Brighton Rock - Desmo at the Speed Trials

Once a year in September the seafront at Brighton rocks to the sound of highly-tuned car and bike engines blasting up the prom. This year, we joined them on the most expensive production bike in the world

In 1919 my then four year-old dad was run over by a motorbike, which explains why he had a deep distrust of motor vehicles for the rest of his life and never once drove or rode one. Golf was his thing and he played with a set of clubs that he bought secondhand in 1934. We’d regularly buy him a new club for Christmas but he never used them because he didn’t want to look like another knob with fancy clubs and no talent.

He’ll be turning in his grave today because here I am with a flash set of clubs and no skill to match. I’m riding a Ducati Desmodsedici RR at the Brighton Speed Trials and I couldn’t attract more attention if I rode along the seafront on a donkey with Pamela Anderson stark naked on the back. This is the first time that most people have seen or heard a Desmosedici in the metal and they are very enthusiastic. If a bike could sign autographs it would have worn out three biros by now.

I’ve been in this position before because in 1996 I took part in the Brighton Speed Trials driving a Honda BTCC car with full support including works mechanics and an articulated transporter. Looked a right tosser I did, especially when I stalled it on the start line.

The Speed Trials at Brighton have been run by the Brighton and Hove Motor Club every year since 1905, apart from the odd break to sort out the Germans in the two wars. But the power of the Luftwaffe, Reichsmarine and Wehrmacht could only put a temporary stop to the event, because even the might of the Reich is not as strong as the will of a bunch of selfish right-ons who want the speed trials killed off. Even today some nudist has kicked up a fuss about the beach being closed next to the quarter mile of Madeira Drive that’s used for the sprint. He won’t be so keen to get his tackle out on the beach when he sees me out of control on the Desmodsedici and heading his way.

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Just in case these people do succeed in stopping the event for good you must make sure that you go to Brighton next year because it is absolutely not to be missed. It’s even better than the Goodwood Festival of Speed - and that’s a fact. It’s a real family do with deckchairs, picnics and plenty of men with beards fettling homemade devices conceived in sheds; built with enthusiasm and operated with big balls.

Brighton has vehicles that you don’t see at Goodwood, both two and four wheeled. There’s a bloke in my class (under 1,000cc solos) who’s riding a Ducati drag bike with a hogged 996 engine. Some of the cars are pretty incredible, too. There’s a family with a Bentley Special that’s as long as a bus and beautifully built and a wonderful eccentric called Jim Tiller who drives something called an Allard that’s fitted with a Chevrolet V8 but looks as battered as a tank. Tiller is a teacher and a Brighton legend.

We’ve been lent the Desmosedici by an extremely generous and trusting bloke by the name of Wilf. Naturally, you don’t want too many miles on your brand-new Desmosedici so we collected the bike from Ducati dealer Moto Rapido in Winchester in a van and promised only to ride it at Brighton, and since you get only one practice run and two timed runs that should add up to about a mile and a half. The bike is fitted with the sports exhaust system which apparently can be recognised by the extra thin metal sheet that it’s fabricated from. And by the trickle of blood that comes out of your ears if you are stupid enough to fire the bike up in the back of a van.

Visordown’s John Hogan was meant to be riding the Ducati but apparently he’d gone off to some regimental dinner or something. Fortunately, his name was in the programme so if I did something really stupid I could assume his identity. Visordown journalists are far too disorganised to compete in any form of regulated event without a hand to hold so to make sure that I’m pointing in the right direction at the start we are being looked after by a bloke called Roger Simmonds.

Simmonds worked at Suzuki for 25 years where part of his job was bolting back together press bikes after they’d been to bike mags. A man tempered in the white heat of battle, in other words. He rides a turbocharged Suzuki Hayabusa that makes 500bhp. For Brighton, he’s dialled it down to ‘just’ 350bhp. He rides it rather well, too, because he’s won the bike class here nine times.

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The first challenge is scrutineering. Or rather, the noise test. The limit is 110 decibels which is extremely loud but not, I fear, as loud as the Desmosedici. If you’ve put a bike through a noise test at a trackday you’ll know that the boffin controlling the noise gear asks you for your engine’s stroke and maximum rpm, does a crafty calculation in his swede and then asks you to dial up a certain number of revs. The longer the stroke the less revs you need.

There are people who can remember the part number for a FS1-E pedal rubber, but I’m hopeless with numbers so have no idea of the Desmo’s stroke. Irrelevant anyway since I am going to exaggerate it to ensure the bike passes. So the 69mm long stroke Ducati passes and we’re ready for competition. My leathers, boots and helmet pass scrutineering and fortunately no one checks to see if my testicles are of a large enough diameter. I fear they are not.

A regular stream of Ducati fanatics have been poring over the bike and some have insisted upon a earful of its engine. Everytime I fire it up I get more nervous at the thought of firing it down a quarter mile having only ridden it about 250ft at walking pace. So breaking the rules I decide to ride it to the nearest petrol station in town since the fuel light is on anyway and running out of juice half way down the strip will have the crowds hanging over the railings above Madeira Drive in stitches. Not even a deaf person would walk in front of the Desmosedici as it goes down the high street. It is the loudest most wonderful noise I have ever heard emitted by a motorbike engine. To ride it feels rather less threatening than the 1098R that we tested a few months ago. What is going to be a problem is the long first gear and a slightly tricky clutch.

I ride the bike down to the startline for the practice run with the clutch in and blipping the throttle. Everyone is looking at the bike and taking pictures with phones and cameras. This must be what being famous is like. The last few feet to the start you go down an alley way in the crowd like a gladiator going into the ring. Puffed up with celebrity I do a convincing burn-out just before the line and then creep forward to a box painted on the ground where two blokes, one with a wooden wedge on a stick, shuffle me into position. Visor down, green light and off we go.

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Yesterday Brighton council moved a beach volleyball course from the beach to somewhere else, which involved temporarily dumping 60 tonnes of sand on the course. According to seasoned Brighton Speed Trial hands this has made the quarter-mile course a bit skiddy. Great. For a horrible hundreth of a second I think the Desmo RR is going to stall off the line. When that happened in the Honda BTCC I heard a spectator shout ‘wanker’. But 190bhp gets the upper hand and we’re off. This bike is not slow and is trying to wheelie in each gear, not that I can remember how far up the gearbox I got in the run. In 11.45sec I flash past the chequered flag and gradually slow down to arrive at the holding area at the end of Madeira Drive.

In the past the riders and drivers competed over half a mile and even a kilometre. Unfortunately this was quite manageable in pre-war machinery but as cars and bikes became quicker the speeds started to get close to 200mph and there were some very bad accidents. Madeira Drive, you see, is not exactly straight so going off course is not good. Also, it’s rather bumpy in places. So today we’re limited to quarter of a miles. Fine by me.

There’s a fantastic range of bikes parked up, from old stuff like Rudges and Douglases up to a Triumph Sprint ST 1050. The Sprint was quicker than me which isn’t entirely surprising as it must be quite easy to get off the line. That or the bloke riding it is a bit handy. The fastest bike in my class is a Suzuki 500 Gamma ridden by a lady called Jane Glover with a 10.86sec at 113mph. It looks like a traditional drag bike with a massively long swingarm, two wheels, engine, a pair of handlebars and not a lot else.

The weather’s gorgeous. Thank God it’s not raining. “Oh, you don’t want to worry about the wet,” says Simmonds. “I’ve brought along a wet tyre just in case it pisses down.” Er, but surely 350bhp in the wet is a bit hairy? “Well it slows you up a bit of course, but not by as much as you’d think.” Fear of dumping it aside, rain would spoil the British summer day-out atmosphere that is what the Speed Trials is all about. The fun of the event, apart from the competing, is walking up and down looking at all the marvellous machinery.

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Bikers are sticking noses in car bonnets and the car guys are poking and prodding around the bikes. I’m not really into old British bikes but there’s a rider called Roy Robertson who has the most gorgeous Egli Vincent. Robertson has just done a practice run at 11.22sec. The results not only give the quarter mile time and the speed over the line but also the elapsed time over the first 64ft which, according to my mentor Roger, is where the race is really won.

Robertson’s brawny Vincent covered the 64ft in 1.98sec which was even quicker than Jane Glover’s RG500 drag bike and half a second quicker than my Ducati. “It’s very light, you see,” explains Robertson. “I’ve made loads of titanium bits for it on my lathe at home. And the engine’s out to 1200cc and has around 100bhp. It’s great off the line but on that run I had a bit of trouble keeping the front down. Should have gone a bit better than 11.22.”

The quickest car in practice is a Ford Puma Xtrac, driven by Mike Endean. Xtrac makes racing gearboxes, including F1 ‘boxes and Endean founded the company. The Puma does an amazing 10.02sec run that shows the advantage of four-wheel drive. Nice that a top engineer who’s no doubt worth a bob or two still enjoys tearing up Madeira alongside people operating on a tiny budget.

Time for the first timed run. Truth be told, I think I was suffering from what the military call a lack of moral fibre. Think I might have bottled a bit when the front wheel started getting light and shut the throttle a tiny bit. Time for a bit of advice from the master. “The trick,” explains Roger, “is in getting the right balance between grip and not getting airborne. My bike’s clutch can be adjusted to give a bit of slip which is a big help, but you’ll just have to judge it. The trouble you’ve got is that you’ve only got a couple of runs. At an event like the Ramsay Sprint you can have dozens of runs so you can get plenty of practice.”

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Bugger, I feared that skill and dexterity might be required. Another good burn-out and another few quid of very expensive bespoke 200-section Desmosedici tyre up in smoke. Fearful of a stall I give the Ducati masses and depart the box with the rear wheel sliding. Then it bites and I’ve got wheelie trouble. Worse, I fluff a gear change further up the run. The result is a disappointing 11.69sec.

That’s the trouble with this sprinting lark: it’s all in the detail and you get no chance to redeem the situation. In racing a fluffed gearchange or bit of a slide can be made up for on the next lap by gung-ho riding but here what’s done is done. I have only one more run to better my time and I can’t break my promise to Wilf and disappear off to some remote industrial estate for a bit of off-piste practice.

Timed run number two. This time it comes good and there’s no bogging and the full weight of lunch (provided by the lovely Lisa, Roger’s long suffering partner) over the tank prevents a wheelie. We cross the line at 11.32sec, almost a second slower than Dave Glover on his Ducati dragster but just 2 hundreths of a second faster than Terry Grayer on an R1. Enough for second in class, which isn’t a disaster. Interestingly, I had the highest finishing speed of 130mph (Glover’s was 126mph).

There’s no prize for coming second but if there was a cup for most drooled over machine or for exhaust noise I’d have been well in with a shout. It’s all over for us 10 and 11-second runners. now it’s time for the final shoot-out between the six-fastest bikes. Because I’ve been up at the assembly area right at the other end of Madeira Drive I haven’t been able to see Simmonds’ Hayabusa in action. What a sight.

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How to go sprinting

The great thing about sprinting is that you already own a suitable bike. You’ve only got a Honda C90? That’s fine because virtually anything with two wheels and an engine will do. It also doesn’t matter how old you are because you can start sprinting at 11 years old on 50cc bikes and then when you’re 15 up to 125cc. First thing you need to do is join the National Sprint Association. It costs only £25 a year and you can download the membership application form from the National Sprinting Association (which runs sprinting and drag racing in the UK) their website is at You’ll also need an ACU sprint licence which costs £43.00 (the forms are also on the NSA’s site, though it’s also possible to simply get a one day competition for a tenner, as I did at Brighton.) Then it’s just down to getting an ACU approved helmet and a set of leathers, boots and gloves. The NSA is split into Northern and Southern sections and runs a variety of events throughout the year. For most of the Northern section events you can turn up on the day and take part but the Southern ones you need to enter a week before. Entry fees are typically about £40. HUGE thanks to Moto Rapido ( for the loan of their outrageous Desmo for this story.

I do like to be beside the seaside

The first sprint at Brighton was held in 1905 and was organised by a local hotel owner called Harry Preston. Harry was obviously a bit handy at getting things done, for he persuaded the local council to resurface Madeira Drive with some newfangled stuff called Tarmac. The first sprint lasted a week and the highest speed attained was 97mph. But Brighton wasn’t the first sprint venue – it was beaten by nearby Bexhill-on-Sea which hosted Britain’s first ever motor sport event in 1902. Health and safety, used as an excuse by those who resent anyone else having fun, especially if it involves petrol, have killed off most of these events and put even Brighton’s Speed Trial under threat, despite the business it brings in to the town for the day. Ironically, it’s this business that’s one of the reasons why seaside towns held sprints in the first place.

Old Father Time: Roger Simmonds and the art of sprint racing

Roger’s Hayabusa is a work of art. It may have only a grey primer seat and fairing but the rest of it is dripping with lovely details. The bike was built in the States and can kick out even more than 500bhp if you wind the boost up. “I reckon it’s got close on 550bhp but today we’ve not used much more than 350bhp.” Simmonds has been coming to Brighton for decades. “I don’t do a full season, just the really interesting events like the Ramsay sprint and the Manx,” he says. “The atmosphere is irresistible, I love it.” As well as winning the bike event today Roger was hoping to break the record at Brighton, which currently stands at 8.87sec. In practice he was in the nines and on his second run did 8.90sec. He reckoned there was more to come from the bike with a slightly different approach. Whatever he did, whether it was winding up the boost or attaching his largest pair of spare bollocks, it worked. In the final Roger scorched to his 10th win at Brighton with 8.89sec. Happy, but disappointed to be so close to the record. “Wheelspin coming up to the line spoilt the run,” he said. “Without that I’d have done it.” He crossed the line at 157mph, which is quite fast at which to have the rear tyre spinning. The man’s a lunatic.