If a well-developed mind can hold two conflicting points of view, then the Cannonball is, among other things, an opportunity for wisdom. It was an exercise in daily on-the-road mechanicking, surely not worth the investment of two months and thousands of dollars for the reward of a daily grind of pre-dawn rising, horrid coffee and crap food, and over two thousand miles of dead-straight droning roads…and I will do it again in two years, only better, because it was Epic.
The Motorcycle Cannonball was open to anyone with a pre-1930 motorcycle and the financial freedom to take several weeks off to prepare for and ride 3956 miles. Which doesn’t sound like much; stout-bladdered drivers can do it in 3 days. But not on backroads, and not on an 80-year-old bike. The relentless 7 a.m. start times, the 9- or 10-hour riding sessions and the day after day after day gnaw at the edges of your will.
We were daily prisoners to our exhaust note, fastened to its rise and fall with the throttle, noting every subtle change in tone, all day long. A rider who has assembled his own machine knows every sound it makes and what it means inside a hot and marginally lubricated antique, and if he’s put some years on the road with it, knows each nuance of mood and potential disaster. In my case, after significant machine work in Lonnie Isam’s shop in Sturgis, my Velocette KTT sang like a bird for several days, effortlessly cruising on one-quarter throttle, 65 mph, going over 9000-foot passes in the Rocky Mountains like Stanley Woods on Bray Hill, scraping the edges of my boots on every corner, loving my life, that road and this motorcycle equally. Life was Good.
The low point came when, for the third time in 12 days, the exhaust note changed. The chiming top notes—the rocker clearance on the valves—began to clatter a bit more, even though the tappet clearance wasn’t changing. All this is out in the breeze—it’s a 1925 design with exposed rocker ends and valve springs—so the music is played close to my ears. The chains whir, the engine shock absorber chatters like a caffeinated monkey (I gotta figure out what that IS), and after the glory of the Rockies, the slow going through Yellowstone and the stunning backdrop of the Grand Tetons, the little Velo (it’s only 400cc, the smallest bike on the Cannonball) was dutifully carrying me through the bikemare of southern Idaho.
I find little more disturbing than cresting a rise to see the next 40 miles laid before you in a straight line; this is your future, and it will be boring. After 200 miles of this, the chiming clatter below grew louder. I stopped to check the tappet clearance; I closed it down a bit, added more oil and pushed off again (no kickstarter on the KTT; she’s pure racer). Ten miles later, the Worst; clack clack clack whuuuk whuuuk whuuuk. I pull in the clutch and glide to a stop in the middle of absolute nowhere, not a tree or hill within eyeshot, just sagebrush and dirt and pavement on the road to hell, called Boise today.
Another seized valve? No, the valve spring keeper has broken in two—bizarre. As I’m only 10 miles from Mountain Home, Idaho (our night’s stop), I call Debbie in my van, who’s an hour out due to my hot pace. Hoping to avoid a killer sunburn, I roll the bike downhill and find a miraculous oasis of trees and shade in a hollow, and pull the bike off the road under a big, historic landmark sign of Toll House. In the 1850s, the road to hell charged a fee, apparently; malevolent ghosts have extracted payment from my bike.
Tearing into my motor to check for bent valves and install a replacement keeper is easy; it’s all out in the open within minutes. The inlet valve was bent, but I had a spare, so I soon bolted everything up and bumped-started the Velo, but clack clack made me stop. Not good. Examining the cam revealed it square as an Idaho house. Game over; no spare. Plus, I’ve just run about a quarter-inch of not-hard-enough cam material through my oil pump. Nice. I have a lot of ugly dead cams in my collection, but this one is the worst, shagged, hammered and totally buggered up.