Fall may not begin until Saturday, but the Cannonball riders got an early taste of winter on today’s 248-mile stage from Billings, Montana, to Great Falls.
The day began with temperatures in the 40s, overcast skies and a threat of rain in Billings, which sits at about 3,000 feet above sea level. But the route, which wandered along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains, kept climbing from there, eventually topping out at 7,393 feet on U.S. Route 89 three-quarters of the way into the day. And the temperature up there? A frosty 38.
Along the way, riders may not have actually encountered rain, but they did spend considerable time in the low-hanging clouds, which made for a lingering mist that had pretty much the same effect.
The end result was wet, cold, and kind of miserable. But at least there wasn’t any snow, so there’s that.
In the wide-open landscape of Montana, it can be a long way between gas stations. So whenever the route got near one, riders ducked in, not just to fill their tanks, but to warm up any way they could. Fred Wacker and Dave Volneck, riding together on a pair of 1913 Indians, got creative at a stop about 100 miles into the day. Fred emptied the few ounces of hot oil that had accumulated in the bottom of his engine into a cup, then hugged the cup with both hands to absorb the warmth. Meanwhile, Dave looked like he was working on the rear cylinder of his machine, but he was just cupping his hands close to the engine as the most convenient heat source.
In spite of those challenges, most everyone was in good spirits when we reached Grand Forks this evening. That may be because tomorrow’s ride takes us to one of the scenic highlights of the entire coast-to-coast trip, a ride on the famed Going to the Sun Road through Glacier National Park, which just reopened yesterday after being closed by wildfires for weeks. And it may be because the forecast calls for a warming trend to begin tomorrow and potentially last all the way to our arrival in Portland, Oregon, Sunday.
Besides the weather, the big story this evening is the freak malfunction that hit Byrne Bramwell’s 1913 Henderson today. Byrne had been sitting in first place in the Class II standings, and second place overall, right behind Dean Bordigioni, the only single-cylinder Class I rider who has a perfect score so far. But as the riders rolled through a small town on today’s route, the front fork on Byrne’s bike broke. Fortunately, the failure happened at relatively low speed, and Byrne used his off-road riding skills to avoid a crash, but it made for a scary moment.
That incident put Byrne’s Henderson on the sweep truck and moved Fred Wacker into the Class II lead and second place overall this evening. Fred is riding in his first Cannonball, and he’s trying to make a bit of history by becoming the first rider to record a perfect score aboard a “Hedstrom” Indian, one of the first generation of the brand’s bikes, designed by founder Oscar Hedstrom.
“I feel really proud of my team,” said Fred, who rode the 2016 Cannonball on the same 1913 Indian he’s running this year. “I’ve been helped by a lot of people, so it’s not because of anything I’ve done. I’ve just had some luck run my way, a well-prepared bike and all that. It’s a good-natured war of attrition, and I’ve been blessed.
“It’s nice to be running up front, but it’s more about the experience of being with all these wonderful people who love old motorcycles and are trying to do something special by getting them out of storage, museums and everything else and riding them across the country. It’s just fantastic to be a part of it.”
Also on the sweep truck today were the 1916 Harley-Davidson J of Ted Walters, Mark Wiebens’ 1927 Harley JD and Rich Rau’s 1916 Indian Powerplus.
One of the more valiant efforts of the day was turned in by Paul Jacobsen. Paul was doing a roadside valve replacement on his 1913 Thor U just 20 miles from the finish. He was racing against the clock with the last sweep truck hot on his tail. But Paul ran out of time, and he ended up on the truck. As disappointed as he must have been to have his machine develop a problem so close to the end of the stage, Paul still managed to joke about his predicament.
“I got the valves done, but then the fuel line clogged,” Paul explained. “There was something in the tank, so I couldn’t get in there. Then the sweep truck got there before I could hide behind the bushes.”
The Cannonball is an all-consuming experience for 2½ weeks on the road, and the riders form a tight-knit family on a coast-to-coast adventure together. But occasionally, there are reminders of the real world still going on out there.
Several days ago, Dave Volneck had to leave the ride due to a death in the family. He entrusted his 1913 Indian to Bob Alf, who kept recording all the miles every day. Then Dave returned, and got back on the bike. It’s still covered every mile, but Dave did suffer a 100-point deduction for changing riders, moving him down to 58th place.
Meanwhile, Cris Sommer Simmons and her husband, Pat Simmons, celebrated their 24th wedding anniversary yesterday. Both of them have ridden together in previous Cannonballs, but this time, their anniversary ride together was cut short because Pat was needed elsewhere. As the lead guitarist and singer for the Doobie Brothers, his services were required at a concert in San Francisco tomorrow.
And today, rider Jeremy Loewen reached a milestone when he celebrated his 21st birthday on the road today. Jeremy is riding with his dad, Mark, and he noted that the Cannonball is “the coolest thing I’ve ever done on my birthday.”