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Scrambling for a solution

It used to be called ‘scrambling’, and in the 1960s it would be on the telly on Saturday afternoons with Murray Walker commentating. The BBC introduced its Grandstand Trophy with riders such as Arthur Lampkin, Vic Eastwood, Jeff Smith, John Banks and Dave Nicoll, who almost became household names. Then, in the evening, people would go to watch speedway – you could sit in an air-conditioned bar with your favourite tipple and bet on the results.

Seems like a different planet now. Along with the rest of life, off-road motorcycle sport has become more extreme. Scrambling morphed into motocross, which, in turn, became arena or stadium cross or possibly extreme moto or similar. The price has been the loss of grass-roots activity: club ra cing. Fewer people want to do it, so they would rather watch, which means putting on a spectacle – faster, higher aerial acrobatics. Add to this the inclusion of mixed-ability riders, and there’s a greater likelihood of injury. And it’s not just the riders who are at risk, as witnessed by the recent tragic accident at the third round of the Revo ACU British Motocross Championship at Foxhill, which resulted in the death of a photographer and serious injury to a marshal, who were both hit by a riderless machine.

This increased risk is starting to impinge on the sales of motocross machinery, particularly for younger riders. As one industry retailer who’s witnessed this transition commented, “In the 1970s and 80s it was all about clubs. You could lay a track out on any bit of rough ground and anyone who was half decent on a road bike could be a proficient off-roader. The tracks back then didn’t have double or triple jumps, so everybody was a potential customer – we were selling upwards of a thousand off-road bikes a year. Since then, tracks have become very specialist, and you virtually have to start at six years old on beginner bikes and circuits and then build your way up to jumps as soon as you can.

“Gone are the days when the local club would mark out a circuit and take it down again at the end of the day. That doesn’t happen anymore because the more extreme tracks need to be permanent, and it takes heavy-duty equipment to create them in the first place. Now that you’ve got spectator sports and fewer participating events, you don’t often get adults coming into the shop to buy a motocross bike for themselves because you have to start at a younger age and work up to the big stuff. If you want to start riding off-road in your 20s it’s more likely to be enduro than motocross. As a result, many motocross dealers are suffering, and some have been forced to close.”

The move away from grass-roots motocross has impacted other areas too. The demise of TMX perfectly illustrates the downward spiral as a weekly paper. Local club events were in decline, and fewer readers were looking for name checks, which meant fewer people were buying the paper. Therefore, advertisers were less keen to support it. Fewer sales, less advertising revenue – good night. The fact that it has been revived as a monthly magazine amalgamated with DirtBike Rider speaks volumes. It’s a reflection on a changing market. Whether the manufacturers have taken this on board remains to be seen, sales will tell. If the number of dual-sport trail and enduro machines continues to increase in popularity, and motocross mounts don’t, then the message will be clear: bring back stubble racing and sell more bikes to ‘ordinary’ punters.

I contacted the ACU for comment and spoke to Richard Blyth, who has a motocross background and is business development and media manager dealing with website content and affiliating new clubs to the ACU; also present was Matthew Wear, ACU general secretary, who confirmed that the investigation into the incident at Foxhill was ongoing. He also said that the number of current ACU license holders has exceeded pre-Covid levels.
Blyth acknowledged that the modern motocross club rider had changed, no longer embracing the role of club event volunteer. “Riding members no longer want to volunteer at events and would much prefer to turn up, pay their money, have their race and go home.

They no longer bring along a friend to help out. The demand for local motocross is still there; for example, the first event of the season at my local club had all 200 places sold within minutes of entries opening four weeks before the event, and this was similar across the country. But as the season has progressed, in some areas of the country, riders are less mindful of when they ride and are making entries to certain events at the last minute. The organisers may then have to cancel because they need to know in advance that they can afford to pay the few thousand pounds required for medical and other facilities.”

Wear concedes that entries were affected at the start of the season due to members being unfamiliar with the new Sport80 entry system, but this appears to have settled down now. Another factor affecting numbers is the price of new machinery. No one wants to spend upwards of ten grand on a new bike only to have to take it back to the shop in a couple of weeks and pay for major work to be done. Some dealerships are known to have stopped selling new bikes in favour of used examples. But, of course, all used bikes were new once and if fewer people are buying new machines…

Blyth went on to say that the lack of volunteers has led to more permanent tracks being established, as this is how the sport has evolved. Consequently, these are used by riders of all abilities. Additionally, practice for group placings on race days can be manipulated by the will to win. Some riders deliberately go slower to qualify for a lower group, making them more likely to win. As a result, this can lead to more incidents.

In order for the sport to continue to thrive, it has to attract new riders. Whether they come from spectators being entertained by watching Arenacross or whether they have a mate who rides in a local club and persuades them to come and have a go.

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