Ask any English motorcycling enthusiast above the age of 30 (well, maybe 40) what springs to mind on hearing the word “scrambling” and the chances are they’ll picture a group of mud-spattered men wearing goggles, rugby shirts and cork-lined crash helmets – jumping, sliding and wheelie-ing a motley selection of bikes around a dirt track littered with hills, bumps and ruts. Nowadays, this branch of motorcycle sport is universally known as motocross and is competed in by athletes who are as highly tuned as the fire-breathing machines that they ride (or sometimes fly) in what is now an “extreme sport” of the type beloved of the Red Bull generation.
Scrambling, however, was the very English, 1960s forerunner of motocross as we know it today. Back then, it was distinctly amateurish and even the top riders gave little thought to honing their bodies in order to make life easier for themselves when called upon to lap the unforgiving tracks on motorcycles that, nowadays, seem hopelessly inadequate for the task.
Proper scrambling men, you see, existed on a diet of sweet tea and meat pies, worked hard during the week in manual jobs, fixed and fettled their own bikes and lived for the weekend when they could rip it up on tracks around the country. They created an electric atmosphere based on a heady mix of Castrol oil fumes, droning exhausts and flying soil that, at scrambling’s peak, attracted crowds of up to 70,000 – plus regular air time on national television.
But, despite being largely the domain of amateur riders, scrambling proved to be big business for the motorcycle manufacturers. As with road racing, a good showing on the scrambles track could quickly translate into sales both at home and abroad – as ably demonstrated by Greeves, which was one of the most successful British dirt bike builders of the 1950s and 1960s.