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Rider Jonathan English at Scottish Six-day Trials (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)
Rider Jonathan English at Scottish Six-day Trials (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)

Motorcycles 100th Anniversary Scottish Six Days Trial

If it's nae Scottish Six Days Trial ... Add to ...

Blackwater, Lagnaha, Witches Burn, Coire Dubh, Chairlift, Rannoch, Devil's Staircase, Piper's Burn, Sleubhaich, Pipeline, Town Hall Brae - names you won't find on the average tourist attraction map of Scotland but which served as milestone markers on the 500-mile route across moors and mountains negotiated by competitors in the 100th Anniversary Scottish Six Days Trial for motorcycles in early May.

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And mile "stones" they were. The legendary names designating "sections" comprised of jumbles of rounded boulders, shattered stone and sharp-edged ledges, exposed by runoff streams as they tumble down the side of mountains such as Ben Nevis and the sheep-dotted slopes draining into this rugged land's deep lochs.

Each served up a unique challenge to an international field of 275 riders - including three from Canada - who helped celebrate the centenary of one of the world's oldest, toughest and most unusual motorsport events.

A modern Observed Trial is usually a one-day affair that tests the skills of riders of highly specialized motorcycles as they negotiate a series of a dozen or so difficult natural terrain test sections around a loop generally a few kilometres long, losing points for lapses in control. Think of it like a round of golf with the low score winning.

The Scottish Six Days Trial (SSDT) served up 30 tortuously uphill sections a day - Pipeline for example is an incredibly long and steep rock-strewn climb that runs beside the water pipes of a mountain-top reservoir - on a stamina-sapping loop.

On the Thursday competitors rode this section, this stretched 120 miles, much of it across open moorland dotted with wheel-trapping holes and swimming pool sized bogs. And, oh yes, it was raining.

Navigation across these often rain-misted open moors is accomplished by following small often barely visible orange flags on half-metre-high sticks placed hundreds of metres apart. And riders are always in a hurry leading to sometimes-spectacular, sometimes-disappointing misadventures. The SSDT takes an extreme sport to, well, its extreme.

The SSDT had its beginnings in 1909 as a reliability trial that literally tested the capabilities of the primitive machines of this pioneering era with a five-day trek through the Highlands. By 1911, it had officially become the Scottish Six Days Trial, staged by the Edinburgh & District Motor Club, which runs the event to this day.

No special sections were required to test the performance and mechanical reliability of those early machines, rough Scottish roads and tracks being considered more than capable of taking their toll on bikes with low-powered engines, primitive suspensions, ineffective brakes and hard, skinny, puncture-prone tires. Competitors ran to a time schedule that expected them to maintain an average of about 20 mph and, depending on how they managed, won a gold, silver or bronze medal.

As motorbike design progressed, the trial got tougher and special "tests" to judge hill-climbing ability and braking were included in the 1920s. It wasn't until 1931 that the trial took on its modern face with "observed hills" added and penalties awarded for putting a foot down for balance or stopping in a section. A year later, an overall winner - Bob McGregor riding a Rudge - was declared for the first time.

In its early times the SSDT was billed as a "Sporting holiday in the Highlands" and aimed at the amateur enthusiast and it is this type of clubman rider who still makes up the bulk of the entries each year. With a handful of factory-backed pros or near-pros battling it out at the sharp end of the field. One of these, British star James Dabill riding an Italian Beta, won the 100th SSDT; remarkably, he lost just 13 marks after six days of intense competition.

The Canadian contingent was made up of John Dearie from Lions Bay and Guy Smeeth from Cobble Hill in British Columbia and Jonathan English from Belleville, Ont.

Smeeth was the only official finisher - in 234th place - making up for a pre-event shoulder injury with the experience of running the event for the sixth time. He says he keeps coming back for the adventure "and unresolved issues" related to bad luck in previous attempts.

Dearie, a transplanted Scot who always meant to enter the event, signed on as a (probably) last chance to ride it with old friends. He didn't officially finish after a crash on Thursday damaged his bike - and didn't do his back any good either - causing him to miss sections.

But with the bike back in action, he rode Friday and Saturday to complete the week. Was it worth it? "Sure it was. I was just there for a bit of fun. I enjoyed the whole thing." Probably, the X-rays won't show any serious damage.

English's week began disastrously when he missed a group of sections on Monday, resulting in exclusion from the results. But he recovered from his disappointment and put in solid rides over the next five days to complete the event - despite going over the handlebars a couple of times on the moors and sinking the bike in a boggy spot on another occasion.

And he managed a smile after completing the final section climb up bumpy Town Hall Brae in downtown Fort William, traditional host town for the event. He, too, now has some of those unresolved issues the Scottish Six Days Trial appears to create, and will likely return to deal with them.

The experiences of the three, while highly individual, are far from unique in the annals of what remains a century later one of the most difficult, demanding and apparently strangely addictive events on the motorcycle competition calendar.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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