John Deacon

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John Deacon, motorcycle racer: born Plymouth 30 November 1962; married (one son, one daughter); died Palmyra, Syria 8 August 2001.

John Deacon, who died on Tuesday while competing in Syria, was Britain's finest exponent of all- terrain motorcycle rallying. His sixth-placed finish in this year's classic Paris-Dakar Rally matched his impressive 1999 performance, achieved without the financial backing of a major manufacturer.

It was, however, while continuing to fly the flag of the under-dog, privately funded competitors that Deacon was killed during the seventh stage of the Master Rally, staged between France and Jordan, after sustaining head injuries in a heavy fall.

Deacon was born in Plymouth in 1962, and started his competitive racing career at the age of 16 on a road bike before moving to the off-road discipline of enduro riding. On leaving school he trained as a mechanical engineer and progressed to owning his own motorcycle shop in Saltash, Cornwall, as well as being a director of the BMW off-road riding school, based in South Wales.

During a 13-year span from 1986, he was the British Four-stroke Enduro champion on 10 occasions, winning the overall title on one occasion in 1994, and won nine gold medals and three silver medals in the prestigious International Six Day Enduro event.

However, it was in the gruelling discipline of all-terrain rallying that Deacon cemented a reputation as a fearless yet charming participant, and particularly in the sport's blue riband event, the Paris-Dakar. This rally was devised 20 years ago by the Frenchman Thierry Sabine as the ultimate three-week test of man and machinery, including cars and trucks as well as motorcycles, across 7,000 miles of inhospitable terrain and through 17 countries.

Deacon's inaugural attempt resulted in a 17th-placed finish in 1997, impressive enough when considering that often just a quarter of original participants make the Lac du Rose finish line in the Senegalese capital, Dakar. Only the year before, Ian Graham, of Ulster, had been the first British rider to complete the event on a motorcycle.

After competing in the Atlas Rally, Deacon became the first British rider to win a stage of the Paris-Dakar on his way to eighth place in the following year's event. His navigational strengths were coming to the fore, and Deacon was becoming particularly strong through the Sahara and Tenere Deserts, before reaching Libya and the daunting Idhan Murzaq and Great Sandy Deserts. His key was to conserve energy through a relaxed riding style, although the terrain is not the only dangerous element, as riders have been known to suffer terrorist attacks.

Deacon's finest hour arrived in 1999, when the race started from Grenada and not Paris, as four of the five riders to beat him were backed by factory might and the fifth, Carlos Soleto of Spain, was riding with the benefit of sponsorship from a Spanish television station. Deacon's support in winning the production class on a 600cc single cylinder KTM amounted to one mechanic.

At one point he was forced to drink water from the bike's tank to conquer a raging thirst in temperatures up to 42C. With just one stage remaining, from Saint-Louis to Dakar, Deacon merely needed to stay upright in order to clinch sixth place. That proved unnecessary as the stage was cancelled when inadequate route markings resulted in riders heading for all points of the compass.

Having earned BMW support through his achievements that year, he finished the less arduous Dubai Rally in fourth, denied a podium finish by hitting a lump of camel grass 15 miles from the finish. Deacon was unable to put his desert skills on the R1150 GS/RR to the test in the 2000 Dakar Rally, taking a new route from Senegal to finish at the Egyptian Pyramids, after crashing on the fifth day and suffering a fractured pelvis, broken wrist and dislocated shoulder.

At least he avoided the drama in Niger when risks of gun attacks prompted the organising body to air-lift the entire rally to Libya. However, he made the trip to Egypt to cheer home the remaining members of the BMW Gauloises team, who secured the first four places.

The team retained faith in him for this year's event but, riding a flat-twin R900 RR, Deacon was again in the wars, badly bruising his thigh in another spectacular fall. The pain was, however, negligible compared to the agonising start he had suffered in Europe when an electrical fault and a 30-minute time penalty in France relegated him to 132nd place. Despite being hit in the face by a bird towards the end of the race he battled back to finish in sixth place.

It was that kind of determination that led René Metge, the course director of the Master Rally, to describe Deacon as "a prince of all-terrain rallying".

Neil Bramwell