Writer's Ramblings

Tommi Ahvala - Champion Trials Rider

Written by  February 28, 2005

If you’re not familiar with the sport of trials riding, think about the most hostile terrain you can imagine – boulders, fallen logs, tree stumps, loose rock, incredibly steep climbs and drop-offs, running water, and thick forest. This is the domain of trials riders. Their objective is to ride through such obstacle courses while keeping both feet off the ground. The task requires incredible skill and balance. These riders sometimes seem to defy gravity.

People who attended the Cycles N More Bike Show in Kansas City during the last weekend of January had the opportunity to witness an exhibition of trials riding skills by one of the world’s best, Tommi Ahvala. During each performance, Tommi thrilled his audience with a series of wheelies (front wheel and back wheel), jumps, vertical climbs and drop-offs, stair climbs and descents, rides over a steeply-sloped and narrow pyramid, and other amazing feats. Tommi is able to get his motorcycle airborne without a takeoff ramp. He demonstrated this skill by selecting a volunteer from each audience to lie on the floor while Tommi whizzed overhead, first laterally and then lengthwise from head to toe. Everyone enjoyed the show and many lined up for autographs.

Tommi’s impressive list of accomplishments includes the 1992 World Championship, 1993 World Indoor Championship, 1995 Italian National Championship, and 1999 United States National Championship.

Between shows, Tommi was kind enough to permit an interview.

CC: Please tell our readers a little about yourself.
Tommi: I’m from Helsinki, Finland. I’m thirty-three years old, and I’ve been riding since I was six.

CC: How long have you lived in the United States?
Tommi: I did the World Runs from 1988 through 1997 and came here in 1998.

CC: Please talk about the World Runs.
Tommi: That’s the highest level of trials competition. There is only one category and one World Champion at a time each year. The competition is pretty hard. Riders collect points at ten rounds in different countries. Whoever has the highest point total at the end of the season is the winner.

CC: It sounds like there is a lot of travel and expense involved. I assume riders have sponsors.
Tommi: Yes. The competitors are professionals and are sponsored by the motorcycle factories and different corporations. The level of competition is pretty high, and it’s really a professional sport.

CC: Now that you’re doing exhibition riding, I assume you’re not competing.
Tommi: No. When I came over to the U.S. in 1998 I rode U.S. Nationals in ’98 and ’99, and I became U.S. Nationals Champion in ’99. After that I started doing schools, trying to raise the level of the sport in the U.S. and the general awareness of trials here. I’m doing shows like the one here in front of people who have never seen the sport before. That’s my main target. Gas Gas, a motorcycle company from Spain, actually sent me over here.

CC: For our readers who don’t know about trials, would you please explain what’s involved in a trials event.
Tommi: In trials, you have sections, marked courses that can be anywhere from fifty feet to four-hundred feet long. Every time your foot touches the ground in a section there is a one point penalty. You have to ride over different obstacles. It can be in a stream, in the woods, over logs. It’s the hardest terrain you can find, something you can’t even walk normally. So you have to overcome these difficult obstacles and try to keep you feet on the foot pegs all the time and accumulate the fewest penalty points. It takes a lot of concentration. It’s a very demanding sport. You really have to know what you’re doing all the time.

CC: As well as requiring great balance and judgment, is it pretty demanding physically?
Tommi: It is. When I was competing in World Runs, one competition could last up to eight hours. Nowadays, they last about five hours. So you have to be in very good shape so you can ride standing up for that long. The first thing that normally goes if you are out of shape is your concentration. To really be competitive you have to be in such good shape that after seven or eight hours, you could keep going another two or three hours more. You have forty-five sections during an event normally, so there are many times you have to concentrate and start all over after a mistake or after a good performance.

CC: Please talk a little bit about your equipment. What’s special about a trials bike?
Tommi: Trials bikes are quite a bit different from normal motorcycles. They are kind of like BMX bikes with a motor. You are always standing in trials, so there’s no need for a seat. They are really lightweight. The Gas Gas bike I’m riding weighs only 145 lbs. It has a 280 cc motor, a 6-speed manual transmission, hydraulic clutch, hydraulic brakes, and really low center of gravity. The engine produces lots of torque. The tires are also very different. They have a very soft compound, so you get maximum traction.

CC: They almost look flat when you’re riding.
Tommi: They sure do. The suspension only has about six inches of travel, but the tires give you an extra two or three inches. They really grab around every corner and over every log, in every situation.

CC: Your show is part of Team Extreme.
Tommi: Yes. When I came over here, we created Team Extreme. There were some guys doing some small motorcycle shows and trials, but not on a big scale. We wanted to raise the level of the shows. It’s part of RPM Stunt Tours Network that we are working for. We are individual riders performing at events like this one. When they are looking for entertainment, they call us.

CC: Do you have your schedule laid out for the entire season?
Tommi: Pretty much. The first couple of years were hard because nobody knew who we were or what we did. After performing for a couple of years we established a reputation, and nowadays we are really fully booked. We normally book at least six or eight months ahead of time. I have a little over 200 show days each year.

CC: Wow, that’s a lot of performances! How often are you able to get home to Finland?
Tommi: I’ve seen a lot of interstates and truck stops for sure. I get home about once a year for a week or so.

CC: I met Ben who is your assistant and announcer for this show. Does he travel with you all of the time?
Tommi: Ben has been working with us for a year and a half now. We do have a couple of different announcers working in rotation. They have their personal lives as well and want to spend some time at home.

CC: I assume Ben helps with the driving and set-up.
Tommi: Yes, there are normally only two or three of us at an event. When the show is over and everyone leaves, we start taking all this equipment apart and then sometimes have to travel overnight to the next location. Most people only see the “glamorous” part and don’t realize how much work is involved. It is a lot of fun. It’s rewarding to see the people smiling and really liking what we do.

CC: It’s really a treat, especially for the kids. I’ll bet it’s really cool to see their reaction.
Tommi: It really is. We try to put on a family-oriented show so there’s a little something for everybody. The audience gets to see the show close up. It’s not like the riders are 100 feet away from you. Everyone gets a good view and can appreciate what’s happening.

CC: An appreciative audience must make it easier to put on a good show. Do they energize you?
Tommi: They sure do! When I was still competing I would talk to friends who were already doing shows and they said it was amazing how big a difference it makes depending on the kind of audience you have. I didn’t really understand that until I experienced it myself. You notice what people like and appreciate, so you tend to do that a little bit more. If the crowd gets into it, you also do more and go a little more extreme.

CC: There are quite a number of different stunts that you do as part of the show. Is that all choreographed in advance or do you improvise?
Tommi: It’s a little bit of both. We do have a script we follow. That’s why it’s important that you work with the same announcers so we both know what’s coming up next. Sometimes I get a little out of control or something happens, so we just have to go with the flow and change the routine a little bit. For the most part, we try to follow the script.

CC: I see you have a back-up bike in case of problems with the primary one. Is it pretty reliable?
Tommi: The Gas Gas motorcycles are really durable and have very few problems. Once in a while a spark plug can fail or a tire can come off the rim if I get a little too crazy.

CC: Do you have a favorite stunt?
Tommi: I’m fortunate to have designed the obstacles myself so I get to do all of my favorite moves. There are a few things that I really have to concentrate on, such as coming down from the highest point on the front wheel only. That’s something that’s really precise, and you really have to know what you are doing. Also, on the pyramid when I do a wheelie on the top, I have only four inches to work with, so that’s a little bit risky. Those are the two different points that I really have to watch what I’m doing. For the most part I try to enjoy the whole fifteen-minute show.

CC: How high in the air do you get when you do the jump at the top?
Tommi: It depends on how loud the crowd gets and whether or not my back is sore from a previous performance. The set-up itself is about twelve feet tall and I get about six feet in the air at the top.

CC: Thanks for taking the time to visit with us.

Story and photos by Stripe