And so it was that Team Rust Sports entered a Long Distance Trial on two contrasting machines: a KTM 350EXC with auto-clutch and our long-term Honda CRF250L. How would they fare…?

You just can’t beat that feeling you get during the white heat of competition….

There we were, neck and neck - JB and I - but I just had the edge on him as we both rounded a corner in a dusty field, mid-way through a tough day’s competition. I could hear JB’s bike revving hard just inches from my own, we were both heading for the same spot. This was gonna’ be tight. JB showed me a wheel but I was too quick for him. I stamped on the back brake and he had to take avoiding action to prevent him collecting us both. That gave me the few seconds I needed. Quick as a flash my bike was parked up, my helmet was off and I was first in the queue for tea and cakes. One-nil to me I believe…

Best of British

‘How do you fancy doing a Long Distance Trial?’ Said JB over the phone, two weeks previously. I didn’t need asking twice. I love these peculiarly British forms of competition. I’m sure the majority of you know what they are, but for the sake of those that don’t, a Long Distance Trial is probably best described as a lovely day’s trail riding with a bit of competition thrown in to keep you on your toes. Well, strictly speaking… to keep your toes on the pegs.

Because the idea is that periodically throughout the day you arrive at a ‘section’ - just like in a normal trial - which you have to try and ride around without putting your feet down. Now these sections aren’t that hard, but they are a good little challenge to get around feet up. Usually there’s some tight turns, a few narrow trees, an off-camber climb, that sort of thing. There’s an observer who marks your score the same as in trials: one point for a foot down, three points for more than one foot down, or five points if you fail to complete the section. Lowest score wins. All the sections are ride-able but you do have to demonstrate a fair bit of clutch control in order to ‘clean’ the section. This is where my secret weapon was going to help…

You see I thought I was being clever by riding a bike with an auto-clutch. No stalling, just twist-and-go, all I had to do was to work the throttle carefully and I’d be home and dry. The bike I’d chosen to ride was a very trick 2012 KTM 350EXC that’s been built by off-road specialists Tri-County Motorcycles down in Bracknell in Berkshire. Bored out to 365cc and with a whole bunch of sexy little gizmos and colourful gee-gaws bolted on (love that word). 

But it’s really the bike’s Rekluse auto-clutch (and manual clutch override), combined with the extra torque that the larger slug provides that makes this machine work for me. Since we last tested it, owner and builder Clive Hoy has added a ‘thumb’ rear brake on the left handlebar (actually not operated by your thumb, but everyone calls it a thumb brake, so we’ll go with that). Hopefully that was gonna’ make riding the sections even easier - just ride it like a big bicycle. Boy, oh boy, I was going to clean up…

After a 5.30am start I arrived at the paddock in good time, despite the organisers’ best effort to put me off the scent, by sending the wrong address to my phone’s sat-nav. I’m rarely early for anything, so discovering I was one of the first to arrive, despite travelling possibly the furthest distance and being sent the wrong way was a good omen. I arrived and got chatting to one of the other early-birds and asked him: ‘What time does the event start….?’

‘Ohhhh’ he replied nonchalantly looking at his watch, ‘Around… about… nine-thirty…….…………ish!’ Which kind of set the tone for the rest of the day’s competition. This was clearly going to be about having fun and not taking life too seriously. Nevertheless there was bragging rights at stake. JB - the other member of Team Rust - would have to be vanquished, or I’d never hear the end of it.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

It’s a measure of KTM’s domination of the dirt bike scene that it’s almost impossible to turn up at an off-road event and not be overwhelmed by a sea of orange bikes. But not this time… This was one of those rare events where KTMs weren’t in the majority. In fact nothing was. There were of course a fair smattering of KTMs, a few EXCs but most notable were the Freerides, with the 250 two-stroke being the most popular. But out of a field of perhaps 90 riders I doubt there were more than 10 or so who were orange-mounted and one of them was me.

The next most popular bike was Gas Gas’s lightweight Pampera which is obviously just ideal for an event like this. After that, well take your pick from ancient Honda XLs (185, 250, 500), XRs (200, 250, 400) and the more modern CRF230, Yamaha WRFs, WRs, TT-Rs and Serow XTs, I saw at least one Suzuki DR-Z, a Kawasaki KLX250, an AJP 240, and at least three Brit bikes from the 60s: A Triumph twin, a BSA 250, and a heavily worked Royal Enfield. There were a couple of modern Huskys, a Can-Am, a CCM, and at least three Honda CRF250Ls like our long-termer that JB was riding (that was rather encouraging to see); there was even a modern Sherco enduro and a Scorpa Long-Ride. Basically there was a decent cross-section of lots of dirt bikes from most of the manufacturers spanning the last five or more decades. That’s the beauty of this type of competition - the bikes are so varied. And the riders were as diverse as their machinery… more than that I shan’t comment.

Section Commander

The first section: (a climb up and around a tight tree followed by a steep descent then a tricky, dusty off-cambered turn and another steep climb out), was followed by the one and only special test (tie-breaker). Both were in sight of the start and I was pleased to clean the first section and secure 9th equal fastest time on the ST, comfortably beating JB into the bargain. Oh happy days, I was gonna whup his lilywhite butt…

Out onto the trail and the KTM was just perfect for bopping along the lanes. It’s a great bike of course, but the addition of the auto-clutch makes it an effortless ride. It really does transform the EXC from a fairly punchy enduro weapon to a much smoother, less edgy and more versatile trailie.

It’s difficult to appreciate the transformation without riding it for yourself, but essentially once you’re moving, every time you roll on the throttle there’s a smoothness to the power build-up that feels quite unlike the conventionally clutched bike. That’s because the initial hit of power is accommodated by a minute slipping of the clutch. It seems to round off the sharp edges of the delivery and provide a perfectly seamless drive. Of course the pay-off is that it doesn’t feel as powerful as the conventionally clutched bike - by quite a way actually. Whether that’s simply a perception is difficult to determine. The only time this smoothness of delivery doesn’t happen is right off the very bottom. And only then if you’re a bit ham-fisted with the throttle. Let me explain…

From a standing start it’s easy to be ultra-smooth with the take-up of drive and the bike pulls away cleanly without any juddering and without the need for the clutch. Just donk it into gear, gently (or otherwise), twist the throttle and the engine picks up and drives. After that you change up and down the gears in the normal way but without using the clutch, and there’s no need to even feather the throttle if you want to make haste. But momentarily twitching your throttle hand to chop the revs is not only kinder on the bike, I think it’s also more intuitive.

However as I was to find out, it’s one thing being ultra-gentle with the throttle when you have all the time in the world to pull away, but when you’re on an off-camber with the bike on full-lock, trying to finesse the drive in order to fit the bars between two narrow trees, it’s actually a tiny bit trickier than you first think. Or maybe I’m just a ham-fisted old hack.

For the second section - a drop into a ditch followed by a tight turn around a tree (avoiding a deep bog), then a fairly slippery climb up a slope between trees, make a U turn and back along an eroded path - I thought to myself, why am I bothering to use the manual clutch over-ride when I can just twist and go. Result…. a dab in the middle of the section when JB went clean. D’oh!

I’m probably being totally unfair blaming the bike when really my own skills were at fault, but I can say this… that as you shut the throttle which you have to do on a full-lock turn, the clutch momentarily disengages (so the engine doesn’t stall), and it takes a nano-second for the clutch to re-engage again as you begin to open the throttle.

In ordinary use - on the trail during normal riding - you simply can’t notice this engagement and disengagement of the drive, but when you’re balancing the bike and trying not to use too many revs so it doesn’t turn too wide, you can occasionally be caught - just momentarily - without drive. At this point the brain responds by sending a message to your throttle hand to open the tap and as you do so, the drive kicks in and the bike kinda’ leaps forward with gusto.

Of course this bike has a manual clutch override so I can’t really blame the bike, but hey, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. The following section I went clean but then a silly three-pointer on section four (compared with JB’s single dab) meant that the difference was starting to add up.

Of course JB had told me beforehand he’d never competed in an LDT, so naturally I was feeling confident in my abilities. But what the wily old fox failed to mention was that back when he was a kid living in New Zealand, he’d done season after season of schoolboy trials. It was only when I stopped to watch him ride through a section and saw him clambering all over the little Honda like Dougie-bloody-Lampkin, I realised he’d tucked me up like a kipper!

A few more sections came and went with mixed results but every time I went clean, so did JB. Then came the infamous section 10… Section ten required you to drop into a bombhole, go 180-degrees around a tree on a fairly steep bank, then thread the bike between two narrow trees and perform the same manoeuvre in reverse - in other words, make another tight U-turn but this time at the bottom of the slope on a dusty downhill where the front wheel really struggled to find grip. Then once you’d got the bike turned around there was another pair of trees to fit through.

Now I’m not saying the observer was blind… but I swear his guide-dog barked at me just as I was trying to thread the bike through the narrow trees and it put me off. I think his dog must’ve been having a bad day as the scoresheet reveals that Section 10 had by far the most ‘fives’ awarded to other riders… But strangely not JB.

Nope, JB cruised around the section like Tony Bou filming a demonstration video. I did see him hesitate at one point (as he balanced feet up and checked his iPhone), but the observer’s dog appeared to be momentarily distracted by a tasty treat whilst JB was in the section. Anyway JB’s a charitable sort of fellow, especially when it comes to the blind… I know this because as he exited the section I saw him stuff a tenner in the observer’s hand. But you know what… he doesn’t like to brag about his charitable giving, because he did it very surreptitiously, closing the guy’s hand around the note afterwards. He’s all heart that bloke.

Lunch Stop

Just prior to this group of sections was the lunch stop where this story began. And here I really must make special mention of the organisers and helpers’ efforts. You see it had been a long and pleasantly warm day up to that point and by about 1pm I was starting to feel a little jaded from my early start. That’s when we came into a field to find the organiser’s van all set up with a camping stove with the kettle on, and a trestle table groaning under the weight of homemade cakes and goodies.

Believe me when I say that this was like nectar from heaven. There was a selection of home-made cakes - Coffee Walnut, Lemon Drizzle, Millionaire Shortbread, giant cookies, home-cooked doughnuts, home-made sausage rolls, biscuits, soft drinks, and probably sandwiches too but by the time we arrived the other riders had scoffed the sarnies. Nevertheless this was incredibly hospitable and all included within the £50 cost for the day’s competition (which included a donation to charity).

You won’t find many events where any form of catering is included in the price, let alone baking of this standard. Whoever baked the cakes, and I’m sorry I’ve forgotten her name, she deserves to win the Great British Bake Off. This was unforgettable food. Truly outstanding, and added so much to the day’s ride. All too often, motorcycle competition is all about speed and we sometimes don’t get the chance to truly appreciate the surroundings we’re riding through nor interact with our fellow competitors. This day gave me chance to appreciate both these things whilst chilling out with a cup of tea and a plateful of cakes. I was in competition heaven.

So far I haven’t made much mention of the handlebar-mounted rear brake. That’s because it’s one of those things that simply works well and you don’t really notice it at all. What you do notice is how much more progressive than the foot brake it is - you can easily slow the bike down without locking the rear wheel. But should you wish to lock the wheel (brakeslide into a corner for instance) then you simply need to give the left brake a good hard pull and it will do it.

I must say it is slightly hard to find at times, located - as it is - below the clutch lever. Your hand naturally goes for the clutch, unless you move that lever out of the way. This is why personally I would like to have a thumb-operated rear brake like they do on MotoGP bikes. Unfortunately the few thumb levers that exist are horrendously expensive, whereas this is much more affordable. But like everything, the more you use the lever the more you get used to where it is located, until it just becomes second nature.

Slightly odd is the fact that as you pull on the brake, the foot-pedal rises a few mm as hydraulic fluid moves around the system. This is slightly disconcerting at first (if you have your foot on it at the time), but you do soon get used to it. I assume the valving in the system is designed to allow you to use one or other lever but not both at the same time. Because once you start pulling on the lever, depressing the foot pedal doesn’t add to the braking force and the reverse is true, also.

I should just add that the twin-operated brake system is not in the least bit Heath-Robinson. It’s brilliantly integrated into the bike and the master-cylinder arrangement is barely any bigger than the standard KTM item. If you don’t want to use the hand-brake, the footbrake operates in the normal way.

Once you train your mind to leave the clutch well alone (and it takes a little while to do this), then you can then concentrate on simply using throttle and brakes to control the speed of the bike. No matter how hard you apply the brakes the engine won’t stall and prior to the event commencing, I was practising full lock turns in the paddock - in both directions - using just a sniff of revs and controlling the speed using only the left-hand rear brake. Of course that was on the flat… Out on the course I was finding it slightly more difficult to replicate these skills.

Because as good as this bike is to ride - and it is bloody brilliant to be honest - there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a tall enduro bike with limited lock and a powerful motor. It doesn’t have the low centre of gravity you ideally need in the sections, nor the super-soft power delivery to just gently turn the rear wheel without it spinning. And although the auto-clutch can prevent a lot of wheelspin, ultimately it’s being driven by a serious engine.

Mind you I wouldn’t have it any other way because for me this bike is just ideal… It can be used for anything: from racing to trail riding and even trials like this. I know this for a fact because I’ve ridden it in each of these different settings. Sure it’s probably not quite as good as a Freeride or Pampera in the trials sections, but outside of them it’s comfortable and powerful and happy cruising on the roads at decent speeds, and its much more suitable for racing if you want to use it in an enduro. Ultimately the clutch makes the bike more versatile and the rear brake makes it more versatile still.

Three more cleans went by until just before the end I had to ‘paddle’ again to get the bike around a tight tree on the way out of section 14. Once again JB went clean and I knew I had to concede the day. There was a brief moment of glory in section 15 when JB dabbed and I went clean, but overall I had to accept that I had lost fair-and-square to an annoying, and rather irritating (not to mention conceited old…)….. sorry. I meant I had lost to the better rider. Damn and blast.

The bike had been brilliant, the day had been brilliant, the tea and cakes had been brilliant, and on the way back I stopped at a fabulous country pub in the glorious sunshine and settled down to a tasty pint of ale. I had planned to be toasting my success, but after such a great day’s riding I was equally happy to be drowning my sorrows.

If you get chance to enter a Long Distance Trial, then do it…

JB’s bit…

Si was up and away in his van at a breathtaking 5.30am. A whole hour later I eased my way out of the Bentman slumber-pit, sleepily donned the Akito Desert Evo suit, pushed the wee CRF250L out of the garage and at about ten-past-seven finally thumbed the starter and set off west (no van, no trailer here). Si was chasing the curser north-south on his sat nav (to the wrong destination as it turned out), while I’d printed off a Google Maps version of a road book (written directions!) and taped this to the CRF’s ‘bar-pad with electrician’s tape. It set-out a decidedly direct path from Broadstairs heading westwards, using back roads rather than highways, and was extremely vague about the final destination, but I guessed if I wasn’t totally lost by then I’d probably pick up on the organisers’ arrows, or see other bikes, or - failing that - catch a tow off a few likely vans.

This was my first long distance trial (LDT). A friend of my dad’s - the brilliant but now sadly departed Dave Minskip - had (among many talents) been an LDT hotshot many years ago. I think he rode an XL250, but might have ridden an old Army-issue Bombardier two-stroke too. But mostly when I remember back, I recall how when the likes of MCN and TMX would faithfully print every event’s results, Dave’s name would normally sit top or close-to on all the LDTs, and typically have a zero (score) after it. I never got near to an LDT then, but Dave inspired me to one day have a go. And this was that day - only some 30 years later (you can’t rush a good thing).

An LDT seemed like an ideal event for the CRF too. A road-trail loop of 90 miles and 15 observed sections - how hard can that be? Harder than I first thought as I very nearly took the BMW F800GS to it, before Si explained the sections could get downright tight, slippery and steep. So the Honda with its Michelin AC10s seemed to be the ideal partner. It would be another proper test of this remarkable machine’s versatility. And with a ride in the GS Trophy in Canada looming, this would be an opportunity for some serious bike time for me. The Eastbourne club’s venue was nearly two hours’ ride away, then the event was likely to last at least six hours, plus the return journey. With 14 long days in the saddle to come in Canada, this would be a chance for some endurance conditioning.

I still can’t believe this but I followed the navigational instructions faultlessly and happened upon the one arrow to the paddock (at the gate, of course) without having made a single wrong turn. I took that as an omen - today I had my ninja powers. Si had been milling around for 90mins. I had just 20 minutes to get signed on, shoot a bunch of atmospheric paddock shots and get going…

The paddock was everything I hoped it would be, a real mix of manufacturers and characters. The latest hot-poop in LDTs is a KTM Freeride as far as I could determine, 350s and 250s (with decent bash plates added I noted). Older hot-poop was the Gas Gas Pampera, which came in a number of variations. Then there was granddad’s hot-poop, the likes of Triumph twins (I’ll hazard a guess that one was either a 3TA or 5TA) - and very nice these were too.

Milling among these were the odd misplaced Antoine Meo figure with EXC and bling kit (hey, Si!). I liked these too. There was even a movie star, as I spotted one of the Mondo Sahara XR400s propping up a Transit van (or was it the other way around?). And very agreeably there was even a smattering of CRF-Ls, complete with original indicators (mine might have been the only one still with the original mirrors though).

First section of the day was not even 100 yards from the paddock. You’re not allowed to walk an LDT section before you ride it, but you can peer at the rider before you making his way through, from the viewpoint of the section begins cards. And actually it’s quite a buzz as you ride in, not sure exactly what you’ll find and you’re willfully trying to stay feet-up. I had a wobble on the bottom of the climb of that first section but I refused to let my feet do any work and with the CRF in first gear we made easy-ish work of the climb to the exit cards. First section clean - good job.

Then followed a timed test, I wasn’t anticipating that. I actually took it seriously, taking off my camera-rucksack and jacket, and so riding in T-shirt - just like old times - I whizzed around the test. Again you couldn’t walk it, so I overshot a few corners but I guessed everyone did that. Si was beaming when I made the end of the test - I was three-seconds slower than him! And I liked that too. We were clearly on for a day of fiercely-friendly rivalry.

To his credit Si had made no effort to sort himself a road book, so navigation was my job. Although seeing as my road book holder was just an A4 plastic wallet taped to the ‘bar-pad I’d clearly not worked much harder. I caught a typically caustic remark from Si on my navigational skills about ten minutes down the road - pretty fair comment as it went - so I did what any right thinking LDT novice would do, and tagged onto the tail of a couple of boys who knew exactly what was going on. With a sandwich box (converted to road book holder, if you didn’t know) on each of their handlebars they clearly knew the game.

And so the day rumbled by. Sections came typically grouped in threes… then would follow a cool gallop down lanes and trails to the next set. For me the event was starting to take a serious turn too. Seems I wasn’t losing any marks, just the one early on. The Honda had only the one gear for the sections - first, as with road gearing, second was too high - but it had a natural way about it. Even when in one section I got seriously wide on a hairpin turn it allowed me to do that trials thing of flicking the front wheel off the outside bank and float it into a tighter line, all feet up… like Dougie. I did, just, notice the 140-kilos the CRF carefully carries at that point, but it was okay. Clean again!

The lunch stop was fantastic. Just a van in a field, but with homemade cakes (the food of champions) and with tea made using freshly boiled water and real milk (you can’t get that in some cafes) it really hit the spot and was included as part of the package. Two words: lemon drizzle.

The afternoon was a pleasant tour in the company of a few other competitors. One was having a whale of a time on his twinshock XR500 - an inspired choice - while in his wake we were taking in lungfuls of oily-smoke (‘You might think about putting a new set of rings in there!’ ventured Si helpfully!). Our chief navigator was on an equally ancient twinshock XT250, while rider No.3 was showing just how handy those wee CRF230s are. For a competition it was brilliantly gentlemanly, laid-back even. And of course we were scooting all over the South Downs and winding through the little lanes and trails of West Sussex in spectacular British summertime weather. It couldn’t have been more agreeable.

Getting toward the end I was privately shouldering more pressure - with most sections cleaned the pressure grew. It got to me in the very last section. Nine times out of ten the last turn before the end cards I could ride clean, I’m sure… but in the moment somehow my right foot took off and stole a quick dab. Damn! I was kicking myself, but also elated. Two marks lost for the whole day, I had to be chuffed with that. I was an LDT ninja, if only for a day maybe.

I’d get a buzz too when a day later the results were emailed through - equal 10th and a second-class award in my first ever LDT. My first motorcycling award in about 30 years! Of course before that came the ride home. The last half-hour sure was painful, and by the time the Honda was back in the garage it had been 12 hours on the go. Endurance test passed.

What an experience, though. Of course LDTs won’t suit young-uns that harbour that burning desire to fight, to win, to be the ultimate warrior (I remember feeling like that, years ago!). But as a logical extension to trail riding, LDT is perfect and comes with a massive feel-good factor. Si might not agree, but I think a few enduro riders might even benefit from giving it a go. I’ve seen a lot of clubman enduro riders getting caught up in technical parts of enduro courses. Riding an LDT would make them practice the tricky stuff and appreciate better how to get through - in style.

And how did Si get on? Holy cow, he lost 19 marks! Fancy auto-clutch EXC and all. I’ll not gloat. No. Not one bit...


Thanks To: Clive at TriCounty Motorcycles 01344 424282, for the use of his bike. If you want a Rekluse clutch fitted, along with a bar-mounted rear brake, these guys will sort you out. They have sold and fitted dozens of them to various bikes. The set-up is the key to maximum enjoyment and I can report that our bike’s clutch and brake system performed faultlessly thoughout this entire test. http://tricountymotorcycles.co.uk/


Also a huge thanks to The Eastbourne & DMCC for inviting us to ride at their event. This was as fun and enjoyable an event as I’ve ever ridden and the club deserve praise for not only all their hard work, but for raising money for a worthy cause at the same time. Well done ladies and gents…

I’m an LDT Newbie

Michael Richards

Riding a 1982 Honda XR200 (lucky man)

‘This was my second LDT. I’m a born again trail rider - I used to ride back when I was 17, but that’s a long time ago now. My dream bike back then was an XR200, and so that’s what I’ve got now - the ’82 Prolink model. The first owner was an LDT rider of some repute, Maurice Arden - now in his 80s - and I’ve been in touch and he wrote me a nice letter of encouragement.

‘I’ve been doing some green lanes - I joined the TRF - but I’ve only ridden solo missions so far, near to my home in Canterbury. But I’d definitely recommend LDTs. The element of competition adds something to the day even though I’m not competitive myself. I think I like the measured sense of achievement. I think you become a better trail rider too. I was adopted by a group of riders in my first LDT and by watching their lines - what works what doesn’t - it was a real lesson in riding.’

It’s Our Trial!

Gloria Moss, Eastbourne & DMCC

‘This is the third LDT we’ve run, we normally run one-day club trials but one of our older members, Ralph Charman, had ridden a few LDTs organised by other clubs and said we should give it a go. It’s a lot more work, but we enjoy it.

‘We start work on the trial a good half-year ahead. The lads will go out and plot the route - the first year Ralph did it himself by bicycle - and once we have that we submit the paperwork to the RAC, to the police and local authorities. Then there are the permits and the entries to collate. There is a lot of paperwork.

‘We used four pieces of land for this, so that’s four lots of negotiations, but it’s land that we also use for our club trials and the owners understand that this event is a fund-raiser for charity. We needed about 14 observers for this event as we had test-timing to do too, and they are club members plus family and friends.

‘We’ve really enjoyed doing them. This year we’re fundraising for Help for Heroes and Kids with Cancer. If it works out as it did last year, we’ll raise about £1000 for each. But it’s good for everyone, the charities benefit, the riders have a good day out and we’re keeping the byways and highways in use. A lot of work, but a lot of fun!’

You can contact the club, Eastbourne & District Motorcycle Club through their Facebook page at this address. If you decide to take part in any of their events in the coming year, tell them RUST sent you! https://www.facebook.com/edmcc/


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