Cannonball Day Five
Bill Wood is following the cross-country Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run for machines made before 1930 from its beginning September 7 in Newburgh, New York, through its conclusion 3,950 miles later in San Francisco on September 23. Here's his latest report from the road:
The Motorcycle Cannonball ride is the adventure of a lifetime for everyone involved in it. But that's particularly true for two husband-and-wife teams who have taken on the Cannonball challenge together this year. Unfortunately, working in the sweep truck has already given me a way to meet both of them.
Although the field for this year's Cannonball is even bigger than the original coast-to-coast ride for antique motorcycles, held two years ago, it was a bit of a disappointment that there were no women riders among the 75 or so entrants for the 2012 edition.
For the past few days, that gap has been partially filled by the addition of Cris Sommer-Simmons to the support crew for the ride. Cris was one of two women competitors in the 2010 Cannonball, and she has recently released a book covering the story of her cross-country ride aboard “Effie,” the 1915 Harley she named after Effie Hotchkiss, who, along with her mother, Ava, became the first women motorcyclists to ride across the country on an identical machine in 1915. (It is, by the way, a great book that gives an insider's view of the original Cannonball.)
Although she didn't return as a rider this year, it turned out that the lure of the Cannonball was too strong for Cris, so she joined the support crew in Milwaukee and will be working with us all the way to San Francisco.
It's been great to have Cris work as navigator and phone contact person in the sweep truck for the past couple of days, particularly because of the irony involved in that role. Two years ago, it was Cris' dedicated all-women support team that named me the “Grim Reaper,” since it was my job as sweep-truck driver to harvest the souls of broken-down machines along the road in the original Cannonball. Now, it turns out that Cris is playing the role of Angel of Death in Cannonball 2.
But the lack of women competitors this year is also offset by the presence of Christina Knoop, riding with her husband, Chris, and Sylvia Crain, riding with her husband, Jim.
The Knoops came all the way from Melbourne, Australia, for the 2012 Cannonball after Chris served as a member of the support crew for several riders in the 2010 version. They're riding a 1925 Australian machine powered by a British J.A.P. V-twin engine that was sold under the Invincible brand name. Unfortunately, the bike hasn't quite lived up to that name so far, in part because of the added strain of carrying a gorgeous modern replica of a wicker sidecar that adds to the burden for a bike that has reached its 87th birthday.
The particular weak spot for the Invincible seems to be the clutch and transmission, which Chris notes was better suited for a machine with half the engine and half the overall weight. The drive system has required several late-night repairs and, alas, several trips on the trailer. But when it runs, the sight of the Knoops rolling down American back roads at a stately 40 mph, enjoying the scenery of such exotic locales as Wisconsin and Iowa, is just plain fun to behold.
Today was the best day yet for the Invincible, which racked up an impressive 135 miles before the clutch gave out yet again. And tonight, Chris reports that's he's deep into the process of removing the sidecar, so that he can try riding the machine as a two-wheeler tomorrow. That will be a bit of a loss, since we won't see the Knoops touring America together anymore. But it is hoped that it will allow the Invincible to be more, well, invincible.
Meanwhile, the Crains are riding two-up aboard a machine of more-modest aspirations. It's a 1927 BSA 500cc single of the same type being ridden by Buck Carson and Jimmy Allison in Class I, for motorcycles displacing less than 750cc.
Carson has noted that his BSA makes something less than 5 horsepower, and that it was pretty underpowered in tackling the hills of the East, much less the Rocky Mountains still to come. But if that's true for a '20s-era BSA being ridden by one person, imagine what it means when you put a passenger on the back, perched on a seat mounted over the rear wheel.
Jim Crain notes that he decided to enter the Cannonball because he owned the BSA and realized it was eligible for the ride, which seemed like a great adventure. The only problem was that the machine was a restored classic that he'd never ridden a single mile, much less 3,950 of them from coast to coast.
But that didn't stop Jim from planning to enter the BSA in the Cannonball, and it didn't stop Sylvia from wondering what she would be doing while Jim was riding cross-country. At first, she planned a vacation of her own while he would be away. But somehow, that plan morphed into her riding with him.
So far, the concept has worked out better than anyone expected. Through the first four days of riding, the Crains has completed every mile they attempted on every day, although they (and several other Class I participants) opted out of riding a 60-mile stretch of congested Cleveland-area freeways when offered the choice by the ride promoters.
Today, the Crains (and everyone else in the Cannonball ride) battled 90-degree temperatures and powerful, 40-mph winds across northern Iowa on a 279-mile route from Anamosa, home of the National Motorcycle Museum, and Spirit Lake, home of the Polaris Industries plant that will soon be turning out new machines bearing the historic Indian motorcycle name.
When you have to cover 279 miles on a tight schedule, you don't have a lot of extra time for things like eating. So the Crains have worked on keeping their stops to the bare minimum—fill up the bike, make a bathroom stop, chug down some water and roll. But today, even that wasn't enough when the bike's carburetor started acting up. Combined with the stiff headwinds, that slowed the Crains' progress, meaning that they only finished 256 of the day's 279 miles.
It still leaves the couple in the middle of a battle over the top position in Class I. And that race got a lot tighter today when Darryl Richman had to load his 1928 BMW 500 twin onto the sweep truck after just 7 miles. Richman had been the only Class I rider to have covered every mile of the Cannonball so far. And although others were in the same position of earning perfect points each day, the ride's first tiebreaker, which gives the advantage to the bike in the lowest class, meant that Richman's name had appeared at the top of the overall scoresheet each night.
Now, Richman had dropped to 43rd overall, with 1,051 miles covered out of a perfect 1,323 so far. And the battle for first place in Class I is a tight one, with Italian Claudio Femiano holding down first with 1,243 miles covered on his 1926 Sunbeam. Buck Carson is second, with 1,232 miles covered on his '27 BSA, while the Crains hold down third with 1,204 miles covered.
The shakeup in Class I means that the overall standings are now dominated by bikes that have returned to the 2012 Cannonball from the original event, run in 2010. That year, bikes entered had to have been made before 1916, which makes them a full generation older that the pre-1930 motorcycles allowed this year. But the rules favor these machines, with the second tiebreaker being the age of the motorcycle. So as of today, 2010 Cannonball winner Brad Wilmarth, riding the same 1913 Excelsior as he did back then, is now in first place overall in the 2012 Cannonball. Joe Gardella holds down second on his Grey Ghost 1914 Harley, while Steve Barber is third on his 1915 Harley.
Barber's chances looked a bit bleak at midday, when every one of the mounting tabs on his primary-drive cover failed, leaving the stamped-metal part resting on top of the rapidly moving chain. Barber didn't have access to a replacement on the spot, so he just took the cover off and rode with an open primary chain from the lunch stop all the way to the finish. He made it to the final stop within the time limit, and was at work tonight replacing the damaged part.
The top 10 bikes in the standings are all Class II machines, displacing between 750cc and 1,000cc. Since they have all covered a perfect 1,323 miles, they rise to the top of the standings over the 17 Class III (over 1,000cc) motorcycles that are also on perfect points through five days. Frank Westfall is scored as the leader in Class III because his 1924 Henderson wins the tiebreaker as the oldest machine among the other Class III entries that have covered every mile. There is one other 1924 Henderson that has also covered every mile so far, but Westfall wins the final tiebreaker, based on rider age, over that bike's rider, Andreas Kaindl.
Tomorrow will be another very long day—in fact, the longest of the entire event. Stage 6 will run 326 miles from Spirit Lake, Iowa, to Murdo, South Dakota. And the weather radar shows a band of storms the riders are likely to hit somewhere before midday.–Bill Wood
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