Sep 22, 2016

Cannonball Day 11: A rider's view

Once in every edition of the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run, I get the chance to get out of the sweep truck and see the event from the perspective of the riders. Today was that day in the 2016 Cannonball Race of the Century, and it worked out great.

I had targeted today because the I knew that the 261-mile route from Durango, Colorado, to Page, Arizona, would take us through the some of the most dramatic scenery anywhere on Earth. It also happens to be one of the driest places in American, virtually guaranteeing plenty of sunshine for photos.

So what did we get this morning? Rain, of course. Apparently, something called Hurricane Paine made landfall in the northern Baja area a couple of days ago and spread inland, bringing rare precipitation to western Colorado, eastern Utah and northern Arizona—just where we were headed. But David Jones, one of the sweep riders for the Cannonball, had his Harley Road King sidecar rig ready to go. So I jumped in and hoped for better weather as the day went along.

Things looked pretty grim through the first 50 miles of so, with constant rain meaning that the cameras remained hidden under a waterproof cover. During that time, we saw Dean Bordigioni, the overall leader in the race to be this year’s Cannonball champion, pushing his 1914 belt-drive Harley single up a slope, just as he had on Colorado’s Wolf Creek Pass yesterday.

The skies lightened and the rain subsided by the time we reached the Four Corners Monument at the intersection of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. And soon, we were rolling through patches of occasional sunshine.

It was great to see so many of the top contenders actually in motion, rather than working on bikes in the parking lot, gathering for the start in the morning or, worst of all, stopped by the side of the road with mechanical problems.

Near the front of the pack was Frank Westfall, whose 1912 Henderson, which runs in Class II (for multi-cylinder, single-speed bikes), remains in second place in the standings, just behind Dean and his Class I (single-cylinder, single-speed) Harley. After nearly suffering a catastrophic engine failure last week that required him to run an entire day with no piston or rod in one cylinder—turning his 1,000cc Henderson four into a 750cc three—Frank’s bike looks strong again. But he’s clearly playing its safe, limiting the machine to speeds in the low 40s and preserving that rebuilt engine. Meanwhile, a trio of Class II 1913 and 1914 Hendersons, ridden by Byrne Bramwell, Jeff Tiernan and Vern Acres, also sound great at highway speed, purring just like they did more than 100 years ago.

Frank, Byrne, Jeff and Vern currently hold down four of the top six spots in the standings, interrupted only by Dean’s ’14 Harley single at the top and Victor Boocock’s 1914 Harley twin in fifth place. I know this is an unlikely description for a 102-year-old motorcycle, but Victor’s Harley is a rocketship. He pulled out of the Four Corners Monument ahead of us, and David spent 20 minutes trying to chase him down with a Harley rig that is a full century newer.

We also got a chance to see Richard Asprey’s meticulously prepared 1915 Norton that is in seventh place overall and is the final final Class II bike with maximum points, having completed all 2,552 miles so far within the time limit for the class.

At the top of the Class III (multi-cylinder, multi-speed) standings are nine 1915 or 1916 Harley twins, along with four 1916 Indians. The Harleys, ridden by Steve DeCosa, Ben Brown, Erik Bahl, Anthony Rutledge, Mike Bell, Jon Neumann, Doc Hopkins, Dave Minerva and Scott Byrd, are of the same design as the bikes that dominated the original Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run in 2010, which was limited to motorcycles made before 1916. But this year’s Race of the Century formula opened the door to a new contender: Indian’s side-valve Indian Powerplus, which was the most-advanced American V-twin of its time. On the road, though, the inlet-over-exhaust valve Harleys are holding their own against the side-valve Indians through 2,500 miles.

Doc Hopkins’ 1916 Harley deserves special mention, since it is hauling a period-correct wicker sidecar containing Dawn Hamilton, making this the only three-wheeled, two-person machine in the competition. Sidecar rigs have had a tough history in the Cannonball, with none completing every mile in past rides. But Doc’s rig looks like it isn’t even breathing hard at the speeds Cannonball bikes need to maintain, and he may be the guy to break the sidecar bad-luck spell.

As the ride headed into Arizona, we skirted famed Monument Valley, with its tortured sandstone rock formations, and rolled through the Navajo Nation, a 27,000-square mile region (larger than the state of West Virginia) that is home to about 175,000 native Americans. In that area, we caught up with Dean Bordigioni again, having survived the early rain and hills to motor on through another full mileage day.

Eventually, we headed north toward the city of Page, which is at the western end of Lake Powell, the huge manmade reservoir created by construction of the Glen Canyon Dam in the early 1960s.

Although the stage was among the longest in this year’s Cannonball, it was also among the most enjoyable. And tomorrow, we continue our tour of Southwestern scenic highlights with a 195-mile route to Williams, Arizona, that will include a ride along the south rim of the Grand Canyon. But while the focus for many riders will be on sightseeing, the competition for the overall championship and the winners of three classes will continue. Check back tomorrow night to see how it turns out.—Bill Wood

Here are tonight’s results:


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