Trials riding…sounds dangerous. Trials and tribulations, dancing across hot lava fields, the entire Biblical book of Job. In fact, trials riding, also known as observed trials, is probably less dangerous than other forms of off-road riding, and judging by my daily commute it appears less dangerous than riding on the street.
Rather than outright speed, trials riding puts the emphasis on technique, finesse and balance. The ultra-lightweight motorcycles don’t even have seats; instead the rider stands on the pegs as they navigate over obstacles. Points are given for putting your feet down, stalling or falling over, and the rider with the fewest points at the end of the round wins. If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching a trials rider in action, I highly recommend you do so. Using balance, throttle and clutch control, and an ability to choose the right line, or path, through a given set of obstacles, riders wheelie, bounce and crawl over seemingly impossible terrain, at times appearing to defy gravity.
While popular in Europe, the relatively quiet sport doesn’t appeal to loud-n-proud, “go big or go home” Americans quite as much, and that’s too bad. Trials riding equips you with the skills necessary to handle bigger bikes–on-road or off. And because it rewards patience and finesse rather than outright strength, it’s one of the few sports that puts women on an equal playing field with the guys.
I reached out to 19-year-old Kylee Sweeten, of Oregon City, Oregon, after her epic win at the FIM Trial2 Women World Championships round in Kingman, Arizona, on Sunday, July 30. It was her first win in an international competition, where she not only beat out a slew of tough European competitors but also her friend and mentor, fellow U.S. rider Mattie Hoover. We talked about her background, what it takes to compete as a female on the national and international level, and how to get started riding trials.
Woman Rider – Trials isn’t exactly well-known here in the States, especially for women. How did you get your start?
Kylee – My parents met while riding motocross, and my dad started riding trials when he was in his 30s, so I guess it’s in my blood! I started on dirt bikes when I was five, and rode my first trials bike at seven. I rode in my first competition when I was 14. I was really lucky to have supportive parents (and still do). My dad drives me to local events, or pretty much any event where I don’t have to fly to get there. He practices with me and while he prefers to ride himself, he’s often my minder [The person who spots the rider, catching the bike or rider in case of a fall. – Ed.] at competitions.
WR – Do you also ride street bikes?
K – No, I mostly stick with off-road. I’ve done a couple of motocross races, but it’s not really my thing.
WR – The whole flying 40 feet through the air thing, right?
K – (Laughs) Exactly! The best part about trials is if you crash, there are way fewer consequences. Fewer injuries, less expensive to fix the bike, that kind of thing.
WR – So you just won your first international competition. Tell me about that and how you got to this level.
K – Well, I was never really serious about trials riding until a couple of years ago. I thought, hey, why not try competition? I did my first women’s national event in 2015 and loved it. I rode what’s called the Support line that year. There are five levels that go from easiest to hardest: Clubman, Support, Expert Sportsman (or ES), Expert and Pro. I got a call from Sherco [A trials bike manufacturer. – Ed.] and they became my sponsor.
In 2016, I rode the first half of the year in Support, then the second half I moved up a class into Expert Sportsman. I won a couple of rounds on the national level and qualified for the U.S. Trials des Nations (TdN) team. The TdN is the annual FIM-sanctioned international trials competition where each country sends their best riders to compete. I’d competed in my first women’s world event right before the TdN took place. Then this year I qualified for the TdN team again.
At the FIM World event in Arizona, I was in 8th place at the end of the day on Saturday. I’d made some stupid mistakes, putting my feet down on one easy section which got me five points, the most points you can get in a section. Then the next lap I cleaned it. So they were just stupid mistakes. The next day, Sunday, I really wanted to do better and I knew I could. So I just focused and did it! I won!
WR – That is so awesome! So as you’re competing on the world stage, what (if anything) have you noticed about the female trials riding culture in Europe that’s different from here in the States?
K – Well they’re usually better than us! (Laughs) Their skill level in general is higher, they’re more dedicated. But there’s a lot more rider support, since all the manufacturers are there. There seem to be more serious riders than there are here. But I have to say, the women I met over there are still very supportive of one another and of me when I was there. There aren’t many of us, so we females still have to stick together!
WR – So what advice would you give to girls and women who are looking to try trials riding? How do you get started?
K – I would say the best place to start is to find the local club in your state. Do a Google search, because it’s such a small sport that not everyone is AMA-sanctioned. There aren’t any women’s clubs as far as I know–in fact there are less than ten female competitors on the national level. The nice part about that is, you’ve got a great shot at success!
Having good balance is the most important skill in trials riding. So anything you can do to get better at that, like slack lining…anything that requires balance. Technical mountain biking is good too since it teaches you how to assess the terrain and choose a good line. I’ve noticed that the skills you gain from trials riding translate into other sports, but it’s rare that it’s the other way around.
Trials riding is like bouldering in that women are often better at it than men! I think it’s because we’re more patient when we’re learning, and being small with good balance is more important than being big and strong.
WR – Who is your hero? Who do you look up to?
K – Maddie Hoover and Rachel Hassler for sure. Maddie has been doing this a long time. They’re both my friends and we’re all on the 2017 TdN team. Also Christy Williams. She’s a Canadian and she’s an 11-time National Title winner.
WR – So how do you balance your school and personal life with competition?
K – I think my advice would be to choose your priorities and then stick to them. It’s OK if it’s school first, then family, then trials. Just stay committed. But the thing to keep in mind is that with trials riding, your skills go stale quickly. If you stop practicing, it’ll take time to build back up again. I don’t ride trials because I just want to win though, I do it because I love it.
Want to learn more about trials riding and see if it’s something you want to try? Check out these links: