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23rd June 2014

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Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run 2012 - Part 4

Ian Lihou and his team have been on the road for 10 days, aiming to complete the 3000-mile coast-to-coast Cannonball Run on a 1925 Invincible. Mechanical disaster comes close to ending their excursion...

Wyoming is high plains, grasslands and hills that jut aggressively from the landscape. Not rolling hills like before but short, jagged outcrops. Think Clint Eastwood, High Plains Drifter and painting the town red. Sheridan is a largish town and the night had that soft warmth you get on those rare, perfect summer nights. The Invincible went all day without a hiccup, about 300 miles. We even saw the Devil's Tower, the outcrop they used in the filming of 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind.' Cool.

The Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run 2012

The following day was so spectacular that words can't do it justice, as the cavalcade of vintage bikes rode through Yellowstone National Park and the Big Horn State Forest. These places are amazing in their natural beauty; you should be very jealous at what we saw - including bison and bears (although I only saw bison).

Sometimes on the road you'll see a sign indicating steep descents, and a distance marker showing how far the steep sections go one for - usually 2 or 3km. The Cannonball route took us along section warning steep hills for 18 miles: that's right, EIGHTEEN MILES. Our little caravan including the recovery truck I was driving stopped after eight miles. My brakes were smoking; huge clouds billowed from under the guards, and one truck's brakes actually caught fire. It keeps you on your toes, that's for sure.

We were certainly happy to arrive safe and sound in Cody where the good folk put on a civic reception. Cody is a REAL cowboy town, lots of hats and smiley folk; they really make you feel welcome. One thing I noticed about these small towns is that they are all very tidy. No rubbish on the sidewalks and there is a real sense of pride about the place.

Another Cannonball moment; I was walking back to the cabin late at night when there was what appeared to be someone's grandma walking towards me. She wore a white fluffy jumper and carried a pizza box. She explained that she had ordered a small pizza, they had delivered a large and she couldn't eat the rest - so she offered it to the boys working late on their bikes!

The Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run 2012

The next morning was cold, there was ice on windscreens and riders had on every piece of warm clothing they could find. Even Steve Barber had long pants on and up to this point he had ridden in shorts. It was THAT cold. The riders set off at about 7am and quickly disappeared into the fog. It must have been FREEZING. Luckily this leg was the second shortest day of the trip with only 160 miles to cover most of which was spent in Yosemite National Park. The short day saved the riders from freezing and gave us a chance to sightsee and Yosemite is definitely the place for it. The Park teems with wildlife and natural beauty; waterfalls, lakes, rivers, forests, Old Faithfull geyser and bison, elk, wolves and ducks - but no bears (which was very disappointing).

The Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run 2012

We crossed the Great Divide three times on roads that were smooth, gently undulating and twisty, perfect motorcycle roads. Chris went well again on the 1925 Invincible and covered the 160 miles perfectly. The JAP-engined machine is running well in solo trim with the exception of some clutch slip, a result of the damage which was done in the first few days with the sidecar attached. But tomorrow will be a tough one for the bikes. It starts with a steep climb followed by a steep decent; not straightforward with 90 year old brakes…

On this 300 mile stretch the riders ran the gamut of weather and road conditions. Jackson in Wyoming at 7am was cold. Jackson is on the high plains and we had to go over a pass to get out. Going up was one thing but coming down was something else. Two miles at a decline of 10%, really steep, but the country was as usual beautiful. Forests, valleys and greenery through Wyoming but once in Idaho it turned into a high desert of short grass and shrubs about half a meter high. No real trees to speak of and an amazing place called Craters of the Moon, a national monument and run by the National Park service.

Eight of the bikes had to retire from today's ride. This is a gruelling, almost suicidal event, the toughest for vintage bikes in the world and the unrelenting nature is taking a toll on bikes, riders and support teams alike. The driver of one support vehicle fell asleep (twice!) at the wheel. The Invincible however is still going strong and since removing the sidecar hasn't missed a day. It is a credit to Chris's technical knowledge, dogged perseverance and physical effort the bike has got this far. However, this was the last of the really hard days. From here on the days would be shorter with later starting times.

The Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run 2012

After 10 days on the road, finishing the event has become a matter of gritting your teeth and doing it. Everyone wants to finish, to ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. That will be an emotional day for all concerned regardless of whether or not they achieve it. On top of the hardships we endure with the bikes, the travel and the lack of sleep I developed… badly chapped lips. Cannonballs are hell!

After making light of my personal situation, we then came as close to disaster as we want to come. Yesterday the Invincible went beautifully but upon inspection Chris discovered a crack between the valve caps on the rear cylinder: not good. The Cannonball is full of talented people and one of them, an experienced gas welder, volunteered to fix it. Without him the damage would have been a show stopper. He and Chris removed and disassembled the rear head and set about brazing the valve caps shut and sealing the crack, during which time I made four new valve collets. (I had to make four because I am not very good at it, but I'm learning).

After reassembly it started third kick and ran perfectly for the rest of the event. This is a great engine, it has performed strongly and reliably for the whole event. All we've needed to do since removing the chair is check and oil both chains and drain the crankcases. The engine builder should be proud of his work.

This day's ride was not as obviously spectacular as previous rides. Being a desert, the landscape is quite dramatically different and lacks the lush colours we were used to in the forests. For the riders it was difficult. They rode from cold temperatures at the top of the canyons to hot temperatures in the valleys, and by the end of the day everyone was dehydrated and exhausted.

The Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run 2012

We were greeted about an hour out of town by the local club, The Desert Riders. In Burns that night we had another hosted dinner; I believe the catering staff were from the local jail/gaol and they certainly had the appearance of having lived a life less ordinary. Maybe for no other reasons than they got a night in the open and got to speak to new people and felt truly needed and appreciated, they all smiled and looked a little reserved but happy to be where they were.

I remember these nights clearly, when you reach your destination and it is warm and mellow. Everyone is tired and the hardness of the event is etched on every face and every face radiates a dogged determination. Everyone is changed, everyone is a Cannonballer.

Another thing I have noticed on this trip about Americans is their politeness. I have never had the door held open for me or been addressed as 'sir' as often as I have while in the US. We are travelling with a Texan team and Texans have the reputation for being the noisiest, loudest, the most brash and out-going of Americans. The two youngest members of the Texan team, Shawn and Buck, are as polite, friendly and courteous people as you could ever hope to meet. I love it when negative stereotypes are debunked.

On the next day Christine and I have a special assignment - there are 110 miles between petrol stations which is too far for the old bikes, so we're providing and rest and refuelling stop 65 miles out. There was nothing at the location but two toilet blocks and a seat with some shade, with desert as far as the eye can see and signs warning us to look out for rattlesnakes. The signs describe the snakes as 'shy predators'. I think I like the shy part of their personality best.

The Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run 2012 Brits old and new on Now...

The day was hot, real hot. We travelled through a desert for most of it, salt lakes and dry grass everywhere. The road had almost no traffic and ran along a dry river bed which occasionally opened up into a salt lake. As we dropped in elevation, the place became greener and within about 20 minutes it had completely transformed into a state forest. The rapid change of scenery and geography is incredible. If you are bored just wait 15 minutes and it will all change.

Unfortunately we had to rescue Buck again today. It was his last chance. In the Cannonball rules you can only have eight DNFs and then you are out. So it was a very sad ride in the truck.

Next time: the last leg of the journey through redwood forests to the Californian coast. Will the Invincible make it to the finish line?

Photos: Ian Lihou and Chris Knoop. Details of the 2014 Cannonball Run:

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