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People Profile – Richard Gilham – Sidecar Trials Enthusiast

Left to right, me and my son Miles negotiating a tricky section at the first round of the British Championship this year

I’m a Cranleigh lad, born in Mount Alvernia Hospital, Guildford, when my parents were living in Mead Road. I was born in 1963, a memorable year when President Kennedy was shot and the beginning of Beatlemania. I grew up in Cranleigh, went to a local nursery school and to Hesketh School which was in Bridge Road, where Hesketh Close is now. We would wear our little burgundy blazer and cap and carry our satchels as we went off to school.

I enjoyed my time at Hesketh school especially as there was plenty of sport. Sport took place on the playing fields nearby, complete with running track and the like. Those fields are covered with houses now. It was quite a big school, well it seemed big to a six-year-old.

Me (age 6) in the ‘egg and spoon’ race at Hesketh school playing fields

My dad was a Civil Engineer here in Cranleigh running his own company, Daycon who built all the warehouses in Little Mead Industrial estate and business was good. My parents thought a private education would be best for me so I went off to Newells and Desmore Prep School out in Handcross, just south of Crawley, until I was 13. I found it quite hard really, I wasn’t unhappy but found it difficult going off to boarding school and only coming home on a Saturday afternoon then returning on the Sunday, having had just one night at home with my family. There was strict discipline at the school, in the early years. I was only 8 ½ when I went there. It did shape me into being quite an independent person. I was at boarding school until I was 13 and then went to Brighton college for a year, following in my brother’s footsteps. He’s about two years older than me.

I really enjoyed sport at school, it was how I passed my time. I played rugby, football, soccer and anything athletic. I won the Victor Ludorum at 13. I think I won all but one sport on sports day. I loved running, long jump, high jump, everything but mostly rugby.

Me on the left and my brother Paul at Hesketh School, Cranleigh

When it came to academics, I really enjoyed Maths, Physics, Art and Geography, although some of my school reports said, ‘I wish he worked as hard in class as he does on the rugby field!’

When I was only about nine years old, I became interested in motorbikes and started riding motorbikes at the weekends. Even though my dad had never been a fan, he got me a small Honda 70cc bike, and my passion began. I can’t really remember what spurred me into it. There’s no history of mechanics in my family although my grandad worked on Spitfires during the war at Brooklands, so it’s possible a bit of his skill was passed down through the genes and I became hooked on mechanical things, motorbikes especially.

Me at 18 years old, waiting for the start of my first British Championship round in South Wales

I played rugby at boarding school most enthusiastically until I was 15, then I left and moved home to start at the Royal Grammar school in Guildford. My parents had decided to move my brother back from boarding school and I soon followed, so we could both be home every evening. The RGS was a fantastic education and I was thrilled to be going to school so close to home. I thrived there and carried on playing rugby and other sport.

It’s always been dirt bikes for me, I loved off-road competition. I had it bad, because in the early 70s our home in Bramley had a big garden, about 6 acres so we rode our bikes there all the time. I started competing in trials when I was 15 but I wanted to do motocross. I was introduced to the Surrey School Boys Trials Club, which is still going strong today, a very enthusiastic club. It was based more Chertsey way, but they ran events locally near Guildford too. It’s a great way to introduce young people to motorcycling and understand the safety of it. Some great characters ran the Club and their enthusiasm for the sport was very evident.

Negotiating trees at a Surrey schoolboy trial 1977

Many boys dream of being a professional sportsman and to a certain extent, I was pretty obsessed with motorbikes at that point and was riding them all the time.

If we were at home on Saturday afternoons we would often watch the World of Sport Motocross. Dad and Mum took my brother and I to a few motorbike events at Tunnel Hill Pirbright, Aldershot and watched the motocross there. I’m probably on one of the old archives! It has just never left me, I still just absolutely love it.

My Morris Minor nicknamed ‘Minor Adjustments’

As I grew older, I used to work in one of the warehouses my Dad built in Little Mead. There used to be a lot of Cranleigh Freight Services lorries arriving from the continent all the time. The lorries were delivering and collecting all over Europe. I would work there some weekends and during holidays and I became fascinated with large trucks and transport and got into motor vehicle engineering. I built a special car for myself when I was 17. I bought an old Morris Minor and restored it, putting in a bigger engine, from an MG and adding all sorts of bells and whistles.

This led onto me going to college and studying vehicle engineering for 3 years, meeting many friends with the same interest. I bumped into a guy in Cranleigh and he was into sidecar trials. He rode with his brother but unfortunately, he had a disagreement with his brother and was looking for someone to take his brother’s place. I was only 16 at the time and was riding a moped on the road.

I loved being on the trials bike and competing with other riders

We started doing some local sidecar trial events near Aldershot, mostly on the MOD land. In those days a lot of motorsport happened around that area. They were quite isolated places; it wasn’t like formula 1. I really liked riding the sidecar but I wanted to drive rather than be the passenger. So I borrowed Paul’s sidecar one weekend and took it to my parent’s house and another friend joined me. He had never been on a sidecar before but we had a mess around at home and he passengered for me. In the end I bought an old bike, had a sidecar built and we started riding together as a team. There were some very interesting moments while learning but all enjoyable memories.

We ended up riding together for quite a number of years. We competed in British championships all over the country, and took it very seriously. We subsequently did quite a few years of sidecar motocross, which I’d always wanted to do. That involved all the rough tracks and ‘scrambling’ as it used to be known back in the day. But by then I was married and my first 2 young ones had come along and things became expensive. A weekend could cost a great deal in the 80s, paying for all the tyres, fees, hotels everything.

You just had to keep your balance

There were also many evenings in the week, working in my garage fixing up the bike. Workwise I drove lorries for a living to begin with, then I grew tired of leaving the family so I changed to an office job, working for Cranleigh Freight Services. CFS actually helped with a little bit of sponsorship for my bike, along with Jewson’s and a few other local businesses. We finished third in the British Championship one year so we were pretty good and very competitive, winning a couple of British Championship rounds. We were ‘knocking on the door’ as they say.

To define my passion, I think it’s the comradery of riders that’s a big thing, being around like-minded people. I love the obstacles and the variety of challenges in each event and every type of terrain. I love competitions. It doesn’t matter if I’m playing in a rugby match or riding a bike, I enjoy competing, and that drive is still there! I love the build up to the event and then it all happening, the excitement, anticipation and preparation. Doing the best to fix and improve the bike.

My Dad’s Daycon company vehicle on the industrial estate, getting ready for the Cranleigh Carnival

We would do all our own mechanical work. I had a friend who worked with me – Steve Ragless, who was a local lad too. These days he’s not involved though he carried on riding with a few other people after I retired from the sport. We were very close friends and did it all together.

I was really sad when I finally stopped. Family life had taken over. I’d begun working in the building industry, greatly influenced by my Dad. A lot of my family are in the building industry, the process of putting things together, from the design to construction has always interested me. My brother and I ran our own business for about 8 years, and he still runs the building company today.

My little girl Hesta in the background and my son Miles on my Triumph Tiger

I became quite ill in 1995 when I caught bronchial pneumonia and was seriously ill for about 8-9 days, and off work for about 2 months. I came to the conclusion that standing outside in the winter, often on a roof building wasn’t the best idea. So I returned to working in the CFS office for a short time, which felt like a backwards step. Then I was randomly offered a job at P&P Glass, when chatting with the founder and I ended up working for them for 23 years.

Around that time I met a guy who was married to a cousin of my wife, who wanted to ride the London to Brighton race. I’d done a bit of mountain biking and agreed to do it with him as it sounded like good fun and was all in aid of charity. I started reading a few road bike magazines and became completely hooked on cycling. My wife bought me a really lovely, road bike and I still have it to this day. It’s an Italian carbon fibre frame bike and I will never part with it.

My son Miles (left) and me competing together at an event in Dunsfold

I started doing trials again, competing in a bunch of road and off-road racing. I rode in the *Peloton at a few bicycle road racing events. I love all bikes; I admire the modern technological side of it. I’ll happily sit and watch road racing and motorsport all day. “Four wheels move the body but two wheels move the soul.” It’s a saying I’ve got on the wall of my garage, and it really is that way. You don’t ride a bike just to travel from A to B, otherwise you’d own a car. You ride it because it inspires you and gives you a real sense of freedom. I own a 1966 BSA sidecar trials outfit as well, which I compete on in pre-67 trials events with my son Miles.

I had a location move to London with my job. I became tired with that and decided I really wanted to get back into local work. The company had stopped doing the interesting work that I enjoyed. I felt inspired to do a bit of design for myself and started my own company. This meant cycling had to go on the back burner for about two and a half years.

Myself and Miles watching out for the trees, again

Then completely out of the blue I wanted to get an old bike. I bumped into the friend who initially got me interested in sidecar trials. I hadn’t seen him for about 20 years. He knew of an old BSA bike for sale. My son Miles, who was 24 at the time, came along with me to look at it and we bought it. It was still attached to a sidecar at the time.

Miles asked if we could have a quick go on the bike before I took it apart to use the engine and components to build another bike. So we were persuaded to have a go together. Miles said it was the best day he’d ever had, he’d never done it before. He had been interested in bikes for a while, but when we got on the sidecar, a different world was waiting for him and he absolutely loved it. We got chatting and I agreed to put a sidecar on my solo trials bike. From there we began competing in British Championship. This all kicked off again last year. We’ve been at six rounds of the British Championships last year and won all six of them in our class. The year’s new season has only just begun.

Like father, like son – it doesn’t get any better than this

We do local races and some on private land. We’ve travelled to Devon, Yorkshire and Wales, on different weekends away. My daughter who works in my company’s office, kindly sorts out hotels and organises it all for us. I have a couple of sidecar outfits in the garage, when I say ‘outfits’ I mean the machines, not the gear we wear. So once again, the sport has taken over my life and I love it.

If someone wanted to buy a sidecar there’s a huge range budget-wise. There are many different sidecar outfits around that have been retired by the guys who built them. Because it’s really a cottage industry, they’re all built privately by people, very bespoke and individual. It’s not a huge sport but it’s such great fun. There’s something about the type of people that compete in a sport as a team of two. They’re very sociable and friendly. Because it’s not a massive entry you tend to know the people that enter. There’s a great sense of fun and comradery.

It’s just the best feeling on a bike

Nowadays there are more and more women involved in the sport. They compete with the guys too, which is great to see. Quite a few daughters ride in the sidecar with their dads and a few wives too, there’s plenty of girls interested in the sport. There aren’t any female competitors that drive yet, but I’ve seen a few having a go which is excellent. That will come I’m sure. I have three daughters but none of them have ventured into the sidecar route yet, though they’ve all had a go.

At the moment for me, it’s very much a father and son bonding experience. Miles has moved out of home and it gives us time to catch up and be a team. There’s a real bond there, I’ve always enjoyed it, but I enjoy it so much more with my son Miles. When it’s in your blood, there’s a strong connection of sync and being of one body.

Classic Road Racing at Snetterton, me riding on a 350cc. Linton Aermacchi usually ridden by the great Bill Swallow

Everything about the sport is balance, if the passenger is in the wrong place at the wrong time, you can’t control it at all. It is critical to work as a team and it shows just how much the passenger is as important as the driver themselves. All the weight distribution, the traction, that’s what it’s all about. It’s been an absolute revelation to me and is something I always look forward to being together and bonding. It’s great to be competing once again!

If you’re interested in sidecar trials, just come along to an event, see what it’s like, you’ll find people who love to talk about it and you’ll get swept away with the thrill and joy of it.

Richard Gilham, April 2020, Director of Mason Woodbury

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