Sep 11, 2016

Cannonball Day 1: A Brutal Day

It’s 11 p.m. Here in York, Pennsylvania. And 10 minutes ago, Jimmy Bradley, my sweep team partner for this year’s Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run, and I finally reached our hotel on a day that started with a 5:45 alarm.

First days of the Cannonball are always tough. There are always problems as old motorcycles face their first real test on the road. But with a 90-bike field of machines that are all over 100 years old, the first day of this year’s Race of the Century was truly brutal.

We had bikes that wouldn’t start at the official beginning of the ride, along the historic Boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey. We had congested roads to negotiate getting out of Atlantic City on a late summer weekend. We had bikes that developed problems in the first 20 miles of the 154-mile course. We faced 90-plus-degree temperatures as riders tried to work on their machines alongside the road. We had bikes that stopped because of one problem, then seemed to spontaneously come down with additional problems when the first one was fixed. We had bikes being ridden by other riders decide to break when they stopped to help a friend with a problem. We had one bike catch fire as its rider was motoring down the road, and then burn to a crisp after he bailed off.

The official results show that 26 of the 90 Cannonball bikes broke down today. I’m not in a position to independently verify that, but I know our three-truck sweep crew has the capability of carrying 18 motorcycles and today that wasn’t enough. We had to ask for help from riders’ support teams just to get everyone to tonight’s stop in York.

But the day also had its high points, beginning with the Boardwalk start, which attracted hundreds of fans as all of the riders lined up for the traditional panoramic photo by legendary motorcycle photographer Michael Lichter.

It was already warm and steamy within yards of the Atlantic Ocean as the opening ceremonies wrapped up and the bikes in Class I (single-cylinder, single-speed), Class II (multi-cylinder, single-speed) and Class III (multi-cylinder, multi-speed) rolled out on the first of the 3,314 miles they hope to cover on the way to our September 25 finish on the Pacific shore in Carlsbad, California. And it should have been a hint of things to come when one bike didn’t even make it the 2½ miles from the Golden Nugget Hotel to the Boardwalk and two more failed to fire up to begin the 16-day ride.

From there, things seemed to go downhill in a hurry. Within a half-hour, we came across the Thor Loser team (all, appropriately enough, riding rare Thor motorcycles) hard at work on the rocker-arm linkage on Todd Kraft’s Thor twin. The combined efforts of Doug Feinsod, Jon Szalay, Dan Kraft and Todd eventually wrestled that problem into submission, and everyone fired up to continue down the road when Szalay’s bike, which had been propped on its rear-wheel stand, suddenly had a flat rear tire. More work, more sweat, and the group rode off into the midday heat. But within minutes, Todd was stopped again, this time by a broken intake manifold.

That’s the way the entire day went. Just when you though things were finally taking a turn for the better, it all went south again. Thirty miles farther up the road, we found Victor Hugas’ 1913 Harley single sitting along the side of the road. What was odd, though, was the its engine was missing.

Victor had determined that the output shaft seized, and he decided to get a head-start on tonight’s rebuild. So he pulled the motor and started taking it apart in the shade of a veterinary hospital.

Ten miles later, we came upon Steve Norton on his 1904 Rex, the oldest motorcycle in this year’s Cannonball. Based on the event’s tiebreaker system, the age of Steve’s bike had put him in first place in the Cannonball standings leaving Atlantic City. Unfortunately, his lead lasted just 61 miles before the Rex went on the sweep truck.

But nobody had a worse day than John Pfeifer, riding in his first Cannonball on a 1916 Harley twin, who got about 90 miles into the route when, “Suddenly, I saw flames coming up between my legs. And I though, ‘I’ve got to get off this thing!”

John jumped, and the bike came to rest along the side of the road, completely engulfed in flames. He made an effort to get to the extinguisher he had on board, but the fire surrounded it. Eventually, two local folks armed with extinguishers helped him put out the fire after he estimated it had burned for 20 minutes, creating a crater in the asphalt shoulder. And then the fire department and police arrived to complete the job and direct traffic around the smoldering Harley carcass. When we got to the scene, there was nothing to do but load the extra-crispy parts onto the trailer and load John into the truck for the final 60 miles to York.

The result of all that carnage? By the time we got to the “lunch” stop at Chesapeake Harley-Davidson in Darlington, Maryland, it was 6 p.m., and not only was lunch over, but the dealership was closed.

I could go on about the final leg into York in deepening darkness. And the wrong turn by a last lone rider we were shepherding in. And the insidious plot by the highway department to make sure that it was impossible to approach our hotel from any direction other than the one laid out by course master John Classen. And the similar plot to make it impossible to get from that hotel to a field a few miles away where most of the teams have set up to work on bikes tonight.

I could discuss all that in great length. Believe me—I really could. But it’s late, and I’m kind of hoping all this is some kind of bad dream I’m about to wake up from.

Tomorrow, we head 228 miles from York, Pennsylvania, to Morgantown, West Virginia. And it’s almost got to get better, right? In the meantime, here's the stage one standings:


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