26th February 2014
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The Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run 2012
A team from Australia take a 1925 vintage motorcycle outfit to America to compete in the 3000-mile coast-to-coast Cannonball Run. Ian Lihou explains how it all started...
The web is the place to get lost. You start looking for one thing and before you know it you are somewhere else completely. I got lost in a story about very old motorcycles and their intrepid trip across the United States. I don't even know what I was looking for but I ended up reading about a very special event for ancient, antique motorcycles, which took them from Kitty Hawk in North Carolina to finish in Santa Monica California, 3300 miles away, averaging nearly 250 miles a day. Fantastic.
Sometimes the best decisions are spur of the moment ones, they are the ones that come from the heart and aren't tempered or softened by reason or logic. It was one of those decisions that led me to ask the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run organiser Lonnie Islam if I could get involved. I didn't have a suitable bike nor was I likely to own one. There was no indication that there might be another Cannonball but if there was I volunteered to be part of it in any way they would take me.
After the initial rush of excitement, nothing happened. And it went on like that for months, absolutely nothing happening until eventually something did happen. That something was the announcement of the 2012 event. The route was to run from New York to San Francisco and would take place in September of 2012 and be open to all pre-1930 machines. Then the next thing happened and the way it fell together still amazes me.
My offer to Lonnie prompted a call from a guy called Chris Knoop. I didn't know Chris but he had entered the event and needed help. Lonnie let Chris know that 'someone in Australia has shown some interest in helping' and put Chris in touch with me. So via Lonnie, who was 20,000km away, I got a phone call from Chris. It turned out that Chris, in a country of 2,967,909 square miles, lived five minutes away from me in the neighbouring suburb. Amazing.
Chris was preparing the bike and sidecar, and his wife Christine was taking care of all the logistics, accommodation, registration, flights etc. I brought nothing more than the sort of general motorcycle experience you gain from having ridden for 40 years and certainly nothing that was specific to this kind of vehicle. I made sure Chris was well aware of my limited knowledge and that all the technical knowledge would have to come from him. I could do basic stuff or maybe go so far as to take the motor from the frame if necessary but had no experience with things such as magnetos. We both agreed that it would possibly work as I wasn't so stupid as not to be able to learn and he was a knowledgeable and patient instructor.
Chris had entered with a 1925 Invincible JAP which at this stage was just a collection of parts. The engine had been newly rebuilt although it had never been started. So we had an untried engine that had to go 3000 miles, which was a big enough ask in itself. Chris makes genuine wicker bodies for vintage sidecars (www.wickersidecars.com) and as this would be the perfect event to show off his product it was decided the Invincible would also pull one of Chris's chairs and a passenger. So we had the Invincible, an Australian machine pulling an Australian chair with an all-Australian team. That, ladies and gentlemen, would be perfect to fly the Aussie flag.
While Christine took care of the paperwork Chris and I worked on the bike and chair and dreamed of the trip ahead. It sounded fantastic. The route include more than a dozen national parks, forests, a ferry trip across the Great Lakes and every conceivable geographic highlight from the Mississippi River to the Black Hills, Mt Rushmore, Yellowstone, the High Plains, The Avenue of the Giants, Golden Gate Bridge as well as four nationally significant motorcycle museums… all the time averaging nearly 300 miles a day. Simple. What could possibly go wrong?
While Chris worked on the bike I started on the sidecar. The body was made but still had to be trimmed out. An upholsterer was sourced and the interior panels sent away to be finished in a red deep button tuft, all of which took much longer than expected. Why are delays ever a surprise? On the plus side, the panels were beautiful when finished. While they were away Chris and I worked on the bike. A front brake had to be made, everything needed painting, a long range tank made from scratch (you can't get many touring accessories for Invincible JAPs these days), a wiring system built (the use of the term loom would be too grandiose here), an exhaust system was made from scratch, the frame needed to be welded back together and various bits and pieces had to adapted to fit.
So we plugged away for months, always late nights, sometimes lacking enthusiasm, sometimes energised only by the dream but always moving, albeit sometimes just creeping, forward. Luckily we didn't do all the work alone. The Williamstown Motorcycle Club sponsored the adventure to the tune of $1000, and Christine's brother volunteered the labour of two tradesmen for a day to provide assistance to Chris in general fabrication and mechanical tasks. Chris and Christine very much appreciated getting this support for such an expensive undertaking.
The deadline for shipping the bike to the US arrived. Months after beginning the project the Invincible took its first small trip out of the front gates and down the road. It handled badly - even Chris who is an experienced sidecar pilot said it was dangerous - but it went out and came back without too much drama. With time running very short all that was left was for Lindsay Urquhart, an Australian sidecar racing legend, to officially launch our venture and sort out the geometry. After that the outfit and bike were separated, crated up and air-freighted to New York for the start.
We sat and waited for the time to pass. Chris left early to un-crate the bike in the States, Christine joined him a week later and I was last to leave. Apparently it took about half a dozen kicks to get the Invincible going once it arrived in America and the rest of the time was spent simply fettling and fine tuning. When I arrived for the start a couple of weeks later the bike was at the start with 74 miles on the clock and a paddock full of admirers…
Next time: the start, and some inevitable teething troubles
Photos: Ian Lihou and Chris Knoop. Details of the 2014 Cannonball Run: www.motorcyclecannonball.com
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