Always the overachiever, I’d brought along my mobile darkroom and wet plate photographic equipment, and I started taking photos with a vengeance; the pix in this and my previous Cycle World Cannonball story were all taken with a 4×5” plate camera using 1850s’ chemistry. So, the ‘Ball wasn’t a complete loss.
My Velo disaster left me free to observe the other riders and their machines, and soak up juicy gossip from competing crews. And it was good…the best part being the overall winner, Brad Wilmarth on his 1913 Excelsior Twin, the guy who deserved the victory. Contrasted with the big teams with hired mechanics, giant outfitted rigs and modern replica internals, Wilmarth’s big “X” is basically an original machine with some new tinware, etc.
Brad’s business is restoration, and he’s certainly blueprinted that little V-Twin engine. But to look at the delicacy of the rockers and pushrods, plus his complete lack of a gearbox, is to wonder at the sheer, awesome beauty of his achievement. His Excelsior is so “sorted” that it can run across the USA, twice (he won the first Cannonball, too), with the effortlessness of a singing bird. Brad embodies the Italian principle of Sprezzatura—making the difficult look easy. He rode every mile on the oldest bike and came in on time to every checkpoint. He is the King.
The “other” winning strategy applied by second-place man Joe Gardella was a tutorial on ingenuity overcoming history. Joe’s 1914 single-speed Harley-Davidson has been completely re-engineered internally, although it appears showroom ordinary. The devil’s details are hidden inside, where inlet-valve housings were redesigned and cast fresh, valve springs and pushrods uprated with 21st-century materials and beefed-up dimensions, the carb modified and manifold cast with proper breathing…the list goes on.
Gardella’s bike is what a 1914 H-D would perform like if built in 2010. He cruises on that single-speeder at 65 mph all day long, with the flexibility to bonk through town at 20 mph or burble over 9000-foot passes without stalling. The bike is so good, you’ll wonder if multi-gears are an advance on touring ability or just laziness on the part of riders and builders. His success is an implicit accusation of the motorcycle industry: This design is nominally 100 years old yet good enough to crack across 3956 miles of backroads with hardly a cough. How far have we progressed in real usability over the past century? But then, this bike is unique and lavished with thousands of hours of detail attention.
Of the 72 bikes entered, 19 did every mile across the continent; the rest exemplified Tolstoy’s maxim in “Anna Karenina”: Every unhappy machine suffered in its own way. Some were crashed from burst beaded-edge tires or dug-in footboards on hot corners; some melted pistons like Julia Child’s butter sticks; some replaced whole engines with more swiftness than a factory assembly line, on grass or in a workshop. A lucky few riders had the right combination of personal tenacity and a relatively crude machine for which improvised roadside bodges were successful, so they carried on, attacking major problems nightly, squeaking and wobbling forward, ever forward.
Two such teams were renowned custom builder Shinya Kimura’s 1915 Indian Twin and Chris Knoop’s Australian Invincible-JAP V-Twin, both of which tended to arrive at the end of the day, though not necessarily on time. Both riders would quickly grab a meal, then tear into their damn machines again, illumined by portable lamps in anonymous Midwestern parking lots, darkness advanced by shortening days and changing time zones, looking at night like misplaced Rembrandt studies, chiaroscuro vignettes with faces and hands aglow. Romantic to observe, less so to inhabit.
A breakdown of the finishers reveals that a big if not necessarily fast engine is the recipe for success, with nine Excelsior-Henderson four-cylinders and seven Harley “J” bikes filling the ranks of “Club 3956.” That leaves Wilmarth’s 1913 X, Gardella’s 1914 H-D, Norm Nelson’s BMW R11, plus the Indians of Jeff Alperin and Josh Wilson, to fill the “Other” category. None of the Class I machines—the “British” class of BSAs, Rudges, a Triumph and my Velocette—did the distance. The best effort was Jim Craine’s 1921 sidevalve BSA Single at 3591 miles, which, if you’ve actually ridden a flathead Beeza, is nothing to sneeze at. In fact, it’s a pretty amazing achievement.
Only after the exhaustion passes, the bills are paid and the bikes repaired will serious thought be given to Motorcycle Cannonball 2014. Some are eager to go, some less so, but the event’s camaraderie and sense of purpose are a potent drug for the old-bike crowd, and hard to resist, although I reckon that first, Pre-1916 Cannonball was the harder tour by a long shot. Rumors are flying about pre-1942 bikes being allowed next time, but you never know if there will be another, such is the nature of little-profit/hard-work events for old bikes. Lonnie Isam Jr., whose round-headed baby is the Cannonball, is quiet on the subject for now, but the words “2014” did pass his lips.
Gluttons for punishment have their wrenches at the ready, just in case.