2012 Motorcycle Cannonball Finishes

In it to win it.

1930 Velocette KTT

Paul d'Orléans' 1930 Velocette KTT

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.

There are two types of people who ride the Cannonball: Mechanics …

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.

1914 Harley-Davidson Motorcycle

Joe Gardella's 1914 Harley-Davidson

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 4x5" 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.

1930 Velocette KTT

Paul d'Orléans' 1930 Velocette KTT

Paul d'Orléans and his 1930 Velocette KTT in happy times by Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park. The day began in 25-degree weather...
1929 BMW R11

Norm Nelson's 1929 BMW R11

Norm Nelson and his 1929 BMW R11 might seem an obvious long-distance choice, but his was the only one of four BMWs to complete all 3956 miles.
1914 Harley-Davidson Motorcycle

Joe Gardella's 1914 Harley-Davidson

Joe Gardella on his 1914 Harley-Davidson, original in appearance but modern on the inside, with astonishing performance for a single-speeder.
1913 Excelsior Motorcycle

Brad Wilmarth's 1913 Excelsior

Brad Wilmarth and his winning 1913 Excelsior, an original machine, carefully blueprinted and sympathetically ridden.