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23rd June 2014

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Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run 2012 - Part 5

After 16 days on the road, Ian Lihou and his team reach the end of the 3000-mile Cannonball Run across America. Will their vintage 1925 Invincible make it to the finish line under its own steam?

Driving one of the support trucks, as usual I tagged along behind the riders. About half an hour out of Klamath Falls we stopped for petrol at the Odessa Cafe which was manned by a couple of quiet, gentle, helpful people with easy, warm smiles and a passion for tattoos. They were covered in them, not hard biker-type tatts but soft, brightly coloured pictures that looked as if they were airbrushed on; stunning.

We were on the 101 in North California, one of the great roads in the USA and known to some as the Redwood Highway. At the lunch break we surveyed the wreckage of Gerald's Harley; one of those bikes which hadn't withstood the high miles and continual use which the Cannonball demands and ended up on the trailer. I was approached by a big man with the physical appearance of a Native American. He had dark skin, long dark hair and a face reminiscent of that depicted at the Crazy Horse memorial. He was softly spoken, and gentle. For 15 minutes he gushed profusely at the beauty of the bike in the trailer and asked a million questions which I did my best to answer. In the end he thanked me for giving him the opportunity to enjoy the motorcycle, and enjoy it he certainly did even if that motorcycle had a big hole where the roof of the combustion chamber should have been...

The Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run 2012

After lunch we continued down the Redwood Highway through many Redwood forests. To fully explain and describe these places is impossible. You can tell people they are huge, beautiful, grand or magnificent but that does not fully describe what they are about, it only tells you what they look like. To fully understand these places you need to be among them. Being in their presence moves you. They have lived here for thousands of years and will be here long after we are all dead, that gives them a power that cannot be described, only felt.

After an amazing day, we reached the west coast, and THAT was a biggie. From now on we head south. Gerald's Harley failed to finish. 14 days of running beautifully then no more.

After the previous day's ride we believed that we had seen the best, but no. The coast scenery was spectacular, the Redwoods were awesome and the road itself twisted and turned, flowed up and down. That road itself is reason enough for motorcyclists to come here.

The Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run 2012 Matt Olson aboard his 1928 Harley JD

I witnessed a scene that comes along rarely, the sort of image that stands alone as being perfect in its own way. We were travelling down 101 and caught up to Matt and Brittney aboard their 1928 Harley JD. It was through a particularly flowing part of the highway and it looked sublime and easy. Imagine a Harley advertisement from the 1950s or 60's, possibly for a Panhead, Knucklehead or Sportster, and depicting a fun scene. They were simply a boy and his girlfriend going for a leisurely ride on a warm summer day, always romantic, wholesome and perfect. That is how Brittany and Matt appeared to me: a time-lapse scene captured in 2012.

Such an idealised, stylish scene may at first appear to be at odds with the Cannonball but I don't think it is. These moments provide a different side of the same coin, the pure joy of riding a motorcycle. What the ads didn't show was the reality. The JD struggled a bit two-up and Brittney had to get some table napkins to make the seat more comfortable, Matt, as thoughtful as he is, had already provided his jacket for padding… but still more was needed.

This day, Gerald's Henderson failed to finish. He contemplated taking it apart but it was a clutch problem. The clutch is inside the crankcase and there was every possibility that the problem couldn't be fixed so - this close to the end - he decided against it.

We set off on the final section of this mammoth: an emotionally mixed day. On paper the day was an easy 93 miles, any bike in the field should be able to do it. Before we set off Brittney got a finger-wagging from a police officer for not wearing a helmet, and Matt was suspected of being a dangerous biker! After a few panicky moments the cop and everyone else dissolved into smiles.

Within ten miles of the start, three bikes had failed and had to be collected by the support trucks. Luckily only one other bike was to fail completely that day and that would be very close to the end. The final stage of highway traversed a spectacular coastline occasionally plunging into stands of Redwoods and seaside holiday towns. It was never boring or monotonous.

The Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run 2012 The (not quite so) Invincible with sidecar

At the lunch stop I met up with my 'team' and we reattached the sidecar to the Invincible for the final 30 mile run to the finish line. They guys wanted to wrap it up in style, the same way they had started - although the Invincible had done most of the trip as a solo. Almost immediately the clutch problems reappeared. Within three miles the clutch was cooked and slipping so we pulled it apart, cleaned the plates and reassembled it. We removed the sidecar (again!) and Chris set out on the solo Invincible.

Christine, Dave and I packed up the tools, loaded the sidecar onto Dave's trailer and set off. As soon as we caught up with the Invincible it was obvious Chris was in trouble. The bike had stopped again and this time it was terminal. The clutch plates had cooked themselves and were not repairable. The Invincible was loaded onto the truck for the last time: a bitter disappointment.

The rules of the Cannonball state you must not DNF more than seven times and you must complete the first and last days. Failing to complete the last day meant disqualification. It was a disappointing end to an otherwise successful entry into the most gruelling event for motorcycles of this era in the world.

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

Despite that, the whole event was an amazing experience. I met a lot of interesting, talented, focused and driven people. The bikes were ridden way past their original design parameters and it is a credit to the riders and support crews that they stayed on the road. The scenery has been at the very least interesting and, at its best, spectacular and awe-inspiring.

It was one of the great things to do.

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

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