaco was pretty pleased too.
One week later at Sancerre in France, he was fifth and then took second in Germany, and finished his first season in seventh position overall.
Living away from home at such a young age was difficult. Imagine; no mobile phones and you are living in Europe. Some kids find it tough in 2018. Offered the opportunity to stay in Europe with Bultaco, he took it and knuckled under in the cold and wet once again at the opening rounds of the 1978 season. It was tough, but he was learning all the time. With only a few points to show for his efforts and no points scored in Belgium the breakthrough would come in France at round four. In a dry competition, which featured many turns and rocks, and with the sun shining on his back once again, it felt very much like his American home. He won a very tough trial parting with over 100 marks lost. He had arrived!
Next, it was Spain some 15 days later at the home of Bultaco. Many of the workforce had come along to the event to watch their new American star in action against their other factory supported riders including the 1975 world champion Martin Lampkin with his brother Alan, the defending world champion Yrjo Vesterinen and its top Spanish rider Manuel Soler.
The main man, Mr Bulto, the owner of the factory, came along for what he considered the most important trial of the year. Disillusioned after the opening three rounds, the confidence soon came back in France, and, in Spain, he smashed it with another win on a very emotional day for himself and the Bultaco family. Winning two more rounds, one on home American soil and the other in Italy, it lifted to him to third overall in the championship at the end of the year.
Should I stay or should I go?
He now knew what was needed to win the title, but again it was a tough start to the year in Ireland after he retired with bent front forks. With a poor showing in Great Britain, he was still questioning whether he should stay in Europe or return home. Vesterinen was putting up a tremendous fight for the title, but for Bernie, the saviour to the series came in Spain with his first win of 1979.
As he found his form, Vesty’s deserted him and history was made with the first American world trials champion. How good does that sound? Bernie and Bultaco were delighted. At the age of 20, he was a World Champion. He had achieved his goal.
With the world championship win came the sad news that Bultaco was in significant financial difficulties. His machine was already well developed, and the factory competition service and development had already been transferred to Comerfords in Thames Ditton, near London, where he was living. It was Comerfords that helped him to continue for the season.
Times were changing in trials and the other European manufacturers such as Fantic, SWM and Italjet wanted a piece of the action. Pietro Kuciukian, the team manager of SWM, offered to support him on a Bultaco on the understanding he signed for SWM at the end of the year. He had only ridden Bultaco machinery and was unsure what to do. The Bultaco factory situation had escalated when the factory doors were locked, and at round nine in Switzerland, he parted with the Bultaco for an Italjet which was a Bultaco painted green, literally!
Many Bultaco parts were used to make the machine including the frame, cylinder barrel and piston, exhaust, suspension and wheels. He became a development rider overnight which was all new to him, but Leopoldo Tartarini, the owner of Italjet, was full of ideas. He believed Bernie was the best and could win on any machine. Italjet were new to trials, and now the American realised you also need a good machine to win, and the ‘Green’ machine was not that. Leopoldo Tartarini looked after Bernie, and he always delivered what he promised, it was a good experience, and he learned a lot while at Italjet.
Once again it was a tough season in 1981 riding an Italjet that was still under development, and his results suffered. With three non-scoring world rounds, he slipped down to sixth in the world, and he began to lose confidence. He questioned his ability and tried amongst other machines a production Montesa which was better in his opinion than his factory supported Italjet.
Before the American round, he announced the relationship with Italjet was over. Tartarini did not want him to leave as they had just started to sell the production Italjet, but he knew he had a short career and that he could not continue on an underperforming machine.
In a year of surprises, Frenchman, Gilles Burgat, won the world title on an SWM. Once again, he was in contact with Pietro Kuciukian. He signed for SWM and had a machine he knew he could win on. He started the 1982 season on a high after a very successful indoor season.
The outdoor season started well as he and Belgium’s Eddy Lejeune on the Honda battled for the world title. In May, he won the Scottish Six Days Trial, another first for an American rider. Life was good. Eddy eventually won the title, the first of three consecutive ones, on the four-stroke Honda on which he was very confident in his riding.
SWM had been developing a new more powerful machine, the 'Jumbo', with Martin Lampkin. The old SWM 320 was more technical to ride than the Bultaco or the Italjet, but the engine was not quite as powerful. Riding styles were changing with a new generation of riders arriving in world trials. Tighter turns and more significant steps were appearing which needed brutal power from a trials machine.
He started 1983 with a win on the new machine in Spain. The next three rounds were all wet and muddy events and, in truth, Lejeune on his Honda were incredible in these conditions. The team continued to develop the ‘Jumbo’ model making progress along the way. His fellow SWM team rider, Thierry Michaud, from France, was a much better development rider than Bernie, and he knew exactly what was needed.
Here we go again
Once again, financial problems with manufacturers affected Bernie’s career. He would now be riding for ‘Team KK’. SWM was in similar difficulties to Bultaco several years before in the fact they had the machines, the riders, the structure but no money
Italian Pietro Kuciukian would create and finance his team for 1984 as the doors finally closed on SWM production at the factory in Italy.
The two K's in Pietro's surname became that of his team. Despite two world round wins, he finished the season on the final step of the podium. He knew it was getting harder to win and it was affecting his confidence. The combination of Honda and Lejeune was the man to beat, and Michaud had started to win world rounds, making him a very serious challenger for the world title. With no future at SWM as a result of the financial problems, he would have to look elsewhere for a ride in 1985.
He would make a move to Garelli but, on an uncompetitive machine, he was paid not to ride it and the season was written off.
1986 would be his last full season in the world trials championship when he paired up with Gilles Burgat in a Yamaha France supported two-man team to finish seventh overall.
He would finish his career at the end of 1987 with one last national title in the USA on a Fantic. After a life in trials, he became European Sales Manager for the American equipment company Malcolm Smith Racing. After that, he moved to Alpinestars before transferring at the beginning of the millennium to Tissot, a traditional Swiss watch company. Bernie left in 2010 to take a year's sabbatical and soon returned to the Swatch Group under the high-end Omega brand to develop their global golf platform.
Since 2017, Bernie has been pursuing new projects and working independently. Now a dual Swiss/American citizen he resides in Zurich, Switzerland with his family.
Born: 20 January 1959 in Los Angeles, California, USA. Factory rider for Bultaco, Italjet, SWM, Garelli, Yamaha, Fantic. Successes: World Trials Champion 1979 with three Vice World Trials Champion in 1980, 1982 and 1983; 20 World round wins and 48 podiums. Winner SSDT in 1982. USA Champion in 1978, 1982, 1983 and 1987. Bernie is also in the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
The dream team at the Nostalgia trial 2018: Bernie Schreiber (USA), Yrjo Vesterinen (FIN) and Manuel Soler (ESP).
The move to the painted green Bultaco was a difficult one. At the 1977 Scottish Six Days Trial chatting with ‘Captain’ Eric Hooke. With the sun on his back and a Bultaco between his legs Bernie loved his time in Spain. 1980: Chewing the fat with, left to right: Ulf Karlson and Yrjo Vesterinen
Seen here at the Spanish world round in 1981 which opened the season, his form would soon desert him and the Italjet. At the famous steps on the Adda River banks in Italy 1981 where the tyre testing between Michelin and Pirelli was usually done, with the SWM with the clear winner and, as we know, Michelin. A second place at the opening round of the 1982 FIM World Trials Championship in Spain was repeated in Belgium at Bilstain the following week. Despite the rain and snow it’s a confident Bernie in the 1982 SSDT. Talking with his new team manager at SWM, Pietro Kuciukian. The first SWM victory would come in Great Britain.
The 1982 Scottish Six Days winner Bernie Schreiber. If you look closely at this picture you will see the Classic Trial Magazine editor John Hulme as the next rider up the ramp! Schreiber rode the SWM in the Torino Indoor and the Autodromo Trial in Monza Italy enjoying a successful indoor season. In 1983 at a photo shoot for SWM. This test session was close to Domodossola, the birthplace of his fellow SWM team rider Danilo Galeazzi. The picture session was held by Gulio Mauri in order to get the right shots for an SWM poster (Schreiber) and an Alpinestars advert (Galeazzi). Jumping back down the famous big step at Bergamo 1983 in the Italian world round. At the same photo session; things do not always go to plan!
You can see the physical size of the SWM Jumbo model in this picture from Olot in Spain in 1984. The last world round win for the Italian manufacturer would come a little later in the year in Germany. In 1985 he would make a move to Garelli, but on an uncompetitive machine he was paid not to ride it and the season was written off. Back on an SWM at the 2011 Ventoux Classic Trial in France. Back in good old Great Britain with Alan ‘Sid’ Lampkin at the Nostalgia trial 2018.