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Motorcycle Cannonball is off to a shaky start – the first three days narrow the field

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Bill Rodencal astride his 1915 Harley-Davidson, getting back into the action. Photos courtesy Motorcycle Cannonball and The Vintagent.

But why should we be surprised? Previous semi-annual Motorcycle Cannonballs have put age restrictions on the bikes that could be entered. In 2010, only pre-1915 period-correct bikes could be entered. The second Cannonball in 2012 allowed pre-1929 bikes, and the third reprise was in 2014 when pre-1936 bikes could be ridden. This year, in honor of the 100th anniversary of Cannonball Baker’s record-setting cross country ride, the Motorcycle Cannonball 2016 registrants could only ride on pre-1916 bikes.

The bikes are, for the most part, original, except for added safety features such as taillights, brake lights, updated brakes and conventional wheels and tires (many of the bikes used clincher wheels and tires in their day). Stock carburetors and magnetos are required, as are the highly-prized Motorcycle Cannonball numbered identification badges. Most of the entrants are also stocked up on as many spare parts as can easily be carried. Bikes are divided into three separate classes: Class 1 bikes are single-cylinder, single speed models, Class 2 is for multi-cylinder, single speed bikes and Class 3 bikes are multi-cylinder with multi-speed transmissions. Each class will have their own winners as well as an overall prize will be given.

1912 Henderson

Frank Westfall on his 1912 Henderson, a bike usually on display at his Syracuse, New York shop.

This year’s Motorcycle Cannonball kicked off on Saturday, September 10 from Atlantic City, New Jersey, with expectations of arriving in Carlsbad, California in 15 days. With much pomp and circumstance, 89 entrants left Atlantic City to start the day one route of 154 miles to York, Pennsylvania, and a video of the race’s start is available on the Motorcycle Cannonball Facebook page. The end of day results reflect just how much of risk riders from 100 years ago faced on any long-distance ride, and how much more significant Cannonball Baker’s ride of 1916 was, given the reliability of motorcycles during that time. Only 63 of the 89 entrants completed day one’s scheduled 154 miles, with numerous breakdowns requiring the rest of the field to be picked up and hauled into York where riders tried to effect repairs.

One bike will not be continuing for sure: John Pfiefer, riding his 1916 Harley-Davidson, broke an exposed rocker arm on the IOE engine which allowed the pushrod to stab into his gas tank, causing the bike to catch fire at around 91 miles into the run. Many of the other bikes will be fixed and re-enter the event. Cannonball rules allow for up to seven DNFs for stages 1-14 before a bike is declared an event DNF. All bikes who are eligible to win their class must participate in Stage 15.

1916 BSA

Imports are always welcomed. Buck Carson pilots bike number 3, his 1916 BSA.

The route from York and Morgantown, West Virginia on day two saw additional breakdowns, including a hard fall for entrant Scott Jacobs, who crashed his 1915 Harley-Davidson on loose gravel and broke his shoulder. Scott is recuperating in Morgantown and had to withdraw from the event.

Day three saw even more breakdowns. Several were fixed on the fly and got back into the fray, including Bill Rodencal, who happened to break down on his 1915 Harley-Davidson in the driveway of a farmer who knew how to use a TIG welder, and he was running again in minutes. Official scoring indicates only 27 of the original 89 bikes that started have completed every mile so far without penalty. With only three of the 15 stages completed, the racers are already looking forward to their only day off in Dodge City, Kansas next Sunday.

1915 Thor

Paul D’Orleans captures John Szalay on his 1915 Thor with this tintype photograph.

Stage 3 found the riders leaving Morgantown, West Virginia to ride to Chillicothe, Ohio. The chances are also improving that this year’s winner will not have to worry about ties, as has been the case in previous Cannonballs. Several of the races have ended in a tie, with the age of the motorcycle as a tie breaker. In the 2012 race, the age of the bike rule still left a tie, so the final tiebreaker, the age of the rider was the deciding factor in who was the winner when they finished in San Francisco.

For Stage 4, riders departed from Chillicothe, Ohio bound for Bloomington, Indiana and covered 224 miles. At the finish, 25 riders were still listed as receiving full points for their 824-mile journey from Atlantic City. A total of 11 other riders have also completed every mile, but have accrued point deductions for being late to the day’s finish, most of those after the grueling day two that saw dozens of breakdowns and some crashes. Because of the many break downs and problems with bikes maintaining the designated course speeds, the event staff has agreed to extend the arrival times for the end of each stage by 30 minutes on Stage 4 and on all future stages.

Two Harley-Davidson and three Henderson bikes were among the top five on the leaderboard, however, a 1915 Sunbeam, 1915 Norton and three 1916 Indians have also clocked four successfully completed stages. Noted dropouts due to mechanical failure included Jürgen Ullrich of Germany on his 1915 Harley and Dennis Leggett of Texas on his 1913 Indian. Both are headed home after being unable to effect repairs. The oldest bike in the event, a single-cylinder single-speed 1904 Rex piloted by Steve Norton logged a total of 17 teeth-chattering miles during Stage 4 and upped his total to 120 miles so far in the race. Wednesday’s Stage 5 will take riders from Bloomington, Indiana to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, a distance of 247 miles.

You can follow the Motorcycle Cannonball on their Facebook page, where photos from each day, daily finish results and cumulative results will be posted. Several live feed videos have also been posted of the bikes leaving from their starting point each morning. Additional reporting can be found on the American Iron Magazine website, as on of its editors, Cris Sommer Simmons, is piloting a 1915 H-D in the race.

We are also looking forward to the vintage black and white tintype photography that is being shot by Susan McLaughlin at and Paul D’Orleans at Paul, a veteran of past Cannonballs, chose to photograph rather than participate this year.