Riding coast to coast across America is no easy task on a motorcycle. But doing it on a 100-year-old vintage bike takes the challenge to a whole new level of awesome
It sounds like a definition of madness: 91 people signing up for something that will cost a fortune, take a year to prepare for and then consume every last ounce of energy for 16 sleepdeprived days and nights. Welcome to the Motorcycle Cannonball Run – a 3306 mile road trip, coast to coast across America on machines that must be at least a century old. The Jeff Decker sculpture awaiting the winner at the finish is highly coveted but isn’t why this year’s competitors took on the challenge. Actually, there wasn’t a single reason – there were 91, one for every rider. A common theme was that riders just ‘had to be part of it,’ especially since this year’s event, dubbed The Race of the Century, was limited to centenarian motorcycles. The bikes were coming out of museums, private collections and displays all over the USA. The riders knew they would be enduring all sorts of road and weather conditions during the 3306 miles it would take to get from Atlantic City, New Jersey to Carlsbad, California. But they also knew the trip would be an adventure most of us can only dream of. Here are just a few of the stories…
Long miles, Late nights
The route was divided into 15-stages with a much needed rest day sandwiched in the middle. The first day was short at 154 miles, as was the last at 101 miles, but most were around 230. The three longest days racked up 262, 264 and 272 miles. That might not seem like a lot to ride in a day, but try it on 100-year-old iron. Thirteen riders attempted the trip on single-cylinder single-speed bikes (ie no gears). There were three classes of bikes, depending on the number of gears, cylinders and capacity. The way this came into play in the scoring was the winner would be the bike that did the most miles. If there were many bikes that did every mile, the win then goes to the lowest class bike. In the event of more than one bike in a class doing every mile, it then goes to the oldest bike and then to the oldest rider. Plain and simple, (or not as it turned out.) To give you an idea how difficult this really is, by the end of the first day, 27 of the 90 bikes at the start did not complete every mile.
One of them simply burst into flames and only a charred skeleton was left. Imagine how that felt after all the work just to make it to the start... Most of these bikes ended up limping in on one of the MCR (Motorcycle Cannonball Run) chase trucks long after everyone else had crossed the line. And then the work gets underway. As happened every evening, the tools came out and the riders, mechanics and support crew dug in. Some nights there were cylinders being honed, with top-ends, bottom-ends and entire engines being rebuilt. Engine swaps were common. The camaraderie between riders and crews was clear as tools were loaned and expertise shared, and in one case, after Rowdy Schenck blew up his 1915 Harley- Davidson, Mike Bell offered him a spare engine that he had for his own back-up with which Rowdy finished the entire run only missing 138 of the 3306 total miles.
Spirit of 13
This camaraderie was clear on course as well, with riders stopping to help each other. It was against the rules to have any crew (yours or anyone else’s) help you during the day or you would receive a big penalty. To help prevent this, crews were given different directions to the finish or they would be instructed to leave well before the riders started. This rag-tag group of people – crew, family members and MCR staff – occupied nearly 250 hotel rooms every night. You can imagine how difficult it was getting this lot across the country. I have to take my hat off to the 13 Class One riders. Trying to take a single cylinder single-speed machine like this coast-to-coast is monumental to say the least.
The only Class One rider to make every mile was wine-maker Dean Bordigioni who purchased his 1914 Harley-Davidson with the express plan to be on the Century Ride. With a competitive drive and spirit which goes back to his college football days, his plan was to win the whole thing. This was Dean’s third Cannonball, so he knew how it worked. He did great, completing 13-stages on his first Cannonball and all stages on his second (winning his class) on the 1923 Model J he had owned for years. That was fun but now he was serious. But he didn’t realise until it was too late that the route included the 10,857ft Wolf Creek Pass in Southern Colorado. All of the Class One riders agreed this would be extremely difficult. These bikes, most of which are just three or four horsepower, simply weren’t made for this sort of effort, but Dean sure gave it a go. His bike, which had been fettled by the renowned restorer Steve Huntzinger, put out twice the horsepower of the original but it still wasn’t enough.
Dean had to slalom back and forth across the lanes of traffic for as far as he could, then walked beside the bike a good bit of the way. In the end, not realising there would be a penalty, he accepted a tow of less than a mile and was penalised one point which dropped him from first to seventeenth place. He still won his class as well as the Spirit of the Cannonball award though. On top of trying to keep these bikes running, you also have to keep track of where you’re headed. Easy enough with satnav, but riders are not allowed to have any sort of navigation device with them. The only thing they are allowed is an electronic odometer that they reset each morning to zero. Then with the instructions they are given each evening, they tape together a long scroll (typically 15-20 pages) which goes into a little box mounted on their handlebars so they can roll the instructions as they go along. These are instructions not directions – they don’t tell you where you are nor where you are going and don’t reveal the towns you are riding through. They simply say: “Mile 27.3 – left at the McDonalds”, “Mile 129.6 – left at the Y” or “Mile 241.6 – right at the stop sign”. It actually doesn’t even say this, but rather has a right pointing arrow for a right turn. Talk about having to be on your game. Of course, riders would make wrong turns, and that’s when it got really interesting, having to do all the maths in your head for the rest of the day. And don’t forget, on top of this you’ve got to remember to pump oil into your total loss engine…
As hard as all this seems, first year Cannonballer Alex Trepanier had the biggest smile on his face whenever I saw him. Alex is just 27, or at least he was at the start of the Cannonball – he turned 28 in Dodge City, Kansas – and even managed to smile when pushing his 1912 Class One Indian a mile uphill. Alex just couldn’t believe he was finally on the Cannonball. He was surrounded with old bikes since his dad started a collection back in the 1950s, but the 2012 and 2014 Cannonballs had modern bikes (pre- 1930 and pre-1937 respectively) compared to the ones he was used to riding. When the Century Ride was announced, he had to be part of it. Looking back, he said his favourite parts were “coming into each stop and seeing the enthusiasm of the people waiting for us,” and how “by the end, all the people on the Cannonball were like family.” There hasn’t been a day since that he hasn’t been talking with other Cannonballers and he has already assembled a “team” of Class One Century riders for the 2018 Cannonball. By the way, Alex was the only Class One rider that made it over Wolf Creek Pass! You could sense emotion building on the last day. Everyone was thrilled they had made it, regardless of the total number of miles they rode. In fact, 84 riders rode over the finish line of which 22 rode every mile of every stage – all 3306 miles. But there was also the acknowledgement that this adventure was coming to an end. The shared experiences would be relegated to memories and great bar stories, but the bonds that were made will live on. It didn’t matter that everyone would be returning home in the coming days – the friendships made will last for years. Madness or not? I’d say you have to be a bit mad, but then why not? It has to be worth every bit of the money and energy expended.