Sep 11, 2016

Cannonball Day 2: Into the Hills

If it wasn’t for yesterday, today would have been a record-setter for the coast-to-coast Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run, which this year is open exclusively to motorcycles made at least 100 years ago.

Today, our three-truck sweep crew picked up 18 motorcycles that had broken down along the road. In any other year, that would have been a record sweep-truck haul, eclipsing the previous record of 16 in 2014. But just two days into the 2016 Cannonball, it’s only good for second place, since a whopping 26 of the 90 bikes in the event broke down during the day yesterday.

In other respects, though, today was practically a walk in the park in comparison to yesterday. Although the Stage Two course covered 228 miles from York, Pennsylvania, to Morgantown, West Virginia, considerably more than the 154 for Stage One, riders didn’t have to contend with the traffic congestion of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Nor did they suffer through heat indexes topping 100 degrees, as they faced along the road from New Jersey to Pennsylvania yesterday.

With temperatures in the 70s and plenty of wonderful back roads to ride, today’s challenge came in the form of hills as the Cannonball traversed the Appalachian Mountains.

Yeah, the Appalachians aren’t the Rockies, and there was nothing on today’s route remotely similar to the 11,000-foot elevation we’ll see next week when cresting Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado. But the mountains of southern Pennsylvania, northwestern Maryland and northern West Virginia do have some serious uphills and downhills, just the sort of thing to sap the power from a century-old motorcycle and the spirit from its rider. And that included one sustained three-mile grade to the top of Cove Gap that is a strain in a modern car, to say nothing of an old motorcycle. So finishing every mile today—and more importantly, finishing every mile for the first two days this year—is a real accomplishment.

When the stage began this morning in York, the carnage of yesterday was obvious. Out of the 90 bikes that appeared on the Atlantic City Boardwalk yesterday, only 69 were ready to start the day today. That left 21 motorcycles being feverishly worked on in the hopes they can return to the competition sometime between here and California.

Once we were on the road, today’s route, designed by course master John Classen, started to take its toll. Steve Alexander, whose 1913 Douglas motorcycle destroyed its crankshaft yesterday, was back after an all-night repair session by Steve’s crew. “We set an alarm for 8:30 this morning as the time we had to have the bike finished,” he said, “and I think there was two and a half minutes left on the clock when we fired it up.”

Steve had barely started today’s route when the the first problem hit the unique machine, which features a flat-twin engine (decades before BMW), a two-speed transmission and direct belt drive with no clutch (meaning Steve has to bump-start the Douglas every time he comes to a stop). After just 20 miles, Steve broke the drive belt, which dropped off the machine onto the pavement.

That might have been a crisis for some riders, but Steve calmly walked back up the road, recovered the broken belt, sliced off a small amount to give himself a new end to work with, then reconnected the ends with a metal “master link.” In 15 minutes, he was back on the road. Steve would make at least one more belt fix to the machine before it broke more seriously and had to be loaded onto the truck for the day.

Later, Shinya Kimura, the only rider who has entered all four Cannonball rides on the same machine, had to deal with a major failure when the crankshaft broke on his gritty 1915 Indian, which has become an icon of the rides over the years. By the end of the day, he had vowed to fix the bike and rejoin the ride in a few days.

Just as revered are the four-cylinder Henderson motorcycles prepared for the Cannonball by tuner Mark Hill. This year, Hill has eight of the luxurious machines designed by William Henderson entered in the ride, including two exceptionally rare 1912 Hendersons, the first year of production for America’s four-cylinder master. Today, one of those two 104-year-old Hendersons, ridden by Steve MacDonald, suffered a clutch failure that sidelined it after 160 miles.

And late in the day, another icon fell when the 1913 Matchless twin ridden by 2014 Cannonball Champion Hans Coertse of South Africa coasted to a stop. With Brad Wilmarth, the man who won the first two Cannonball rides, not entered this year, that means the 2016 Cannonball is practically guaranteed to have a new Champion.

But those problems paled in comparison to the scare we all got when motorcycle artist Scott Jacobs crashed on gravel-covered pavement at a downhill intersection. Scott got attention from the Cannonball’s riding medical support person, Vicki Sanfelipo, and was eventually transported to a hospital. Word tonight is that he has a broken shoulder that will require surgery, but fortunately, no other serious injury. We all wish Scott a speedy recovery.

So with 26 broken bikes yesterday and 18 today, the issue of who will win this year’s Cannonball is rapidly coming into focus. After just two days, only 30 of the 90 riders have earned a perfect score of 382 points (one for every mile covered within the established time limit).

Among those 30 riders (see results below), the Cannonball tiebreaker system determines the overall standings. The first tiebreaker rewards riders in Class I (for single-cylinder, single-speed motorcycles) over Class II (for multi-cylinder, single-speed machines) and Class III (for multi-cylinder, multi-speed machines). That means a rider on a Class I motorcycle will always rank higher in the standings than a Class II rider who has completed the same number of miles. And a Class II rider will always rank higher than a guy on a Class III machine under the same circumstances.

When the ride began yesterday, there were 11 Class I machines entered, all of which were clustered at the top of the standings. By tonight, only two of those Class I bikes—a 1911 Reading Standard ridden by Norm Nelson and a 1914 Harley single ridden by Dean Bordigioni—are still perfect on points after just two days. And only 12 Class II machines are perfect. Things are expected to get a bit easier over the next several days as the Cannonball moves into the flatlands of the Midwest. But if the early attrition is any indication, it’s entirely likely that the lead will change several more times in the next two weeks before the final stage leading into Carlsbad, California, Sunday, September 25.

Tomorrow, the ride will cover 211 miles from Morgantown, West Virginia, to Chillicothe, Ohio. And perhaps the championship race will narrow dramatically again. In the meantime, one rider had proof today that every cloud can have a silver lining.

Kelly Modlin’s Stage 2 ride on his 1914 Excelsior twin was anything but smooth. After finishing all 154 miles yesterday, he suffered one problem after another today, eventually completing just 38 miles.

But in his final stop along the road, Kelly, who operates the Twisted Oz Motorcycle Museum in Augusta, Kansas, was introduced to a guy who had a serious interest in old bikes himself.

“In fact,” the guy said, “I have three old Indian engines, still in the crates.”

Kelly was intrigued, so he inquired about the availability of those crates and their historic contents.

“Well, I might sell one,” the owner told him.

So Kelly traveled to the man’s home, saw what the guy had, and quickly made an offer. The result was on display in Kelly’s support truck here in Morgantown tonight—a new, never-started, still packed in cosmolene Indian 741 engine, the 500cc V-twin that powered Indian’s contribution to the American military effort in World War II.

A beaming Kelly noted, “I’ll break down any day for this.”


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