Make Mine A Motorbike

Catherine Lynagh is hot on the trail of Trial Biking at Newtownards' Conlig Lead Mines

It has been described as Ireland’s most important 19th century mining area, but Conlig Lead Mines, north of Newtownards, is also responsible for the birth of Trial Biking in Ireland.

From the late 18th century until 1900, around 13,500 tonnes of lead were produced from the mineral veins of the ten Conlig mines at Whitespots.

It was the largest mine complex in Ireland, and in the 19th century this tonnage made it one of the most important mining areas in the United Kingdom.

All that now remains of this once thriving industry are ruined buildings, overgrown spoil heaps, tailings (unwanted residues of crushed ore) and capped shafts.

A lesser-known historical fact about this area is that since the 1930s it has been the heart of one of Motorcycling's biggest sports: Trial Racing.

Trial Racing is all about trying to complete a testing course without putting a foot on the ground. To make it hard for the rider there are obstacles, such as steep climbs and tree stumps to clear. The riders need balance, skill and concentration to win the race.

The sport first originated during the early part of the 20th century when bike enthusiasts decided to push their machines to the limit.

Conlig Lead Mines were ideal for the sport, known then as Reliability Trials. Ricky Moore of Lead Mines Motorcycles, a third generation trial biker, explains.

‘In the 1930s bikes weren’t the best. New bikes were known to be mechanically temperamental, so riders would take them off road and see how long they could last.

'That’s how Reliability Trials started. As a sport it evolved as riders headed off road to see if they could give themselves a challenge.’

When Moore’s grandfather started using his bike at the mines, little did he know that decades later, crowds would descend on the small Co Down village to compete.

‘My family were brought up across the road from the lead mines,’ Ricky explains. ‘In the 1930s my grandfather and his brother, Robert McBride and Davie McBride, were the leading riders in Ireland.

'In the 1960s and 1970s Davie McBride was a world-class competitor. Having cut his teeth at the lead mines, he competed in the World and British Trial Biking Championships. The first ever World Championship was held at the mines.'

Moore describes the mines as a Mecca for bikers, mainly due to the sites individuality.

‘Its uniqueness is the varied terrain, made up of rocks, clay pits and gravel banks. It's not that big a space, but you can really practise all the different moves and perfect your skills.

'There is nowhere in the country like it, and people come from all over the island to use the ground,’ he says.

Over the years, Conlig Lead Mines has played host to some of the biggest trial championships, including World, Irish and British.

Other prestigious competitions include the Hurst Cup and the Boxing Day Trial.

According to Moore, the Hurst cup is watched by a lot of bike manufacturers who see it as a real indicator of a rider's ability.

‘During the 1940s the site was world-renowned. It was the first place in Ireland. Before the sport grew here, Trial Biking was really an English Sport. But in the 1960s foreign riders started to ride the mines.

The Boxing Day Trial would have attracted people from all over. It was a great event after Christmas, there was always a brilliant atmosphere there,’ says Moore.

The site was especially good because it taught the dispatch riders off-road skills, which would have been crucial for bike riding.

‘My grandfather was asked to train the army dispatch riders. He took them to the lead mines. He knew it would be a good place for a lesson.’