Well, we did it. Third time lucky. In 2012 (my first year on the Chott) multiple punctures brought things to an early close and I spent the night – the whole night! – at Barbrook, on the edge of Exmoor, trying to mend them. Last year electrical gremlins took up residence in the 90-minute van ride from Penzance to Plusha and I couldn’t even get out of the car park under my own steam.
But this year the Chott never missed a beat and for eleven of the 13 sections I really thought I might bring home an award. Unfortunately there was a problem with one key component – a long-standing vulnerability on all my bikes – something my Dad used to call “the nut that holds the handlebars”. Almost literally at the last minute, after 17 hours on the bike, I managed to snatch ignominy from the jaws of triumph even though the conditions were pretty much perfect. But the bike itself did indeed run sweetly for the full 22 hours and 350 or so miles. So that’s good then.
First I want to say thank you to Basil Stocker who acted as pathfinder. That’s Basil in the foreground of the first picture, next to his trusty XT250. Basil has so many awards, accumulated over a long MCC career, that he has had to have his loft joists reinforced. His tireless navigating, with what he describes as “one and a half eyes”, freed me to concentrate on my riding. I wish I had done better if only to repay Basil’s kindness. My turn in 2015, Basil.
I left Plusha at 17.09 convinced that simply to finish for the first time since 2010 (Honda XR-mounted) would be success enough. But the perfect conditions (bright, cold and dry-as-a-bone overnight), lots of recent bike fettling and a bit of practicing over the winter meant that the first three sections went like a dream. By 4am I was thinking the unthinkable. What’s that they say about “pride coming before a fall”?
Come Sutcombe (the fourth Observed Section) and my growing confidence and some comments about the Chott’s noisy exhaust got me wondering if I should try it in second. Nooooo! That would be a schoolboy error? But then, as the starter gave me the nod, my toe did indeed mysteriously snick up the box instead of down. Second gear it was then. All went well at first but soon the hill reared up. I ground to a halt about half way up, just a yard short of a restart box (for cars and some motorcycles but not mine). What was I thinking? Even a coffee and a bacon bap from the lovely ladies at the top of the hill could not ease the biting conviction that I was the most certifiably spectacular idiot the Lands End Trial had ever seen. Now a silver award was my best hope.
And so we processed through the remainder of that crisp, star-studded night. Just before dawn a shooting star streaked across the sky. In an exceedingly uncharacteristic piece of grumpiness by an MCC official, a section starter ticked me off because he couldn’t hear his walkie-talkie. But at 7.30am the Chott did indeed pass the noise test – just.
Around 10am we were into the woods. I remembered them from 2010 as being well within my capabilities, especially given how dry and grippy the woodland surface should be this year. Ladyvale (OS 9) and Hoskin Hill went according to plan and so did the second Observed Test, Bishop’s Path. Crikey! Still on Silver and just three sections to go. Next up, Bishops Wood, I couldn’t quite remember what was involved, but in 2010 I’d cleaned the two Blue Hills sections with only a little drama.
At the Bishops Wood line I chatted relaxedly with the very nice lady starter. Off we go. Round the sharp left-hander near the start … this is good … going well … dum de dum … restart box coming up … hit my mark perfectly. No! It’s the wrong bloody restart box (the yellow one). My box (the red one) is visible 20 yards away, from where the observers are gazing back at me, watching as I throw away my Silver. (By the way, apologies to all present for the shouting into my beard. Not very dignified. I realise that now.)
Still, onwards and upwards? Bronze. Two more sections. But worse – much worse – was still to come. As a competitor you approach Blue Hills from the other side of the valley. The slow approach down a steep, narrow hill gives you plenty of time to take in the beautiful setting and the large crowds perched on the cliff-side. It’s a truly spectacular spot for a motorsport event – the photos don’t do it justice – and very popular with spectators. Did I mention that already?
There are two Blue Hills sections. The first is tight but straightforward. The main challenge comes from a restart on a stone slab incline just before you turn tight right to stop astride the finish line. Blue Hills 2 is the famous one; a long, steep rocky drag – and that’s just the approach. On the section proper the restart box is now positioned just before a steep stone slab (seemed steep to me) and followed by a sharp uphill right to the end of the section.
No point labouring this; I made a monumental hash of both restarts thanks to a combination of poor clutch and throttle control and the most glaring of my many failings as an off-road rider, the slowness with which I get up onto the pegs from a standing start. The Chott motor is not as grunty as a four-stroke. It needs revs to get it off the line and the clutch engages over a relatively short span near the end of the lever travel. Together these can make smooth restarts tricky. And then, if I don’t get up on the pegs sharpish to balance weight fore and aft, I can find it very hard to get grip and keep the front end on the deck.
So, at the Blue Hills 1 restart up came the front wheel and down went me – quite hard actually. All very embarrassing. Many, many thanks to the cheerful marshals who helped me up. The restart on Blue Hills 2 was a reprise of the same problems, but this time I stayed on the bike – if somewhat inelegantly.
And so I got my ‘wish’ – simply to finish. Three cheers for the Chott; one-and-a-half for the rider. I was, in the parlance of our times (© Big Lebowski), gutted. But now I have got the Chott reliable (and with a host of other improvements in the pipeline) I am already thinking about a first crack at the Edinburgh Trial in October.