KALISPELL, MT, Sept. 20, 2018—Today was one of those days that really gives you an impression of what a massive undertaking the Motorcycle Cannonball endurance run really is. And when it all comes together, as it did today, it adds up to an amazing experience.
From the beginning, this year’s Cannonball ride—from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon—seemed like it would be a special coast-to-coast route. But to make it happen, organizer Jason Sims and Coursemaster Jon Classen had to string together a series of back roads that weren’t just scenic; they actually had to go somewhere—specifically, in the direction of the West Coast.
That course layout work takes place months before the ride, with a crew searching out alternatives to interstates and major four-lane highways. And from the beginning, today’s route stood out as the premier stage of the 2018 Cannonball. In getting riders from Great Falls, Montana, to Kalispell, where we are tonight, Jason and Jon made the decision that the Cannonball would traverse one of the most-famous motorcycling roads in the country—the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park.
That road, and the highways leading to and from it, were strung together into a final version of the stage, with dozens of turns and landmarks all pinpointed down to the hundredth of a mile. And then those measurements were turned into route sheets that were printed for each rider before the Cannonball even began. There’s also a complete, separate route for support-team vehicles, usually sticking to major highways, so those vehicles aren’t on the same course as the riders.
So behind the scenes, Jason and his crew had to prepare about 120 copies of each of 16 daily rider route sheets, plus an equal number of support-team instructions, catalog them all, box them up and transport them so they’d be ready to give out to every rider, every day. And it all has to be right, because otherwise, more than 100 riders and/or support trucks are going to end up lost somewhere on the course.
All that is a huge undertaking. But once you grasp the concept of it, it’s just hard work. Unfortunately, the real world can throw you curves at the last minute. That’s why there are two pre-run crews checking out each day’s course—one running a full day ahead of the Cannonball, and another running an hour ahead in the morning. They’re there to catch any last-minute changes to road conditions or even highway signage that could throw the riders off-course.
Today, the potential disaster was weeks in the making. Just before we arrived in Maine for the beginning of the Cannonball, news reports indicated that wildfires in Glacier National Park had closed the Going to the Sun Road, and since the road always shuts down for the winter in October, there was concern that it might not reopen at all this year. So an alternate route had to be laid out, and 120 copies of that had to be ready.
Then, just two days ago, good news! Firefighting crews had gotten the blaze under control, and the road was ready to reopen.
But then bad news! Cold weather and a storm system brought the chance of rain and/or snow today. Cold rain yesterday made the ride from Billings to Great Falls miserable, but on the twisting descent from 6,646-foot Logan Pass on the Going to the Sun Road, frozen precipitation could have been downright dangerous.
So do we stick to the original plan or use the alternate? Jason delayed this morning’s start by an hour to get one final update from the pre-run crew, and then announced the decision—the Going to the Sun Road would be open for anyone who wanted to ride it, while the easier alternate route was available as well.
Cannonballers being Cannonballers, almost everyone chose the more-difficult option. But that, too, created problems, because the Going to the Sun Road prohibits travel by any vehicles hauling trailers and anything longer than 21 feet, which ruled out our standard sweep trucks. So Jason recruited two regular pickup trucks from among the rider support teams, and put crew members in them. The full sweep trucks would follow the riders about 160 miles to the park’s eastern entrance, then drive around the park to the west entrance. Meanwhile, those of us in the pickup trucks would support the riders for the 45 miles within the park. Oh, and we’d have to do it without communication, since there’s no cellphone service in the park.
If you’re one of those people who believes in Murphy’s Law—anything that can go wrong will—today wasn’t your day. Instead, it all went absolutely right.
Out of the 107 Cannonball entrants, there were about 20 who either weren’t able to ride today or chose to take the alternate route. That left us with 85 bikes headed over Logan Pass on the Going to the Sun Road. And those 85 riders got everything they hoped for, winding past turquoise-blue glacier-fed lakes and along enormous glacier-carved valleys on the way to the treeline at the summit of the pass.
Then they threaded their way down the other side on a road that perfectly fit the description from Arlo Guthrie’s “The Motorcycle Song”: “There was a time I was ridin' my bike. I was going down a mountain road. On one side of the mountain road there was a mountain. And on the other side, there was nothin'—just a cliff in the air.”
In this case, the distance between the jagged rock wall on the right and nothin’ was often no more than a narrow lane and a half, which made for an experience as close to trail riding as you’re ever likely to encounter on a paved surface.
And yeah, some rain did move in, turning to a little wet snow up at the top. But most of that happened after the riders were safely down from the summit. And somehow, not one single Cannonball motorcycle broke down anywhere within the park—not one!
Tonight, everyone is safe and accounted for here in Kalispell. So yeah, it was a pretty good day.
Here’s where you can catch up with the Cannonball on Friday's 254-mile stage from Kalispell to Spokane Valley, Washington:
8:30; 8:45; 9:00 AM: Official Start Times for Classes I, II, III; Holiday Inn Express, Kalispell
4:20; 4:30; 4:40 PM: Finish Times for Classes III, II, II; Lone Wolf Harley-Davidson, Spokane Valley
4:30 PM: Dinner, Lone Wolf Harley-Davidson