Sep 13, 2016

Cannonball Day 4: Cruising into Indiana

Eventually, it had to happen. In the midst of the most unusual Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run ever, we had a pretty normal day today—at least by Cannonball standards.

Clearly, the process of riding 90 motorcycles that are at least 100 years old from the Atlantic to the Pacific will never compare to anything you’d encounter in the real world. But for the most part, today was sort of undramatic. Seventy riders got on their bikes in Chillicothe, Ohio, and made their way 224 miles to Bloomington, Indiana, via a back-road route only course master John Classen could have devised.

We passed through several small towns, bypassed anything that even smelled like an interstate, and somehow managed to sneak up on the fairly substantial city of Bloomington through what appeared to be Indiana’s lakeside vacationland (who even knew Indiana had a lakeside vacationland?). Best of all, the sweep crew only picked up six machines that failed to make the distance (as opposed to the 26, 18 and 12 on previous days).

When the scoresheets were released tonight, we discovered that 57 of today’s 70 riders completed every mile of today’s route, and that 53 of them finished the course within the time limit for their class, earning them 224 points, one for every mile traveled.

By tonight, the number of riders who have earned maximum points each day stands at 24. Those riders are still in the running toward a possible championship when the Cannonball winds down September 25 in Carlsbad, California. But dozens of other riders are racking up miles toward their own individual goals, most of which revolve around having the motorcycle adventure of a lifetime.

So yeah, it was a pretty undramatic day, if you don’t count the things that would only qualify as normal in the Cannonball.

For instance, Dean Bordigioni started this morning in first place in the Cannonball standings aboard his 1914 Harley-Davidson single. This is a machine that is barely removed from the company’s first motorcycle. It is started by spinning a pair of bicycle pedals, which also provide a human assist to get the bike up steep hills. Its engine makes just a handful of horsepower, which is transmitted to the rear wheel through a flat leather belt. And it cruises at something approaching 40 mph. Yet Dean has ridden that machine 824 miles in four days, taking on oppressive heat and highway congestion in New Jersey, steep hills and scary descents in Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia, and mile after back-road mile of two-lane highways across Ohio and into Indiana. Next week, he hopes to conquer the Rockies and then ride to a triumphant finish in California.

Dean is atop the Cannonball leaderboard thanks to a tiebreaker system that rewards the oldest and smallest motorcycles over the newest (well, if you consider a century-old 1916 machine new) and most-capable bikes. By that standard, any Class I (single-speed, single-cylinder) motorcycle automatically ranks ahead of any Class II (multi-cylinder, single-speed) or Class III (multi-cylinder, multi-speed) machine that has covered the same distance.

Even though we’ve completed just one-quarter of the days in this year’s Cannonball ride, Dean is already the only Class I rider to have earned maximum points so far. No Class I bike has ever won a Cannonball, but Dean is hoping to become the first, although he admits he’s a little shocked at the position he’s in.

“I didn’t really want to be at the top this early,” he says. “I was thinking we could rise to the top slowly. But it won’t change anything. Nobody can make me ride faster or slower than what we’ve planned, and when those Class II bikes go by me on the road, I’ll just wave at them.”

Second place is held by Cannonball veteran Frank Westfall, who nearly gave up that spot—and perhaps much more—in a close encounter with a semi and a bridge yesterday. Frank couldn’t avoid a collision with the truck, but the damage was mostly cosmetic–to himself and his gorgeous 1912 Henderson four-cylinder–and he continued to the finish without losing a single point. Today, he was on the starting line with a fully functioning bike and body. And he put in another full day to hold his second-place position, lurking just behind Dean.

But the third-place rider wasn’t so lucky. Mark Loewen took over the position just last night, but he never got to put in a single mile as a top-three contender. This morning, he fired up his 1912 Excelsior to warm it up, and seconds later felt a snap that he thought might be a problem with his belt tensioner. Instead, it was the rear cylinder on the V-twin powerplant cracking away from the crankcase, with catastrophic results. By tonight, that moved a second Henderson rider–Byrne Bramwell on a 1913 model–into third place overall. And in fourth is yet another Henderson rider, Jeff Tiernan, also on a 1913 model.

Of course, the mechanical challenges of nursing a 100-year-old motorcycle thousands of miles over 2½ weeks mean that anyone can go from the top to the bottom in an instant. But that’s all part of the attraction of the Cannonball for many riders.

Take Doug Feinsod, for instance. Doug has participated in all four Cannonball rides (2010, 2012, 2014 and this year), and even he can’t quite explain why.

“If you had offered me a plane ticket back home (to California) on the day before the ride began in Atlantic City, I might have taken it,” he says. “Because you can’t help but think about how hard this is.”

But even though he has had to fight to get his 1913 Thor twin to the finish line each day, Feinsod seems entirely in his element fixing one more engine failure along a narrow highway shoulder in the middle of nowhere. Today, he performed multiple repairs to his bike’s intake valves–something that would be a bit of a project in a well-equipped shop–with nothing more than the tools and spare parts he was carrying with him.

“I’m having a great time even though the thing keeps breaking,” he says as he settles in for another roadside repair session. “It’s fun in a kind of sick way.”

With each repair, Doug gains new insights into the strengths and weaknesses of these motorcycles from the distant past.

“We’re essentially re-engineering these bikes based on everything we know today,” he says.

Meanwhile, for Pat Simmons, the Cannonball is more about antique-motorcycling fun with friends old and new. Pat, best known as singer, guitarist and songwriter for the Doobie Brothers, has been a part of every Cannonball with his wife, Cris Sommer-Simmons. But to do that, he’s had to carve out time from the band’s performance schedule. This year, that meant he was playing concert dates up to the week before the Cannonball began, and he’ll return to the road the day after it ends.

“I just mentioned to the guys that I wanted three weeks off in September,” he says. “And fortunately, they’re very understanding about that.”

Although being a famous rock star may have a lot of benefits, it doesn’t mean anything when your 1914 Harley suffers a flat tire 83 miles into a 224-mile day, which is exactly what happened to Pat today.

Sitting in a vacant parking lot, Pat started working the problem with Kurt Klokkenga, one of the “guardian-angel” fleet of support riders who travel with the Cannonballers each day. As they were unbolting parts, a woman wearing a Harley shirt pulled in to ask whether they could use some help.

She offered to transport Kurt and the bike’s wheel to a nearby service station for a repair. And when she and Kurt returned, Pat started bolting pieces back together. Unfortunately, it turned out the wheel was going to need more help, and the bike ended up on the sweep truck. But before she left, the woman had one small request.

“We saw you perform a couple of years ago,” she said. “Could I get a photo with you?”

As Pat tried to carefully pose with her without getting his dirty hands on her shoulder, she said, “Don’t worry, you can get me greasy anytime.”

Here are the Cannonball standings as of tonight:

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