Sep 14, 2016

Cannonball Day 5: Crossing the Mississippi

Today, the riders participating in the 16-day, coast-to-coast Race of the Century for motorcycles made at least 100 years ago passed two significant milestones—they crossed the Mississippi River on their way west, and they completed more than 1,000 miles of their 3,314-mile journey from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Carlsbad, California.

Traveling back roads in the Cannonball sweep truck at the speed of an early 20th century motorcycle (35 to 45 mph on flat ground, depending upon the bike), you get a real appreciation for how big and diverse a country the United States is. Here we are, five days into this adventure, and in spite of the fact that these old bikes are clearly being pushed to their limits, we’re not even one-third of the way to the finish line.

Today’s stage covered 247 miles from Bloomington, Indiana, to Gape Girardeau, Missouri. During the day, it became clear that we’ve left behind the congestion of the East and the rugged terrain of the Appalachians, entering into the wide-open landscape of the Midwest. That’s reflected in the on-the-road routine for Jimmy Bradley and me, traveling in the pickup truck/trailer combo referred to as “Sweep Two.”

For the first couple of days, our route sheet—the guide to every turn on every road from the Atlantic to the Pacific prepared by course master John Classen—was covered with notations, often every two or three miles. And our ability to see motorcycles broken down along the side of the road was hampered by turns and trees.

Starting yesterday, that changed. Suddenly, the sheet would list one instruction here, followed by the next 10 or even 20 miles away. Those instructions still contain every detail necessary to follow the precise route, right down to the hundredth of a mile. And they still run a dozen or more pages per day, all filled with course directions and markers. But there’s more time between those instructions as we’ve entered into an area with more wide-open roads to travel.

Besides following the route, our main job is to constantly be on the lookout for bikes that may have broken down anywhere along the course, which today totaled 247 miles. Sure, with cellphone communication, we often know exactly where we’ll find a bike and rider (“I’m at mile 83, on the right side, next to a red barn”). But we still come across riders without any notification, so we spend a lot of time scanning the road ahead for bikes. And I can tell you that eventually, everything looks like an old bike.

So here’s a sample conversation inside the truck cab:

Me: “OK, at mile 63.94 there’s a stop sign at Route 14. We go straight. Then at 73.26, we’re going to turn left at a stop sign onto Route 350.”

Jimmy: “Left?”

Me: “Yeah, left. Is that a bike up on the right?”

Jimmy: “No, that’s a mailbox.”

Me: “How about that one on the left?”

Jimmy: “I think that’s a deer yard statue.”

Me: “OK, here’s our stop sign at 63.94. We go straight. Then we’ve got the left at 73.26. I see something on the right at the top of the rise.”

Jimmy: “That’s another mailbo…No, wait—that’s a bike.”

It doesn’t make for sparkling conversation, but it gets us through about ten hours in the truck on an average day before we arrive at our destination city, distribute broken-down bikes to the teams so they can work on them overnight, and find the hotel where we’re staying.

But along the way, there are always surprises. Today, one of those came in the form of a historic bridge. No, not the one that took us over the Mississippi between Illinois and Missouri, but the one that took us over the Wabash River as we crossed from Indiana to Illinois.

The bridge is known as the Wabash Cannonball Bridge, after the popular song of the 1920s about the “mighty rushing engine” of a fictional train traveling through this part of the country. The bridge that spans the Wabash leading to St. Francisville, Illinois, was, indeed, originally built to carry railroad trains. At some point, though, it got converted into a privately owned toll bridge between the two states. Actually, converted is too strong a word—at some point, some boards were nailed down where the tracks used to run and cars were allowed to use it.

The result is about the most primitive bridge available for use by motor vehicles anywhere in the country. A graffiti-covered sign in a corn field on the Indiana side leads you onto a narrow farm road to the bridge itself, where you’ll find two tracks of rough wood between rusting steel beams covered by battered guard rails. For the riders, the challenge was to keep both wheels on the wood tracks and off the old railroad ties in between. For us in the sweep truck and the rider-transport bus behind us, the challenge was to fit between the guard rails and hope this wouldn’t be the moment when the whole thing decided to topple into the river.

Meanwhile, there were also plenty of surprises in the form of good deeds done by people along the Cannonball route to help riders in their cross-country adventure.

Yesterday, for instance, we picked up 2014 Cannonball Champion Hans Courtse after his 1913 Matchless twin destroyed one of its intake valves. While he was riding in the truck, Hans was in communication with his support team, asking them to see if they could locate a source for the valves he had used in the engine, which were made to fit a Hyundai truck engine common in South Africa, where he’s from. The prospects didn’t look good, but then Hans took one of the valves into a Harley shop in last night’s host city, Bloomington, Indiana. He showed it to a mechanic with decades of experience working on Harleys who said: “Hmm, 1200 Sportster.”

Yes, Hans’ Matchless engine is running valves that are exactly the same diameter as a modern Harley. And the guy took Hans to his home shop where he modified them for an exact fit.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Hans said. “We made a pair of valves, installed them and I was in my hotel bed by midnight.”

Today, that anonymous mechanic’s work allowed Hans to cover all 247 miles of Stage Five.

Then there was the case of Bob Wooldridge, riding a 1913 Sears in the 2016 Cannonball. So far, the bike hasn’t performed very well, racking up just 95 miles in the first four days. But today, many of its problems seemed to be solved, and Bob headed out optimistic of recording his first full day’s ride—that is, until one of the bicycle pedal cranks used to start the machine broke about 100 miles into the stage.

With no way to bring the machine to life, Bob was stranded along the side of the road, waiting for us to pick him up and carry him the rest of the way. But then he was approached by an older gentleman who saw the problem and offered to help in his home shop about a block away. When we arrived, Bob and his new friend, Chester, were well into the process of making a metal sleeve to join the two broken pedal-crank pieces, and they were debating the merits of brazing or MIG welding to join them.

Later, we saw Bob motoring up the road at a steady 47 mph, thanks to the kindness of a stranger somewhere in southern Illinois. And although the time limit prevented him from scoring a full 247 points, his Sears did cover more than 200 miles and was still going strong at the end.

Doug Wothke had similar good fortune when his 1916 Indian suffered a rear brake failure about 120 miles into the day. The drum brake, adapted from a mid-’70s Honda, tied up completely, locking up the rear wheel…right in front of a custom-bike shop. The owner invited Doug in and helped him work on the machine. They couldn’t complete the repair, but they were able to provide Doug with a couple of the necessary parts so he can finish the job tonight.

The locals were just as kind, although the outcome wasn’t as good, when Bob Addis ran into a scary situation aboard the 1916 Henderson he is riding as part of an alternating-day two-man team with Brian Pease. Bob was about 80 miles into the day when the leather chaps he was wearing caught in the external belt used to drive the machine’s magneto ignition. The belt pulley grabbed the leather, pulling Bob’s leg tightly against the engine so that he couldn’t prevent the bike from toppling over.

When Bob finally extricated himself, a couple of riders on modern bikes and a neighborly farmer helped him cut and pluck leather out of the magneto drive for about an hour. Unfortunately, the strain appeared to have broken a shear pin in the engine, meaning he had to drop out of the stage. But the team was hard at work on a fix tonight.

The final surprise of the day, though, came when we arrived in tonight’s destination city, Cape Girardeau, Missouri. The city hosted one night of the last Cannonball ride, in 2014, turning its downtown riverfront into a combination block party and bike show. And this year, Cape Girardeau repeated the event, with hundreds of local residents turning out to cheer on the cross-country riders.

People gathered around each bike, taking pictures and asking questions. But one of the most intent observers was 8-year-old Lucas Hickam, who had settled down on the curb with a pencil and paper to draw Kevin Waters’ 1915 Sunbeam. Lucas’ mom said he spent the entire car trip to the event talking about the name he would put on the bikes he’ll someday make. And when he was through with his art project, he showed it to Kevin, who autographed it for him.—Bill Wood





That’s it for now—here’s today’s results:

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