Sep 10, 2014

Cannonball 9/10: Eclipsing the Record

Cannonball map


This has been an incredibly long day. And as a result, this will be a relatively short post.

We knew that today’s ride, covering 291 miles from Cape Girardeau to Sedalia, Missouri, would be among the longest legs of the 2014 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run. But it didn’t appear all that demanding in comparison to the Rocky Mountain stages to come as the Cannonball continues its 4,000-mile journey from Daytona Beach, Florida, to Tacoma, Washington.

The sweep trucks.And yet, today saw 30 of the 98 competitors in the 2014 Cannonball fail to score the full 291 points, one for every mile they cover within the daily time limit (for an explanation of the Cannonball scoring system, click here). Of those, a record 14 ended up on the two sweep trucks, having been picked up after breaking down along the route.

Officially, the two sweep trucks are known as Sweep 1 and Sweep 2. But they’ve taken on more colorful names as the ride has progressed. Sweep 2, the truck I drive, is a former ambulance that has been converted into a flatbed truck hauling a large trailer. When fully loaded, we can carry 10 motorcycles on Sweep 2, which we now refer to as the “Turnip Truck”, because when you break down, we turn up.

Sweep 1 is a mini school bus hauling another trailer, and it’s driven by Jimmy Bradley. The bus can accommodate more than a dozen riders, while the trailer can haul six more motorcycles. It has been christened the “School Bus of Shame” since its seats are reserved for those whose old motorcycles have failed the Cannonball test, at least for that day.

If you’ve done the math, you know that, between them, the Turnip Truck and the School Bus of Shame can handle 16 broken motorcycles. And that means we were just two short of our maximum capacity when the sweep crew rolled into Sedalia hours after the final bike was due to cross the finish line.

The 14 motorcycles picked up today represents a new record, eclipsing the dozen bikes we hauled last Friday, on the opening day of the Cannonball ride. And that raises the question: Why are so many of these old bikes breaking down?

I can say from personal experience that the mechanical toll this year has been much worse than in previous Cannonballs. In those rides, I was driving the one and only sweep truck, with a capacity of six machines. And I can remember only one day in either the 2010 or 2012 rides when we filled the trailer. Today, we hauled more than twice as many machines.

Making roadside repairs.Now, it should be noted that there are many riders in this year’s Cannonball who are rolling across the country without the slightest problem. Take a look at the scoresheet below, and you’ll see there are 45 riders‚ nearly half the field‚ still on perfect points, meaning they have yet to miss a single mile of the 1,341 covered so far.

But the daily toll after only six of the 16 stages have been completed is greater than anyone anticipated. And we’re all struggling to come up with reasons why.

If anything, we figured that the relatively new, pre-1937 cutoff for motorcycles this year (as opposed to pre-1916 and pre-1930 in the previous two Cannonballs) would make this the least-difficult ride so far, with many of the riders motoring from coast to coast doing little more than routine maintenance. Instead, we’ve seen a rash of mechanical problems, ranging from the mundane to the catastrophic.

Of course, this is the biggest Cannonball so far, with nearly 100 competitors. But the increase in mechanical breakdowns has more than matched the increase in entries.

One theory has been that this Cannonball is exposing design weaknesses in Harley-Davidson’s flathead engines from the 1930s, since so many of the bikes we’ve hauled have been from that engine line. But in fact, Harley flatheads also comprise the largest proportion of the Cannonball entries this year, so it’s only natural that they would make up the greatest number of breakdowns. And it appears other motorcycle lines are showing up on the truck at least in proportion to their representation in the ride.

Today’s results are a good indication. Yes, we picked up nine Harleys (one flathead D, one flathead R, one flathead V, one overhead-valve EL, and four inlet-over-exhaust valve JDs, a design that has proven remarkably reliable in previous Cannonballs). But we also picked up two Indian Scouts, two BMWs, and one Moto Guzzi.

The second theory says that this year’s ride is considerably tougher that previous Cannonballs, since it will cross the country on a longer diagonal line that includes some of the nation’s highest passes in the Colorado Rockies. And while that’s certainly true, none of the days so far have had particularly hard routes, although heat, humidity and rain have made conditions difficult at times. And besides, the Class I (under 700cc) machines on hand don’t seem to have suffered greater attrition that the larger Class II and Class III bikes, which is what you’d expect when the going gets particularly tough.

Theory three says that the pre-1937 cutoff date has brought in more casual riders who didn’t feel they needed to prepare their machines as meticulously, or that they lack the skills to repair minor problems along the side of the road. That may be true, but consider that three very experienced Cannonball competitors‚ Jim Petty, Buck Carson and Doug Wothke‚ have already suffered major engine problems in just the first few days. Besides, anyone who watched Dave Volnek replace a blown head gasket on his 1934 Harley VLD three days ago, or Doug Wothke and Fred Lange undertake major repairs along the road two days ago, or German rider Andreas Kaindl’s roadside work to fix a flat in the rain this afternoon would argue that there’s plenty of mechanical talent on hand.

So what’s going on? I’m not sure I understand it. But then again, I’m a little tired tonight. Maybe it will make more sense in the morning, when we set off on the 244-mile route to Junction City, Kansas, where we’ll spend tomorrow night and all day Friday, the ride’s one and only rest day. If you'd like to catch up with the Cannonball riders, head over to City Cycle Sales Harley-Davidson in Junction City beginning at about 3:30 p.m.—Bill Wood

Today standings.

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