Welcome to Portland! And by that I mean the city in Maine that serves as the starting point for this year’s Motorcycle Cannonball endurance run—not the city in Oregon where this coast-to-coast ride for antique bikes will conclude on Sunday, September 23, 2½ weeks and 3,674 miles from here.
This year’s Portland-to-Portland ride is the fifth edition of the Cannonball, which has been held every other year since 2010. The official competition kicks off tomorrow with a short 10-mile Prologue stage to a photo-op at Portland Head Lighthouse on the Atlantic shore. But today was the first opportunity to see many of the 107 bikes entered in this year’s run in action as riders took advantage of a short practice route. And although that ride didn’t count toward the actual standings, it did make some news that may be significant to the final outcome.
First, the basics: The Cannonball challenges riders on really old motorcycles to follow a back-roads route averaging about 250 miles per day for 15 riding days (with one rest day in the middle). Although this isn’t a speed contest, riders must complete each daily route within a prescribed time limit, with penalty points assessed for miles missed or late arrival. The goal is to complete every mile every day and finish with a perfect score of 3,674 points.
This year’s ride will include two divisions—one for motorcycles that are at least 100 years old (1918 or older), and another for bikes that are “only” 90 years old (1928 or earlier). Within each division, there are three classes: Class I, for single-cylinder, single-speed bikes; Class II, which combines single-cylinder, multi-speed bikes with multi-cylinder, single-speed bikes; and Class III, for bikes with multiple cylinders and multi-speed transmissions. That complex formula is slightly different from what was announced earlier this year, but it agrees with the formula for previous Cannonballs.
OK, I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t it hard enough to get any 90-plus year motorcycle across America without worrying about how many cylinders and how many gears it has? And the answer is yes. But as with any other form of motorcycle competition, we’re going to be keeping score, and there will be winners honored in a closing banquet when we get to the West Coast. So with that in mind, here are today’s developments that may have an influence on the outcome of the ride:
Shuffle at the top: Changes in a couple of entries have already affected the rider standings before we even get to the first timed stage. That’s because of the Cannonball tiebreaker system, which rewards riders on older, less-capable machines. So when everyone starts tomorrow, the rider on the oldest Class I (single-cylinder, single-speed) motorcycle will hold down first place as long as that bike and rider cover every mile.
It appeared that spot at the top of the standings would go to Doug Feinsod, who had planned to ride a single-cylinder 1909 Excelsior this year. But at the last minute, Doug switched to a 1928 four-cylinder Indian, essentially taking himself out of the running for the overall Cannonball championship. That moves Chris Tribbey into the top spot aboard his 1911 Excelsior single, followed by Dan Emerson and Wayne Ruhe on ’12 Excelsiors.
Lurking right behind them, though, are Steve Andreasen and Dean Bordigioni, both on single-speed 1914 Harley singles. Dean is a real threat to claim the top spot, having come literally within a mile of winning in 2016 aboard this same bike. He missed that victory only because the Harley needed some help on the last stretch of an 11,000-foot pass in the Colorado Rockies. And after initially announcing he would be aboard a ’23 Harley twin this year, Dean showed up in Portland with the ’14 Harley, saying, “I’m going to give it one more shot.”
The bike—and Dean—are tested, and this year’s route will cross the Rockies at just 6,646 feet on the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park in Montana (assuming the road is open—right now it’s closed because of a fire). That difference in elevation could make it possible for the Cannonball winner to come from the single-cylinder class for the first time.
If the singles falter, the guy in the best position to capitalize is Jeff Tiernan, who is riding a truly rare 1912 Henderson, a four-cylinder single-speed machine that is the oldest bike in Class II. In 2016, Frank Westfall claimed the overall Cannonball championship on a Henderson from 1912, and the same formula could work for Jeff this time.
Honestly, though, the possibility of winning the overall Cannonball championship is hardly the motivating factor for the vast majority of riders here in Portland. They each have their own goals for the next 2½ weeks in what has become the greatest antique-motorcycle challenge in the world.
Take Kelly Modlin, for example. Kelly will be riding a 1927 Indian Chief that is among the most capable bikes eligible for this year’s Cannonball. So he decided to increase the degree of difficulty by riding his Cannonball machine from the Twisted Oz Motorcycle Museum that he runs in Augusta, Kansas, to Maine for the start. His plan is to complete the entire coast-to-coast ride, then complete his adventure by riding back home to Kansas.
“If I can finish all that,” he says, “I’ll cover about 8,000 miles in 30 days.” All on a motorcycle that is 91 years old.
So far, Kelly says the Indian is off to what he called a “flawless” start.
“Mapquest told me it was 1,400 miles from Kansas to Maine,” he says. “But somehow, following two-lane back roads wherever they took me, I ended up covering 2,300 miles. And the bike has been perfect.”
Kelly says he decided on this grand tour “just to clear my head.” But after finishing the first leg as a solo adventure, he’s now grateful to the friends he’s made in the Cannonball community for the support to get through the coast-to-coast part of the trip. One of those friends is Doug Wothke, who tried to complete a similar home-to-Cannonball-to-home round trip in 2012, only to be stopped by a mechanical problem on the last leg. And even though Kelly is trying to accomplish a feat that eluded him back then, Doug is cheering him on.
Two-up on three wheels: That same Cannonball spirit is behind the effort by Gene Harper and his wife, Jan Carl, as they try to become just the second couple in history to complete every mile of the Cannonball on a sidecar rig. Gene says his bike—a 1924 Indian Big Chief—is up to the task. And he reports that Jan is “mostly on board” with the idea of pushing through heat and cold, rain and maybe even snow to reach the finish.
“I’ve told her that unless you’re sick in the hospital, you’re on the bike,” Gene says with a laugh. “Actually, she’s going to be my secret weapon, because she can navigate for me while I concentrate on riding.”
The Battle of Britain: Finally (well, finally for tonight anyway), there are two teams of riders looking to earn Cannonball fame for a couple of legendary British motorcycle brands this year. Team Coventry is fielding a trio of Triumph singles ridden by Paul Warrenfelt (1920 Model H), Adrian Lockrey (1925 Model P) and Arrie Redelinghuys (1927 Model M). Meanwhile, Richard Asprey of the North Texas Norton Owners Association is leading a threesome of riders aboard that company’s machines. Richard is on a 1915 Model 16TT that is the 12th oldest Norton known to exist, while Chris Parry is on a ’23 Model 16H and Keith Martin is on the same model from 1924.
You might imagine that the two teams would become natural rivals, but Richard reports they’ve actually worked out a plan to set up adjacent pit areas as they head across the country so they can help support each other.
Below you’ll find a 2018 Cannonball entry list (click on the image to see the full field) so you can pick out your favorites. And stop back tomorrow for results from the Prologue.