Chapter 1 Toni Bou’s astounding 14 straight titles with new 4-stroke
In 2004, Honda helped Takahisa Fujinami become the first Japanese to win the Trial World Championship. The following year, 2-stroke glory is replaced with a new challenge to explore the possibilities with 4-stroke engines. Honda, with its revolutionary 4-stroke engine, and Toni Bou, would become the absolute champions, beckoning the ultimate golden era of trial competition.
1. Montesa COTA 4RT
In 2005, Honda debuted in the Trial World Championship a new bike, the Montesa COTA 4RT powered by a newly developed 4-stroke engine, sparking a technological revolution. Due to environmental concerns, FIM (Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme, the governing body of motorcycle racing), had signaled the change from the dominant 2-stroke engines, to 4-stroke. In response, reigning-champion Honda (Takahisa Fujinami won in 2004, and with Dougie Lampkin Honda had won five straight titles on 2-strokes) was quick to make the switch to 4-stroke. As other manufacturers battled on with 2-stroke engines, Honda’s lonesome challenge, for which research and development continues to this day, paved the way to reaching higher levels. With a substantial head start, Lampkin, Fujinami and Honda’s developers doubled their efforts in realizing an easy-to-ride, high-performance 4-stroke trial bike.
Their efforts culminated in the 4RT, its exceptional stability highly regarded by Toni Bou, who praised the consistent engine and suspension performance which allowed him to perform with the same consistency. Since joining the Honda team in 2007, Bou has won every single championship. Honda, with its highly-evolved 4-stroke, had reclaimed its Trial World Championship title. A significant edge of the 4RT was fuel injection, a first for trial bikes, which not only enhanced the low-rev torque characteristics of a 4-stroke, but realized high-revving performance of a 2-stroke. The displacement of the water-cooled 4-stroke 4-valve SOHC 1-cylinder engine increased each time it was improved, as if to match track section difficulty and rider demands.
With continual upgrades to the ever-evolving bike, which was the only 4-stroke machine in the championship, Honda dominated. In 2013, Honda introduced twin spark plugs for the engine, where the main spark plug ignites at the center of the combustion chamber, while the sub spark plug was offset. The two plugs allowed four ignition patterns: main-only, sub-only, simultaneous main and sub ignition and phased twin ignition. By using these four patterns to control combustion, the twin-plug phased ignition system significantly enhanced the performance of the factory bike. By ignition in the center and side, low-rev combustion was improved, and also allowed output characteristics, vital in Trial racing, to be adjusted to the rider’s wishes. In conjunction with an evolved ECU (Engine Control Unit), it was a technological revolution. In fact, the twin spark plug engine was so effective, Bou and Fujinami won its debut trial (Round 1, Japan: Bou won Day 1, Fujinami Day 2). Not only was the engine dominating in the world championship, but Tomoyuki Ogawa managed to reclaim the All Japan title after failing the previous year. Beginning with his 2013 victory, Ogawa has won eight consecutive titles.
With his physical and mental strength, Toni Bou had overcome even severe injuries. His path to glory was not smooth by any means, but once he met the 4RT, like fish to water, he honed his talents even further, giving the Repsol Honda Team 14 straight titles by the end of 2020. He also won 14 straight X-Trial titles in the same period, making his total 28. He may even make it 30 in 2021. In the 17 years since 2005, Repsol Honda Team has over 200 podium finishes, and more than 120 wins. In his 15th year since moving to Honda, Bou reached the record for number of victories (116, or 118 including his pre-Honda days), which dwarfs Dougie Lampkin’s 99, and is still unchallenged.
2. Honda RTL250F - RTL300R
Prior to the Montesa COTA 4RT debuting in the world championship in 2005, a prototype competed in the 2004 world championship, in Round 3, Japan at Twin Ring Motegi. Tomoyuki Ogawa finished ninth, a respectable result, on both days. Since 2005, HRC’s RTL250F (related to the Montesa COTA 4RT) was released as a competition bike, and has since evolved into the RTL260F, and then the RTL300R. Honda also introduced a factory bike in the Japanese championship, in which Tomoyuki Ogawa won the championship in 2007 (six years since Honda last won with Takahisa Fujinami). Honda and Ogawa won their second title in 2010. Since 2013, Ogawa has dominated the competition by winning eight consecutive titles.
Chapter 2 Takahisa Fujinami and Honda, 25 years in the world championship
Honda’s journey with Takahisa Fujinami began with his world championship debut in 1996. With the evolution of bike and rider skills alike, Honda and Fujinami made history by becoming the first Japanese world championship rider on a Japanese bike (2-stroke RTL) in 2004. The following year, Fujinami switched to the 4-stroke 4RT, to finish second overall in the championship. In 2006 he repeated his performance, and for the next five years was third overall.
In the 2008 TrialGP, Honda and Fujinami marked their 200th trial. Since then, Fujinami has overcome countless injuries, and in 2016 reached his 300th trial at the Japan GP. His ranking moved up from third, from fifth for four consecutive years. Fujinami was fifth in 2017 and sixth in 2018, but the 2019 at age 39, Fujinami rode his Honda to third overall.
Honda and Fujinami had challenged the world and remained in the top class with a 2-stroke bike for nine years, followed by sixteen years with a 4-stroke machine. A quarter-century in Trials is a world record, and although 2020 marked his worst result since his debut, seventh, it was also the year that Honda and Fujinami set another record of 346 trials, and 4637 championship points, by far the most. His 33 wins places him fifth historically, and he has been on the podium 167 times so far. In 2021, Honda and Fujinami (who turned 41) will continue their challenge.
Chapter 3 An interview with Montesa COTA 4RT development rider, Tomoyuki Ogawa
Behind Honda’s unbeatable bike and rider
Tomoyuki Ogawa’s job as a development rider is to prepare the bike’s basic changes in response to requests from Toni Bou and Takahisa Fujinami. The two riders then make further requests such as “make this stiffer” or “make that softer,” which Ogawa then fine-tunes on the bike and passes his understanding on the the engineers. The engineers develop the updates to accommodate the riders’ requests. Through years of this process, the Montesa COTA 4RT has become by far the most complete, advanced high performance bike.
The more instinctive the bike’s handling, the more the rider can treat it like an extension of their limbs, making seemingly impossible techniques possible. Bou’s bike, which took him and Honda to 14 straight Trial titles, was the result of the hard work and passion of Tomoyuki Ogawa, himself a title holder of the All Japan Trial Championship for eight consecutive years (ten total), acting as interpreter between Bou and Honda’s engineers to develop the Montesa COTA 4RT into the most successful trial machine. Ogawa also has the skill to be able to explain in simple terms, highly sophisticated bike control technology. Ogawa is undoubtedly the person holding the keys to all of the 4RT’s secrets.
1. The ultimate back wheel technique
・How to do a back wheel
One of Toni Bou’s most impressive techniques is the back wheel, where the front wheel is lifted and he can turn the bike, or jump from boulder to boulder, on just the back wheel. Bou is well known as the master of this ultimate technique. The back wheel (also known as the “Daniel” in Japan) is the best example of Bou’s skills fused with Honda’s technology. Tomoyuki Ogawa also does the back wheel in All Japan competition, but how is it done?
“To do a wheelie, you lift the front wheel and move forward. With the back wheel, you first choose a spot, and lift the front wheel, without moving forward. To lift the front wheel, if the rear spindle is fixed (rear wheel fixed on the ground), you open the throttle and the chain turns lifting the front wheel. This is the fundamental principle, but in reality the rear wheel is not fixed, so the rider has to move his weight so that the rear wheel does not move forward. If you’ve experienced hill climbing you’ll know that the if you’re going up a steep incline and you move your body back while opening the throttle, the front wheel will probably lift. It’s the same thing. So, the back wheel is a technique to lift the front wheel while in place.”
The technique involves rotating the chain, but not the rear wheel, and instead lifting the front wheel. By not rotating the rear wheel, you’d imagine that you use the rear brake, but if you apply the brake while doing a wheelie, the front wheel would drop. Do you use the rear brake?
“When doing a wheelie on a flat surface, you use the rear brake, or you’ll move forward. Sometimes you apply the rear brake hard. The trick is finding the angle where the front wheel does not dip. That’s what Toni is good at.
“On an uphill slope, you may or may not use the rear brake depending on the situation. You use the rear brake if you need to correct a mistake or to stabilize the bike.
“You adjust the angle of the bike using the accelerator, clutch or brake, so if the front is too high, you apply the rear brake. Even during a wheelie while in motion, you would adjust the height of the front wheel. It’s the same thing, but there is hardly any margin of error. Toni is the best at finding the precise position of perfect balance, and getting there, in a single swift motion.”
What is the angle where you can balance on the rear wheel?
“This depends on the rider’s build and the bike’s weight. The most important factor is the shape of the surface, which determines the rough angle. But what is that angle? In the past, it was impossible to back wheel on a level surface. The most you could do would be to lift the front and hop on the rear wheel when you couldn’t get over a slope on a hill climb. In that case, the front wheel is too low. Now, you can back wheel on a level surface, so unless the front wheel is high up, it will drop. So, on a level surface, you’ll have to raise the front wheel high.”
・Evolution of the back wheel
How did a back wheel on a level surface become possible?
“That is due to both rider skill and bike performance. For example, Honda bikes are fuel-injected so the engine revs are stable all the time. With an old 2-stroke (carburetor), the revs would go up automatically on a steep climb. That is a big difference. It was too scary to do a back wheel with a 2-stroke.
“I think the Spanish rider Albert Cabestany was the first to do a back wheel on a level surface. I recall him doing it on a boulder in 2000 when I was at the Trial des Nations. At the time I had never imagined to do a back wheel on a boulder. I think Toni didn’t always do it either.”
What do you have to do to keep the front wheel lifted?
“Ultimately when your rear brake is locked, if your angle is perfect, you don’t need the accelerator or clutch so much. There’s a perfect angle where you won’t move forward, backwards, or of course sideways. In this case, your position on and distance from the bike are important. If the bike leans forward, if you lean forward too much, the front wheel drops. If you feel the front wheel starting to drop, you pull back to keep the balance.”
・The advantage of the back wheel
What is the advantage of doing a back wheel?
“If you can lift the front wheel and lock the rear for even a split second, I think there are lots of advantages. I haven’t mastered it yet, but I’m close, so I can tell you that I’m no longer afraid of swiftly dropping the front wheel, because I feel in control of the move. For example, if I was in a situation where I wasn’t sure what to do next, I would think a lot and take the safest option in the end. If I were confident to take the bike to where ever I needed while the front wheel was lifted, and the bike moved as I expected it to, then I would be able to consider other options. That’s what I think is the advantage.”
・How to do a back wheel jump
On November 28, 2020, Tomoyuki Ogawa won the City Trial Japan 2020 in OSAKA, held at the Festival Place, the Expo'70 Commemorative Park in Osaka. In one man-made section, he was on a vertical log around 2 meters high (its diameter less than the bike’s wheelbase and no space for both wheels), and had to jump onto another log quite far away.
You used the back wheel technique, and although your technique was highly accurate, wouldn’t you be scared if the bike wasn’t like a precision instrument? It’s one thing to find the right balance, but how do you jump from there?
“In the past, that kind of section would have been impossible. I would have been too scared if the bike wasn’t like what it is now. To explain how to jump while doing a back wheel, say for example your front wheel is lifted while your rear wheel is pushed up against a step. The accelerator and clutch are doing most of the work. Too much throttle and you fall backwards, so you give it just enough throttle. On an uphill slope, you’d use the throttle enough not to move forward, but also not to spin the rear wheel. It’s the same as a hill start. Trials are like continual hill starts, so half-clutching is vital. You open the throttle, connect the clutch, and when the bike tries to move forward, you let go of the clutch, and the bike bucks. You use that inertia to jump.”
So you use the bike’s backward motion to move forward?
“Even Toni doesn’t open the accelerator from a standstill with the front wheel up, as he would flip over. You build up the power and drop the front wheel for a split second, and then jump. The rear suspension compresses (and you’re tensing too), and once ready, it all comes together, like a rocket taking off, or letting go of a stretched rubber band. You fly.”
2. Evolution of the bike making the impossible, possible
So far, we have learned some advanced bike control techniques from riders including Toni Bou. What about the evolution of the bike that makes Toni’s unique techniques possible?
“Trial, including the All Japans, is all about how not to make mistakes, and how to move as precisely as how you imagined it. When studying a section, the rider imagines how far he would go by opening the throttle so much, or where to engage the clutch and how far up he’d go. I think the main focus of designing the trial bike now is how accurately the bike can match the rider’s mental image. That includes ECU mapping, and the clutch. I think Toni’s outstanding riding comes from his unparalleled physical abilities, strength and stamina, but also from his confidence in the bike to do exactly what he wants it to do.”
・The importance of the clutch
You mentioned half-clutching is important when back wheel jumping.
“To do a technique like the back wheel and stand still with a half-clutch, the clutch can’t be too engaged, nor can it not engage enough because the front wheel would drop. It has to be just right according to the rider’s feel. Say the maximum connection is 10 and the rider wants 5. It cannot be 4. I think the issue now is the matching of the clutch feel with the rider’s feel. There are infinite combinations, including disc material, so there’s always what makes one aspect best, and what improves something but makes something else worse. We continually try to to find the best mix.”
What is the most common clutch position?
“The most common position is when it is dragging. I think it is actually slipping. If were too tight, the bike would move forward. If the clutch is continually slipping, the clutch plate would wear down fast, but trial bikes are designed so the wearing is slow. If you rode an ordinary off-road bike in the same way, the clutch would be worn out in no time. Trial bike clutches are very advanced, and perform very well.”
・The advantage of 4-stroke
What about evolution of the engine?
“It’s the same with back wheeling. Toni is in a world previously unimaginable. Nobody would have thought of climbing a two-meter wall, but now we can. Rider skill plays a part, but it’s the engine. Even Toni could not climb a two-meter wall with a 125cc engine. Matching output feel to rider feel is also vital, as even with a 1000cc engine, if the rear wheel spins and cannot grip, it’s no good. There needs to be power than can be transmitted through the rear wheel, so I think current 300cc engines have just the right amount of usable power.”
Do you think 4-stroke engines are more suited to trials than 2-stroke?
“At this time, yes. We had pursued more torque with 2-stroke engines, and went as far as we could, but it was not enough. 4-stroke engines solved that problem, taking the level up a notch or two. Before the prototype 4-stroke debuted at the Japan TrialGP in 2004, I remember the top riders trying to climb the ‘maiden’s waterfall,’ a slippery boulder on 2-strokes, but they all fell. The prototype had not problems climbing it at all. The torque overpowered the load. It’s sort of in the ‘engine-brake region,’ where the torque is going up despite letting off the throttle. The confidence, understanding the feel, was beneficial in the All Japan as well. With a 2-stroke you’d open the throttle a bit, or you’d connect the clutch, or tried other things, but with a 4-stroke you wouldn’t have to experiment. The bike would do it for you, so you could concentrate on other things. I think that is the main advantage. I also think Toni has gained more confidence since changing to 4-stroke.”
・Twin spark plugs made a world of difference
The twin spark plugs really set the factory bike apart. Two spark plugs means two coils. I would imagine increased weight would have been an issue.
“The engineers came up with the idea of twin spark plugs. We riders would say how we wanted to evolve the bike, but there are limits. How would the engineers overcome these limits? How would they fix resulting problems? The engineers came up with twin spark plugs, which they went on to build. It was a hit, and once we started the tweaking, we found new advantages.
“By increasing engine displacement, the bore has to increase, which reduces combustion efficiency. That was initially why they came up with twin spark plugs, and making sure the spark plugs always worked. In trials, you use the whole rev range, from just above stalling, through to full throttle, which causes increased fuel density or misfires. Two plugs, two coils, and fuel injection is really big. And it can all be controlled by computer.
“For example, we could fire a certain spark plug at a certain region, at certain revs, and at a certain angle of the bike. There were many combinations, such as simultaneous firing, or phased firing. There was a surprising number of aspects we could improve once we started experimenting.
“It made me busier than ever, though.”
14 consecutive titles could only have been realized by Honda meeting Bou, and Bou riding a Honda. The evolution of the bike sounds like a precision instrument, such as a watch or camera made of many small parts, and not allowed even the slightest deviation. Can this be said of trial bikes?
“That will happen, and in some ways it already has. Nowadays we can get data on anything, but there’s a lot of trial data we cannot gathered yet. Trials are that subtle. For example, if you grind a steel plate flat and measure it, there won’t be any issues. But, we’ll know the difference. We’ll feel something is wrong, Human perception is in a realm beyond measurement. Humans are fabulous sensors. Honda’s bikes are already intricate, but there is no end to how we can improve them.”
Precision riders on precision bikes make riding the impossible course possible. The highly evolved bike and rider of today make modern trials so exciting and attractive to the spectator, and present a taste of the infinite possibilities.
3. The “Fuji Gas” legend
Another ultimate rider, popular with the spectators, is Takahisa Fujinami. He has been in the top class of trial competition for a quarter-century, and is already called a legend. In 2021, Honda and 41-year-old “Fuji Gas” continue the fight on the world stage. How has Fujinami been able to keep up his competitiveness for such a long time? Could it be said that one reason is his Honda bike?
“Yes, I think so. A lot has to do with his effort of course, but the bike also helps him, because the closer the bike gets to an extension of his limbs, the better results he can get. No matter how good the rider, he can’t win if the bike isn’t good.
“For example, being able to switch between dry and wet modes is really big, because I think the rider always has preferences for the bike’s performance according to the conditions. Some riders use the mode switch extensively, because it can help bring out the best in their performance, and cover for their weaknesses. Toni is a “living sensor” sort of rider, so he doesn’t use the mode switch much, but Fujinami does. He has his own style, and the bike complements it, by for instance raising output for a high gap. The bike can compensate for over-recovery or when trying too hard gets close to making a mistake. That’s the difference with Toni. And, the bike can be set up for Toni’s taste, or Fujinami’s taste. Fuel injection makes fine-grained changes even easier, enabling the rider to zero in on the right setting.”
So, the capability to strengthen the rider’s strengths is behind the ability for Bou and Fujinami to perform so well for so long.
Recently on Fujinami’s social media account, there was a video of him doing a subtle, yet amazing move. It was probably at his backyard, and when he rode up a wall and lowered his front wheel, it seemed to float down in slow motion, rather than thumping down. How did he do that?
“That’s definitely a back wheel move. The back wheel allows him to increase his precision on stopping on the edge compared to before. The evolution of both rider and bike enabled the ultimate accelerator and clutch control. He’s more comfortable with the front wheel up and the rear wheel resting on an edge, so he can control the front better, such as placing it in exactly the position he wants. He can spend more time lowering the front wheel, so he has more precision. I think that this way, the evolution of rider and bike open doors to unlimited possibilities in trial moves.”
I think one of Fujinami’s strengths is his mental strength. He has overcome many injuries and difficulties, and that’s why he has kept on competing for 25 years.
“He continually puts in the effort to ride, and win at the top level of competition.Some international riders have begun training on bicycles, but I think Fujinami was the first. I think as he ages, there are aspects he has to work harder on. To stay at his best, and try to win. I think he feels the pressure from competing for so long, but I also believe he continues to give it everything he has without a moment of doubt. I can’t believe how far he goes. I also do my best to stay in shape, but Fujinami? He on another level.”
Does he have as much passion as Toni Bou?
“I think so. Toni is also insane in that sense. He has to be to win 14 straight titles. You’d imagine he would take a month off. But no, the week after the world championship is over, Toni is back on the bike. He must enjoy it, and that is his strength. Fujinami and Bou both love trials, so that’s their secret to longevity and their constant evolution. But it’s difficult to really enjoy something. Even if you want to enjoy what you’re doing, it’s no fun if the bike can’t keep up with you. In that sense, the bike is a very important factor.”
2020 marks the 48th anniversary since Honda introduced the first trial bike made in Japan, the 1973 model BIALS TL125. Some engineers say they have the “total inheritance” beginning with Eddy Lejeune and evolved with Masaya Yamamoto and Shozo Narita. Tomoyuki Ogawa inherited his position as development rider from Hideaki Mitani, a top All Japan rider. Honda’s half-century passion for trial racing led to Bou’s 14 straight championship titles, and Fujinami’s unprecedented 25 years at the top level of trials. Tomoyuki Okada also set the record in All Japan, winning the title eight consecutive times, and ten total, on his Honda. These records are ongoing. Overcoming the difficulties the COVID-19 pandemic poses, Honda will continue to make Trial World Championship history in 2021 and beyond.