Sep 15, 2016

Cannonball Day 6: Deluge!

This will be a shorter post tonight, because it’s been a difficult day for many riders in the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run, and for those of us helping them in their 16-day cross-country ride from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Carlsbad, California.

It’s tough enough trying to get a 100-year-old motorcycle across America under the best of conditions. And the 249-mile ride today, from Cape Girardeau to Springfield, Missouri, did not represent the best of conditions.

Things actually started out pretty well, with 66 riders heading out on the road, meaning that only 24 of the 90 riders who began this adventure six days ago were unable to run today. The riders in Class I (for single-cylinder, single-speed motorcycles), Class II (for multi-cylinder, single-speed motorcycles) and Class III (for multi-cylinder, multi-speed motorcycles) were sent off in waves, each a half-hour apart, in front of the small crowd that always forms at the host hotel.

By now, riders know that they may need every minute they’re allowed on every day, so the bikes roll out in groups as soon as the green flag waves, with each rider quickly settling into a pace that is designed to cover the miles without straining 100-year-old parts too seriously. For some on the more-capable bikes, that may be 45, 50 or even 55 miles per hour when the roads allow. But for many of the Class I participants, that pace could be 35 mph, which means today’s stage would require more than 7 hours of actual riding time, not counting gas stops, bathroom breaks, mechanical adjustments or lunch.

That means the faster Class III bikes, which leave the starting point last, pass the slower Class I guys during the course of the day and finish first. And that timing was crucial to today’s stage, because by mid-afternoon, the skies opened up and unloaded on the riders.

It’s difficult to describe how intense today’s storm was. It was well beyond a downpour or a deluge, and the only word that conveys the strength of the rain is biblical. I was driving Sweep Two, a big Ford pickup with a six-bike trailer, and I watched as cars and trucks pulled off the road out of concerns about safety. I can’t imagine how scary it had to be on two narrow tires driven by the best technology 1916 (or before) had to offer.

But it was the duration of the rain that really determined the misfortune level for Cannonball riders. Some of those at the front of the pack, which by mid-afternoon included the most-serious competitors in Class III and Class II, reported a brief wall of water that lasted no more than five minutes. But I can report that the Class III riders at the back, right ahead of us on the sweep crew, got hammered with the full package—unrelenting rain, thunder, lightning, etc.—for a full two hours.

How bad was it? So bad that farm fields and parking lots along the road turned into instant ponds, with a foot or more of water building up in just minutes. And even the outside edge of the road surface was submerged in many places, causing passing cars to throw off a wake that would have been impressive for a powerboat.

Especially hard hit were riders on belt-driven bikes, like Steve Alexander’s 1913 Douglas and Stu Surr’s 1916 Triumph. As the rain fell, the belts on those machines started slipping, and Stu reported that he was down to about 5 miles per hour, even though his engine was still running at full speed.

For those riders, there was no option but to look for shelter. Steve guided his struggling machine into the manufacturing facility of a hardwood-floor company, where he ducked into an open area where fresh-cut oak is stored. The company owners noticed, and instead of chasing him away, they invited him in to dry out, asking questions about his bike and the Cannonball ride. They even maintained communications with those of us on the sweep crew as we homed in on Stu’s location.

Steve was less fortunate. He was caught out in the open on a belt-drive bike that gradually slowed to a crawl. He eventually walked his machine to a spot that offered a little protection, but not before he was soaked through.

When we went to pick up some of these stranded machines, we found ourselves trying to load bikes onto trailers that were sitting in water up to the tops of the tire sidewalls.

Even for those riders who were able to press on, the conditions were nearly impossible. Veteran Cannonballer Cris Sommer Simmons was riding with rookies Dave Minerva and Anthony Rutledge, all on very capable Harley twins from 1915 or ’16. But they made the mistake of stopping for lunch, which put them in the midst of the Class III backmarkers, and directly in the path of the storm. Cris’ involvement in previous Cannonballs has taught to expect the unexpected, so she at least had water-resistant riding gear on. But she reported that the rain was so hard streams of water kept forcing themselves up her nose.

Dave and Anthony, meanwhile, dressed for the steamy summer heat of this morning, choosing to ride in T-shirts. They were instantly soaked, and when the group stopped at the end of the day, Dave pulled out the credential holder each Cannonball rider wears to find that the plastic sleeve was full of water.

Here’s the amazing part, though. After six days of riding across the country, the 2016 Cannonball riders couldn’t be stopped even by a storm that had some of us seriously considering the ark option. We started today with 23 riders tied with maximum points, having covered all 1,071 miles within the time limit. And we ended the day with 22 riders tied at the top with 1,320 points, with only Stu Surr dropping out of the ranks of perfection.

That list is still headed by Dean Bordigioni aboard a 1914 Harley-Davidson single. Dean’s strategy is similar to the approach that earned Brad Wilmarth consecutive Cannonball championships in 2010 and 2012: He rides at a disciplined pace that gets him to the destination without overstressing the machine. He watches as riders on faster bikes pass him, without giving in to the temptation to match their pace. And he stops only when he absolutely has to, meaning that his steady pace is good enough to complete all the miles every day.

That strategy saved Dean’s perfect ride today, as he was able to avoid the worst of the rain, which could have spelled disaster for his belt-drive machine. And although he continues to be chased by the Henderson “Wolf Pack” of Frank Westfall, Byrne Bramwell and Jeff Tiernan, Dean’s Harley single has so far held off the trio of Henderson fours.

We’ll see if any of that changes tomorrow, when the Cannonball route covers 250 miles from Springfield, Missouri, to Wichita, Kansas.—Bill Wood

Here are tonight’s results:


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