Little-known motor sport, with passionate fans, visits Sanford

Jun. 08, 2014 @ 04:59 AM

The U.S. Open is the talk of the town as far as sports tourism goes, although one local man brought about 50 people to town this weekend for a tournament of his own.

Greg Hales has a sprawling 100-acre farm off of Henley Road, although for the past month he has been working on cultivating not crops but motorcycle trials courses. He put together more than a dozen stages, in which riders had to snake their way through trees, up boulders, across logs and down steep inclines — with a shallow stream waiting to embarrass anyone who picked up too much speed.

He thanked his wife, Wendy, profusely for letting him dedicate so much time to making the course. But she said she wants to ride it herself later and is especially interested in one rock that’s nearly as tall as her, which the most experienced riders climbed at a seemingly impossible angle.

Greg Hales got into trials riding recently, he said, joining the Carolina-Virginia Observed Trials Club. He’s the only local member of that group, and no other Sanford residents came out Saturday to compete. But despite a lack of local interest, several participants said the 32 riders who signed up made this one of the more successful competitions in years for the regional group.

A group of riders came up from Florida to race, including Carl Davis. An expert rider, Davis was the unofficial favorite to win this weekend’s competition — but he said that while he does enjoy the competition, he also simply loves seeing the scenery all over the country as he travels for races.

The 52-year-old also said he likes the fact that this is one sport in which the older guys often beat the younger guys.

And it is mostly guys. However, the best youth rider in the country is a girl, 15-year-old Madeline Hoover. The Raleigh resident was in Sanford on Saturday with her dad, Gary, who is himself the champion of the 60-year-old division. Madeline said she’s one of about 20 girls active in the sport; only five of whom regularly compete at the national level. And she loves the looks on boys’ faces when she beats them.

“Everyone’s like, ‘Whoa, that was a girl,’” she said. “And that feels good.”

For her dad, though, it’s more about defeating natural obstacles than breaking down gender barriers.

“You’ll always have that satisfaction when you conquer that obstacle,” he said of why he keeps racing at age 61.

In fact, 61 isn’t that old for this sport, even though his daughter does tease him about his age. One active rider in the Carolina-Virginia club is in his 80s, and 49-year-old Keith Bell said he’s about the average age — and he still has to be careful when he’s riding against the 60-, 70- and 80-year-olds.

“It’s not like they’re just putzing around,” he said. “They’re real competitors.”

Bell, of Cary, helped Hales set the course up with some others from the Triangle and Fayetteville.

“I picked it up back in ‘06, but I used to ride as a kid,” he said. “Dirt bikes were real popular back in the ‘70s. I think a lot of people are like me — waited ‘til we got settled down and then started looking for ways to get out of the house.”

Davis, who came up from Florida, had the same story. He added that it’s a great family sport, too, since there are different tracks set up for people of all skill levels, and the travel aspect appeals to everyone. His own son, in fact, got so into the sport he’s now ranked fifth in the country.

But no matter how good you are, Davis said, it’s at least a great way to get in shape. The bikes weigh about 160 pounds and don’t have seats. So riders need some muscle to steer them, as well as balance and core strength to control them on the tricky runs. Of the 32 middle-aged riders out Saturday, there was not a beer belly in sight.

Many of the riders, despite living all over the state or even in different states, were friends. And Madeline Hoover said her best friends actually live out West. They’re riders too, of course, and they all stay in touch with Skype, social media and other modern advances.

“It’s really fun,” she said. “We have a great trials community all over the United States.”