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Sep 13, 2014

Cannonball 9/13: Into the West


Cannonball map

Burlington, CO—Now we’re getting somewhere.

Today, the mileage count in the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run reached 1,898. That means sometime tomorrow morning, we will hit the halfway point of our 3,938-mile, 16-day journey from Daytona Beach, Florida, to Tacoma, Washington.

Riders bundle up for the morning ride.We have traveled through the orange groves of Florida, the cotton fields of Georgia, the tobacco farms of Tennessee, the cornfields of Missouri and the cattle ranges of Kansas. There have been tough days, as riders have struggled through oppressive heat and torrential rain, two things that aren’t particularly friendly to old motorcycles or their riders. But really, all of that was the qualifying round. Now we’re ready to move on to the finals.

The days all blend together, so the changes sneak up on you. But after running through eastern forests and farms for a week, today it was clear that this ride is undergoing a transformation. Up until now, the biggest concern was staying well hydrated in the heat, and un-hydrated in the rain. But when riders woke up this morning in Junction City, Kansas, they were greeted by 38 degrees and dense fog.

Yesterday was the rest day, which meant many riders and their support teams had a little time on their hands. Many of them used it to scour every store in town for anything that might be usable as thermal underwear, which apparently isn’t in season yet (the most popular option? Sweat pants). As they gathered for the start this morning, some riders sported high-tech motorcycle apparel. Others, like Jerry Weiland, improvised, making ear warmers out of paper towels stuffed into the sides of his helmet.

Jerry WeilandNot surprisingly, the going was a little slow early on. And that presented a problem, since this was the longest day of the 2014 Cannonball, covering 313 miles from Junction City, Kansas, to Burlington, Colorado. But eventually, this turned into a perfect day for a motorcycle ride, with clear blue skies and temperatures just cool enough to feel comfortable in a leather jacket.

And the landscape only enhanced the experience. The back roads chosen by course layout master John Classen were empty of traffic and full of views, with arrow-straight asphalt disappearing over roller-coaster hills that draw you to the far horizon.

The small towns out here are different, too. In place of the historic downtowns of the East you find small collections of homes gathered around a couple of boarded-up businesses. The whole feel is more raw, more rugged, more Western. There’s only one thing necessary to complete the scene: mountains. And tomorrow, we get those.

But today offered plenty to like, including a homemade lunch served up by a volunteer group of local motorcyclists in the area around Hill City, Kansas. More than a hundred of them gathered at the Graham County Fairgrounds to greet the Cannonball riders and admire their classic machines. And at the end of the day, the Old Town collection of historic buildings here in Burlington offered the perfect setting for antique bikes.

Lunch stop.The biggest news on the competition front concerned a pair of setbacks and one comeback.

Scott Byrd, who had been perfect through seven days on his No. 25 1931 Harley Model V, suffered an engine failure 248 miles into today’s stage and had to come in on the sweep truck.

And the No. 22 bike, a 1934 Harley VLD that had been ridden by Dave Volnek for the first seven days, was back in the hands of its owner, Jeff Lauritsen. Dave originally was scheduled to serve as the machine’s mechanic for the coast-to-coast trip. But when Jeff suffered back problems on the way to the start in Daytona, Dave was pressed into service as the rider as well. Unfortunately, a head gasket repair made along the roadside by Dave on Day Five failed today, stranding Jeff 213 miles into his ride.

End of the day stop.Repairs on both machines were already well under way in the hotel parking lot this evening. But those mechanical problems dropped the number of riders having accumulated a perfect score of 1,898 miles so far to 41.

Meanwhile, the most positive story of the day concerned Buck Carson, the youngest rider in the 2014 Cannonball. Buck blew up his No. 3 1936 Harley RL  in a big way on Day Five, and spend two full days gathering parts to repair the machine. The final pieces‚ replacement set of heads‚ came through last night, just as Buck and the Carson Classic Motorcycles team were planning to head out for a dinner in honor of his 23rd birthday.

Other young people may celebrate birthdays by staying out all night, but few would spend the overnight hours rebuilding a 78-year-old motorcycle inside a trailer in a hotel parking lot. That’s the party Buck threw for himself, though, emerging this morning with a machine that fired up for the first time just as riders were headed out on the road.

After some final tweaks, Buck rolled out of Junction City late, and babied his new motor through its break-in period on the Cannonball route. He motored into Burlington having completed every mile, although he was docked 37 points for arriving outside the time limit. And tonight, hopefully, he’s getting some much-needed sleep.

Tomorrow should offer the first of two dramatic stages in the Rocky Mountains. In the morning, we cross a final stretch of the Great Plains on the way to Colorado Springs for a lunchtime visit to the Rocky Mountain Motorcycle Museum (you can catch the riders there beginning at about 11 a.m.). The afternoon leg will take riders along the formidable Front Range of the Rockies from Colorado Springs to a reception at artist David Uhl’s studio in Golden, Colorado (where you can see the riders beginning at about 4 p.m.). Along the way, we’ll climb from about 4,000 feet here in Burlington to 8,600 feet in Golden.

And that’s just the start. On Monday, this collection of 100 motorcycles made before 1937 will take on some of the highest passes in the Rockies on a stage that may determine the outcome of the points competition. It should also make for some great stories, so stay tuned.—Bill Wood

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