Sep 16, 2014

Cannonball 9/16: Just Another Beautiful Day

Cannonball map

Springville, UT—OK, so I was wrong.

Yesterday, I may have said that the 2014 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run had completed what would likely be its most scenic day, as though there would be no doubt about that statement. And in my defense, it would be hard to top the roads we traveled through the heart of the Colorado Rockies, passing over the Continental Divide at Loveland, Fremont and Tennessee Passes.

Riding through Utah.But when I wrote those words, I had no idea what Cannonball course layout master John Classen had in store for us today. So now I find myself having to compare yesterday’s gorgeous mountain roads to today’s trip through Utah’s canyons. And I’ve decided that it’s better to enjoy them both, rather than deciding which is more spectacular.

Today’s 289-mile route began in Grand Junction, Colorado, and traveled to Springville, Utah, south of Salt Lake City. But instead of taking the direct route, the Cannonball course sent us on a detour to the city of Moab, right at the doorstep of Arches National Park. And what a detour it turned out to be, taking us deeper and deeper into the Colorado River Gorge.

The red rock of Utah.The road we were on is designated Utah Route 128, commonly referred to as the River Road, since it follows the course of the Colorado. But that name doesn’t come close to doing it justice. This route winds beneath red rock walls and among buttes and mesas rivaling Monument Valley farther to the south. And it serves up amazing scenery along its entire 40-mile length.

The river is always right by your side. And it’s impossible to look at the muddy water flowing southwest without thinking that the Colorado surely must be America’s hardest-working river. Yesterday, we had seen its handiwork in carving Colorado’s Glenwood Canyon. But the Colorado River Gorge is even more impressive. And of course, both are just warmups for the main event, the Grand Canyon engineered by this same river a few hundreds miles further downstream.

As we got to Moab, we discovered Denis Sharon’s 1936 BMW R12 parked by the side of the road. To our surprise, though, there was no sign of Denis himself. So we parked the sweep truck and waited. A few moments later, Denis arrived in a car driven by a a friendly local resident. He popped out with a brass carburetor float in his hand, explaining that the float had failed, developing a leak. So he removed it, flagged down a passing car and found someone in town who could repair the leak with solder.

Denis quickly set to work reinstalling the float. But almost immediately, he halted.

“I know I put that gasket someplace clever where it couldn’t get lost,” he announced, obviously casting about for the missing part. So we all joined in the gasket hunt, turning up nothing even after looking everywhere around and on the machine.

Decker studio.Finally, Denis decided to make do with a little silicon seal that he applied to the top surface of the float bowl before reassembling the carb. With everything reconnected, he fired the machine to life, and we watched as he got back on his way.

A moment later, fellow sweep-truck driver Jimmy Bradley looked down at the ground. And yes, there on the pavement was Denis’ gasket.

Tonight, gasket and rider were reunited in Springville, where riders visited the studio of sculptor and fellow Cannonball competitor Jeff Decker. Jeff specializes in wonderfully detailed bronze pieces depicting significant moments in motorcycling, including Joe Petrali’s 1937 speed record ride on Harley-Davidson’s streamlined Bluebird, powered by the then-new EL Knucklehead engine; and racer Cal Rayborn’s victory in the 1969 Daytona 200. But for some of Decker’s most-impressive work, the riders visited the Legends Motorcycle Museum here in town, where they walked past a giant version of Decker’s piece showing an old-time hillclimb racer releasing his machine as he crests the hill.

Legends Motorcycle MuseumWith yesterday’s summit of the highest passes in this year’s Cannonball, and only five days of riding left, speculation is turning toward the subject of who will win this year’s overall championship.

There are currently 32 riders with a perfect score of 2,714 points, having covered every mile of the ride so far within the daily time limits. And unless something really unusual happens, this Cannonball, like the two before it, will end with multiple riders all having racked up perfect scores of 3,938 miles.

Then, as it has in the 2010 and 2012 Cannonball rides, the tiebreaker structure will kick in. You can read all the details here, but basically, the rules would award the victory to the rider on the smallest and oldest bike to complete every mile.

If the Cannonball ended now, those tiebreaker rules would mean that Hans Coertse of South Africa would be the winner, aboard his No. 35 1924 Indian Scout. Hans would win the championship since his machine is the oldest of the Class I (under 700cc) bikes that has been credited with every mile. And if he continues to finish all the miles every day through Sunday, no one can overtake Hans for the win.

In the past two Cannonballs, no rider in Class I has been able to complete all the miles, and the title has gone to the winner of Class II, for bikes between 700cc and 1,000cc. But this time, Hans is leading a group of five Class I riders who have conquered the heat and rain of the southeast, the long miles of the Midwest, and now the high mountains of the West. And it seems increasingly likely that at least one of them will complete every mile and claim the title of Cannonball champion.

So who are these Class I aces? Right behind Hans come Norm Nelson and Darryl Richman on a pair of 1928 BMW R52s, followed by Giuseppe Savoretti on a 1931 Moto Guzzi Sport, and Kevin Waters on a 1931 Sunbeam M9.

All of these machines have already run further with a perfect score than a Class I bike in any of the previous Cannonball rides. And they continue to look strong on the road. For a time this afternoon, we followed Denis Sharon’s ‚Äô36 R12 on the road. Denis may have lost his chance at perfection right from the first day of the Cannonball, but his bike offers an indication of how well these machines can perform. We paced him at a steady 55 mph on flat roads, slowing only to 40 mph over a grade that topped out at nearly 7,500 feet.

At the time, Great Britain’s Stu Surr was riding with me in the sweep truck after his 1926 Rudge let him down 134 miles into today’s route. Surr had covered every mile prior to today, although he lost his chance at the championship when he arrived at the finish about a half-hour late a couple of days ago. Until that time, the age of his bike had him in second place in the standings, behind only Hans Coertse.

“Actually,” he said, “I was relieved to get out of second place. I just came here to enjoy a ride across America.”

But Stu did say that he thinks more than one of his Class I rivals will keep a perfect score all the way to the finish. Since the Class I riders all leave at the same time each morning, they get a chance to evaluate the strengths of each other’s machines, and Stu said that Hans' Indian is running very well, while Norm Nelson, currently in second, is doing a great job of babying his machine through the toughest parts of the ride.

I asked Norm about that this evening, and he laughed, saying that he had been down to first gear, climbing at 18 mph, on four steep sections of yesterday’s route. But he did think his Beemer has a real chance to make it to the finish without losing a mile.

The one dark horse rider that the other Class I competitors point to, though, is Kevin Waters on the Sunbeam. Because it’s the newest Class I bike still with a perfect score, Kevin can only win if all of the other Class I competitors drop off their perfect pace. But the bike is strong, and Kevin had said that, so far, he’s had to do nothing more than normal maintenance on it each night.

We’re hoping to get more of a chance to see those Class I bikes in action tomorrow, when the Cannonball travels 298 miles from Springville to Elko, Nevada, with a stop along the way for a group photo on the famed Bonneville Salt Flats. If you live in the area, you can catch up with the riders at 5th Gear Powersports in Elko beginning at about 4 p.m.

One more note in closing tonight. Clyde Crouch was hospitalized after his crash in Colorado a couple of days ago, and his injuries turned out to be more serious than they appeared on the roadside. The good news is that Clyde is recovering, and his friends on the Cannonball wish him the best.—Bill Wood


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