The city of Nelson, at the top of New Zealand's South Island, is officially the sunniest place in the country, and just south of there, tucked into the foothills of the Richmond Ranges, is 88 Valley, home to the NonStop Adventure Trials Academy.
Trials has a passionate following in this beautiful part of the world, and recently the sport received a new boost thanks to the introduction of a winning concept borrowed from Japan: the Ihatove adventure trial.
Stephen Oliver is a previous multiple New Zealand Trials Champion, and his family's relationship with Japanese trials riders goes back many years. Their friendship with the chairman of the Idemitsu Ihatove Trial, Yasuo Manzawa, was enhanced in 2006 when three generations of the Oliver family rode in the 30th anniversary of that famous trial in Japan.
Ihatove can be translated as Dreamland, and reflects the event's social and fun aspect, as well as the scenery through which it passes. Unlike most trials held in compact areas, the Ihatove includes considerable touring between observed sections, and in Japan, where the bikes are street-legal, they are ridden on roads and tracks as the riders complete daily loops of many tens of kilometers. Idemitsu, an oil company, has sponsored the event for many years.
Stephen's sons Nicholas and Peter returned to Japan in 2008. They rode the Ihatove in company with Takumi Narita, a multiple Japanese Trials Champion whose father Shozo co-founded the Ihatove with Yasuo. Takumi first visited New Zealand in 2009 to compete in the Oceania Championship. When Stephen was invited to hold a New Zealand version of the Ihatove trial in Nelson in the summer of 2010, it was no surprise that Yasuo, Takumi, and two of their friends, Rumi Takahashi and Youji Ishiyama, jumped at the chance to attend.
With cooperation from the local Tasman District Council, which has a policy of supporting Sport Tourism, and long-time sponsor Goldpine, the course began to take shape. Currently trials bikes are not registered for use on public roads in New Zealand, but the Academy's neighbour generously offered his farm property for use, and the prominent Ihatove bridge was constructed to enable the boundary fence to be crossed. Crucially, the properties are large enough to cope without damage under the attack of low-pressure trials tyres, and being working sheep farms, have a number of tracks to access even the most distant boundary.
The concept of an Ihatove trial differs from the accepted trials format in four important ways. Firstly, rather than, say, three or more laps of ten sections, most sections are only ridden once, which places great importance on line selection, as there's no chance to have another attempt. Secondly, the traditional possible demerits per section are changed from 0, 1, 2, 3, 5 to 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 to emphasise the benefit of keeping your feet up. Thirdly, all sections are ridden non-stop, which is to say that the bike's wheels must continue to rotate, compared with the normal balancing at the halt, hopping a wheel into position, and then riding another short spurt.
Fourthly, and very importantly, is the touring aspect. It has been shown that to persuade newcomers to try the sport, an element of fun will encourage their participation, so the sections in Nelson are widely spaced, sometimes kilometres apart, and there is easy trail riding on farm tracks between them. The views from high ridges over the nearby hills are
spectacular and the chance to enjoy this aspect of the competition was one all riders appreciated.
The trial was set up in three loops of varying length. The first took one to two hours to ride and concluded with a set of six sections laid out at the home base, at which the spectators were entertained all day, as those six were to be ridden at the end of each loop. The second loop was a whopper, with some riders spending more than three hours on the course. Two crossings of the famous bridge were made, and extensive use of the neighbouring property allowed riders to have a touch of the Japanese long-distance style of such an event. Riders dodged occasional grazing sheep and mountain goats to reach elevated ridges offering 360 degree views taking in the rugged Richmond Ranges and extending over Tasman Bay toward Abel Tasman National Park.
The third loop was much shorter, and coming at the end of a long and hot day it was the perfect way to finish. The sting in the tail for the Pro riders was a massively long and steep climb on long dry grass, followed by the descent from hell - a scree slope so terrifying that it had to be ridden in a giant zigzag, for fear of plummeting to an untimely demise.
Most sections had three distinct lines, one for each of the classes. Pro riders were at expert level and, naturally, their lines were of the greatest difficulty. On one hillside through tree roots interspersed with loose leaf litter I heard Takumi mutter "Championship section" so Stephen must have got the difficulty rating just right.
Sport riders made up the bulk of the entrants, and their sections were of medium difficulty. That's easy to say, of course, but it was a tiring day, so after a total of about 40 sections and seven hours riding, some were pleased just to complete the course.
The Recreation grade was the least difficult and was designed to be ridden in a flowing manner. This was suitable for riders gaining their confidence before attempting obstacles that are more serious. Modified trail bikes, such as the altered Honda CRF230 that Stephen rode (higher bars, rear-set foot pegs, much lower gearing) and sporting a compulsory trials rear tyre, could be ridden in this grade, as could the older twin shock or classic bikes.
All the sections laid out on the loops were of natural terrain, and included spectacular scenery, waterfalls, native bush glades, hillsides and gullies, rocky streams and banks, blasts up grassy climbs, and nadgery through trees with their exposed and not so slippery roots. The six repeated sections were all very well designed and thought out and included artificial hazards such as giant concrete pipes and tree trunks,
An optional special section, called Risk, was introduced as an experiment, and was as popular with the crowd as it was with the top-level competitors. Of a type never previously tried, on this section the goal was a high score. With the boundary taped, a sequence of flagged gates gave riders the choice of gaining 5 points per gate, or passing by for no penalty. Naturally, the more difficult the obstacle (some natural terrain, some artificial) the more gates that could be attempted, but the risk was that a failure part way through the section ended your ride. The final score in this section was the number of gates times five, minus the total number of dabs taken. Nick Oliver put in some skilled and bold moves here, and was the winner.
What finer way to spend a summer's day than plonking along through an observed section, then riding to the top of a ridge with stunning views over the countryside, before descending into a gully for another competitive section. With 40 sections attempted over seven hours of riding, there wasn't a rider who hadn't finished weary and happy, yet glad to have been part of a new concept in trials riding in New Zealand.
Those wanting even more headed east to Havelock on the Sunday for some low-key coaching and a scenic trail tour. Since everyone was pleasantly tired from the previous day's exertions, the pace was relaxed with plenty of time for socializing over a barbeque lunch. In the morning Takumi provided some pointers on tackling banks and creeks, with all riders having a chance to put their skills to the test and get some one-on-one advice. After lunch it was time to blow away any remaining cobwebs with a brisk trail tour taking in lush paddocks, soaring and plunging tracks, cool green bush trails, and stunning views over the Marlborough Sounds, another of New Zealand's scenic highlights. Even when the action was over, no one was in a hurry to leave, lingering to chat in the late-afternoon sunshine.
There will be another New Zealand Ihatove Trial in February 2011, so feel free to contact the team at Nonstop Adventure NZ Ltd if you would like more information. Details can be found on their webiste: www.nonstopadventure.co.nz
International riders are guaranteed a warm welcome, and February is an ideal month for combining the event with a New Zealand holiday. A limited number of rental bikes is available, so get in early if you'd like to book one. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience not to be missed.
Check out the NZ Ihatove photo gallery under the main menu (photo gallery)