Coast to Coast on Century-Old Cycles | Cannonball Run

By : Michael Lichter

When Matt Olsen of Carl’s Cycle called to ask if I would be interested in photographing a 16-day cross-country ride on pre-1916 motorcycles, I didn’t take him seriously. To ride from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to Santa Monica, California, on valuable antiques from private collections and museums bordered on insanity! Then he made it sound even more unbelievable when he explained that he was building a 9-horsepower, single-cylinder, single-speed 1914 Sears from scratch to take part in the event.

While the odds were stacked against Matt and the ride as a whole, I signed myself up to shoot this “Motorcycle Cannonball.” Making the event more enticing, Matt offered up his father, Carl, who would ride me (often sitting backwards) coast-to-coast on the back of his 1953 Harley-Davidson Panhead. I wasn’t the only one interested, as 68 riders deposited funds to guarantee a starting spot.

The 3000-plus-mile ride would be mostly on secondary, two-lane roads. It would be an endurance challenge rather than a timed race. The rules were as follows: “The machine must be powered by an original engine. Many things could be changed on a machine, and updates made for safety’s sake, but the core of the motorcycle must be 95 years old or older.” Updated brakes were recommended, and it was suggested that for safety reasons some riders not run “clincher” tires. Each would have contemporary lighting in lieu of the original carbides of the day. An original carburetor was required, although it could be modified or rebuilt.

The bikes were divided into three classes: Class 1 for single-cylinder, single-speed bikes; Class 2 for multi-cylinder, single-speed bikes; and Class 3 for the multi-cylinder, multi-speed bikes that became popular by 1915. The ride itself was modeled after “The Great Race,” a coast-to-coast rally open to all vehicle types 45 years or older that ran for many years through 2007.

The riders ranged from 24-year-old Matt to 79-year-old John Hollansworth. Some had very little motorcycle experience, like Paul Watts of California, who had less than 2000 miles under his belt yet joined the Cannonball because it seemed like fun. Alan Travis had even less experience, just 1500 miles to his credit, but boy, did he have drive—he’d driven cars in The Great Race many times. His factory-built 1914 Excelsior board-track racer had been run just two or three times before he bought it. To get ready, he took the engine apart, only to find it was in perfect condition and needed no work whatsoever! To get a bit more experience, he then put 500 miles on the bike, including pedaling it for 9.3 miles just in case he ran out of gas.

Many of the riders were well-known in the motorcycle world, such as world-class custom-builder Shinya Kimura of Japan; motorcycle Hall-of-Famer Cris Simmons; motorcycle sculptor Jeff Decker; American Iron magazine publisher Buzz Kanter; premier antique restorer Steve Huntzinger; Harley-Davidson dealership owner and stuntman Buddy Stubbs; Wheels Through Time Museum owner Dale Walksler; and Harley-Davidson Museum staff restorer Bill Rodencal.

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.

Naturally, the 100-year-old motorcycles needed attention each night. On rare occasions, it may have just been maintenance, but typically they needed more “love” than that. This mostly took place in hotel parking lots, some, like Shinya Kimura in New Mexico, pulling their engine out of the frame for more serious work.

One evening’s destination was Dale Walksler’s Wheels Through Time Museum. After a fabulous reception, Dale threw open his workshop doors and everyone got to work, either on their own bike or helping others. Three of the bikes even had their cases split. Tools and parts flew all over the shop as different “cures” were tested and motors cranked over. Never before had such a bevy of knowledge about these old bikes been contained under one roof. While many competitors never saw a bed that night, by 7 a.m. all the bikes were buttoned-up and everyone was ready to set out into the crisp morning air of the beautiful Smoky Mountains.

Another standout evening occurred at Coker Tires’ headquarters in Chattanooga, Tennessee. After a lavish banquet served up in the Coker Museum, the company also opened its shop doors to the riders and offered to take care of all their tire needs. Coker’s mechanics helped out with whatever needed to be done, which was fairly major on Mongo’s Shovelhead sidecar, which had an end-over crash after losing its brakes.

Mongo wasn’t the only one who encountered difficulties. After riding the 164 miles of Stage 1, John Hollansworth had some trouble with his bike and passed the reins to his co-rider, Ron Blissit. Then, during Stage 5 in Alabama, Matt Olsen hit a pothole that sent the handlebars of his pristine Sears into an uncontrollable tank-slapper and flipped him off the bike. He was lucky to escape with two broken bones, but the Cannonball was over for him and he headed back home to Aberdeen, South Dakota.

Long days and sleep deprivation had taken their toll by the time we reached California, and everyone was exhausted. But family members were waiting to greet their loves ones on the Santa Monica Pier, so a celebration was in order!

Ten motorcycles made it the whole way, and 17 made it more than 3000 miles. The 1915 Harley-Davidson (Class 3) proved to be the most popular and dependable bike. Alan Travis found that his training paid off: He rode every single mile on his Excelsior board-tracker (Class 2), but lost a tie with Brad Wilmarth, whose 1913 Excelsior was one year older. Katrin Boehner rode more than 3000 miles on her 1907 JAP and was awarded a one-off Jeff Decker Sculpture. She captured the hearts of every Cannonballer each of the countless times she was seen running alongside her bike to push-start it!

This journey of unprecedented magnitude with a group of amazingly talented riders will likely never be replicated. It took photographing the event for me to be part of it, and I’m glad I was. It is something I will never forget.

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By : Michael Lichter
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