Sep 20, 2014

Cannonball 9/20: A Day to Ride

Cannonball map

Yakima, Wa—Today was the last full day of riding in the 2014 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run. But for me, it was particularly special, because this was the day I got to leave the sweep truck behind and experience the route as the riders see it.

The route as the riders see it.Before I go any further, I have to thank Gary Haynes for the opportunity to spend the day taking photos of the riders on the course. Usually, Gary’s role in the Cannonball is to haul around broken-down motorcycles on a specially designed BMW motorcycle sidecar rig he designed and built before the first Cannonball in 2010. But today, Gary’s rig hauled me around instead.

I also have to thank Buck Carson, who, only two days ago, was mourning a second engine failure that left him without a ride going into the Cannonball’s home stretch. Buck put aside his own feelings and jumped in to help his fellow riders as a part of the sweep crew. And today, he became a full-fledged Grim Reaper in his own right‚ not that it’s anything to aspire to.

Having driven the sweep truck in all or parts of every Cannonball, I suspected something different was going on in this 2014 edition. And today provided proof of that. The difference is related to speed.

In the original 2010 Cannonball, which was open only to motorcycles made before 1916, some of the bikes in Class I (under 700cc) were primitive indeed. Jon Szalay, for instance, rode a single-speed Harley-Davidson with belt drive that depended upon an atmospheric intake valve to supply fuel/gas mixture to the single cylinder. It, and other bikes in that first Cannonball, were lucky to hit 35 mph on level ground. And even in 2012, when the motorcycle age limit was raised to pre-1930, there were several Class I entries that had never seen the north side of 40 on their own power.

It’s a real statement about the advancement of motorcycle technology in the ‘30s that the pre-1937 Class I machines this year have been so capable. To cover every one of the 3,796 miles of this Cannonball so far (as four of the Class I machines have), means they have had to be capable of climbing Colorado’s Loveland Pass, covering more than 300 miles on flat ground in a day, standing up to heat and torrential rain, along with several other challenges thrown in by course master John Classen.

Hans Coertse working on the bike's magneto.Today, Gary and I had the perfect test of how good these middleweight bikes from the ‘30s were. We left only a few minutes behind the Class I riders, and by the time we got about 10 miles into the route, we found Hans Coertse, who is leading the Cannonball competition aboard the No. 35 1924 Indian Scout, a 600cc V-twin. Hans was working on the bike’s magneto, which turned out to have a malfunctioning condenser.

We stayed with Hans for probably 15 minutes, then took up the chase of the other Class I riders. And even going full speed on Gary’s very modern Beemer, it took us more than an hour to catch them. When we did, we found them motoring happily along at 45 to 50 mph, seemingly without breaking a sweat. That’s well above the pace we’ve seen from the Class I machines in previous Cannonballs.

And it’s not like the secret of speed had been discovered by just one brand or one country. Coertse is riding an Indian Twin, but the other Class I bikes we were chasing included a 500cc flat-twin BMW from Germany ridden by Norm Nelson, a 500cc horizontal single Moto Guzzi from Italy ridden by Giuseppe Savoretti, and a 500cc vertical single from Great Britain ridden by Kevin Waters. Apparently, the ‘30s was the decade in which this class of motorcycles truly came of age.

We also learned the power of staying on the bike, rather than making a bunch of stops during the day. These Class I riders know that they have to take the daily time limit to reach the finish line seriously, so they skip lunch and grab something quick to eat while refueling. As a result, the Class I bikes were able to stay ahead of almost all the other riders all day. Even Coertse finished well ahead of the stragglers after completing roadside repairs on his bike.

This serious attitude among the Class I riders was obvious early in this year’s Cannonball. On day three, a 224-mile ride from Columbus, Georgia, to Chattanooga, Tennessee, the time limit was unexpectedly tight. That day, 11 riders received penalty points for arriving at the finish late, and not one of them was on a Class I bike.

The third lesson from today is that the Harley EL Knuckleheads introduced in 1936 truly are in a separate class from all the other bikes in this year’s field. There are seven of the first-year Knuckleheads in the Cannonball, and they basically run along at the same pace as modern traffic. We saw them pass through once, and then they were gone, touring through the Cannonball rather than competing against the other bikes in it.

In the end, this 243-mile stage from Lewiston, Idaho, to Yakima, Washington, did little to change the outcome of the 2014 Cannonball. All 24 riders who started the day with a perfect score ended it the same way, setting up tomorrow’s short, 142-mile stage to the big finish in Tacoma, Washington. If everything goes as expected, Jeff Tiernan will take the win in Class III with his 1919 Henderson, Dean Bordigioni will top Class II on his 1923 Harley JS, and Hans Coertse will walk away with both the Class I and overall titles on his ’24 Indian Scout.

But there are still 142 miles to ride tomorrow, and in the parking lot tonight, crews are readying their machines for one more day on the road before the Cannonball concludes. For many, that means one more night of work under the glare of car headlights or the faint glow of an LED flashlight.

While that work goes on, though, there’s a different feeling here at the Cannonball. This is the last night we’ll all be working toward the goal of having machines ready when the starting time arrives. So there’s a bit of a farewell party atmosphere, with crews congratulating each other, exchanging phone numbers and signing autographs for fans.

If you live in the area, you’ll get two chances to join in the Cannonball festivities tomorrow. Beginning at about noon, you’ll be able to meet the riders at our lunch stop, hosted by Destination Harley-Davidson in Fife, Washington. And just two hours later, you can be there for the Grand Finish at the LeMay Museum in Tacoma. Besides watching the bikes roll in after their 3,938-mile ride from Daytona Beach, Florida, you’ll also get to see a performance by the Seattle Cossacks precision-riding team. It should be a great way to wrap up Cannonball 2014.—Bill Wood


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