Pondering the possibilities of participating in the Cannonball 2102 last winter when there was blowing snow and weather forbidding riding in the north of America, it was easy to find the fun and romance in a cross country ride on a pre-1930 motorcycle. As spring came most of the slots were filled in this pre-registration-only event, and about 80 enthusiasts of old motorcycles and the road were committed to the 3900+ mile ride, Newburgh, New York to San Francisco, California.
After almost half the mileage was rolled up, some motorcycles doing it on the road, others mechanically wasted and transported in chase vehicles, the reality sets in; The Cannonball is really a grueling ride for both man and machine. Some motorcycles failed outright early on, others are showing wear and failure more slowly. Many riders are extremely resourceful at repairing and making do with what they carry in saddlebags, keeping their bikes on the road and making it in on time each night.
With the establishment of a new class for pre-1930′s motorcycles, an additional 15 years of technology
application and engineering can be put on the road. Many saw the Henderson Four as the piece d’-resistance; a long wheelbase four cylinder with shaft drive, in many ways much ahead of its time. But checking in with Matt Olsen we find even they are having some problems about 1500 miles into the ride. “The Hendersons are amazing motorcycles, and guys like Frank Westfall are having great rides, but I have been hearing there’s a rash of transmission output shaft failures on the bikes. This is a big deal to fix on the big four cylinders calling for the engine/trans unit to be pulled and flipped upside down, completely disassembled. It’s really too bad. I hope they can get them going again.”
Matt also let us know about his ride, the 1928 JD Harley-Davidson. “We have two days in Sturgis, time to look over the bike closely I have some hi-lift rockers I want to install before we hit the mountains. They’ll give the bike more power to climb. One of the four transmission mounting studs is soft, pulling out. We’ll heli-coil it. And look around for other things. Hopefully we won’t find anything big going wrong! Valve guide wear seems to be chronic on many many bikes. It causes low compression and higher oil consumption.”
Matt also mentioned the great time they had during the Sturgis layover. “The city of Sturgis really rolled out the red carpet. And the folks out at Glencoe (campground) cooked 100 pounds of buffalo for us!”
Matt also mentioned that some of the toughest, most experienced riders are having failures. “Brian Schraver, aka, F-Bomb is typically a strong rider on good bikes. His 1927 Harley is done, the engine is just worn out.”
When asked about the competitive spirit on the ride, Matt summed it up differently, “It’s a group effort. We all just want to get everyone across the country, pull together.” Comparing the ride to the inaugural 2010 event, which was for pre-1916 machines only, “This ride is longer, more difficult, although Brad Wilmarth is riding the same bike, a 1913 Excelsior and doing fine with it. It’s not fast, but it’s very dependable. Brad rides all day with no breaks except for fuel because the bike is slower, but he’s tops in points.”
Surveying a couple of riders about four days into the ride, these two guys were not having fun. They mentioned the long days, high mileages required and the frequent attention the bikes needed. “Maybe a nice little AMCA Road Run is closer to what I enjoy.” So it’s not for everyone. But we look forward to Matt crossing the finish line September 23 in San Francisco and sharing in his skills and success at riding a very old motorcycle all the way across America!
SATURDAY SEPT 15 MATT REPORTED:
I had a perfect score today I made all the miles and got to the check in station. I barely made it in time and got in with two minutes to spare. I did a bunch of maintainence and work on the bike in Sturgis and changed a few things. The bike ran great most of the morning I made it to the lunch stop at Deluxe Harley Davidson with ease. The bike started up after we were done eating but didn’t run well, bike kind of surged. I tried messing with the high and low speed needle to see if it was a fuel issue. It didn’t make a difference so I pulled over and started looking at things. I checked the valves and tappets to see if they were starting to go to hell like on day two. They were ok. So I started checking the electrics. I flicked the points and the spark was a dull orange not blue. This meant that I either had an issue with the coil or the condenser. I checked the spark plug terminals to see if they were loose and the were tight so I checked the coil and discovered that the wires were loose going into the coil. Original wires have a screw soldered onto the end that goes into the coil. These wires did not have that, they were just stripped and pushed Into he coil. Luckily I was able to zip tie the wires to the coil. The bike ran great the rest of the day Brittney and I bought some silicone and put it around the wires We passed the half way point early in the morning and tomorrow we go over a big mountain pass everyone is kind of intimidated by it. I’m excited to give it a try.
“This part of the ride, up the mountains in Wyoming has guys some worried, but they can opt out and get a ride in a chase vehicle. I think the JD will do fine as it’s geared pretty low.”
Later that day…..
“We made it up the mountain fine. I was in second gear a lot as planned. I started to notice some missing and discovered that one spark plug wire was puling out of the coil. I cleaned it up, pushed it back into the coil body, used a few zip ties to hold it there. Seems to be working. Brittney picked up some silicone sealer so now we are ready if it rains again. But the bike did great. It’s too bad we put on brand new floor boards because I ground em down a bit coming off the mountain. Good fun and the bike was running great having made the climb.”
The Cannonball is well past the halfway point and many bikes including the John Parham/National Motorcycle Museum sponsored JD have some stories and road patina. But that just adds to the machine in this case!