The Pioneer Run Ride

The Pioneer Run Ride

22nd March 2015

Around 7am the first Chapter members arrived at one of two starting points for the first ride out of the year. Cold but dry weather helped encourage an impressive 90 plus C&F and Meridian members from their Sunday morning beds and out onto their Harleys. By 8am, with briefings completed, they were on route. C&F from Kings Rd led by Road Captain Oliver Achkar and Meridian from Wrotham led by Assistant Director Dave Mann. Their destination Pease Pottage Services on the M25 in Surrey. As to why will become clear later...

The Epsom to Brighton Pioneer Run has been held virtually every year for the last 76 years. Organised by the Sunbeam Motor Cycle Club it celebrates the ‘Pioneers’ of motorcycling. That is any powered two wheeled machine manufactured before 1915. Needless to say machines like that are rare. No brakes, erratic power delivery, direct drive with no clutch and handling more akin to a bicycle on steroids meant that most Pioneers were written off in their first few years (if not days). The few that did make it through were lucky not to have their engines removed to power some farm implement or a sawmill.

So once a year when 350 of the worlds surviving ‘Pioneers’ gather at the starting point in Epsom in late March it is a truly special occasion. As the mist lifts on the Downs, the chug chug chug of an early single or the tinny whine of a smokey two stroke break the still air. By 8am the first entrants are under starters orders and energetically waved off in staggered batches by the local Mayor.

The Pioneer Run Ride

I am one of those fortunate entrants who own a Pioneer eligible bike. Even more fortunate for me is that it’s a Harley. My bike is a C10 ‘Sport’ model Silent Gray Fellow manufactured in 1914 by a new company based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and run by four ambitious young men called William, Walter, Arthur and Bill. The ‘Sport’ model has a two speed transmission in the rear hub, wide flat handlebars to encourage a more ‘prone’ riding position for less wind resistance and a single, fairly useless, band brake on the back wheel. The robust 535cc single cylinder engine delivers around 4 horsepower and on the flat can reach about 40mph - not that I know that for sure because it doesn’t have a speedometer.

I’ve now left the start point and I’m tootling along surprisingly busy A roads through Banstead, then Kingswood and out towards Reigate. The bike has settled down into a nice rhythm and I’m busy keeping an eye on the engine’s oil and spark - you see I have to manually pump the oil into the engine as I’m travelling and advance or retard the ignition spark to suit the rate of travel. With no brakes to speak of I need more time than usual to react to potential hazards so I’ve got to keep a sharp eye out ahead, especially for the dreaded red traffic lights. The key to travelling anywhere on one of these early mechanical beasts is momentum. Slow down too much to avoid something and you’ll spend the next 5 minutes getting back up to speed. Actually stop for a set of red lights and you are usually forced to get off, push like mad while jumping back into the saddle to bump start the motor back into life. Phew!

The Pioneer Run Ride

I’m fairly whizzing along and the C10 is clearly enjoying it’s day out in the countryside. My next stop is, you guessed it, Pease Pottage Services where I’m scheduled to pull in for a well earned espresso and to meet up with C&F and Meridian H.O.G. As I pull into the huge car park I press the engine decompressor and the motor stops. The hot coffee is very welcome and although the day is dry it’s certainly still got a chill to it. In fact it’s bloody cold but the warm drink does the job and the warmth of my reception from the assembled Chapters helps too.

As well as a ‘meet up’ with the Chapters it’s also time for a quick checkover and most importantly a scan for any oil leaks. There are no leaks but the engine breather has been working overtime because I’ve been overdoing it with the manual oil pump. As a result there is quite a bit of oil to be cleaned off and the rear tyre, sprayed with a fine mist of oil, is even more slippery than usual. I get wiping. After even more wiping down and a few words about the operation of the C10 to the group I’m back in the saddle and back out to re-join my fellow Pioneer riders for the next leg of the journey.

The Pioneer Run Ride

By now there are quite a few enthusiasts on route waving and cheering as we ride by. I try to be sure to wave back and give them a quick toot of my bulb horn as I pass. I could probably have a conversation with most of them by now because my progress is so slow. The gradual climb up towards the summit of the South Downs before the run down to Brighton is starting to sap my horsepower. The engine is getting hot and my previous over exuberance with the hand oil pump has deposited too much oil direct into the sump, which is now acting like treacle on the flywheels, robbing me of vital horsepower. When you only have 4hp to start with it makes a big difference if you lose 2!

Still I persevere and it’s not long before I reach the outskirts of Brighton and the traffic starts to build. I leave the country roads and get back into city driving mode. The bus lanes make progress easier (the Pioneers have a special dispensation from the council to use them) and I’m now within spitting distance of the sea front. Damn and blast I run out of petrol. The tank on the C10 is so small and shares half it’s space with the oil tank. I usually take the precaution to top up half way but this year I thought I’d go for broke on one tank full. It’s only 50 miles for goodness sake! Schoolboy error and I’m now pulled up at the side of the road waiting for the van with the leaded petrol to arrive. It could be worse. I’m having plenty of nice conversations with passing Brightonians and the lady whose house I’m parked outside has brought me a mug of hot tea and some biscuits. You meet the nicest people on a 101 year old Harley.

The Pioneer Run Ride

Fuelled up and now heading through downtown and onto Madeira Drive where my comrades from Pease Pottage have already set up camp at the finish line and they give me a rousing cheer as I cross the line and get interviewed by the chap with the microphone. Then it’s just a bit further on to park up the bike and reflect on my journey. It’s now just after 12 so with the stops it’s taken me about 3 hours. The bike is now basking in the sunshine and getting plenty of attention. Rider errors aside, it’s performed brilliantly. The C10 obviously impresses others too and the event judges award it ‘Best American Built Motorcycle’, which given there are some splendid ‘other’ American Marques entered into the event, is a great result for the Silent Gray and me. I meet up with my friend Tom who’s volunteered to do the van driving and my youngest son Jack and we go for Fish and Chips on the beach. It is the perfect way to round off a perfect Pioneer.

Many thanks to Oliver Achkar, Dave Mann, Les Channing, Michael Howers, Mick Newstead, Andrew Papas and Rob Warr for help organising and providing expert chaperone duties. Thanks also to my support crew of two and of course to all the members from both Chapters who turned out to cheer me on as I rode down to and at the finish.

Thanks also to course secretary Ian McGill and his cohorts at the Sunbeam Motor Cycle Club for another faultless Pioneer. See you next year.

John Warr - C&F and Meridian Chapter Director


Photographs by: Chelsea & Fulham’s Photographer Manuela De Castro, Steve Graham, Andrew Papas and Keira Vallejo.