Trial

The Road To Making Honda’s Challenge of Winning the Trial Championship a Reality - Second era 2-stroke (water-cooled / Pro-Link) Honda’s Passion for Motor Sports Brings a New Golden Age

The Road To Making Honda’s Challenge of Winning the Trial Championship a Reality - Second era 2-stroke (water-cooled / Pro-Link) Honda’s Passion for Motor Sports Brings a New Golden Age

Chapter 1 The TLM Series, Honda’s first 2-stroke

They say that something is gained when something is lost. By shedding its insistence on 4-stroke engines for Trials, Honda would explore the possibilities of 2-stroke engines, and gain more victories and glory than ever before.

The TLM series kicked off Honda’s foray into 2-stroke trial bikes. As was the case with Honda’s first generation 4-strokes (air-cooled / twin shock), the TLM series was initially developed and released as production bikes, and customers were key to increasing Honda’s 2-stroke trial bike awareness. HRC racing bikes were later developed, and 2-stroke factory bikes appeared in the All Japan championship. These developments and experiments would lead to Honda returning to the world championship.

To understand the history of how Honda 2-stroke machines made their mark on Trial World Championship history for the first time, the path towards 2-stroke Trial bikes, beginning with the TLM series, needs to be explored.


1. Honda’s first production 2-stroke trial bike: Honda TLM50

Honda’s first 2-stroke trial bike, the TLM50, appeared during Honda’s first trials era (4-stroke, first generation). In 1983, following the 4-stroke TLR200 and TL125, the 2-stroke TLM50 went on sale in 20th of December. It was introduced as a lightweight, slim trial bike for beginners, powered by a 49cc air-cooled 2-stroke engine, with twin rear shock absorbers. It was a hit with children and adults alike, as the 50cc bike was easy to handle and felt safe to ride, and as the TLM50 gained market traction, 50cc trial events sprung up around the country.



It was a hit with children and adults alike, as the 50cc bike was easy to handle and felt safe to ride, and as the TLM50 gained market traction, 50cc trial events sprung up around the country.

In 1985, Honda released the TLM200R. It was dubbed a bike suitable for serious trial competition and casual touring, equipped with a lightweight and compact air-cooled single-cylinder 2-stroke engine, and Pro-Link rear suspension. The bike gained popularity in the countless touring trial events.



On the other hand in 1986, Honda released the 4-stroke TLR250R as a “lightweight and slim trial sports bike suitable for the increasingly popular trial sports competition and touring, powered by a newly designed 4-cycle engine.” New endeavors, such as its split center tank, a world-first for trial bikes, helped the TLR250R gain attention. The following year, the popular TLM200R was revamped.

In 1988, Honda released the upgraded TLM220R, with a larger 216cc engine and hydraulic disk brakes for the front. This model maintained its popularity through its facelift with new colors in 1993, to 1994 when production ended and Honda’s road-legal trial bikes were no longer in the catalogs. The TLM series remained popular with many, for many years after. Over a quarter-century since its first appearance, the TLM220R is still race in touring trials. The TLM50 is often seen at the now-popular vintage trials, and 40 years since its debut, is well regarded by the young and old alike as a light, approachable and easy to ride bike to enjoy trials for many years on.


2. Takumi Narita, challenging the world on his Honda TLM250R

HRC’s first commercially available competition racer that gained the market’s attention was the 1987, air-cooled 2-stroke RTL50S for kids. Its characteristic mono-shock, clutch and small wheels made it a rare entry-level trial bike for kids, and is still handed down within the family from generation to generation. Its livery, the same pink as the 1987 4-stroke RTL250S (ridden by 1986 All Japan champion Masaya Yamamoto), also drew attention. Children who were hooked on the joy of trial riding through Honda’s kids bikes were now able to dream of riding Hondas on the world stage, and becoming world-class Japanese riders.

In the 1988 All-Japan Trial Championship, the 2-stroke TLM250RW factory bike debuted, and with Masaya Yamamoto as its rider, finished the season fourth overall. The following year saw the HRC TLM240R and TLM250R racers going on sale, and Takumi Narita winning the Japanese championship. Honda had succeeded in taking back the crown after three years since Masaya Yamamoto won in 1986.



Takumi was the eldest son to Shozo Narita, who raced on Honda’s first trial bike, the 1973 BIALS TL125, in the Scottish Six Days Trial (see Chapter 1, First era). At the time he was only two years old, but 16 years later, became the All Japan champion at age 18 in 1989, and began his international career in the World Trial Championship the following year, riding the newly-released TLM260R (air-cooled / 2-stroke). Father and son, two generations of riders had gone from the Honda-nurtured Japanese trials, and challenged the world. It was an historic moment for trials competition.



In 1990, Narita’s best result on his TLM260R was sixth in Round 6, the West German Grand Prix, and he completed the season 12th. The following year, again on a TLM260R, his best result was fifth in Czechoslovakia, completing the season eighth. In 1992, Narita became the first Japanese to ride for Italian Beta, and using his experience gained with Honda, became the first Japanese rider to finish on the podium, third in Round 4, Ireland. Since retiring, Narita is still involved in organizing the TrialGP Japanese Grand Prix, and plays a vital role in the development of Trials in Japan.

Naoki Kobayashi was another Honda TLM260R rider to compete on the world stage, making a wild card appearance in the Czech Grand Prix, and finishing 42nd. Kobayashi also competed in the All Japan championship as a Honda factory rider, ranking third in 1990. He exited the scene at the end of 1991, but three years later signed a contract with Honda to demonstrate his trials skills at events and act as school instructor. He is still going strong to this day.

Another rider who made a worldwide impact on his Honda 2-stroke TLM was Yasuyuki “Wheelie King” Kudo. In 1992 the Japanese rider, who had shown off his trials skills in TV commercials for instant adhesives in Japan, made an attempt to set a Guinness Book record on a modified TLM220R modified, and succeeded in setting an amazing 331km record for a continuous wheelie.



Since then, he has traveled Japan to demonstrate his bike skills.


Chapter 2 The Birth of Montesa Honda

In 1982, Eddy Lejeune set Trial World Championship history on his Honda RTL360 by becoming the first rider to win the title on a 4-stroke bike. Lejeune and Honda went on to win the title in two successive seasons, tying the record set by Spanish Bultaco (1976 - 1978). Since then, 2-strokes dominated, with Italian Fantic, Beta, and Aprilia, and Spanish GASGAS taking subsequent titles. In response, Honda teamed with Spanish manufacturer Montesa, who had been competing in Trials since the European championships, precursor to the World Championship which started in 1975. Montesa had won the championship in 1980 with rider Ulf Karlson, but had since been in financial difficulties due to the depression.

In 1982, Eddy Lejeune set Trial World Championship history on his Honda RTL360 by becoming the first rider to win the title on a 4-stroke bike. Lejeune and Honda went on to win the title in two successive seasons, tying the record set by Spanish Bultaco (1976 - 1978). Since then, 2-strokes dominated, with Italian Fantic, Beta, and Aprilia, and Spanish GASGAS taking subsequent titles. In response, Honda teamed with Spanish manufacturer Montesa, who had been competing in Trials since the European championships, precursor to the World Championship which started in 1975. Montesa had won the championship in 1980 with rider Ulf Karlson, but had since been in financial difficulties due to the depression.


1. Marc Colomer, Honda’s first world champion riding a 2-stroke

Montesa Honda released their new machine in 1994, the COTA 314R with an aluminum twin tube frame housing for the first time HRC’s water-cooled 2-stroke engine. In the same year, a related model, the Honda TLR260 was released in Japan, marking it the first time “TLR,” used only for 4-strokes until then, applied to a 2-stroke bike. Both bikes had solid frames and inverted front shock absorbers.

With know-how accumulated through racing the COTA 314R, an epoch-making new machine, with weight reduced to the bone, would debut in the 1996 world championship - the COTA 315R prototype. Spanish rider Marc Colomer won five of the ten rounds that year, not only winning back the crown for Honda, but becoming the first world champion on a 2-stroke bike.




The COTA 315R was released a year later, in 1997, alongside the corresponding Honda RTL250R’s release as a competition model in Japan. On its prototype RTL factory bike, Takahisa Fujinami debited in the world championship (details to follow).

Since the COTA 315R was released in 1997, Dougie Lampkin, Marc Freixa, and Takahisa Fujinami would go on to win many trials on factory bikes.

The drastic change in the engine, from 4- to 2-strokes, was accompanied by dramatic improvements such as air- to water-cooling, twin- to Pro-Link mono-shocks, enabling Honda to take advantage of its dominating technological prowess to go on to make history.


2. The COTA 315R and “King” Dougie Lampkin

The champion of the inaugural Trial World Championship in 1975 was British rider Martin Lampkin (Bultaco). His son, Douglas, would make his mark by winning the championship in 1997 with Beta, and continue to win for the next two years. During this time, the odds of Dougie winning went up, from 13 out of 19 rounds in 1997, 15 out of 18 in 1998, to 18 of 20 in 1999.

Honda chose Lampkin as its partner from 2000, the year Honda’s factory team in the Trial World Championship became “Montesa HRC,” and the COTA 315R officially became Honda’s factory bike. In the team’s debut season, Lampkin won 17 of the 20 rounds, proving the bike’s competitiveness.




He continued to win: 11 wins from 18 rounds in 2001, and 10 wins from 16 in 2002. The following year, 2003, was a different matter, with Lampkin winning only four of the 18 rounds. The bike was not to blame. It was his teammate Takahisa Fujinami, who won six rounds (more in Chapter 3). In any case, Honda won an historic fourth consecutive title, with Lampkin also setting a championship record with seven consecutive titles, earning him the informal title of “King.”

2000 was also significant for Honda and Trials in Japan, as it was the year the inaugural TrialGP Japan was first held at Twin Ring Motegi in Tochigi. Supported by it Japanese fans, the 20th running of the TrialGP Japan was held in 2019.



Honda’s dream didn’t end there. It had an unstoppable bike, the “King” Dougie Lampkin, and a world championship round in Japan. But it was only natural for Japanese fans to yearn for a Japanese world champion, competing in TrialGP Japan.


Chapter 3 Honda RTL Makes the Dream of a Japanese World Champion Come True

Dougie Lampkin was undoubtedly a champion of champions. He was a “thoroughbred” born in England, where Trials originated, and son of a world champion. The Trial community in Japan long wondred Could a rider from the orient, born and raised in Japan, win in Trials, a competition nurtured and matured in Europe? It all began in 1973 when Honda released the first domestically made trial bike, and the All Japan championship began. A decade later in 1983, Lejeune showed the world his skills on a Honda, shocking many, who then wanted to replicate his success.

But, ten years on in 1993, five-time world champion Jordi Torres (Beta / Gas Gas) from Spain would surpass Lejeune. The world’s top class seemed to move further and further out of reach. To make the prospect of a Japanese world champion seemingly further distant, came along Hontesa HRC’s “King” Dougie Lampkin. This only made Takahisa Fujinami, a Japanese rider shouldering the expectations of the Japanese fans, even more determined.


1. Fujinami meets the Honda QR50

In 1982, Honda released a Motocross competition bike, the QR50. As with Honda’s first 2-stroke trial bike, the 1983 TLM50, and air-cooled 2-stroke kids bike, the 1987 RTL50S, the company has always strived to share the joy of riding with novices and children. Many would choose the path of professional racing, and some became world-renowned riders. The QR50 was developed as an educational bike powered by a 49cc air-cooled 2-stroke engine, and with a dry weight of 35kg, was easy for a child to handle. Honda planned to sell 3,000 units in Japan. One of those units found its way to Takahisa Fujinami, three years old at the time.

A present from his father, Yoshitaka Fujinami, Takahisa rode his QR50 dreaming of becoming a better rider, and eventually did. He was aware that from a young age he hated losing, as his pride was outrunning his father on a larger bike.


2. Encounter with Ichiro Kuroyama who once challenged the world on an RTL250S

Fujinami’s talent bloomed once he started bicycle trial racing (BTR) and met Kenichi Kurokawa, two years his senior yet already the BTR world champion.

“In 1987, Ichiro Kurokawa went full time on a RTL250S in the world championship, and raced two rounds the following season on the same bike. His results were not stellar, but his son, Kenichi who had accompanied him, became world champion in the mountain bike trials, and would later on graduate to becoming an accomplished trial rider.” (First era, Chapter 2)

Fujinami was inspired by Kuroyama, and with his father’s help joined Ichiro Kuroyama’s “Black Team” to train in Europe. In 1990, ten-year-old Fujinami won the BTR World Championship (in the 10 and under class). It was only natural that he then considered becoming world champion on a motorcycle.

Ichiro Kuroyama was able to successfully convey to the talented students he took to Europe, the knowledge from his own experience that was required for a Japanese to win on the world stage. Apart from Kenichi Kuroyama and Takahisa Fujinami, one of the students was Tomoyuki Ogawa, current All Japan champion. Kuroyama, Fujinami and Ogawa all became BTR world champions, and later moved on to Trials, and are now successful riders in the World Championship (including the TrialGP Japan) and All Japan racing. In other words, Honda’s activities supporting Ichiro Kuroyama had a large impact on Fujinami and Ogawa. As an aside, in the 1990 Trial World Championship, young Kuroyama, Fujinami and Ogawa were on-scene at events, such as the Belgian GP, to watch World Championship rookie Takumi Narita ride his TLM260R, and to gain a feel for what they would later be involved in. It was as if for an instant, riders influenced by Honda’s activities were in the same place beyond space and time.


3. 1996: Honda entrusts “Fuji Gas” with the RTL

1996 was the year that Marc Colomer won back the title for Honda on his Montesa COTA 315R prototype, becoming the first world champion on a 2-stroke. The following year, the COTA 315R became a product. That year, the COTA 315R’s close relative, the Honda RTL250R went on sale in Japan as a competition model. And in the previous year, the RTL’s prototype factory model was ridden by Takahisa Fujinami in the world championship.



At age 15, Fujinami became the youngest All Japan champion. Honda entrusted him with becoming Japan’s first world champion. At age 16, Fujinami was already determined to take on the world on a Japanese bike, commenting “I’m Japanese, so I want to go to the world stage holding the nation’s flag.” That path, however, was long and hard.



Fujinami had to defeat the world champion Lampkin (Beta), who was four years older, more experienced, and was ranked high in the world championship since 1993. Lampkin was 188cm tall, and weighed 82kg. Fujinami in contrast, was 170cm tall and 64kg. The difference was big. Fujinami’s weapon was his alacritous use of the throttle, which Honda engineers called “insane” the first time they saw him ride. In his debut round in the world championship, Fujinami was the only one to rid up a cliff, full-throttle at that, but his excessive pace took him off-course. The crowd, however, loved it. His love for full-throttle earned him the nickname “Fuji Gas.” And to give Fuji Gas a bike that he could thrive on, Honda engineers prepared a bike that would easily rev high.

In 1977, the RTL250R went on sale as a bike that could “not only compete in the All Japans, but the world championship.” The bike was developed to be the “world’s lightest,” and was advertised as “not only incorporating the knowhow gained through Honda’s factory team endeavors, but Montesa Honda’s technologies developed through years of world championship racing. The engine and chassis are completely new, designed with the help of Honda’s road racing factory team’s technologies, resulting in the world’s lightest trial bike with high cost performance, and high potential.”

The RTL250R was “a true replica of the 1996 world championship-winning HRC factory RTL. Its newly designed grid cross-section aluminum twin-tube frame, Pro-Link rear suspension and Paioli front forks, and SHOWA rear dampers designed just for the RTL realize its superior balance. The engine delivers power consistently from low to high revs thanks to its newly developed 3-ring piston and Dell'Orto carburetor. The five-speed gearbox matches any terrain. And, most importantly for a trial bike, agility is realized through minimizing weight, down to 72.5kg, the world’s lightest trial bike.” It was indeed the lightest, factory bike-specced, newly designed and developed bike equipped with components already well-trusted in Europe. Six-speed gearboxes were mainstream, but the RTL opted for a five-speed unit, thanks to its solid engine output characteristics. Titanium coating for the front forks and inner tubes was also novel at the time.

In the fourth round of its debut season in 1996, this new, ultra-lightweight trial machine ridden by Fujinami demonstrated its outstanding performance by claiming the top spot on the first day (trials spanned two days at the time). In 1997 at the final round in Germany, Fujinami and the RTL rode to their first victory, which at age 17, made Fujinami the youngest trial winner. His overall ranking jumped from 7th in 1996, to 4th. In 1998, Team HRC prepared a factory RTL especially tuned for Fujinami, who completed the year 5th. The following year, Fujinami became the first Japanese rider to rank 2nd in the championship.



From 2000, Lampkin became Fujinami’s teammate in the Montesa HRC factory team. That year, Lampkin rode his COTA 315R to 17 victories out of 20 rounds, giving Honda the manufacturers title.



Lampkin went on to win each year through to 2003, giving Honda four straight titles for the first time. He had become the unbeatable rider on an unbeatable bike. Fujinami, however, was not standing still. Finishing second for five years straight, Fujinami was honing his skills.



In the 2002 TrialGP Japan (which Honda organized at Twin Ring Motegi since 2000), Fujinami achieved a home win, challenging the title, and nearly winning it. In 2004, Fujinami won eight rounds, including four consecutive wins, to become Japan’s (and Asia’s) first world champion. Honda had finally made the dreams of many Japanese fans come true.



Honda had built a new golden age, proving its unrivaled 2-stroke technologies, but the time had come for a complete change. The FIM made it clear that 4-strokes would be mandatory due to environmental concerns. Honda promptly began its challenge to move to 4-stroke engines. European manufacturers had also announced 4-stroke trial bikes, but it was only Honda that maintained its development efforts all along. Now, Honda would have to face a new, lonely challenge, which would take the company to an even higher stage.




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