KEENE, NH—Now we’re getting somewhere.
The first full stage of the 2018 Motorcycle Cannonball endurance run is complete, covering 145 miles from Portland, Maine, to tonight’s stop in Keene, New Hampshire. And it turned out to be a great opening day.
Even though the first stage is always among the shortest of the cross-country journey, a full day on the road usually can be counted on to reveal the sorts of mechanical problems that never showed up in months of bike preparation back home. So typically, the sweep trucks return full at the end of stage 1. But yesterday’s 10-mile Prologue seems to have been just long enough to sort out many of those problems, and only four motorcycles had to be hauled into the finish this evening.
For me, this day represented a really unusual start to the Cannonball. In all four of the previous rides, I have been a part of the sweep crew, bringing me into direct contact with the riders working to overcome problems and make it to the finish. But today I got a new assignment as part of the team that is out on the course among the riders, making sure everything is working smoothly. So, paired with Tom Hinderholtz, I was in a van traveling with the Cannonball bikes, and it was a real revelation.
The day began with a breakfast hosted by Big Moose Harley-Davidson in Portland, which offered the first of many chances for the general public to catch up with the Canonball riders on their 16-day coast-to-coast journey. And as always seems to be the case, there wa huge turnout of people curious about the long-distance antique-bike challenge.
Tom and I rolled out just 15 minutes after the official start for the five single-cylinder, single-speed bikes in Class I. These are the least-capable machines in the ride, so we thought we’d catch up to them almost immediately. Instead, we went 10 miles, 20 miles, 30 miles without seeing any Cannonball competitors. And when we did see our first riders, they were on Class II (single-cylinder, multi-speed or multi-cylinder, single-speed) bikes catching us from behind!
As we reached the 40-mile mark, we finally saw some of those Class I riders making a gas stop, so we fell in behind them to watch their progress, and I can say that I have a whole new respect for the people who designed and built these things.
I never expected to see a 105-year-old belt-drive motorcycle that produces something like 3 horsepower maintaining the pace of modern traffic, but on two-lane back roads here in the East, they blend in pretty well, rolling along at 40 or so mph on roads where the speed limit is typically 45. And I swear there were some twisty sections where the faster Class II and Class III bikes opened up a gap over us in Chrysler’s family transportation unit. Take that, 21st century!
What wasn’t a story today, though, was the weather. Unlike the brutal heat that tested bikes and riders in the opening stages of the 2016 ride, today’s temperature topped out at about 70, making for comfortable riding in a jersey or jacket. Tomorrow is supposed to be even cooler, but the forecast is calling for potentially heavy rain on Monday, which could mark the first big test for riders.
Superheroes: Checking out Justin and Jared Rinker’s 1916 Indian Powerplus machines at the breakfast stop this morning, we stumbled onto a great story that stretches back to the 2016 Cannonball.
Justin and Jared, both from West Virginia, are twin brothers riding with their dad, Steve, just as they did two years ago. Near the end of that ride, the Cannonball passed through the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, and the Rinker brothers went out to dinner at a local restaurant. There, they struck up a conversation with a few Navajo men, who asked about their Indian motorcycles. After explaining the history of the American brand, the two confirmed that they are identical twins, which prompted a story about Navajo history in return.
The men told the Rinkers that twins hold a special part in Navajo culture, stretching back to a legend about two “superhero” twins of the past, whose names translate as “Born for Water” and “Slayer of Monsters.” Before the evening was through, the men had dubbed their two West Virginia visitors with those Navajo names. And for this year’s ride, they added them to their machines. Justin’s gas tank has the word Tóbájíshchíní (“Born for Water”), while Jared’s contains the phrase Naayéé’neizghání (“Slayer of Demons”).
Excelsior! The name Frederick Robie chose for the motorcycle brand he founded in the first decade of the 20th century was Excelsior, meaning “ever upward.” So far, the brand is upholding that name in the 2018 Cannonball. At the top of the standings are Chris Tribbey, riding a 1911 Excelsior single, and Dan Emerson, on a 1912 version of the same machine. And the tiebreaker system used for scoring the Cannonball guarantees that they’ll continue to hold those positions as long as they can complete every mile within the time limit each day.
Tribbey, a Cannonball rookie, said he was “on cloud nine,” after finishing all 145 miles of his first full day on the ride. He said he’s dreamed of riding the Cannonball for years, and that became possible when he found his 1911 machine in December of 2015. Until that point, the bike had belonged to just one man, who had purchased it brand new. When that man died, his family searched for the perfect person to purchase this family heirloom.
“I talked to them for three months,” Chris says. “I had them come to my house and look at my motorcycles. I had them meet my wife. I wanted them to know they could entrust this bike to me.”
When he got it, Chris promised to get the Excelsior running again and put it back on the road. And he’s now fulfilling that promise with this ride across America.
No single-cylinder motorcycle has ever completed every mile in a Cannonball ride, but if Chris can do that, he and the Excelsior would earn the overall Cannonball championship. For now, though, he’s not even thinking about that.
“I’m just happy to finish the first day,” he said this evening.—Bill Wood
A look ahead: Tomorrow’s route takes us 25 miles from Keene, New Hampshire, to Binghamton, New York. Here’s where you can catch up with the Cannonball on Sunday, September 9:
7:30; 7:45; 8:00 AM: Official Start Times for Classes I, II, III, Best Western Plus, Keene, NH
9:30 AM: Hosted Pit Stop, Hemmings Motor News, Bennington, Vermont
4:45; 5:00; 5:15 PM: Finish Times for Classes III, II, I; DoubleTree Hotel, Binghamton, New York