Motocross

Dave Bickers: The final showdown at Shrubland!

Dave Bickers: The final showdown at Shrubland!

Dave Bickers in action

Born on January 17, 1938, the legendary Dave Bickers would have reached his 82nd birthday as we celebrate this second decade of the 21st century. Sadly though, Dave was taken from us in 2014 – but such was the man’s talent that his memory lives on among motocross fans all around the globe, writes Michael Mee.

Dave had won a brace of 250cc European motocross championships and a British national title by the time he had reached his 23rd birthday.

Even at this tender age, he had become a national treasure as far as motocross enthusiasts were concerned, having his very own fan club and a vast number of followers wherever he raced.

These fans amassed in their thousands at Shrubland Park in East Anglia on the August Bank Holiday Monday in 1965 where they and their two-wheeled hero had a rather special agenda to attend to – “the final showdown at Shrubland”

When Dave Bickers unloaded his bikes in the grassy paddock field at Shrubland Park on Bank that day, he was a man on a mission. More than 15,000 motocross fans had gathered around the one-and-a-quarter mile woodland circuit and there was a certain sense of tension and high expectation in Suffolk that afternoon.

Those fans were about to witness motocross racing at the highest level but, despite the obvious anticipation, there was an undercurrent of sadness thrown into the mix, too. Regrettably, this would prove to be their final visit to this picturesque venue.

For, as the competitors crossed the Shrubland Park finish line in the last race of the day, the flags, the ropes, the bunting and the banners would be packed away forever as the Shrubland Park Estate entered into a new phase of its history as a health clinic – ending 17 years of national and international motocross at this helter-skelter of a track.

The vast majority of those fans straining against the roping in the hope of one last glimpse of that final day of action were loyal Dave Bickers fans. And with Dave living just a few miles up the road from this hallowed landscape, they were looking towards their man to uphold local scrambles prestige just one more time against the absolute cream of British motocross riders of that period.

Understandably, Bickers wanted to give his absolute best for this special occasion in British motocross history but the pressure bearing down on the young shoulders was massive that day.

Many years later he revealed to me that he found that afternoon at Shrubland far more demanding, both physically and mentally, than he had the whole season while competing for his first European Championship win in 1960.

Bickers wanted to win for the fans, he needed to win for the Greeves factory which employed him and he nursed a personal ambition to go down in motocross history as being undefeated in the final day of racing at this famous circuit.

A very tall order indeed in view of the unpredictable nature of motocross racing but of all the riders competing at Shrubland that day, Bickers probably knew the nature of this hilly Eastern Centre circuit better than most.

It was little more than a cycle ride from his Coddenham home and as a youngster, it was a cycle ride he had taken on many occasions before his chance finally came to ride the circuit in motorised fashion.

It was 1954 when his initial racing opportunity arrived. He was just 16 years-old and raring to go and his mount was a lightweight 250 DOT.

 

Heat wins started to quickly come his way and soon he was winning finals too. This promising start put him on a career path to stardom, the first step of which was landing a contract with the Greeves factory some four years later.

Hardly a gilt-edged agreement, simply being given a rolling chassis into which Dave had to bolt his own Villiers engine. Now, some seven years after those early forays and with a couple of European Championships in the bag, Dave Bickers had become the absolute jewel in the Greeves crown.

The factory had lost his services once in that time when Dave had been tempted over to the Swedish Husqvarna fold in 1963, but Bert Greeves had enticed him back with the introduction of the 250cc Challenger range – and this lethal combination of man and machine had become an instant success story.

And now for the close of play here at Shrubland Park, that story was to expand still further as Dave was about to unleash Thundersley’s latest motocross weaponry in the shape of their new 360cc model.

He had raced the twin-carb operated 360 for the first time just eight days earlier when he took it to victory in the opening leg of the 500cc class at the Expert Grand National Scramble held in the Cotswolds.

Sadly, though, for Dave and the Greeves factory, it had proved to be a short-lived success as the 360 ground to a halt in the second leg when the piston rings broke up in the big bore cylinder barrel.

This experimental machine would, however, enable Bickers to confront the might of the BSA factory team of Jeff Smith, Vic Eastwood and Arthur Lampkin in the 500cc class on as level a playing field as the rugged nature of Shrubland would allow.

Any suggestion of another victory here, though, for the big Greeves seemed highly unlikely since Smith was on the absolute top of his game. Armed with his own “new” machine in the shape of the lightweight 441cc BSA Victor, Jeff had just been crowned as World 500cc Motocross Champion for the second time in his illustrious career.

He had taken that crown in devastating fashion too, having it all sewn up by three-quarter distance of the championship. So disillusioned in fact by Jeff’s total dominance of the world series were the Spanish organisation, that they decided it was not worth going to all the effort of running their home Grand Prix and so cancelled the whole thing!

Bickers’ confrontation with the BSA men would climax in the prestigious 12-lap Shrubland Park Grand National and continue to the very last race to take place at this cherished circuit, the eight-lap Senior Race.

The scene was set for a national motocross meeting of great historical importance – a meeting for those thousands of fans to feast upon – and the name of Dave Bickers was to feature on all four courses of the menu! And there was another ingredient to spice up that menu still further.

The BSA men were in a particularly buoyant mood since Smith, Eastwood and Lampkin had all been involved in the triumphant British team which had scooped yet another victory in the Motocross des Nations in Belgium 24 hours prior to their Shrubland Park appointment.

Bickers battles it out with
Jeff Smith

Catching the overnight ferry, the BSA factory had shipped men, machines and mechanics across to Suffolk for this final showdown. Travel weary their riders may have been but to go to all this effort to get back and race on home soil suggested the factory meant business.

The East Anglian motocross fraternity was bubbling. Bickers had been the target of much pre-race shoulder slapping and encouragement in the paddock and now he had to process the frenzy into a race-winning formula – a four-race winning-formula to be precise!

Ahead of him lay 38 rough and tumble laps of one of the most demanding circuits in the country. Just under 50 miles of chasing and being chased by the top motorcycle scrambles men of the day.
Starting at 2 pm the programme consisted of six races, four for the solos and a couple for sidecars, the first of which was the final round of the ACU Star Championships for the three-wheeler men.

With no heats to be contested, it meant that however the race order was juggled around, Bickers would have to contest two races back to back, giving him just enough time to swap bikes, clean his goggles, snatch a quick drink and get back on the starting line – a tough call even for a rider of his immense talents.

The opening event of the day was the Lightweight Race for machines up to 250cc capacity. This was Dave’s regular stamping ground and in this event, he would be backed to the hilt by his fellow Greeves teamsters including the rich talents of Alan Clough, John Griffiths, Fred Mayes, Malcolm Davis and John Done.

The only man out there who might upset the script was former Greeves factory employee Bryan Goss. Badger had been part of the Greeves fold for many years but had now parted company and purchased his own private Husqvarna.

And it was on this machine that he had given Bickers and his former Greeves employees a torrid time. Eight days prior to Shrubland, Bryan had well and truly trounced Dave by half-a-lap in the penultimate round of the 250 ACU Star series.

Goss, too, had his own personal agenda for winning since he was intent on becoming an importer for the Husqvarna brand the following year. He had a batch of the Swedish machines on order, victory here was the ideal chance to impress his future customers.

The start gate at Shrubland could accommodate 50 machines and the organising Ipswich MCC adopted a method of lifting the wires as soon as the last rider pulled his bike into line.

The raw racing instinct Bickers had honed to perfection over the years kicked in instantly that wire twitched and as the Lightweight pack funnelled into the opening right-hand corner which led to Hillsides and the chalk pits, he already had a commanding lead.

His path initially blocked, Goss finally broke through the packed ranks of the Greeves teamsters to give chase but already his chance was gone. Bickers had disappeared into the woods like a startled rabbit. Dave had taken the initial step towards his goal with a start-to-finish victory.

Phase one was complete. Next came the Shrubland Grand National event and into the arena stepped two-time 500cc World Motocross Champion Jeff Smith and the whole BSA entourage of Eastwood, Banks and the Lampkin brothers.

Smith had won this crown for BSA for the past five years and it was a trophy both Smith and the factory felt belonged on a shelf in an office deep in the bowels of Armoury Road in Birmingham.

They would not be prepared to relinquish it without a battle of blood, sweat and tears. Even the most staunch members of the Bickers fan club might have nursed misgivings regarding the outcome of this one.

The legions gathered on the starting line and as the pack broke away things looked good for BSA as Arthur Lampkin and Jeff Smith made the early pace into the woods.

But Bickers had put the experimental 360cc Greeves right into their tyre tracks and two laps into the contest the East Anglian fans were turning cartwheels as their hero made his move on Smith.

Having put the BSA team leader in his place, Bickers then set his sights on Lampkin. History tells us Dave’s luck was in since Lampkin was having trouble with his brakes and was forced to stop for adjustments – even a rider of Arthur’s calibre needed brakes around Shrubland!

Now Bickers made the pace but with 12 laps still to go had he made his move too early? Was Shrubland Park’s favourite son about to become just one more victim to Jeff Smith’s deadly data bank of race tactics?

Shrewd and calculated to the very last twist of his BSA’s throttle, Jeff had a catalogue of motocross Grand Prix race wins to his name and a portfolio of no fewer than 18 race wins here at Shrubland.

The crowd edged their way ever closer to the ropes to witness this titanic battle unfold but as the minutes ticked by and the laps were reeled off a definite pattern was emerging. In reality, Smith never got near enough to Bickers to formulate any sort of plan of action. This time Dave and the new 360cc Greeves were proving to be just too fast for him and indeed, far too fast for the entire field.

By the time the chequered flag was unfurled, Dave was a good half-a-minute in front of Jeff who, in turn, was coming under pressure from Chris Horsfield on the factory Matchless on which he had already dispensed of Smith’s BSA colleague John Banks.

Race two was done and dusted. The Shrubland Grand National Trophy had found a new home at Thundersley and Dave Bickers still had his dream very much intact. While the BSA men licked their wounds in the paddock, Dave was busy warming up his 250 Greeves and went straight back into the fray as the starter called him into line for the Junior Race.

Eight laps lay ahead of him this time out and a very determined Bryan Goss looked intent on making amends for his first race defeat at the hands of the local hero. Making a better job of staying with Bickers than the whole BSA team had done in the previous race, Goss stuck to his task and held tight to his former team-mate for the opening three laps.

The pace was rapid, the atmosphere intense and it was looking like a fight right to the finish until the unfortunate Goss took a tumble with the race half done. His chance was lost once again.

Bickers charged on as his team-mates Clough and Mayes quickly closed ranks, making it crystal clear that they had no intentions of allowing Goss a further opportunity of overthrowing their team leader. Three down and one to go, the Bickers train was still on track.

Just eight more laps – the final eight laps ever to be contested at Shrubland Park – stood between Dave Bickers and the dream he cherished.

Taking a well-deserved breather in the paddock as the sidecars entertained the crowd with their five-lap Invitation Race, the 360 Greeves was being made ready to take the challenge to the BSA boys again. This time in the prestigious Senior Race.

Jeff Smith had first won this event way back in 1955, had been victorious seven times since then and the two times he hadn’t been successful, BSA team-mate Arthur Lampkin had carried out the honours for him.

The atmosphere was electric as 50 riders shuffled and elbowed their way onto the Shrubland Park starting line for the very last time ever.

The sonic boom of the four-strokes drowned the crisp crackle of the Bickers Greeves as these metallic warhorses came under orders. And then suddenly the frantic cascade of men and machines broke free from the start gate and barrelled down the initial straight and headlong into the awaiting woods of hillsides.

Early leader was John Giles aboard his 490cc Triumph but as the pack completed the first lap of eight, it was Arthur Lampkin who had edged his way to the front.

But the menacing shape of Bickers, crouched over the high and wide handlebars of the Greeves, was yet again a prowling peril to the BSA squad. Lampkin and Bickers traded places time and again to the sheer delight of the crowd as they soaked up the final high-speed moments being played out at this mystical venue.

Then came a glimmer of hope for the men from Armoury Road. Bickers had dropped his bike somewhere down in the woods. Was this fairy tale coming to a dramatic conclusion?

The partisan crowd groaned as one – Lampkin was alone as he exited the woods with just two laps to go. A brief pause and then suddenly there was a blur of green and white as Bickers thundered into view, his No.1 racing bib billowing out behind him as he prepared to make one final attack.

Case-hardened campaigner that he was, even Lampkin had nothing available in his vast motocross armoury to fend off this final Bickers bombardment as the Coddenham Flyer plundered the big Greeves to the front and took the final ever victory sweep of the Shrubland Park chequered flag. His work was done.

A notion which was simply a dream at the start of the day (or maybe a nightmare) was now a reality. Dave’s travelling band of fans were quite hysterical and Bert Greeves wore a big smile!

And so the engines finally fell silent around the vast estate of Shrubland Park. The crowd took time to reflect and delight at the wonder of this place before the car parks started to empty and they made their way home.

Battle-scarred scrambles bikes were loaded and strapped tightly into place in vans or on trailers and the paddock, too, began to look rather forlorn and abandoned. This woodland, which had been witness to such frenzied and intense motocross action over some 17 wonderful years, was now simply the domain of the badger, the fox, the squirrel and the rabbit.

Dave Bickers had brought the final curtain down on Shrubland Park in a fashion that only a rider of his calibre could possibly do. I tip my hat to today’s current crop of young motocross riders and their mid-air antics for they are truly brilliant – but how we long for a “new” Dave Bickers to emerge on the scene.

Thankfully, his memory lives on.

My uncle attended this meeting as a youngster and when he passed away a few years ago his collection of motocross programmes were handed down to me.

Digging out the programme for this final Shrubland Park meeting as I researched the above article, I found the following lines written down within its pages.

They are the words of the Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson (I think) and the more I read them the more appropriate they became as to that final day at Shrubland Park.

“Give me again all that was there,
Give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
Give me the lad that’s gone!

Obviously, my uncle loved motocross, was a big Dave Bickers fan and was far more clever and meaningful than I ever can be!