Coast to Coast on Century-Old Cycles | Cannonball Run

By : Michael Lichter

During the eight months of preparation, some riders simply tuned their machines while others, like Matt Olsen, built theirs from the ground up. Pete Young rode a few thousand miles on his 1913 Premier (Class 1) around his hometown of San Francisco, and seemed very relaxed, while Katrin Boehner and Dieter Eckel came all the way from Bavaria with her 1907 JAP “Flying Broomstick” (Class 1), his 1913 BSA (Class 1) and a backup bike. They had ridden their bikes across Germany from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, as well as through England and all over Ireland.

A buzz was in the air the morning of the start. Throngs of people milled about, ogling the dazzling group of bikes before them. Some of the marques were familiar, like Harley-Davidson, Indian, Excelsior, BSA, JAP and Flying Merkel; while others, like the German couple’s spare Calthorpe (Class 1), Pete Young’s 1913 Premier (Class 1), Vince Martinico’s 1914 Pope (Class 1) and Jim Dennie’s French four-cylinder Militaire (Class 3), were more exotic. The Militaire is so rare that there are only three known examples in the United States. Built 95 years ago for well-heeled gentlemen, it has wooden spokes and training wheels that come down as the bike stops. Good luck finding replacement parts for this $200,000-plus machine!

The Wright Brothers Memorial served as a fitting starting line. Here, brothers Wilbur and Orville successfully flew their Wright Flier, the first powered airplane, for 120 feet in 1903. In a similar way, these Cannonballers were setting out to do something that had never before been accomplished: crossing this big continent on century-old motorcycles. With 45 bikes at the starting line, they took off one at a time. Some of the novices proved a little shaky with their rocker-style clutches, but it wouldn’t be long before they would become experts.

Thus began a 17-day epic journey across America, through North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. The landscape changed gradually from the fertile soil of the East to the parched desert sand of the West, along twisty roads, flat stretches and vast mountain ranges. Along with the competitors, I saw the fabric of America change along the way. This wasn’t a postcard view that you glimpse from the Interstate at 75 mph; this was up-close and personal. It was a view that showed all the blemishes: small towns dying as businesses closed, houses boarded up and roads in disrepair. We saw the surface scars: the mom-and-pop restaurants that had been put out of business by fast-food franchises; the five-and-dime shops replaced by Dollar General, Target and Walmart. But we also saw the incredible diversity, beauty, size and scope of this great country.

The daily route was handed out each morning, with the option to get several days’ worth of routes in advance after the race was underway. Riders were “checked out” onto the “course” each morning, and could ride by themselves or in small groups. Upon finishing at the end of the day (anywhere from 150 to 300 miles), they were “checked in” and questioned as to whether they had stayed on-course and abided by the rules. Rider support teams could not accompany their riders on-course, and instead had to take a more direct route to the day’s final destination. Riders were expected to carry enough tools to fix their bikes themselves if possible, to get help from other riders, or to wait for one of the four support sidecars. A truck with trailer followed the procession, to ensure no man was left behind.

By : Michael Lichter
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