Sep 23, 2016

Cannonball Day 12: Still Unpredictable

The Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run has now been on the road for 12 days, and every part of the ride remains unpredictable.

Today, for instance, we were scheduled for a shorter, 195-mile route from Page to Williams, Arizona, that would include a scenic tour through Grand Canyon National Park. It seemed like a nice breather before the final three Cannonball stages leading up to the big finish Sunday in Carlsbad, California.

But once again, the 2016 Cannonball refused to go according to plan.

The biggest curve came in the form of the weather, with rain bands that are the remnants of Hurricane Paine once again slicing across the route. Yesterday, that rain hit early in the day, and riding conditions improved considerably in the afternoon. Today, the rain coincided with the midday climb to the South Rim of the canyon, at an elevation of about 7,000 feet.

We’ve already seen during this Cannonball that rain and early belt-drive motorcycles don’t mix. The belts get wet and slip on their pulleys, making forward progress just about impossible when the road leads upward. And sure enough, four of the six motorcycles we loaded onto the sweep trucks today were belt-drive machines.

But it’s also clear that some of these old motorcycles are showing the strain of 2,747 miles through 13 states.

Yesterday, for instance, one of the valve pockets on Jeff Lauritsen’s 1916 Excelsior twin blew off as the bike was being ridden by the team’s second rider, Robert Hernendez. The pocket, which fits over the intake valve on the intake-over-exhaust engine, threads directly into the cylinder head, and those threads failed under the engine’s combustion pressure.

This isn’t the sort of thing you can fix with a tap and die set from your local hardware store, so last night, the team developed a workaround. They opened up that cylinder and attempted to run the bike today as a single. Unfortunately, that plan lasted only 24 miles.

Australian Chris Knoop has been having a similar problem with one of the valve caps on his British-built 1915 J.A.P. Twin. The bike is a side-valve design, and the cap over one of its valves has blown out of the engine multiple times while the bike is rolling down the highway. Amazingly, Chris has been able to find it each time, and today he reinstalled it by the roadside, using a special wrench from his tool kit to tighten it. Then, in true Cannonball fashion, he hit the wrench with a rock to deliver more torque. That fix allowed Chris to finish all 195 miles on schedule, earning him maximum points for the day.

For Richard Asprey’s meticulously prepared 1915 Norton, the weak point turned out to be the three-speed transmission. Richard, who had earned maximum points through the first 11 stages, was 189 miles into today’s 195-mile route when the transmission slipped from third into second, locking itself up in the process. Not wanting to give up just six miles from the end, Richard went to work on the side of the road, cutting off the bike’s exhaust system with a hacksaw so he could remove the gearbox and re-engineer the bike as a direct-drive machine from the engine back to the rear wheel. It might have worked, too, if the final ratio of the direct-drive system hadn’t meant that the bike was now geared, as Richard related, “for about 135 mph.” That tall gear put such a strain on the engine that it stripped the output shaft, and the Norton had to be loaded into the truck.

Other bikes are showing the strain in different ways. Take Linda Monahan’s 1914 Indian twin, for example. The engine has been rebuilt from the crankshaft up, the magneto is completely wrapped in duct tape in an effort to protect it from the elements, and even the rear wheel stand has failed, so she carries a two-by-six board to use as a sidestand every time she stops. But she continues to report to the starting line each morning, hopeful that she will score maximum points on one day before the Cannonball runs out.

The other thing you learn about these early motorcycles after nearly two weeks on the road is that the past was apparently a very dirty era. Many of the bikes in the parking lot have developed a patina of grease and oil that would surely preserve them for another century. The sheen of petroleum products is particularly hard to miss when the Cannonball riders stop to fill up with fuel, and riders are draining and refilling oil while trying to keep gasoline from overflowing from tiny filler openings made for a time when riders typically gassed up with a one-gallon can and a funnel.

Today’s first gas stop, at a station in the Navajo Nation of northern Arizona, also showed how culturally diverse the Cannonball can be. Something like 30 century-old motorcycles in line at the gas pumps always attracts a crowd. But this time, the audience included a group of Japanese girls touring the Southwest, who gathered around the 1915 Indian being ridden by custom-bike builder Shinya Kimura, asking him questions about his old American motorcycle in Japanese, while just feet away, Italian rider Ciro Nisi was negotiating a shared gasoline purchase with Harry Verkuil, who was born in the Netherlands but now lives in Scotland and works in the Middle East. Inside, meanwhile, two of the clerks behind the counter were conversing in Navajo.

The unpredictability of this year’s Cannonball also extends to tonight’s scores, where the ranks of riders who have earned the maximum 2,747 points has been reduced from 20 to 18.

The first casualty was Richard Asprey, who dropped from seventh place to 21st because of the mechanical failure of his Norton. But the second is much more difficult to report.

After nine straight days at the top of the Cannonball’s overall standings, Dean Bordigioni dropped to 19th tonight after Cannonball officials assessed him one penalty point for the assistance he received in getting over the top of 10,857-foot Wolf Creek Pass two days ago. Dean’s 1914 belt-drive Harley single made it to within a half-mile of the top before being towed the last several hundred yards by another motorcycle. At the time, that short tow seemed to fit into the Cannonball rules, but upon further review, officials determined that the regulations sent to every team required a penalty for the assistance.

Dean is still credited with 2,747 miles, but the penalty point reduces his total to 2,946, which moves him out of the overall lead, although he still retains the lead in the Class I standings (for single-cylinder, single-speed motorcycles) by more than 100 points.

Moving into the overall lead is Frank Westfall, riding his 1912 Henderson, who survived a potential disaster last week when a connecting-rod bearing in one of the bike’s four cylinders started to seize during the afternoon of the ride from Springfield, Missouri, to Wichita, Kansas. Frank was saved from losing mileage by the fact that the day’s competition was officially called off at lunch because of torrential rain that made roads dangerous and nearly impassable in places. He then had to nurse the Henderson along on just three cylinders the next day until full repairs could be made. But it has since sounded very strong.

Frank now leads a Henderson sweep of the top three positions, with Byrne Bramwell and Jeff Tiernan following him on 1913 Hendersons. Victor Boocock on a 1914 Harley and Vern Acres on a 1914 Henderon round out the top five, and represent all of the riders who have earned maximum points on Class II (multi-cylinder, single-speed) bikes. They are followed by 13 Class III (multi-cylinder, multi-speed) bikes that have earned maximum points so far.

Interestingly, the motorcycles with maximum points were all originally made by just three American manufacturers—Henderson, Harley-Davidson and Indian. No other U.S. or foreign brands are represented among the maximum-points machines.

Tomorrow, the Cannonball travels 232 miles from Williams to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, on a day that will feature significant weather contrasts. Tonight in Williams, we’ve got heavy rain and high winds, with overnight temperatures expected to drop into the 30s. But the forecast for Lake Havasu City is for bright sunshine and highs in the upper 80s. And then Saturday, the Cannonball crosses the desert of Southern California, where temperatures are expected to soar into the upper 90s.

It all represents another test for a group of old motorcycles that has endured so much already.—Bill Wood

Here are tonight’s results:

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