TrailBike Magazine – Aug 2012
This is probably the latest column you’ll find here, coming as it does from the 200th Anniversary Issue of TrailBike Magazine, but my involvement with mud-pluggery goes back to 1963 and a 197cc Greeves Scottish trials bike. Once I got the magazine bug, I started an ‘Off-Road Rambles’ section in Bike and then ‘On The Rough’ and ‘Dirt Bike Buyers Guide’ in WhichBike? and even the wildly unsuccessful WB? Enduro Team with then ad. manager and real star rider, Charlie Harris and old pal, Peter Furlong. Recreational off-road riding has changed enormously since then and become more restrictive and much maligned by non-motorcyclists so whilst I look back on my days on the dirt with fondness and pride, I’m slightly relieved that they’re over.
I wasn’t one of the original suspects when Si Melber started TBM, but our links extend even further back than that. He’d worked on MotorCycle International, a magazine I’d initially wrenched out of the ruins of WhichBike?, which I’d launched back in 1976, and which of course makes me very old indeed.
So old, in fact that I can remember when you could, and I did, ride legally almost anywhere off-road using an 8000-odd mile (yes, EIGHT THOUSAND ! – MW) network of ‘greenlanes’, or Roads Used as Public Paths (RuPPs), some two-thirds of which became the now verboten Restricted Byways. And when I first went mud-plugging yes, that’s how the ‘bike media routinely referred to it back in the early ‘70s, you could still do it on a brand new British bike, albeit with a very old British engine, for BSA, Triumph and smaller outfits like Greeves and AJS were still building trailies back then, of which I had a troublesome few.
So when Si invited me to contribute a column to his small but perfectly formed off-road rag in 2004, I assumed that he wanted a moisty-eyed took in trailriding’s rearview mirror, rather than the sort of sardonic commentary on contemporary motorcycling matters that I’d parlayed over the decades in columns for MCI, WhichBike? and the grand-daddy of ‘em all, Bike magazine. But once again I was wrong, which was probably my own damn fault. Having just returned to trailriding because I had time on my hands (a/k/a being unemployed) and living slap-bang in the middle one of Britain’s least populated rural landscapes (a/k/a Powys), I’d begun re-building a clapped-out Yamaha XT350 on which I eventually entered in my first enduro in 25 years, only to discover it wasn’t remotely competitive… although that might have possibly been due to my lack of fitness and ability.
But what I also learnt and soon reflected in my wittily named Totally Rutted column was that trailriding had changed considerably since I’d abandoned it in 1981 to go and live in America. And not necessarily in a good way.
Access to rideable rights of way had considerably diminished (a bad thing), driven mainly, if ironically, by the huge increase in recreational trailriding (a good thing, hence TBM); and the reaction against it of po-faced bobble-hats and arrogant landowners who jointly had a lock on the ears of legislators both local and national. Worse was to come of course when the infamous 2006 National Environment and Communities Act (NERC) hit the statute book, instantly decimating the network of RuPPs, and this despite determined lobbying from the Trail Riders Federation which I’d re-joined in 2004.
Other bad things in my book, or rather as chronicled in my column, included the increasing tendency of the younger trailriders to belt along in large, noisy packs and often on illegal tracks, as if they were competing in enduros, which tended to quite literally frighten the horses and left little time to enjoy the views. But this was probably just sour grapes ‘cause I couldn’t always keep up with ‘em. More seriously, over-use of softly surfaced tracks angered councils responsible for
their (expensive) maintenance which thus degraded, were now cryptically referred to as being ‘technical’, making them much more taxing for old farts like me.
So a couple of years after returning to the dirt, I was enjoying it less and less. My response was to instigate a regular Right to Ride featurette in TBM which alerted readers to the Forces of Darkness and their efforts to curtail things even further and, in particular, the brave but tiny TRF’s rearguard resistance. By 2006 I’d actually helped form a TRF group here in Mid-Wales where, again ironically, trailriders and 4×4 drivers who’d been forced off lanes in their own counties were increasingly weekending in droves, wearing out some of the more spectacular and lengthy tracks such as Monks Trod and Water Break Its Neck which the local council in turn began closing down, often by stealth.
I soon found myself representing the TRF both Iocally and even nationally in what was becoming a battle, especially after NERC, to keep the lanes open, and eventually I became the TRF’s Press Officer, too. Without my much prized platform in TBM, this certainly wouldn’t have happened but within the small, fragmented and I’m afraid often rather blinkered community that rode off-road, I now had some influence. Failing to extend that by harnessing a rather impotent motorcycle trade association (which actually had real clout with legislators when Britain still – just – had an industry back in my Bike and WhichBike? days), or getting the TRF’s top brass to agree that the 4×4 brigade were not actually our allies, eventually convinced me that we and therefore I was fighting a losing battle and I resigned my TRF roles a year after I was, ahem, obliged to resign my TBM roles following disagreements with Mr Melber.
I sold my much-loved, if somewhat hot-rodded TT-R250 a few months later when the last of my local trailriding pals became a dad and like many before him, was subsumed by more important responsibilities, and so I haven’t plugged the mud since 2010. I now look back on my TBM days with affection, regret but also mild relief.
Si and James Barnicoat’s passion was considerable and contagious: I probably wouldn’t have taken up the game again if it hadn’t been for their enthusiasm or more accurately perhaps, coercion and they were always generous with their support, as well as clothing and kit… or at least when they no longer had any use for ‘em! Which was good for this marginally skint oldster.
As temporary keeper of the Doing The Rounds flame (A regular feature – MW), I also greatly enjoyed ride-outs as far afield as Northumberland and Cornwall, although some of them left me bruised, battered and panting with embarrassment. But the other regular feature that Si enthusiastically embraced whilst I was in situ was From The Archives which enabled me to revisit my early off-road days and the bikes we then rode. So I’d come full circle after all.
Which made an old fool very happy, and a bunch of new friends who still remain that way…
The spirit of TBM still lives on online in the vibrant form of Rust at http://www.rustsports.com And if you enjoyed my latest old rant, please sign up to get alerts each time I post a new one using the box on the RH panel… or add your own comment, as below.