BINGHAMTON, NY—Ah, karma.
Last night, I sat at this very computer keyboard and knowingly opined about how the inclusion of a short 10-mile Prologue stage before Day 1 of this year’s Motorcycle Cannonball endurance run had eliminated the rash of bike failures we usually see at the beginning of these coast-to-coast old-bike adventures. I smugly noted that a mere four motorcycles had to be hauled in on the sweep trucks during a 145-mile day from Portland, Maine, to Keene, New Hampshire.
How naïve I was back then—and how much wiser I am tonight, after a 251-mile route from Keene to Binghamton, New York, left a trail of broken machines along some of the area’s most-scenic back roads.
Where to begin? Oh, I know, how about we start with the 1928 Indian 101 Scout piloted by first-time Cannonball rider Dennis Bensavage that lasted all of 1½ miles before coasting to an expensive stop along the side of the road? And how about we end with the non-running 1915 Indian that five-timer Shinya Kimura pushed more than two miles to the finish line at the end of the day?
In between, well, it was bad. At one time or another, 15 of the 102 motorcycles that began the day ended up on the sweep trucks. It wasn’t a record haul, but it sure wasn’t pretty.
Even a partial tally of the carnage is enough to haunt the dreams of any antique-motorcycle fan, but here goes:
Ricky Bartel made it 31miles before his 1926 Harley Model J stopped running. Paul Jacobsen, Jerry Brown and Billy Page made things simple for the sweep crew when their bikes (a 1913 Thor, a ’26 Harley JD and a ’16 Harley J, respectively) went silent at 56, 57 and 60 miles.
Then the magneto on Justin Rinker’s 1928 Indian Scout stopped producing spark at 71 miles, and Joe Gimpel’s 1928 BMW R62 suddenly locked up when the rear main bearing seized at 72 miles. Making it to 89 miles was Charles Falco’s 1928 Ariel, while Cris Sommer Simmons’ 1915 Harley lasted 112 miles.
And then there were a couple of incidents that didn’t involve a trip on the sweep truck, but could have been a lot worse.
Mark Loewen rode out a scary flat tire on his 1912 Excelsior Twin, and was breathing a sigh of relief over his decision to install bead locks on his clincher tires. “I’ve never experienced that before,” he said, “but I think those bead locks may have saved my life.”
After a roadside tube swap, Mark was able to continue and finish the day.
Meanwhile, Kelly Modlin was happily riding his 1927 Indian Chief (the same bike that carried him from his home in Kansas to the start of the Cannonball in Portland, Maine) when a fellow rider pulled up next to him at a stoplight and said, “Hey, you’re leaking gas.”
“By the time I looked down,” Kelly says, “the bike was in flames up to my waist. I jumped off, and fortunately, Jason Sims was right behind me. He grabbed the fire extinguisher off Terry Richardson’s bike, and I grabbed my own extinguisher.”
Bystanders reported that flames reached 10 feet high before Jason and Kelly put the fire out. But amazingly, Kelly’s only injuries were some singed facial hair and a minor burn on his wrist. Even more incredible, his bike was still ridable, and he made it all the way to the finish, coming in just a few minutes after the time limit for his Class III machine.
“This was a great day,” Kelly said tonight. “How often can you host a weenie roast over your motorcycle and all it does is make you a little late!”
All of that—every bit of it—took place before lunch. And the afternoon wasn’t a whole lot better.
The motor in Tom Banks 1921 Harley blew up at 179 miles, while Bret Yeager’s 1914 Harley single made it 185 and Mike Gontesky’s 1925 Harley JD stopped at 187. For sheer courtesy, though, you had to admire Jeff Tiernan and Jeff McAllister. They decided to help out the sweep crew by breaking down literally next to each other at 199 miles. Tiernan’s four-cylinder 1912 Henderson suffered a bearing failure on the front cylinder, while McAllister decided to park his 1927 Indian Big Chief after it, like Kelly Modlin’s machine, developed a potentially catastrophic gas leak.
“I worked on every nut and bolt on this bike,” McAllister said. “But I figured, ‘What can go wrong with a gas tank?’ ”
So, yeah, it was a tough day. But out in the hotel parking lot tonight, Cannonball miracles are being worked. Just as they have in every Cannonball before this, crews are taking engines that were painstakingly prepared over a period of months in a fully equipped shop and rebuilding them overnight under open-air canopies.
The Rinker family was busy diagnosing, and fixing, a magneto problem on Justin’s machine, Shinya Kimura had his Indian engine torn down to the crankshaft (yes, he’s done this before) and was making contact with a local shop to make repairs. And Tom Banks’ support crew was installing an entire spare engine in his Harley (“This one has to last the rest of the way,” they noted).
Meanwhile, an amazing 75 competitors have each accumulated the maximum 406 points available by completing every mile of the Prologue and the first two stages. Tomorrow, though, they’ll face a new test, as the Cannonball heads directly into the remnants of Hurricane Gordon, which has already brought torrential downpours to Ohio over the past two days. It should be interesting.
Here’s where you can catch up with the Cannonball along our 227-mile route from Binghamton to Jamestown, New York, Monday:
8:00; 8:15; 8:30 AM: Official Start Times for Classes I, II, III, DoubleTree Hotel, Binghamton
9:45 AM: Pit Stop, Finger Lakes Harley-Davidson, Cayuta, New York
12:20 PM: Lunch, Arkport Cycles, Hornell, New York
4:45; 5:00; 5:15 PM: Finish Times for Classes III, II, I; Harley-Davidson of Jamestown, Jamestown, New York
4:45 PM: Dinner, Harley-Davidson of Jamestown