Zen and the Art of Classic Motocross

I’m just in the process of re-reading Robert Pirsig’s 1973 Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the umpteenth time. I first read it as part of a class given by Red Des (cant remember his full name) as a Science Technology and Society module at the Polytechnic of Wales in 1987. It’s the most publish philosophy book ever, mainly because it’s interesting, readable and makes some very relevant comments of the impact of technology on society. Some people comment that it’s content now seems dated; personally I feel its especially relevant as internet technology dominates all our lives.

What makes the book interesting for some in that it uses a road trip taken in 1968 from Minnesota to San Francisco in 17 days as it’s backdrop. Pirsig and his son, Chris, initially accompanied by friends John and Sylvia encounter good roads, bad roads, good weather and bad weather as they journey across the plains, Dakota’s and the Rockies.

Of particular interest is that neither pair were Harley mounted. Pirsig’s criticism of friends John’s approach to maintaining his BMW (he doesn’t and relies on the reputation of reliability) is very much in contrast to his regular servicing and understanding of his own bike, a Honda.

Whilst the main theme of the book explore the subject of quality and Pirsig’s own exploration of the subject that resulted in him receiving electric shock therapy in the early sixties, there is a sub-theme that touches on some recent discussions I’ve had those classic motocross events I’ve been to.

There should be sound logic and a good hypothesis for all questions and their solutions. There is always of course more than one hypothesis and this is what got Pirsig thinking.

What got me thinking was the British Classic Motocross Championship (okay this is a bit of leap, but hey anything is possible). I’ve a Zen approach to racing; it’s not about winning, its about participating, loving the bikes, working on them and participating in the society that surrounds it. The comments below shouldn’t be taken personally; criticism is the analysis of something, not having a go at something or someone.

This year, one of the British Championship classes changed from pre-1972 to pre-1974. What didn’t change was that it’s invite only and that if you want to ride a Japanese bike, you are not going to get an invite. Not that I’m going to win anything, but also I’m not going to do any harm and I know there are good riders who could win an event on a Japanese bike (all names withheld to protect the guilty). I guess I’m surprised by the Ecclestone-iansec approach to a national championship, having for a number of years particilated in the National Sammy Miller Trials Championship without ever troubling the podium, but enjoying the event, the people and the scene that saw me tackle great sections between Devon and Cumbria. You could ride any brand of bike, as long as it either met the age criteria or had twin shocks on the back. Trials was always the place to find the oldball, 118cc Alta Suzuki [[ Made in Wales, Neath I think, around 1970 during the ultralight era of trials that killed the HT5 and other British bikes.]]anyone ?

There’s plenty of discussion on online about the health of the sport and entries ( for example, this thead ). Japanese bikes are cheaper than British and in the main are cheaper than European two-strokes, so make them affordable to riders, both to purchase and run. They can be competitive in the right hands and a £400 bike can be a winner. Is that the problem ?

I know that there are other exclusions on Japanese bikes (and carburetors) at some clubs, and I’m glad that even people in Essex appreciate 1974 Japanese bikes (taking one over next week).

However, please don’t see these comments as personal criticisms. This is one view, may not be correct. I guess I’m arguing for the Darwinian evolution in classic motocross now, replicating what took place in the early 70’s.

I wrote an article for the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club’s journal, Tansha, last year. I took some photos and made some notes at Clyro. Whilst everyone knows that Japanese bikes had a big impact post 1975, it was surprising to see so many Japanese pre74 bikes including Elsinores, KX’s and TM Suzuki’s. Though my MX was the only Yamaha on the line a couple of seasons back, I’ve seen a lot more recently and not just MX’s, but some competitive DT1’s [[Theorectically you could race a pre68 Yamaha, maybe a project for the future]], RT2’s and DT2MX’s (the former available in the UK) as well as a couple of early (and quick) YZ125 and 250 A’s. It’s a healthy scene and maybe I’ll run my own pre74 Japanese-only series. Ah bollocks, I’ve just contradicted my own argument. Robert Pirsig wouldn’t approve.

Not enough racing, too many meetings ?

The bikes are languishing in the garage, and whilst it’s a good chance to catch up on maintenance I decided to go racing, but with my 1975 Scorpion boat something that wasn’t possible last year.

However, enough of this melancholia; lets look at the problem.

I’ve had more returned and cancelled cheques this year than in the previous 3 seasons and its been a good summer weather wise. It’s not the weather then, so on to some other facts

– good meetings, at good tracks, get entries; therefore the Nostalgia, North Devon (Atlantic), Thornhill, etc get good entries.
– regions with few clubs and meetings get entries (Pre65 and Mortimer for example)
– well advertised meetings, with firm dates at the beginning the year, get entries.
– flexible, approachable entry secretaries also help
– the 20 quid late entry fee is pointless; rather than getting a late entry, you won’t get one..
– distance is usually irrelevant if it is a good meeting;

Onto my own personal view, it all comes back to the meeting at the beginning of the year to discuss fixtures; needs a benevolent dictator (or cricket like selection committee) to actually _decide_ what is running and when.

Some simple rules:
– use previous years figures on entries, cancellations etc to see what has happened. If an event was cancelled in 2013, why this happened and what might be needed to be done to avoid it in the next year.
– look at the map; and make a decision on geography on where meetings are running.
– restrict meetings if you think there are too many, with similar classes running at same time

The entry fee at £30.00 seems reasonable, at least if you get 3-4 races and more if you have second bike. Getting to the venue is potentially significantly more expensive and it’s still cheap motorsport. Ah, whilst a few people have commented on the increasing cost of bikes (in particular pre68 ones) you can still go racing relatively cheaply, and classic motocross bikes are unlikely to go down in value.

For the decision after a few seasons is to go for Quality, which is always a difficult thing to quantify and measure [ you can always go off and read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Published in 1974, its a bit about bikes and a bit about the period, but it’s mainly the [ most published philosophy book ever. ]].

What makes quality :
– obviously a good track
– good organization
– good number of races, and classes to suit your bike

However, there are other factors:
– is it near the beach or shops, or other attractions for the family if you are going for weekend
– are you mates going, to share transport and have a laugh with
– how far is it ?

I’ve raced in England, Wales, Belgium and even Scotland this year (and I can safely say the Thornhill meeting was one of best I’ve been to), but it’s always good to get dates in diary early, as in my case it lets me plan around the kids, girlfriend and what country I’m going to be in.

I don’t know will chair the date meeting for 2014, or who is responsible from AMCA, but before letting clubs have the dates they want, evaluate 2013 performance and use this as input. Too many bad, cancelled or date-changed meetings are not helping.

As for encouraging people to race classic motocross, more on this later, as I’m saving it up.

Down in Devon

Busy week, so no real to write it up, but you could write it up really quickly.
– the big hill
– big holes, too many twinshocks ?
– rain, sun and wind
– large entry
– cider

However, this would of course not do the event justice. Even the trip down there and back are worth a couple of paragraphs.

Great location above Combe Martin

The course at Berrynarbour overlooks the sea, and is one of the best locations in the UK as a classic track. The much mentioned hill is steep, and for a bike with lacklustre brakes, its got to be taken gently, to avoid missing the off camber bend at the bottom, and ending up in the wolf sanctuary beyond.

Mark stayed away from ambluance

The trial on Saturday afternoon was proceeded by Saffron and I walking down to Combe Martin for lunch (and scrounging a lift bank). The trial showed that I’d not ridden for a while and the limitations of the TY, which needs a strip down to sort the brakes, especially the rear which is non-functional. Kevin won it from the team, after fishing the blue paper from his carb, which had resulted in a number of 5’s on the first lap. Mark was only a couple of points behind him.

Kevin's new 500 Husky had only outing

Racing on Sunday followed a night of wind and rain and a bit of attention to the cider collection in the beer tent (avoid Orchard Pig, not the best). Good music and entertainment.

Steve James; not his day

After practice on the SC500 it was looking a bit slippery on the wet grass and managed to drop the bike twice on the same lap. I decided to then give the recently finished TT500 a spin round the track. Broke the kickstart, but good ole Yamaha and the one from the SC500 also fits so started it up. All good till the hill, where the bike started to misfire. Basically the bike was running a little rich, and fouling the plug a bit too quickly. Therefore parked it up and focused on the SC500 for the days racing.

Andy Carter in the 2nd British Championship race

The British Championship races were pretty closely fought over the 15 minutes, but more of that later. With the late cancellation of the sidecars (due to lack of entries) a third twinshock race was added, so probably around 80 of them in the 150 entries on the day (a well supported event for 2013 it seems)

More airtime

First race out for me went well, though some quick guys out of the 15-18 people on the line (it was a British Championship weekend so…). Begun to notice that I’m taking it too easy on the SC500 to some extent, and that I also need to get the handling sorted.

Firstly, I don’t chance gear often enough, as you make good use of the wide powerband and the wide range on the 4 speed box doesn’t help. There are some interesting mentions about using the close ratio TY gear cluster so will need to check this out as an option.

Flying in Devon

Kevin went out on his newly acquired (and scruffiest in the paddock) Husqvarna CR500 (circa 83-84) in the first race, but had fun hanging on up the hill. Mark wasn’t far behind, and managed a back of the field tussle with a Maico.


Organisation could have been slicker on race day, with long gaps between races, so didn’t finish racing to 17h30, and with a three hour journey back in summer traffic. That said it is a great weekend event and one people tend to make a holiday of. Good fun.

Apologies for the brevity, more write-ups to come during the week when I’ll be travelling for a lot of it.

Yamaha TT500, the quick rebuild

It had taken me longer than planned, but after picking up the bike in February, it had been a stop / start affair, which had seen battles with the wheels and rims, understanding that the suppliers who service the (once) buoyant XT / TT restoration industry are a little short on facts at times, and that restoring one yourself brings the love and affection, and satisfaction.


With this little orange beauty love comes gently, and as Swiss Toni starting a TT500 is like making love to a beautiful woman. Don’t start it like a two-stroke as it will bite back. From cold, flick down the choke on the Mikuni, but keep the throttle shut. Find TDC and go just a bit further and you should manage to start it. Open the throttle and you’ll get a healthy kick back. When warm, no choke required (and no throttle).


I have replaced the vacuum Mikuni, with a standard VM34 and this made an immediate difference, probably as it was a new one from Allens Performance. For any project, getting a new carb, is a great investment and removes a lot of headaches. The ignition is still on points and I’ve heard poor feedback on some of the electronic replacements, though the Power Dynamo unit looks good, but is expensive.


Gone for road legal enduro tyres and will get an MOT later this week. Dating letter etc all done, so will hopefully be good fun on a couple of the trails. Will take it to the North Devon Atlantic MX this weekend to see how it goes. It’s not going to win anything, but should be good fun up the hill.

There are plenty of mods and engineering exercises for the TT500 and whilst there are some great Aberg HL reps etc out there, I like something original with the patina (and smell) that goes with it. Excellent.