Little Bikes, Big Mission

The Lake Erie Loop Road Rally

The small cluster of supporters are craning their heads westward, listening for a distinct sound. Fat chance hearing it: The kids blasting through the tidy, Clare-Mar Lakes Campground in rural Wellington, Ohio, make more than enough noise to drown out the tiny, pea-shooter streetbikes that left here some 10 hours ago. Nevertheless, supporters of the annual Lake Erie Loop road rally-where riders complete a bum-chapping, 650-mile lap around the fourth-largest Great Lake on motorcycles with engines smaller than 200cc-are committed to their quixotic cause. "When we tell people about the ride, a lot of them think we're crazy, but after you've done it, you realize that riding a small bike that far is really a lot of fun," explains Joyce Murar, the Loop's official timekeeper.

Joyce is the wife of Ohio firefighter Bill Murar, who in 2003 made a 12,000-mile trek to the four corners of the continental U.S. to raise money for the Aluminum Cans for Burned Children Foundation. Murar's steed for that expedition was a rare 1965 Sears (yup, as in Craftsman tools) 106SS, but the tiny streetbike suffered so many mechanical breakdowns that he decided to relocate the event closer to home and invite a few friends to join in. By '04, word had spread to a small contingent of small-displacement motorcycle enthusiasts, self-admitted oddballs who can sit around a campfire all night discussing the tuning intricacies of a Honda CB200 or Cushman scooter. Kevin Nixon, a frequent competitor from Fall River, Massachusetts, likens his comrades to backpackers who just happen to ride motorcycles because completing the Loop requires the ability to calculate fuel consumption, read maps and keep away from draft-creating semi-trailers all while maintaining passing-lane speed. And oh yeah, they have to perform all of those tasks on a motorcycle that's most comfortable doing 45 mph. Unlike other road rallies, the bikes entered in the Lake Erie Loop are unlikely to attract police attention because most are incapable of breaking posted speed limits.

"The CB200 has won the past couple of years, but they've been out of production for so long that finding one in decent condition is a chore," explains Nixon, whose '74 model lost both of its mufflers during the early stages of a recent Loop. "If you ride them hard all day long, you get into the vibration that not only numbs your hands and feet, but sheds parts as well."

Though larger motorcycles are invited to join the ride in a special "touring" category, the actual competition is split into four classes: 50cc, 125cc, 200cc and vintage bikes more than 30 years old, which are granted an extra 25cc displacement. Pennsylvania rider Ernie Copper has been the man to beat in recent years, racking up both miles and piles on a Honda CB175 with "touring" equipment including a taped-on water bottle and bikini fairing.

In recent years, an increasing number of scooter riders have joined the rally. And while they tend to be more reliable than the 1970s vintage twins that lead the field, with laws barring the 50-150cc machines from using the Interstates, it's not uncommon for them to take 27 or more hours to complete the journey.

The route is not for the impatient as it winds along back roads near Detroit, Michigan, through Windsor, Ontario, and on to Buffalo, New York, finally expiring in a jumble of cramped legs and spent throttle hands back at the Ohio campground. Hidden checkpoints insure that riders stay honest, and proof of having reached the Canadian side of the lake is required in the form of a toll-booth ticket.

Though the Loopers allocate time for frequent fuel stops (and oil stops and manic bouts of calisthenics in convenience-store parking lots) mishaps are inevitable. A couple of years ago, rider Doug Harlan suffered a near-fatal case of exhaustion-induced target-fixation and rode his Honda CB200 up a cement Jersey barrier. Somehow he steered the featherweight machine back onto the pavement and completed the rally unscathed. Another year, rally organizer Murar left his wallet at home, and didn't realize that until guards at the Canadian border demanded to see his I.D. Undaunted, he not only schmoozed his way into Canada, but convinced several of the border guards to make donations to the ride's charity! Mother Nature can also be a factor. "In '04 we had sleet and rain. Some years, it seems like the weather has it in for us and we've had riders come in with hypothermia," says Joyce Murar.

It may take serious cojones to compete in a 140-mph Cannonball Run, but there's a certain bravery involved in riding 650 miles on a motorcycle scarcely more powerful than a riding mower. The Lake Erie Loop may never earn its competitors Iron Butt cred, but it takes serious dedication to ride so far, so slow.

"On your mark, get set..." Competitors in the Lake Erie Loop endurance run prepare to embark on their 650-mile journey.
Winner Ernie Copper's Honda CB200 is about as "touring" as a Ducati 1198, but still beats the competition. "Amenities" include wristwatch glued to handlebars, a styrofoam drink holder and, quite possibly, Preparation H in the tool kit.