29 July 2011

Pioneer Run is a moving tribute to industry pioneers

The 73rd Pioneer Run gathers the cream of pre-1914 veteran motorcycles (and equally veteran riders) for a world-class, two-wheeled version of the London-to-Brighton Run.

An unusually mild Sunday morning on Epsom Downs surprised 371 participants in the 73rd Pioneer Run, organised by the Sunbeam Motorcycle Club. The traditional event for veteran motorcycles remained sunny as bikes, sidecars, tricycles and forecars put-putted 40 miles to Brighton seafront.

While such a run would be nothing for a modern machine, many participating bikes have primitive stirrup brakes (sometimes only on one wheel), and no clutches or suspension. Many riders are nearly as old as their bikes and also have to pump oil into the engine and juggle air and ignition levers, while dealing with modern traffic.

Entries are divided into three classes: the first string from 1896 to 1904, the next from 1905 to 1909 and the largest class from 1910 to 1914. The latter class is the easiest to ride, as many have clutches and gears, though they still require concentration to maintain forward motion.

The Pioneer Run is a moving tribute to industry pioneers, those manufacturers and riders who helped motorcycles evolve as transportation, sport and recreation. Many of these machines show a fair turn of speed and cope well with modern traffic conditions, while others need plenty of light pedal assistance (LPA) to climb the hills.

Not only can these bikes be seen threading their way to Brighton, but both the start and finish areas are packed with spectators’ machinery that spans the history of motorcycling.

Only a small percentage fail to take the chequer under their own power, but a finisher’s award brings additional satisfaction if it’s gained without too much drama. Some competitors even ride home in the afternoon, though many trailer their bikes.
The first Pioneer Run was organised by the Sunbeam Club in 1930. It was open to machines made prior to 1915 and it started from the old Croydon Aerodrome, which had just been named London Airport. In explaining the entry classes, the club stated: ‘the first five years were spent endeavouring to design motorcycles, the second five years to refine them to run reliably and the third five years to refine them still further to run beautifully.’

The motorcycle press of 1930 promoted the inaugural Pioneer Run as highly successful and reported that there were “tens of thousands of motorcyclists lining the route.” As a result perhaps, the next run started at the larger railway yard at Tattenham Corner in Epsom, where it still begins. There was a one-year-only launch from Westminster bridge, but perhaps the rudimentary clutch and brake arrangements on many bikes made the London traffic too much of a challenge. In any event the Pioneer Run has always ended on Brighton promenade.

Since tricycles and forecars were evolving alongside two-wheeled machines before WWI, they are allowed in both car and bike events. The early years of the Pioneer Run were also casual about exact dating, so the Pioneer Register was established in 1938 to ensure the historical accuracy of the machines taking part. By 1950 more than 200 machines were registered and today more than 1,800 machines are deemed to be period correct (i.e., manufactured before 31st December 1914).

The Sunbeam Club still organise the event. Machines without a dating certificate are not permitted to enter, though the club acknowledge that some machines were incorrectly certified in the early days. The current owners of such bikes are "grandfathered in" but the next owner will have to relinquish the certificate.

In the same vein, the club works hard to keep out replicas fabricated from a few original parts with new frames. More and more machines are coming to light, (around 30 to 40 each year, including in Europe) but the onus is always on the owner to prove the bike's age.

The Pioneer Run retains its status as the premier event in the world for such veteran machines and it’s also a great spectator event. Now’s a good time to seek out an eligible machine for the 74th event in March 2012; you’ve even got time to rebuild it.

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