Pioneer Spirit

Toodle pip and chocks away, Ginger! TWO's off on the oldest classic bike run in Blighty. Hurrah! Don't spare the horses, and last one home's a rotten egg

Back in 1912, W. Harry Bashall won the Junior TT on a Douglas in 3hrs 46min 59sec at an average speed of 39.65mph. Pig slow you say, but right this moment the enormity of his achievement is beginning to dawn on me as I am riding a 1912 Douglas, very much like the one Bashall must have ridden at the TT.

I have been unable to find photographs of the intrepid Bashall on the Internet, but now suspect he had the unusual attribute of an extra arm.

We are several minutes into the start of the 2006 Sunbeam Motorcycle Club Pioneer Run, a wonderful event that's the two-wheel equivalent of the London to Brighton car run. The event was started in 1930 and, apart from a break while we sorted the Hun out, has been run every year since. Only bikes built before 31 December 1914 are eligible. You might think that this would restrict numbers but there are 360 starters this year.

The event kicks off at Epsom Race course's Tattenham Corner and follows a fairly straight route south to Brighton where it finishes on Madeira Drive. Motorways, of course, are not used.

The bike I'm riding belongs to my good friend Vic Norman. Vic runs a stunt flying team using old Boeing Stearmans and puts on displays involving lycra-clad beauties wing walking. He has a nice life. And a very nice collection of bikes which he is always looking for excuses to ride.

Today he's riding his 1913 Flying Merkel. It is the most remarkable machine. He bought the 1000cc V-twin from stuntman Bud Ekins (the bloke who did that jump in The Great Escape, and the best friend of Steve McQueen), who found the bike in the '50s in a New Mexican goldmine where it was being used as a generator. It's a fast bike capable, says Vic, of at least 70mph. Trouble is, it doesn't have much in the way of brakes. And nor does the 350cc Douglas I'm riding.

The plan had been for me to come down to Vic's and test ride the Douglas so he could point out the various procedures and rituals to be endured before you can even start it. And this I did, only to arrive at Vic's to find snow on the ground. There was no point riding the bike, but Vic was able to give me enough theory instruction to put the fear of God into me.

We arrived at Tattenham Corner at 7.30am. As starters 343 and 346 Vic and I won't start until 09:09 and 09:10 respectively - a good hour after Leon Bollee and his 1896 Forecar tricycle (trikes are also eligible) have set off for the coast.

Oli Tennent is here to take some jolly snaps of the event and would no doubt be taking the piss out of these old machines were it not for the fact his 2003 BMW R1150GS wouldn't start this morning.

All around us beards and tweed are in evidence. This is a must-do event if you're glum about getting old because here you'll feel quite young. The oldest rider is 85-year-old Charlie Jenner from Handcross, Sussex, who's also riding a Douglas. Septuagenarians are two a penny here, including 74-year-old Shirley Blake on something called a Gerrard.

Before the start I fit in a quick wobble to a roundabout and back so at least I have a rough idea what I'm in for.First, the controls. Harnessing the fearsome horsepower from the inline flat twin is a throttle lever very much like the one on grandpa's Suffolk Punch lawnmower. Actually, it's a double lever arrangement. The top one is the throttle and the one beneath is the air-control lever. If the motor starts running hot you richen it up by closing the air lever. And then there's a brake lever exactly where it is on your R1, except the Douglas's is for show only and does nothing.

On the other side is a lever to advance and retard the Bosch magneto. Vic says I needn't worry about it, which is a good thing as there's so much else to fret over. There's also what looks like a clutch, but is in fact a valve lifter. There is no clutch.

To start the machine carefully select low gear using the beautifully machined lever on the petrol tank. The bike only has two gears and they're very fragile so it's essential you don't try and change down from top at anything above walking pace. Having selected first, pull in the decompressor and either run beside the bike or paddle it with your feet. It's very light so either way is easy. Once up to a reasonable speed, drop the lever, adjust the throttle and she chuff-chuffs into life.

When this bike was built traffic lights didn't exist. Nor for that matter, did traffic so to stop, just pull in the decompressor or let the bike stall.

The most important part of the entire bike is on the petrol tank next to the gearchange. Vic and his crew have drilled into me many times that I must not under any circumstances neglect the bike's oiling system. It's a drip-fed system that has a little nickel-plated plunger - a bit like a syringe - that draws oil up from a tank at the front part of the fuel tank and feeds it via a sight glass down into the engine's moving bits. I'm amazed this can work at all, but apparently as long as I lift the syringe-like handle every few miles, an adequate quantity of oil will make its way into all the places that need it.

That's pretty much it then. It's now 9am and I'm standing nervously in the start area next to Vic, who's Flying Merkel is attracting a lot of attention.But suddenly it's time to go. After a few paces we're off. Unfortunately, after only a few yards it is depressingly obvious I now have a tragic shortage of power.

On my earlier trial run to the roundabout the Douglas had reassured me a highside was unlikely but had still phut-phutted along nicely. Now it's virtually incapable of moving itself and Ginsters' favourite customer (me) along at all. In fact, I'm having to do a lot of paddling. A little on-board diagnosis by my enfeebled brain soon works out the problem comes from the little Douglas now only running on one cylinder. Bugger.

Vic is long gone and I'm being passed by all the last starters. At this rate I'll be lucky to cover the 50 miles to Brighton by the end of next week. But I will have thigh muscles like a Fijian rugby player.

Then, suddenly, the Douglas pops back onto two-cylinders and we're off at a cracking pace. Much more like it.

Ride a machine like this and it really drums home how short on common sense average road users are. Surely it's obvious a machine looking like a special built from a Singer sewing machine and an old butcher's bike, being ridden by a bloke wearing the worried look of one who has suddenly been transported to the Somme trenches circa 1917, would require a wide berth. But no, I'm carved up without a moment's thought.

Still, it's a gorgeous day. Cold and bracing, but not a cloud in the sky as I join the A217 at Banstead. What an incredible sense of freedom the original owner of this bike must have had, far better than the other transport options of the day. I've ridden a horse and it was quite dreadful. No control, and terrible emissions.

But I've not been looking forward to heading down Reigate Hill, though to be honest the bike's back brake is not at all bad, it's just a bit on/off. Thankfully I've owned a few drum-brake MZs so am familiar with crap rear braking technique. Much to my amazement I see Vic ahead on the Merkel. He doesn't look happy. Both of his heels are scraping the road. I pass him at the bottom of the hill and he's so traumatised he barely recognises me.

Any rider arriving at Madeira Drive under 90 minutes from his start time is disqualified. There's no danger of that happening to me, but all the same, at this rate I'll be there in time for fish and chips.Riders crouching by parked bikes are a common sight, fiddling with sloppy drive belts or making minor adjustments to carbs and what nots. There are some fabulous characters on the Pioneer Run. Imagine not being into motorcycles. It doesn't bear thinking about.

Leaving Reigate on the straight road to Gatwick there's a roar from behind and Vic, confident no braking will be required for a few miles, has opened the tap on the Merkel and is off. I'll not see him again.

Outside Gatwick, with the sunshine and spirit of the event clouding my judgement, I hurl the Douglas into a roundabout (inspired, I confess, by a group of spectators) at twice the sensible speed. The frame flexes so severely I'm worried not only by the thought of falling off, but also of it breaking in half. My thoughts return to W. Harry Bashell, who didn't even have the benefit of modern Tarmac.Throughout I have been religiously operating the oil system's plunger. Since Reigate the handle hasn't been staying up long and it's been praying on my mind.

Just past Gatwick airport I smell hot oil and look down to see the front cylinder giving off blue smoke. Immediately I close the air lever a bit to give the engine a richer mixture. To my horror I then detect a slight dropping off of the pace. Adjusting the mixture hasn't cooled down the front pot. I think the bugger's seizing. I haven't experienced a seizure since my MZ days.

What am I going to tell Vic? Ninety-four years happily chugging around the country yet an hour with Goodwin and this noble bike's ruined. Perhaps, if I'm lucky, it will unseize itself after cooling down.

All the time whizz-bang Fireblades, 999s and GSX-Rs are whipping past on their way to the coast, probably laughing their heads off at some tit and his prehistoric machine clapped out on the side of the road. They shouldn't though, because this is where it all started. That's why it's called the Pioneer Run.

In 1918 a small boy ran out of the front gate of his parents' house and was promptly hit and knocked unconscious by a passing motorcycle. Eighty-eight years later his son reluctantly removed a mobile phone from his pocket and called for the rescue van.