Sep 24, 2016

Cannonball Day 13: Public Appeal

“Where you headed with those old bikes?”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked that question over the past two weeks. Tomorrow, the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run enters California, the 14th and final state on our 3,314-mile trek across America for motorcycles made more than 100 years ago. And the interest this ride continues to generate is amazing.

Take today, for instance. The Cannonball route covered 231 miles from Williams to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, with a lunchtime stop at the Mother Road Harley-Davidson dealership in Kingman, Arizona, and a downtown street festival in honor of the Cannonball in the host city this evening. The midday event brought hundreds of fans to the dealership, while tonight’s street fair attracted an even-bigger crowd to see the bikes, take photos and ask questions—plenty of questions.

“Are those replicas or the real thing?”

“How many miles per gallon do they get?”

“How fast will it go?”

“Doesn’t your butt hurt riding that thing?”

“Do they all leak oil like that?”

“How much is one of those things worth?”

“Were any of these bikes used in the filming of the ‘Harley and the Davidsons’ show?”

But the most-frequent conversation by far goes something like this:

“What’s with all the old motorcycles I’ve been seeing?”

It’s a 16-day ride for bikes made more than 100 years ago that that’s going from coast to coast.

“What? You’re riding those things all the way across the country?”

Yes, we started in Atlantic City, New Jersey, almost two weeks ago, and we’ll finish up in Carlsbad, California, on Sunday. The total distance is over 3,300 miles. Ninety riders started the run, and depending upon the day, we have about 65 or 70 still running.

“And they’re all over 100 years old?”

Yes, the newest bikes were made in 1916, and the oldest was made in 1904. Most of the bikes come from the U.S., but there are some from Great Britain. And the riders come from nine countries.

“How do you keep them going?”

The riders cover over 200 miles a day. And when they get to the destination for the night, their crews go to work, checking them over and making any repairs that are necessary.

“Wow, well good luck to you.”

The message here is pretty obvious. People who own modern motorcycles, and even ordinary people who have never ridden a motorcycle, are fascinated by old bikes. We’ve seen it in the newspaper and TV stories about the Cannonball that have appeared in cities we’ve visited. We’re seen it in the reception we’ve gotten at dealerships we’ve visited. We’ve seen it in crowds of riders who have shown up at the Cannonball’s host hotel each morning to watch the riders start the stage, and then set themselves up along the road to see these relics of the past in motion. Today, our sweep truck, with two old bikes on board, was chased down by a local couple in a car who pulled up next to us, rolled down the window and said, “We just had to ask, where are all these old bikes going?”

The questions are sometimes a little naïve, but the interest is genuine. And that’s a really good thing for those of us who love the idea of preserving motorcycling history.

Scoring update: The big news of the day in the Cannonball community has been the decision to penalize Dean Bordigioni 1 point for receiving assistance in getting to the top of 10,856-foot Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado three days ago. One point doesn’t sound like a lot when you’re talking about 3,314 possible points for someone covering every mile within the time limit, but that penalty essentially took Dean and his 1914 Harley single out of contention for the overall Cannonball championship and moved Frank Westfall, riding a 1912 Henderson, into the top spot.

The Cannonball riders and their crews really are a bit like a family for the duration of the ride—traveling together, working together, eating together and running into each other multiple times a day. And when I saw Mark Hill, the man behind the Henderson team that now occupies the top three spots in the Cannonball standings, at breakfast this morning, he did not look like a happy guy.

“That’s not the way we want to get the lead,” he said of the penalty.

But the most-interesting encounter of the day came at a gas stop 78 miles into today’s 231-mile route. Dean, as is often the case, was one of the first riders to arrive, having gotten on the road with the Class I (single-cylinder, single-speed) motorcycles a half-hour before the Class II (multi-cylinder, single-speed) bikes, and an hour ahead of the Class III (multi-cylinder, multi-speed) bikes. But Dean’s bike coasted in silently, with the engine not running.

One possibility was that he was out of gas, so Dean filled up the machine. But it still didn’t start, and he began diagnosing the problem. Meanwhile, Frank Westfall and Tanner Whitton of the Henderson team rolled up right behind him.

Dean was looking for the right wrench to check the leather flapper valve on his Harley’s carburetor, a part that has caused problems before. He didn’t find what he needed in his tool roll, so the Henderson guys dug into their packs and produced a locking pliers that was just right for the job.

Dean eventually fixed the problem, which was caused by something clogging up the fuel line, and the bike fired up. But before he left, he walked by Frank, reached out his hand and fist-bumped the guy who now leads the race for the Cannonball championship. It was a classy gesture on the part of two prominent members of the Cannonball family.

Ups and downs: Today saw a couple of significant incidents on the road—one that was pretty scary, and another that was cause for celebration.

Late in the day’s stage, rider Jeff Lauritsen was heading into the town of Golden Shores, Arizona, on his 1916 Excelsior twin when a rider on a dune buggy ran a red light and Jeff hit him. Jeff lay on the ground injured as an ambulance rushed to the scene. The good news is that no broken bones or internal injuries were found at the hospital, and Jeff is back with his crew here in Lake Havasu City tonight, sore but standing. The Excelsior is seriously bent, but that sort of damage is fixable.

Meanwhile, the final rider in tonight was Linda Monahan, who has struggled to accumulate miles on her 1914 Indian twin since the Cannonball began. Linda previously got the Indian to run as much as 136 miles in a day, but it always let her down before the finish.

Today, Linda kept the bike going, even after it stopped running on one cylinder and she had to limp it as a wounded single capable of no more than 30 mph. Late this afternoon, she got her reward, recording all 232 miles for today. She arrived slightly after the time limit had expired, but she was ecstatic at finishing her first full day on Stage 13 of the Cannonball. Congratulations, Linda.

Looking ahead: Tomorrow is the last full day of competition in the 2016 Cannonball. The route covers 241 miles from Lake Havasu City, Arizona, to Palm Desert, California. It includes a ride across the Colorado River on top of Parker Dam, a midday stop in Twentynine Palms, California, and a visit to Joshua Tree National Park on National Public Lands Day. The bad news is that temperatures for the day are expected to soar well into the 90s.

After tomorrow, all that remains is a ceremonial 101-mile stage to the Grand Finish in Carlsbad, California, on Sunday. That will be followed by an awards banquet in which the 2016 Cannonball winners will be honored. And then the Cannonball community will head home till we gather again in 2018.—Bill Wood 

Here are tonight's results:

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