Ngo Minh Tu is on a one-man quest to bring trial biking to Vietnam. Michael Tatarski sits down with him to find out more about his passion. Photos by Vinh Dao.
First off: no, that headline is not a typo. Polite and soft-spoken, Ngo Minh Tu may not fit the profile of someone who engages in alternative or extreme sports, but get him near any sort of obstacle on his trial bike and he happily reels off stunt after impressive stunt.
Tu, Saigon’s first trial biker, learned about this style of biking thanks to an American TV show called Pacific Blue, which he watched when he was younger. Intrigued, Tu bought a bike and learned tricks through YouTube clips.
“There are two types of trial biking,” he explains. “Street and competition. There are three kinds of bikes you can use in competition: 20-inch wheels, 24-inch and 26-inch. The 20- and 26-inch bikes are used in professional competitions, where there is a course and you are judged on time and technique. The 24-inch bikes are freestyle, which is based on style and the difficulty of your tricks.”
Trial bikes have an unorthodox setup, as many of them have no seat, while the rest have seats set so low that sitting is impossible. As a result, trial bike riders are always standing up on the pedals, using their legs to jump the bikes onto and over barriers and random objects. When we met in Phu My Hung for a photoshoot, Tu performed trackstands and jumped off of ramps while spinning the bike around in mid-air. Originally from Hanoi, Tu was part of the capital’s small trial bike scene, which existed up until recently. These days, there’s not much going on: while other local riders have quit the sport due to its cost, Tu left the wet northern winters and moved to Saigon about a year and a half ago, becoming the city’s first trial biker.
While Tu loves riding, he admits that it is not easy to get into trial biking. Gear is expensive, with a good bike costing up to USD $1,000. His personal bike costs USD $3,000 and includes high-end parts from a number of international companies. In such a dense city, it’s no surprise that finding space to ride is a challenge as well. Tu used to ride on a course he had set up next to a factory in Binh Tan District, but the factory is expanding so he can no longer use the space.
“I usually ride along the road looking for a spot,” Tu says. “If I master that area I’ll move on and find a new one.”
Despite these challenges, Tu is working to build a trial biking community here. He is currently teaching five people, ranging from age 15 to 30, how to ride. When the group gets together it is easier for them to ask to use a large space somewhere. “I don’t charge my students, but they need to have their own bike,” Tu shares.
While his students still see trial biking as more of a hobby, Tu takes the sport seriously. His thin, muscular body is testament to this, as he has broken his wrists nine times and his left shin features an impressive scar from a run-in with a pedal.
Having visited regional countries to take part in competitions, Tu is a one-man ambassador for trial biking in Vietnam. These Southeast Asian neighbors have much more developed communities.
“There are around 60 serious riders in Thailand, and other countries have a couple of teams,” Tu says. He rode in Thailand in September and got to know other riders from Singapore and South Korea. While Tu prefers street riding to competitive biking, he still used this opportunity to talk shop with more experienced cyclists. The Thailand team will also be visiting Saigon to ride with Tu later this year.
In the future, Tu hopes a trial biking community becomes a reality in Vietnam, along with a professional team or even competitions. While he is realistic about the difficulty of achieving these goals, his passion is infectious. At just 24 years old, Tu has plenty of time to build a trial bike scene here from the ground-up. In the meantime, he’ll continue turning the streets of Saigon into an improvised obstacle course.