Sunday marked the completion of the fifth running of the Motorcycle Cannonball, “the most difficult antique endurance run in the world.” If you’re not familiar with the Cannonball, riders on pre-1929 machines tour across America in a points-driven competition. Considering the historical value of these machines, it’s a transcontinental statement: “Ride ‘em, don’t hide ‘em!”
The Motorcycle Cannonball started in 2010, when founder Lonnie Isam took inspiration from his love of antique motorcycles and the riders in those early days, specifically Erwin “Cannonball” Baker. If Baker was crossing continents on a 1912 Indian, Isam reasoned, couldn’t we do it today? The Motorcycle Cannonball was born, running a different route across America every other year. (Considering the rarity of the bikes and parts, I’m betting riders appreciate the biannual schedule.) 2018 was the first year of the Cannonball without Isam, who passed away in 2017 after a long fight with cancer. His legacy lives on in the passion of event organizers, supporters, attendees, who put on the largest Motorcycle Cannonball to date. This time, the course wound across the northern United States from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon.
The Motorcycle Cannonball operates on a system of rules designed to preserve historical purity as well as safety for all riders. There’s also the competitive angle you’d expect from a Cannonball. Bikes are divided into three classes: one cylinder/one speed, more than one speed or cylinder, and multiple speeds and cylinders. Contenders must use period-correct bikes with original cases. Seeing as one racer swapped a spare engine into his bike after blowing up his main one, the rule seems to mean “no reproduction cases,” not “numbers matched or go home.” It’s a race, not a concourse.
That’s why a limited number of modifications are allowed. Fuel capacity can be upgraded, along with wheels, tires, brakes, and magnetos. Riders are also advised to carry a fire extinguisher, a “slow vehicle” orange triangle, and plenty of spares. Sweep trucks bring up the rear and assist with breakdowns, but riders try to rely on them as little as possible, since points are awarded for completed miles. Every mile you don’t ride is penalized, so it’s best to attempt a repair before trucking the bike to the next stop. Hiding from the sweep truck in the bushes is highly frowned upon.
Over 16 days, the rolling museum pressed on through extraordinary challenges. Cannonballers braved Hurricane Gordon, multiple crashes, wrecked engines, and wildfires in Glacier National Park, which were put out by slippery rain. (Also extraordinary: Racer and Doobie Brothers legend Pat Simmons had to briefly leave during Stage 8 to play in San Francisco.) Then there were the bikes themselves. With so little power on tap, hills, wind, and keeping pace could be real problems. Bob Addis’ Neracar, for example, has been dyno-confirmed at 1.3 horsepower. Breakdowns happened daily, but taken as a group, the machines really impressed me with their ruggedness and reliability. There were only 22 DNFs out of the 107, better odds than some group rides with my friends...
Cutting across the northeast, west through the Badlands, and finally conquering the Pacific northwest, the ancient bikes rolled on a carefully mapped route that avoided major highways in favor of roads that played to the machines’ abilities. Sometimes the bikes, as AMCA editor Larry Lawrence noted, “even pre-dated the highway.” Cannonballers suffered bikes up in flames, broke bones in crashes, re-attached a sprocket to a wheel with paracord and zip ties, pushed an Excelsior up Mt. Rushmore, and rode in conditions so cold and damp, racers warmed their hands with their cylinders. Finding ethanol-free gasoline was also a challenge, though a splash of Marvel Mystery oil (also period-correct) seemed to help with tankfuls of 21st century fuel.
In the end, 45 of the 107 riders completed the entire Cannonball, earning perfect scores. (You can see the final standings here.)
The pack fought for every point, but it was veteran Dean Bordigioni and his 1914 Harley-Davidson single that won the 2018 Motorcycle Cannonball. Although Bordigioni tied 44 others for points, motorcycles with only one speed and one cylinder get the edge in tiebreakers. “There’s a reason why this is the first time that a single has won,” explained Bordigioni, who came in just one point shy of a perfect score in 2016. “This is the first time they found somebody stupid enough to try it two times in a row on one of these!”
Keeping antique machines on the road is a beautiful thing, but so’s the larger implication: If they can make it from Portland to Portland, you can too. You probably won’t have a sweep truck, and your motorcycle might be a little harder to diagnose at the side of the road. You probably don't carry a spare set of valves or an extra crank, but I’m betting you’ve got more than one gear and a top speed over 45 mph! Isam knew, as these 107 Cannonballers did, that motorcycles are for riding. What’s yours for?