Dorance Johnson's Last Pass

Half a century after he started hillclimbing, Dorance Johnson tries once more to go up and over

This was it. Dorance Johnson pushed his motorcycle to the start line for the final time, 55 years after he began riding competitively. Despite that wealth of experience, he was still feeling those butterflies. His son, grandson and a few friends acted as his pit crew, holding the bike and grooming his starting position. When the groove was prepped to his satisfaction, Johnson instructed the crew to roll the bike in. He motioned to a man holding a kickstarter, who moved in and attached it to its shaft. It took two men to kick over that old BSA 750 twin, and the noise from the straight pipes was deafening. Johnson tuned that out, climbed onboard and focused on the hill, zoning in on his line as if nothing else in the world mattered. Most of his crew backed away, but one last member leaned in, patted him on the helmet and yelled, "UP AND OVER, JOHNSON!"

For more than a year, I'd been meaning to make it to this local hillclimb that takes place twice annually in the quaint cow town of Dickyville, Wisconsin. I was drawn partly by the funny name of this little burg, and partly because of the character that would likely accompany this classic and uniquely American form of competition. After missing my first chance to make it to Dickyville earlier in the summer, I seized the opportunity to head out on a beautiful September day.

As soon as I pulled into the cow pasture that was pulling double-duty as the pit area, I could tell I was going to find exactly what I was looking for. A few rows of cars, as well as a good-sized gathering of bikers had congregated at the base of the lone hill. Compared to the utter flatness of the surrounding land, this steep slope seemed out of place. Anxious to dive right in and be part of the experience, I grabbed my camera, a fist full of black-and-white film and headed for...the beer tent, where most great stories are made-or made up.

By the time I'd downed my third Old Style, it had been suggested to me several times that I'd best get a photo of a fellow named Dorance (pronounced "Dornch"), as today would be his last hillclimb. I was skeptical about the importance of nabbing this photo until I learned the subject was 82 years old. Hillclimbing isn't the kindest sport to subject one's body to, and not something I imagined an octogenarian to be in particularly good condition to handle. Nonetheless, it was worth investigating.

A few little white lies regarding my credentials as a journalist later, I was through the pit gates and trolling for someone who looked like an 82-year-old hillclimber. I didn't have to search long before I was directed toward a gray-haired gentleman watching from the start line, studying the rider leaving the gate.

For the next few minutes, Johnson sat in the shade of the announcer's tower and watched intently as one after another of his competitors charged up the hill. Dressed in jeans and a BSA jersey, he seemed pretty relaxed-almost more concerned I was pointing a camera in his direction than the fact that not one of the riders had made it more than halfway up the hill before auguring their considerably younger bodies into the ground. Johnson watched one last rider leave and then headed back to the pits to get ready to have a go at the hill.

I found Johnson prepping his bike with the help of his 16-year-old grandson, Chase, a third-generation hillclimber himself. The bike they unloaded from the back of a pickup truck wasn't exactly what you'd call current. The dual-shocker was driven by a BSA pushrod motor, cradled by a custom frame built by Johnson himself circa 1975. The clutch lever had been replaced by a pedal, which Johnson readily admitted was ill-conceived. "I put a foot clutch on this thing, which is dumb, because you need both feet on the ground when you take off," he said. He went on to explain that once the bike is in gear, he basically holds the throttle wide-open and uses the kill switch to chop the power and keep the front tire on the ground. This technique began back in the day of board-track racing, he said, when the machines lacked a key component found on modern racebikes: brakes.

After his grandson kicked the bike over, Johnson warmed the engine, put it in gear and shot off toward an old grain silo at the back of the pits. Despite its obvious age the BSA seemed to run quite well, and upon his return Johnson seemed pleased. He confidently climbed off the bike as his crew utilized a 2x4 as a makeshift kickstand-a common practice repeated throughout the pits.

Before he could get situated, a fellow competitor shouted from 30 feet away, "You got a screwdriver, Dorance? I can't get this friggin' thing started!" He then pointed to a bike that sat crippled in the middle of the cow pasture. Johnson nodded his head as he reached in his toolbox for the screwdriver. Never mind the age difference between the two riders, there appeared to be a genuine feeling of camaraderie. The distressed rider needed some help with his bike, and it didn't matter if it came from a senior citizen. They were two racing peers trying to get a bike going, nothing more. Johnson delivered the screwdriver and began to offer assistance.

Johnson has done more than his fair share of helping out in the pits over the years. He started riding motorcycles in 1946, participated in his first hillclimb in '51 and hasn't missed a year of racing since. He won his first national as a novice in New Hampshire in '52, and went on to win countless races, including six Canadian nationals. According to his daughter, he has at least 300 trophies stored in his attic-a tribute to the many meets he'd entered throughout his life.

Johnson's first bike was a 1929 Harley-Davidson hardtail with a springer front end that boasted just 2 inches of travel. At the time, the rules for Class C professional competition stated that bikes had to be run in their original form. "It wasn't really a light bike, but it...well, it was pretty ancient," chuckled Johnson, remembering that old Harley. "When we first started out, you couldn't change anything. You had to ride 'em pert' near stock. And it was big Harleys and Indians-that's about all there was."

That's pretty much how it stayed until the '60s, when BSAs and Triumphs started to make their way across the Pond. "At that time, they couldn't extend 'em, so they were pretty hard to ride," Johnson recalled. It wasn't until later that riders were allowed to extend their swingarms and gain a little advantage over the steep slopes they were trying to ascend. It was also common for riders to use the same bike for many different forms of competition, as Johnson did when he competed in enduros.

When Johnson wasn't racing, he worked as a welder for the John Deere Tractor Company, based near his home in Moline, Illinois. But racing was in his blood. Family vacations were spent at places like the Widowmaker in Utah, a hill with a burning reputation for eating up bikes and riders. I asked him which hill gave him the biggest challenge over the years, and he cited Mattoon, Illinois, as being particularly unfriendly. The hill there was so steep that course workers couldn't even stand on the side of it, and had to use a hook to catch the bike when a rider was ejected.

All of this would ultimately lead Johnson to this hill in Dickyville, returning to a place where he'd raced many times in previous years, for one last pass. As he left the line, Johnson held the throttle wide-open. It sounded like a rocket taking off. When he hit the first obstacle, a sharp lip that was throwing riders all day, something went horribly wrong. He was trying to get to that kill switch, the one he used to control the delivery of power to the rear wheel, when his thumb slipped. His ride ended right there in a cloud of dust.

As the dust settled, I returned to Johnson's truck with his son and daughter. A few of his great-grandchildren chased each other around at our feet. We all looked toward the catwalk that dumped the returning climbers back in the pit area and waited for Johnson to appear. Before long, he rounded the corner with his grandson pushing the bike. We all walked to meet them. Dusty, probably a little bruised and disappointed over the outcome, he offered his explanation of what had transpired.

"I was expecting to shut it down and roll over that. Hell, I flew over it and flipped bad, and that was it," he explained. "You're ridin' wide-open. If the front end comes up, you hit the kill switch. Back in the days when you had your marbles, it worked!".

For Johnson, the outcome was different from most of his racing days. "I won a lot, say, for the first 25 years or so," he recalled. "From then on...well, up to the last few years, I might get off a ride and shock everybody. I was hoping to get over today. I got over last fall. That's when I shoulda hung it up."

I, for one, am glad he didn't. In the end, I wish I could say it was Johnson's age that got the best of him-that it was his physical condition that kept him from making it to the top of that hill. It wasn't. Throughout the day, next to no one made it past that spot where his last ride had ended. And to think, just one year earlier that 81-year-old man rode that old BSA to the top of the hill-up and over!

Despite the occasional setback, Johnson rarely missed a race.
Always willing to help a fellow rider, Johnson steps in to lend a hand.
Johnson goes over the bars at his first hillclimb in Virginia, Illinois, on April 22, 1951.
Our hero sits still long enough for a photo in 1952.
With three generations of Johnsons competing, race day is a family affair.
In addition to motorcycling, Johnson pedaled across Iowa 19 times on the annual Ragbrai Ride, and credits bicycling with keeping him in such good shape.
Fitting a foot clutch to his BSA was admittedly a dumb idea.
Johnson (far left) on top again, circa 1960.