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Sep 14, 2014

Cannonball 9/14: The Heat is On


Cannonball map

Golden, CO—So there we were, sitting on a beautiful mountain road. The scent of pines was in the air. Insects chirped and buzzed. Clouds floated peacefully in a blue sky.

Riders head out in the morning fog.There was only one problem. The sweep truck we were supposed to be driving to our overnight stop in Golden, Colorado, was spewing out boiling coolant.

In pretty much every other respect, this was a great day for the 2014 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run.

Today’s ride started in Burlington, Colorado, on the far eastern edge of the state. There, the landscape was still Great Plains flat from horizon to horizon. But a couple of hours into the day, we crested a ridge to discover an endless view to the west. And in the far, far distance was the unmistakable sawtooth shape of mountains.

Slowly, those mountains rose from the ground, eventually forming a solid wall in front of us‚ a wall that the Cannonball riders’ old motorcycles would be expected to surmount.

But first, there was time for lunch at the Rocky Mountain Motorcycle Museum in Colorado Springs. This being Sunday (this was Sunday, wasn’t it? It’s kind of hard to keep track on the Cannonball ride), a large group of motorcyclists on modern machines turned out to greet and cheer on the riders making their way across the continent, from Daytona Beach, Florida, to Tacoma, Washington, on machines made 78 or more years ago.

Rocky Mountain Motorcycle Museum.After that, the true fun began. Riders wound through the amazing rock formations of Colorado Springs’ Garden of the Gods before starting a series of climbs that topped out over 8,000 feet. This being Sunday (yep, still Sunday, I just checked), these wonderful roads were filled with riders on bikes of more recent vintage, but none could match the Cannonball crew when it came to riding in classic style.

The final leg took everyone into the town of Golden for dinner at the studio of motorcycle artist David Uhl. Well, almost everyone.

Unfortunately, those of us on the sweep crew didn’t get to enjoy it. Instead, events, as they say, intervened. While everyone else was rolling in to the finish, we were dealing with a truck that overheated on the first serious Rocky Mountain grade.

Of course, it happened in the most inconvenient place‚ a stretch of highway offering not a hint of cellphone service. So we sat, watching the coolant recovery tank do its imitation of Old Faithful, geysering up impressive amounts of superheated fluid. We might still be there if not for our guardian angel, a tow truck driver named Dave who appeared to be patrolling the area for business (“Hello, would you happen to have use of a tow truck?” “Why, yes, as a matter of fact we do.”)

Dave hauls the entire Turnip Truck.Dave’s rig hauled out the entire Turnip Truck, trailer and the four motorcycles it was carrying, transporting us to a spot where we were met by the School Bus of Shame, which had already delivered its load of riders and bikes to dinner (yes, the dinner we missed, but we’re not bitter). Then we went through several complex maneuvers to transfer bikes and gear in growing darkness before consigning the truck to a nearby dealership (they’ll find it on their doorstep in the morning), and delivering the final load of bikes to their waiting riders and crews.

We’re not exactly sure how all this will play out in the morning, but in the meantime, there was actual news related to the Cannonball competition we’re all here to support.

First, the ranks of riders still retaining a perfect score now at 2,147 miles after we officially passed the halfway point of the Cannonball this morning, has shrunk to 38. Today’s losses included Byrne Bramwell, who did not start the day on his 1920 Henderson Model K; Stu Surr, who covered every one of today’s 249 miles on his 1926 Rudge, but arrived at the finish about a half-hour late and had 16 penalty points subtracted from his total; and Mike Inglis, who completed only 20 miles on his 1927 Harley JD.

Mike’s bike succumbed to a problem that has affected several of the '20s-era JDs in the competition‚ failure of the gears driving the bike’s generator and distributor. The problem appears to stem from attempts to beef up the bike’s electrical system to handle required lighting. The more-powerful modern alternators being used put a strain on the drive gears, resulting in premature failure.

Mike noted that his entire crew was aware of the problem, and that they planned to replace the gears this evening.

“They all said a prayer for me this morning that those gears would last one more day,” he said.

And while we were fighting a losing battle with the sweep truck’s temperature gauge, rider Clyde Crouch missed a turn and ended up next to this 1928 Henderson Deluxe along the roadside. Clyde was up and moving about, but medical personnel decided he should be checked out in a hospital tonight.

Meanwhile, Kelly Modlin, whose off-road excursion with his 1927 Henderson Deluxe several days ago resulted in a couple of broken ribs, continues to hold down a perfect score despite riding in pain every day.

Finally, there’s an amazing story related to rider No. 8, Joe Gimpel. Joe’s 1928 BMW suffered serious mechanical problems on Day 3. So the next morning, Joe packed up the bike in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and headed for his home in Florida.

So you can imagine the shock I got when I saw a No. 8 BMW in a gas station along the road from Junction City, Kansas, to Burlington, Colorado. It turns out that Joe got home, transferred his Cannonball number plate to his much more modern (although still antique) 1970 R75/5, then put in two 800-mile days on the road to catch up with the ride on our rest day in Junction City.

No, he can’t earn a score on the (merely) 44-year-old motorcycle. But Joe has joined the motorcycle sweep team to help riders along the way.—Bill Wood

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