Sep 25, 2016

Cannonball Day 14: Closing in on the Finish

Today was the last full day of riding in the 2016 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run. And for a coast-to-coast adventure that has been incredibly tough on the field of 90 century-old motorcycles, Stage 14 ended up being a comparative joy-ride.

The day began in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, and ended 241 miles later in Palm Desert, California. In between, riders got a chance to experience the desolate beauty of the Mojave Desert. And even if temperatures did soar into the 90s, this was the closest thing to a tourist experience that this years’s Cannonball has offered.

The day started with a trip along Lake Havasu, right on the Arizona/California state line, followed by a ride across Parker Dam, the elegant arch dam that created the lake when it was built in the ’30s. From there, the ride followed state Route 62, a remote two-lane that wanders across the desert floor all the way to Twentynine Palms, home of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. The city hosted a lunchtime street fair for the riders that included a old bike and car show (well, old by non-Cannonball standards).

Just outside Twentynine Palms is the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park, which offered an uninterrupted 40-mile stretch of pavement curving back and forth over mountains and across a desert valley floor. Along the way, we all learned to identify the park’s signature joshua trees, along with the cholla cactus and ocotillo plants. Then we picked up the appropriately named Box Canyon Road for a ride between sheer rock faces on a sandy floor that must flood instantly if it ever rains.

Emerging from the canyon, we caught our first glimpse of the Salton Sea, a large saltwater lake located 234 feet below sea level that was formed when an irrigation accident in 1905 essentially left behind an enormous puddle that is slowly evaporating and becoming saltier.

By tonight, all of the riders had collected in Palm Desert for tomorrow’s final stage, a short 101-mile trip south to the Grand Finish at the Visitor Center in Carlsbad, California. By the time they reach that spot, many of the Cannonball bikes will have successfully covered 3,321 miles since the start of the Cannonball September 10 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. And here’s how things look going into that final stage.

In Class I, for single-cylinder, single-speed motorcycles, Dean Bordigioni has covered all 3,220 miles so far on his 1914 Harley-Davidson single, but was penalized one point for receiving assistance on the final half-mile of the climb over Wolf Creak Pass in Colorado. His point total of 3,219 means he has clinched the Class I title over Alex Trepanier, riding a 1912 Indian single, who has 3,116 miles. Third place in the class will go to Italian rider Ciro Nisi, also on a 1912 Indian single, who has accumulated 2,288 points.

The Class II (multi-cylinder, single-speed) class is more interesting, since five riders have accumulated all 3,220 points so far to tie for the class lead. Those five are Frank Westfall (1912 Henderson), Byrne Bramwell (1913 Henderson), Jeff Tiernan (1913 Henderson), Victor Boocock (1914 Harley-Davidson) and Verne Acres (1914 Henderson). Victor is the only rider breaking up a Henderson sweep of the top finishing positions in the class, riding the 102-year-old machine that he says is his only motorcycle. This morning, he reported that he changed the primary and secondary chains on the bike and it “runs like a Rolls-Royce.” Obviously, any failure on the part of any of those riders tomorrow would change the final class standings.

As in Class II, there’s a logjam at the top of Class III (for multi-cylinder, multi-speed bikes), with 11 riders having earned all 3,220 points so far. The class is topped by Steve DeCosa, Ben Brown and Erik Bahl, all riding 1915 Harley twins, with Anthony Rutledge, also aboard a ’15 Harley, ready to pounce if any of the riders ahead of him falter. Behind him come Doc Hopkins (1916 Harley with wicker sidecar and passenger Dawn Hamilton), Jon Neuman (’16 Harley), Kevin Naser (’16 Indian), Dave Minerva (’16 Harley), Scott Byrd (’16 Indian), Steve Rinker (’16 Indian) and Jared Rinker (’16 Indian), all of whom have earned maximum points through 14 days.

Those last two names are particularly interesting, because they represent a father/son duo in contention for an unofficial award here at the Cannonball—the title of the lowest-ranked rider to earn maximum points. Two years ago, in the 2014 Cannonball, Steve Rinker claimed that title through the Cannonball tiebreaker system by being the youngest rider on a 1936 Class III motorcycle, which meant that he was ranked last among all the riders finishing every mile within the designated time period. This year, Steve brought his twin sons, Jared and Justin, to the Cannonball, and the three of them are riding 1916 Indian Powerplus twins. Justin lost miles on the first two days of the ride, but Jared and his dad are both still perfect, which means this family battle for the tail end of the top riders will go to the final mile.

Meanwhile, the tiebreaker system for the Cannonball decrees that the rider on the oldest motorcycle from the lowest class that completes every mile holds the edge over everyone else when it comes to points standings. And right now, that would give Frank Westfall the overall Cannonball Championship for 2016.

All of that assumes the standings won’t change tomorrow, which is usually a safe bet, since the final stage of the Cannonball is typically a short, ceremonial route to the Grand Finish. But we just got the route instructions for the morning, and a note on them states: “Today’s run begins with a steep 20-mile, 4,000-foot climb.” So it’s entirely possible that the standings may change before tomorrow evening’s closing banquet.

Meanwhile, the final day of the 2016 Cannonball will see the return of a couple of popular riders who have been missing in action for the past several days.

Motorcycle artist Scott Jacobs broke his shoulder in a crash on the second day of the ride. It turned out that the injured shoulder has needed surgery for nearly 10 years anyway, so the crash just determined that the surgery would take place now. Scott flew home to California about a week ago, and word is that he will join us for the banquet tomorrow night.

But the big news this evening is that South African Hans Coertse, the overall winner of the 2014 Cannonball, is back from a hospital stay in Durango, Colorado. Hans faced a scary situation when a bleeding ulcer and heat exhaustion combined to make him very ill by the end of the high-mountain stage leading into Durango. He was transported to the hospital, where doctors recommended a 72-hour stay. But he convinced them to make it 48, got in his support vehicle with family members, and drove across four states to join us in Palm Desert. Tonight, he jumped back on his 1913 Matchless for a test ride to a nearby gas station, and he’s planning to ride Stage 15 tomorrow.

Also back today was Vinnie Grasser, who suffered the combined effects of an infection and heat exhaustion that sent him to the hospital Thursday. Vinnie rode his 1916 Harley today, and recorded 216 miles before it broke on him. And although Jeff Lauritsen’s 1916 Excelsior was badly damaged in a crash yesterday caused by the driver of a dune buggy who cut in front of him on the road, Jeff himself is doing well and will be with us for the banquet.

If you live in the Southern California area, you’re welcome to cheer on the Cannonball riders as they complete their coast-to-coast journey Sunday. You can see them beginning at 10:40 a.m. at Temecula Harley-Davidson in Temecula. And riders are expected to reach the Grand Finish at the Visitor Center in Carlsbad at 1:30 p.m.

It’s been a long ride, and you can bet the riders who have worked so hard to get here from Atlantic City will appreciate your support.—Bill Wood

Here are tonight’s results:

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