Sep 21, 2016

Cannonball Day 10: Still Standing

Many of us who have followed the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run since its beginnings in 2010 have long hoped for something that seemed like an impossible dream. We have cheered for a Class I motorcycle, the smallest, least-powerful machines in the event, to win the overall championship.

Tonight, that dream seems slightly less impossible, thanks to the most-dramatic stage so far of the Cannonball Race of the Century, the coast-to-coast ride for motorcycles made more than 100 years ago.

First, let me set the stage. Coming into today, first place had been held by Dean Bordigioni, riding a 1914 Harley-Davidson single, ever since the Cannonball was in Ohio more than a week ago. Dean inherited the top spot on the leaderboard when every other Class I motorcycle in the event fell victim to mechanical problems or an inability to reach the finish line within the designated time schedule.

The Cannonball rules are pretty simple: All riders receive one point for every mile they complete within the time limit. So a perfect score in this year’s ride will be 3,314, one for every mile of the Cannonball route from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Carlsbad, California. And at the end of the run, the rider with the most points wins. Simple, right?

OK, here’s where it gets a bit complicated. In every Cannonball run so far, more than one rider has finished with a perfect score. So the overall championship has been decided by tiebreakers built into the scoring system. Those tiebreaking rules always give the advantage to smaller and older bikes over bigger and newer bikes. So at the beginning of this year’s Cannonball, the rider on the oldest Class I (single-cylinder, single-speed) bike was listed in the lead before the event even began. And the rider on the newest Class I bike ranked ahead of the oldest Class II (multi-cylinder, single-speed) machine. In the same way, the rider on the newest Class II motorcycle ranked just ahead of the rider on the oldest Class III (multi-cylinder, multi-speed) bike. And the rider on the newest Class III motorcycle? He started the Cannonball in last place.

But there’s a reason those little bikes get an advantage in the rules. It’s because they stand the least chance of holding up to the rigors of a 16-day cross-country journey during which they are tested by heat, rain, long miles and steep uphills. So it’s not surprising that the oldest Class I bike failed to make it through the first day of this year’s Cannonball, giving the lead to the second-oldest, and then the third-oldest, etc.

In past Cannonballs, some Class I machine have stayed in contention for the overall championship most of the way across America. But the difficult early days of this year’s run wiped out every Class I competitor except Dean by the end of Stage 3. Then, as the run crossed through Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Kansas, Dean kept showing up at the starting line each morning, heading out onto the course at a highly disciplined pace of 39 mph, skipping lunch, making the shortest fuel stops possible, and getting himself to the finish before the daily deadline.

What made Dean’s lead more surprising was the fact that his bike uses an old-fashioned belt drive, rather than the chain-drive system that had been almost universally adopted by American manufacturers by 1914. Belts have their advantages, which is why several manufacturers have returned to them in recent years. But the flat leather belts on early American bikes were notorious for wearing out quickly and slipping badly, especially when they got wet.

Somehow, Dean managed to avoid those problems through the first nine stages of the 2016 Cannonball. But most people were convinced that this was the day his choice of machine would catch up with him. After a long 272-mile stage through 100-degree heat across the Great Plains from Dodge City, Kansas, to Pueblo, Colorado, yesterday, this day was only slightly shorter, at 264 miles. But the main challenge was a climb through the heart of the Colorado Rockies, topping out at 10,857 feet at the crest of Wolf Creek Pass before a steep descent into tonight’s destination, Durango, Colorado.

Just about everybody figured that Wolf Creek Pass would be the death of Dean’s little belt-drive Harley. And it very nearly was. But as of tonight, the machine, and its rider, still stand at the top of the Cannonball standings.

That outcome looked unlikely early in the day as Dean arrived at the starting line for Stage 10.

“This is where the gods come in,” he said. “I’m not a big believer in luck, but if we’re going to get through the day, there’ll be some luck.”

A measure of that luck arrived just 50 miles into the day, when Dean made a fuel stop, and his always-reliable machine failed to start. He kicked and kicked. He enlisted some volunteers to help him push. He tried everything, and the bike wouldn’t run.

Dean’s Cannonball might have been lost right there if not for a bit of help from fellow competitors Buck Carson and Victor Hugas, who helped him diagnose the Harley’s problem. Victor, participating in his first Cannonball on a 1913 Harley single, has learned an enormous amount about the machines through the first nine days of riding. And he discovered that Dean’s bike was missing a leather flapper valve on its intake.

It appeared that the bolt and nut holding the flapper had come unscrewed and dropped into the intake tract, but somehow failed to get into the cylinder, where they likely would have destroyed the motor. Victor came up with a replacement, and David Jones, one of the Cannonball’s sweep riders, supplied a suitable bolt and nut. Minutes later, Dean was back on the road.

But then came the long climb up Wolf Creek Pass, where the Harley kept chugging higher and higher for nearly 20 miles. Then, with less than 2 miles remaining to the crest, it ran out of momentum. And Dean resorted to a technique he had practiced with this day in mind.

“I’m prepared to push the bike if I have to,” he said, “but I’ve also been working on dragging the belt tensioner until the motorcycle pulls itself while I walk at its pace. That’s much easier on the bike and on me.”

When the sweep truck I was driving emerged from a tunnel 1.8 miles from the top, that’s exactly what I found. Dean was off the bike on the side of the road. The motor was running, the bike was moving slowly, and Dean was holding the handlebars and walking beside it.

The challenge he faced might not seem that difficult. Surely, any ordinary motorcyclist could walk for a couple of miles, right? But that ignores the fact that Dean’s stroll took place up a steep grade at an altitude over 10,000 feet, where oxygen is in short supply. Add in those factors, and his progress came about a hundred feet at a time, followed by a brief breather, followed by another 100-foot burst.

Spectators who knew the Cannonball was crossing Wolf Creek Pass today offered to help, but there wasn’t a lot they could do except cheer him on. Finally, though, he worked his bike into position to take advantage of a rule that has been used in the Cannonball for years. Under extreme circumstances, a sweep rider can tow a competitor behind his motorcycle for a distance that can’t exceed a single mile.

Dean held off to make sure he was well within the one-mile limit. Then he hooked up a tow strap from sweep rider Joe Sparrow’s machine and let it pull him the final yards to the top, then allowed the bike to freewheel down the slope.

Twelve quick miles later, Dean pulled in for his final gas stop, and once again had to avert disaster. The nozzle knocked of the ring holding his gas cap in place. But Dean, who runs a winery in California, came up with his own unique solution. He wound duct tape around the gas cap until it was large enough to plug into the tank opening, just like a cork in a bottle.

The time spent diagnosing and fixture the intake problem early on, plus his painfully slow progress up Wolf Creek Pass, had Dean facing a tight time schedule to the finish line. But when he rolled into the Durango Harley-Davidson dealership this evening, he had beaten the Class I deadline and retained the overall Cannonball lead.

Sure, we still have more than 1,000 miles to go before we get to the conclusion of this Cannonball ride in California. But nothing we face in the final five stages is likely to be more difficult than Wolf Creek Pass. Which raises the possibility that, in its fourth incarnation, the Cannonball might get its first overall champion from Class I.

Cannonball Notes

Down to 20: The ranks of riders having earned maximum points (2,290 through tonight) dropped to 20 tonight when British rider Kevin Waters arrived just outside the time limit for Class II and incurred a 12-point penalty. Kevin had been fighting an overheating problem that was causing the exhaust valve on his 1915 Sunbeam to stick in the open position for the past two days. The issue reduced the bike’s power, limiting Kevin to a cruising speed of a little over 30 mph. He still managed to slip in under the deadline in yesterday’s 272-mile stage, but couldn’t quite make it today. As a result, he dropped from ninth place in the standings to 23rd.

Get well: The difficult conditions of the past several days resulted in trips to the hospital for two Cannonball competitors today. Mike Carson and Hans Coertse both sought treatment for what team members described as symptoms of heat exhaustion. Mike’s hospital visit came on the day when he was planning to celebrate his birthday. We wish them both a speedy recovery.—Bill Wood

Here are tonight’s results:

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