The only American to win a world trials championship, with his pivot turns and bunny-hops California’s flamboyant Bernie Schreiber was a god-like figure to a whole generation of young riders, changing the face of the sport…
Words by Sean Lawless
Photos by: Iain Lawrie, Kinlochleven; John Honeyman; Chris Sharp Photography; Stephen Postlethwaite; Blackburn Holden III; Alain Sauquet; Eric Kitchen; Fin Yeaman; Len Weed; Claudio Pictures (Jean-Claude Comeat); Jean Caillou.
Main photo: Eric Kitchen copyright
This article first appeared in Dirt Bike Rider Magazine, March 2018.
I was a spoilt brat when I was a kid. When your old man’s the Editor of Trials and Motocross News you get all the best machinery and all the best kit – bikes that are still in a developmental stage, the latest line in Ellgrens – but the one thing I wanted more than anything else was a pair of Bernie Schreiber-signature Alpinestars.
I was nine years old when Bernie won the FIM World Trials Championship and to me – and most of my trials buddies – he was the man. Tall, handsome and with style for miles, he had the same aura of California coolness that the likes of Bob Hannah and Broc Glover exuded. Sure, I had lots of role models from much closer to home to choose from but mighty Martin Lampkin – who lived less than sixty miles away – or Finnish iceman Yrjo Vesterinen didn’t capture my imagination in the same way as the alluring American did back in 1979.
Sadly, I never did get those boots – I’d never have been able to fill them anyway – but by way of consolation I did get to spend a couple of very enjoyable hours on a Skype call with him back in January after he responded to my friend request on Facebook.
Now living in Zurich with his wife – a tax lawyer with a consulting powerhouse company – and their young son, Bernie may have moved away from his home state the best part of forty years but he still possesses that laidback, easy-going SoCal cool.
“I grew up in Los Angeles and I had a paper route after school for quite a few years,” he says. “I was riding a Stingray bicycle and we had a lot of hills and I always enjoyed trying to do wheelies down them. I only had a brake on the back so I’d just balance. My father noticed that I liked bicycles a lot – besides for just delivering papers. There were some hills behind the house and I’d build a little ramp to make a jump. I just liked being on two wheels.”
When I think of SoCal in the ’70s I automatically think of motocross although, to be honest, if I think of SoCal in the ’80s, ’90s and beyond the last thing I would think of is trials. So how did Bernie – the greatest trials rider America has ever produced and a genuine icon of the sport – get involved in the first place?
“My first motorcycle was actually a Kawasaki 90 and we used to go riding in a place out in the desert called Little Rock. A friend of my father’s told us about it so we went there and one day this friend came out and his son was riding around in a circle standing up and I didn’t know what that was! We asked what he was doing and were told that he was practising for a trial at Saddleback Park.
“So I went down to Saddleback and there were quite a few kids – one of them was Jeff Ward whose father was out there riding trials as well in the adult class. I rode the Kawasaki – I had footpegs on the back so I tried to stand up on those to see if I could lean forward riding up the hills and I kinda liked it.”
It’s no surprise to discover that Bernie was a natural and he quickly progressed. Moving up to a 125cc Bultaco, he was soon competing against adult competitors despite being barely into his teens.
“I got a little deal on a bike – the first Sherpa T250 – and I started doing much better. I was in the Amateur class, then the Expert class and at that time they had the Master class – that was the first time we went to the El Trial de Espana where I got to see Sammy Miller for the first time. That was a big deal – I think it was back in 1972 or ’73.”
El Trial de Espana, an annual event started by US Montesa importer Fred Belair, doubled up as a fund-raiser to send young riders across to Europe and to this day remains a major event on the SoCal trials calendar.
“About a year later there was a trials school with Mick Andrews in California. Sammy and Mick were the two riders who impressed me most – especially Mick. They were the role models for me at the time. Then they had the world round in the US at Saddleback Park in 1974 – it was really muddy and I got to ride with an X on my bib because I was under eighteen.
“There was Alan Lampkin and Martin Lampkin – not too many riders came from Europe, I think there was maybe ten of them – and I actually did quite well and finished it better than any other American rider.”
At the time only a rider’s best seven results from the thirteen-round series counted which explains the poor turn-out of European riders. Bizarrely, it was also actually a round of the FIM European Trials Championship which had crossed the Atlantic for the first time in preparation for the inaugural full world championship the following year.
Because of his age Bernie doesn’t feature in the results from Saddleback but his finish would have put him at least in the top eight – not bad, even given the limited European presence, for a fifteen-year-old.
“El Trial de Espana sent a delegation to Europe to watch the world rounds and when they came back there were a couple of people who also set up trials events and they made them a lot harder for the Master class. They tried to make sections similar to what they saw in Europe.
“I won the trip to go there once and then I won it a second time when I was under eighteen – I went one time to Barcelona and saw the world round and visited the Bultaco factory. Then I went back again for the Scottish in, I think, 1976 which was when I rode Charles Coutard’s bike. I took it as a spectator because he’d broken his wrist so I changed into his clothes and rode the Ben Nevis sections.”
At the time, Southern California was the epicentre of US trials and the Schreiber household played host to a four-time Spanish champion who was keen to mix business with pleasure.
“I was riding the national championship and Bultaco came to visit me. Manuel Soler came and stayed with us for a while and we rode together. I think he came for the experience to visit Los Angeles but also to see how I was and to report back to Bultaco. I was kinda scouted out.”
Then came the game-changer that would alter the course of Bernie’s life…
“I was sponsored by a local dealer – Steve’s Bultaco – who were just providing a bike and then the importer at that time, John Grace, flew out from West Virginia to visit me and my father and asked if I’d like to compete in the world championship. They wanted to give me the chance to go out to Europe and ride with the rest of the Bultaco team in 1977 to see how it went and I finished in the top ten almost every event.
“If my results had have been bad I’d have probably never seen them again. To be honest I didn’t think I was going to stay. It was quite tough for me – we didn’t have all the fancy stuff that these riders have today – and travelling was a different thing back then.”
He initially moved to Belgium and then Spain but the factory figured its American hotshot would feel more at home speaking a language he understood so Bernie relocated to England where he spent two years living with Pete Hudson – the Competition Manager for UK Bultaco importer Comerfords – and his family at West Byfleet in Surrey.
“I was working in the shop a little bit, helping to set up bikes and doing things like that in between the season otherwise it would have been quite difficult so they really supported me but it wasn’t so easy times for the brand because Bultaco had already started to have difficulties by 1978.
“Still, it was really an adventure. A lot of fun but always wet, always raining – I used to joke that I had a lot of friends in the UK and told them to call me when the sun came out but I never heard from them again!”
Vesterinen took his second title in 1977 but Bernie’s eventual seventh-placed finish with podiums in first Spain and then Germany showed huge potential. Vesty then clinched his hat-trick of titles in 1978 but Bernie matched him win-for-win and finished just twelve points behind in third place. The scene was set for his historic 1979 campaign…
Bernie celebrated his twentieth birthday three weeks before the opening round in Northern Ireland where his championship got off to a bad start when a big crash and subsequent bent forks handed him a DNF and no points. A seventh second time out in Rhayader at the British round – twenty marks behind winner Malcolm Rathmell – wasn’t a lot more promising, nor was sixth at round three in Belgium.
A week later in Holland, Bernie claimed a fourth before winning in Spain. It was the start of a run of six consecutive podiums – including further wins in the USA and Sweden – while his rivals struggled with consistency. With two rounds to go it was a two-horse race with Bernie leading the defending champion by nine points but, at the penultimate round in Finland, Vesty slashed the deficit to just three points as he came home third while Bernie slumped to seventh.
The title was decided at Ricany, around fifteen miles south east of Prague in the Czech Republic. With the pressure on, Bernie rode out of his skin to drop just thirteen marks – the lowest score of the season and also the biggest winning margin – with Ulf Karlson nineteen marks further back in second.
“I was excited to win. I was excited for Comerfords who had supported me, I was excited for my parents and of course for the Hudson family who had also supported me when I was living there. That win was important for me – not as an American or a non-European, I was just happy to feel like I was the best rider.
“The reason I say that is because I was competing against Martin Lampkin who had been world champion in 1975 who was on Bultaco, then I had Vesterinen who was a three-time world champion on Bultaco, Manuel [Soler] was on Bultaco – we were on the same bike so in the end it was kinda the best rider won.
“There were no question marks and I was happy about that, even if it was just one time.”
With his first world title in the bag, what Bernie did next seems crazy – he jumped ship and signed to ride for Italjet. Although the Italian manufacturer had been around for over twenty years and had enjoyed success in small-capacity road racing, its trials project was still in the fledgling stages but pressing financial concerns – along with the wave of confidence he was riding – persuaded Bernie to make the move.
“Signing for Italjet is always a question mark that comes up in my career. Why did I go there? There are reasons for that. Leopoldo Tartarini at the time was the importer for Bultaco in Italy – he saw the situation coming and he thought he could take over.
“At the time I left Bultaco I didn’t get paid for three months – I never got my championship bonus because they were insolvent and I was a rider, an external consultant – so I had no financial means. He made an offer and I took that risk. I didn’t have so many financial offers and he made a lot of promises – what they were going to do, bring the team and bring the mechanics. They were going to try and bring Bultaco back in another way so I took that risk and went to Italjet.
“You think ‘okay, you’re the best in the world’ so the bike doesn’t really matter, the equipment doesn’t matter. I moved to Bologna, I started to learn Italian – it was an experience. The problem was that I was a rider, I wasn’t an R&D person. I could test ride things but I was interested in riding, I was interested in winning – I wasn’t interested in going out and giving feedback on how to develop the best bike in the world. They thought they could just develop whatever they wanted. They thought ‘Bernie can win on anything’.”
Tartarini is a famous figure in Italian motorcycling. The son of a road racer, he also raced professionally and – despite once turning down a factory ride with MV Agusta because his mother wanted him to manage the family motorcycle dealership – achieved considerable success. When he became disillusioned with selling bikes for other manufacturers, the family started Italjet in 1959.
“He was a nice man but it just didn’t work out. His expectations were ‘I can make whatever I want and you do whatever I tell you to do’. He was very supportive but at the end of the day it didn’t work. In the beginning we called it a Greentaco – a Bultaco painted green – and during that first year there was a prototype stage of making some modifications and at one point that bike really was one of the best bikes in the world but it was a one-off model.
“I said ‘let’s just keep that, look at Honda they have one prototype’ but then they tried to make a production bike which was totally different and that’s when we started to have some problems.”
Bernie had to wait until the fourth round of the 1980 championship before he took his first win of the season and was back on top of the podium at round six. He then suffered no-scores in Switzerland and Germany due to mechanical problems before sweeping the final four rounds but ended the year second, ten points behind Karlson.
For 1981 Bernie was mounted on the production bike and struggled to sixth with both inferior machinery and a lack of motivation.
“It was a really tough bike to ride – it was very stiff, it was heavy, it had Pirelli tyres instead of Michelin and it was just not a good year for me. I was not motivated anymore. I think I had a few podiums but my only dream was to have again a proven, winning bike.”
After winning the 1981 title, Burgat left SWM for Fantic. Bernie picked up his ride and stayed there for three successful years, finishing runner-up in 1982 and ’83 and third in ’84.
“It was a good bike and I really enjoyed my time at SWM. We had Martin Lampkin on SWM in ’82 and at the time they were developing the Jumbo especially for Martin because he was aggressive and he was strong and the 320 just didn’t have the power for him. I think if I would’ve worked more on that 320 rotary Rotax engine instead of moving to the Jumbo…
“Instead I had to change to a completely new product and that was difficult. Eddy Lejeune was coming strong and he had a lot of support from Honda and his family and it was tough for me – I was isolated in Italy and I never had that kind of support. He had his younger brother, his older brother, his father – he had money, Honda had money, he had a training programme.
“I don’t want to give a lot of excuses but the sport had started to change. It became more of a team sport than an individual sport and that was a complete change.”
Bernie won two rounds in 1984 – in Great Britain and Germany – to take his victory total up to twenty but his win in Osnabruck was the last time he’d top a world championship podium.
“At the end of ’84 SWM sold everything to Garelli – the team, the people – and at the time everyone was going to monoshock and we were still making twin-shock trials bikes. I rode two events, they told me I wasn’t focussed, I told them the bike was shit and we got into a dispute about that.
“I told them ‘no problem, we can just rip up the contract and stop right now or I can continue and try and finish in the top fifteen and you can keep paying me for shitty results which I think is not good for you’. I also told them I wasn’t going to rip up the contract and then sit at home and couldn’t guarantee that within a couple of months I wouldn’t be riding some other brand and then we would see if it was the rider or the bike.
“They said ‘no, we don’t want that, we’ll just pay you and you do nothing for the rest of the year – go on vacation until the contract terminates’. I said ‘that’s fine with me, have a nice day’ and that was the end of the story.”
In 1986 Bernie joined Gilles Burgat on Yamaha, ending the season seventh with a best finish of fifth in Sweden, before a switch to Fantic for 1987 netted him his fourth and final US title. He also scored points in the two world championship appearances he made but Bernie’s priorities lay elsewhere…
“I really enjoyed riding the Yamaha. It was a good bike – a lot of fun – and I got some pretty good results. I won some events – not world championship rounds – and really enjoyed riding. I also really liked the Fantic but that was kinda the end. I was teaching trials and doing some other things.”
It’s perhaps fitting that Bernie, a rider who did so much to stamp his own flamboyant style on world trials, called time on his career just as Jordi Tarres – who won the first of his seven world titles in 1987 – was spearheading a new era in the sport.
While many top professionals continue to ride at a lower level after retirement, Bernie really did quit the sport – although he staged a one-off comeback ride on a Bultaco at the 2008 Robregordo and in 2011 in a two-day classic trial in France, competing against old foes including Vesty, Coutard, Bernard Cordonnier and Soler.
“I hadn’t ridden a trials bike for years and they threw me an SWM Jumbo – I think they’d even cut the flywheel down so as soon as you turned the throttle the thing hit you in the head! It was a little bit difficult at first but it was fun and after one or two laps I started to get the feeling back.”
Living with Bernie…
Thank you to www.retrotrials.com for allowing us to publish this excerpt from a piece written for the website by Pete Hudson, Bernie’s former Competition Manager at Comerfords.
“I remember this young lad of 17 came over to Comerfords from America. He didn’t have anywhere to go and didn’t have anywhere to stay. He had come over with Marland Whaley and Len Weed to do the world rounds. He was a bit upside down and didn’t know where he was going so I took him home.
“My two boys just idolised him. He was like an older brother to them. Of course, Bernie would go off to the factory and then come back and we would go off in the van here there and everywhere. I would take Colin Boniface and Peter Cartwright as well to some of the rounds.
“I really just tried to keep Bernie’s head on. Although he was a quiet boy off the bike, on the bike Bernie was flamboyant and would play to the crowd. He could do all of the tricks and he liked to show people that he could do them. Bernie was the first one to do the pivot turns – riding on the balls of his feet instead of the insteps – and bunny-hopping.
“When I saw him doing this I remember thinking ‘trials is on the change, this is really different’. He got a lot of basic coaching from a bloke called Norm Sailer at a ski lodge in Donner Pass in North California. He got a lot of influence from this guy.”
“Bernie lived with us for two years and, of course, became part of the family. Bernie just wanted to progress and progress – he’s a world champion, that’s what world champions do.”
US of nay!
America’s trials tribulations…
In 1979 Bernie was the youngest ever motorcycling world champion in the FIM’s history but while he got lots of coverage in the European specialist press, back home – then as now – trials didn’t command the headlines.
“Those were good days for the Americans. We had Kenny Roberts, we had Brad Lackey, we had the speedway rider Bruce Penhall – there were a lot of great riders and champions coming out of the United States in those days so the American press had plenty to talk about besides a trials rider.”
This disinterest certainly contributes to why Bernie remains the only world trials champion to be produced by such a great motorcycling nation but he feels there are other factors involved.
“I’m disappointed there’s no other US riders but I’m not surprised. I just don’t think they have the system or any desire. Trials in the US is very small. You have the NATC [North American Trials Council] and then you have the AMA [American Motorcyclist Association] and the AMA never really supported trials ever in the history of the sport in the United States. They never did anything for me.
“The NATC (AMA) were trying to grow the sport but based on their philosophy that Americans are different and we have to do the sport in our own way and it’s about having fun and we don’t want to make sections too difficult and maybe that was best for the sport.”
But it’s not just the US that’s taken a back seat in trials – the record books tell a tale of almost complete European domination with only Japan’s Takahisa Fujinami able to break the stranglehold on one other occasion.
“Until 2004 in the history of the sport I was the only non-European world champion. Nobody really talks about it from that perspective – I don’t think anyone has probably thought about it.”
Don’t forget the SSDT!
While the 1979 world title was undoubtedly the highlight of his career, Bernie’s list of accolades is long and illustrious and includes four AMA titles (in 1978, ’82, ’83 and ’87) plus a string of indoor wins and victories in other high-profile events.
“Winning the Scottish Six Days [in 1982 and the only non-European to do so] was very important – people used to tell me that if you hadn’t won the Scottish then you hadn’t won anything, especially in the UK. Then you had to win a British world round [he won twice, in 1982 and ’84] because that had meaning. There was quite a bit of stuff like Kickstart and I won lots of indoor rounds but they didn’t have it as a championship back then.”
Bernie was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 2000 and in 2004 was one of the first five inductees in the NATC Hall of Fame.
Life after trials
What Bernie did next…
“I’ve been an ex-pat for forty years. My wife’s from Lithuania – we’re both ex-pats – and we decided Zurich was a good place for our family. My two daughters are in Europe so I’m not going back to the US and, besides, I like Switzerland.” [Bernie has dual US/Swiss nationality]
Since retiring from trials his professional life has remained every bit as colourful as his sporting career and he’s moved from one role to the next, always looking for something that is challenging, stimulating and entertaining.
“I worked for a lot of manufacturers – I did some project development stuff whether it was for Alpinestars or Yamaha or Michelin. I did a lot of different things. I wrote a book with Len Weed so I kinda became almost an author.
“Then I had to do a transition into business so I started those trial schools and then I got involved with Malcolm Smith.”
Alpinestars was importing Malcolm Smith products into Italy and through that connection Bernie started working for the Italian company before starting his own company in France – Schreiber Group Europe – which he ran for six years making, among other projects, his own mountain bikes, Kamikaze.
“I was doing all kinds of stuff. Helping US companies – Answer products, Manitou forks, all these products – set up distribution. So from 1992 to 1997 I was basically running my own company and doing all kinds of services with bicycle companies and some motorcycle stuff and then I got involved with Tissot and they asked me to come and work full-time internally. My company was small, I didn’t have a lot of experience so I thought going to work for a big multi-brand, multi-national group was a great opportunity.”
Bernie moved to Switzerland and spent the next ten years working for Tissot watches which, along with around twenty other watch brands including Omega, is owned by the Swatch Group.
“During that time it grew from a 100 million turnover into a billion dollar company and the sponsorship didn’t exist so everything that was built there that you see today basically I was involved in – everything from ice hockey to cycling.
“When I first got there they were involved with the UCI [Union Cycliste Internationale] – they’d signed a timekeeping agreement but that was the only contract they had at the time. We went from there and took MotoGP, got involved in supercross, motocross, ice hockey, fencing, NASCAR, we had athletes like Michael Owen. I personally signed Nicky Hayden two weeks before he won the world championship.
“After ten years I had a career break – that was enough for me. I met my future wife and decided to move on. Then my son was born and that changed everything. I took a break for almost a year-and-a-half – then I had a call from the CEO of the whole Swatch Group who sent me to the US for three years on this golf project.
“It was a fabulous opportunity – I got to work in a huge industry with Omega – and I had a great time and met a lot of great, very interesting people.
“When I came back to Europe the president of Omega left the company, the management completely changed, I was commuting an hour-and-a-half each way to work each day and decided that it was time for me to move on so I left Omega at the end of 2016.”
“In 2017 I was involved in some projects with e-mobility bikes and 2018 working with Ryan Pyle an outdoor TV adventure. In 2019, I celebrated the fortieth anniversary since my world title and was my comeback year riding Classic events and executing Trials schools.”
“2020 will be a surprise with new and interesting developments on the horizon. Promoting the sport for all is my focus.”
Meet the author – Sean Lawless:
49 year old Sean Lawless rode his first trial in March 1978 at Back Cowm Quarry on a TY80 Yamaha. His father Bill Lawless started Trials & Motocross News (TMX) in May 1977 which is how Sean became involved in trials. Sean rode pretty much every weekend until the age of 17 when he “discovered public houses and the ladies that frequented them!” He has been a journalist specialising in off-road sport for 30 years and was editor of Dirt Bike Rider for 12 years. He now works as a freelance journalist and edits the Motocross Diary for TMX.
© Article Text: Sean Lawless/Lawless Media UK – 2019.
Bernie Schreiber facts:
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“A GOAL without a PLAN is nothing but a DREAM” – Bernie Schreiber 2019
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