Sep 19, 2016

Cannonball Day 9: The Plains Truth

Well, at least that’s over.

Today, the riders aboard century-old bikes in the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run faced their longest day—272 miles from Dodge City, Kansas, to Pueblo, Colorado. And the fact that every one of those miles was logged on flat, straight roads through western Kansas and eastern Colorado made it feel even longer.

Plus, the riders faced an odd mix of weather conditions, ranging from dense fog at the start of the day to a midday high that, according to the bank in one of the small towns we passed through, reached an even 100 degrees.

This wasn’t one of those Cannonball days to savor. It was a day to survive.

Through much of the day, the only sight interrupting the perfectly flat horizon was the grain elevator in the town five miles up the road. And the only memorable smell was the pungent aroma of cattle feed lots.

But if you’re going to ride all the way across America, you’re going to face occasional days like this. And you’re going to have to fight through them to get to the good stuff, which is exactly what Cannonball riders did today as the ride passed through the 2,000-mile barrier on the way to 3,314 by the time we get to Carlsbad, California, Sunday.

The results of yesterday’s rest day were clear as the riders came to the starting line this morning. Sweep-crew driver Cole Deister, dressed as the “Grim Sweeper,” flagged off 77 machines to begin the stage. Since 90 riders took the start on the first day of the Cannonball September 10 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, that’s the most riders we’ve seen on any stage. And it highlights an important point: Cannonball riders don’t give up.

After a brutal first few days of this year’s coast-to-coast ride, we were down to 66 machines, all made in 1916 or earlier, taking the start some mornings. But those riders who failed to finish one stage due to breakdowns kept working on their machines, and thanks to some mechanical heroics, many of them have been able to come back as the Cannonball makes its way across the country.

Of course, getting a 100-year-old bike running is one thing, while keeping it running is another. And unfortunately, one of the first riders we came across by the side of the road was Linda Monahan, standing next to her 1914 Indian twin. She reported that after a crankshaft-up rebuild, the bike was running great, but the brand-new reproduction grip she installed on the spark-advance side of the handlebar came loose, eventually locking the engine into fully retarded mode, which prevented her from starting it. So she tried to bump-start it with the help of a couple of volunteers, slipped on some sand and ended up on the ground with a bent bar that made the machine unrideable. Still, she was upbeat in spite of the setback, noting that she got 136 miles today and has a machine that now appears to be mechanically sound for the rest of the trip.

We ran into Perry Ruiter, whose 1912 Excelsior had logged only 3 miles of actual Cannonball competition prior to today. Today, he logged 111.

Also setting a distance record was Brent Hansen, riding his 1913 Shaw, a bicycle with a clip-on engine that is capable of about 20 mph on a flat road with no wind. We thought it was pretty amazing when Brent logged 76 miles on the machine Saturday, but today, he outdid himself, racking up 97 miles before running out of steam for the day.

But the big star of the day was Steve Norton, riding a 1904 Rex that is the oldest motorcycle in the competition. The bike had let Steve down several times during the first eight stages, but today, on the longest stage of the ride, he came up big, finishing all 272 miles. Also going the distance were Joe Gimpel, on a Thor single, plus Victor Hugas and "Chopper" Dave Monson on Harley singles, along with Bill Story on a 1913 Excesior twin, and Harry Verkuil on a 1916 Harley twin. And in a nice twist, the mechanic for Scott and Sharon Jacobs, who both dropped out of the Cannonball following Scott's crash last week in which he injured his shoulder, got a chance to ride Sharon's 1915 Harley today and finished every mile.

For every one of those uplifting stories, though, there are always reminders that crossing America from the Atlantic to the Pacific isn’t easy, especially when you’re depending upon century-old technology. Today, for instance, Kevin Waters of Great Britain, who’s been running in ninth place in the overall standings aboard a 1915 Sunbeam, struggled with fuel-delivery issues that limited the bike to about 30 mph. As you might imagine, it takes a long time to cover 272 miles when you’re only clicking them off 30 at a time, but Kevin was up to the task, skipping everything but essential stops and bringing the Sunbeam home to remain among the 21 riders still at maximum points.

Unfortunately, the news wasn’t as good for Andreas Kaindl of Germany, who started the day in seventh place overall aboard his 1915 Henderson. Andreas, who has ridden the Cannonball twice previously aboard a 1924 Henderson, got to the 151-mile mark today before pulling off the road with an engine that wasn’t running well. He set to work in the hot sun, ignoring the occasional car or semi blowing past by at 65 mph. First, he cleared the carburetor float bowl. Then he replaced the spark plugs and adjusted the points gap in the magneto. Finally, he tried replacing the entire magneto with a spare he carries in his saddlebag.

None of it worked, and after 1½ hours under the broiling sun, he decided to put the machine on the sweep trailer rather than risk doing further damage to a valuable machine. That reduced the ranks of riders with maximum points to xx by tonight, with Dean Bordigioni (1914 Harley-Davidson single), Frank Westfall (1912 Henderson), Byrne Bramwell (1913 Henderson), Jeff Tiernan (1913 Henderson) and Victor Boocock (1914 Harley-Davidson twin) claiming the top five spots based on tiebreakers that reward smaller and older machines over newer and larger bikes.

Approaching the end of today’s long slog through the Great Plains, riders could see the next challenge rising up ahead of them. In the morning, they’ll leave Pueblo, Colorado, at about 4,600 feet and climb to nearly 11,000 feet before dropping into the town of Durango 264 miles later.

The big challenge along the way is Wolf Creek Pass, with a 20-mile climb on the eastern approach to the 10,856-foot summit before an 8-mile plummet on the western side.

This will likely be the most-challenging stage of the entire 2016 Cannonball, and riders have been given the option to have their support crews transport their machines up and over the pass. If they do, though, they will lose 42 miles in their point total.

As I mentioned earlier, Cannonball riders don’t quit. So I anticipate that anyone with a chance of winning the overall Cannonball championship will ride Wolf Creek Pass. And so will dozens of others who signed up for the Cannonball to challenge themselves and their machines.

It should make for a very interesting day.—Bill Wood

Here are tonight's results:

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