Today was one of the most beautiful and challenging days of the 2014 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run. And although things looked bleak last night, I’m pleased to say that I got a chance to see it all.
First, the bad news: The original Turnip Truck is no more. Our sweep truck that had been on the road since September 5 in Daytona Beach has succumbed to yesterday’s injuries. Early this morning, we picked up Turnip 2.0, a rental that will take its place.
The only issue is that Turnip 2.0 is smaller than the converted ambulance it replaces. So we can now carry just 12 motorcycles, rather than 16, on the various Cannonball support vehicles. This is a concern when you consider that we’ve already had one day when we had to pick up 14 machines en route to the finish of a single stage.
This morning, that seemed like it might be a problem right away, because today’s ride covered 278 miles right through the heart of the Colorado Rockies. Riders would have to cross the Continental Divide three times, topping out at nearly 12,000 feet on Loveland Pass, along one of the most scenic roads in the country.
Since before we even began this ride 10 days ago, everyone has been focused on this day. Would we hit snow or sleet at high elevation, two serious considerations this time of year? Would the organizers have to reroute at the last minute to avoid problems? Would any of the Class I (under 700cc) machines be able to crawl up the steep, narrow road to Lovelands Summit?
With all those questions in mind, this was the worst morning to delay the departure of the sweep crew behind the Cannonball riders. But it couldn’t be helped. Organizer Lonnie Isam was able to line up a replacement hauler on a Sunday evening, and it was waiting for us even before the rental agency officially opened this morning. But even with that quick work, the riders were well down the road when we set off to follow them, hoping that we wouldn’t find the Loveland Pass pavement littered with broken machines.
Our worries weren’t entirely unjustified, but in the end, the day went about as perfectly as it could. As we turned onto U.S. Route 6, the old road that branches off Interstate 70 west of Denver to climb to the top of Loveland Pass (the interstate goes through the Eisenhower Tunnel at the top), we found just two bikes waiting for us. Victor Boocock said his 1914 Harley wasn’t up to the task and asked for a ride to the summit, where he would be happy to get on the machine again. And Kelly Modlin’s 1927 Henderson Deluxe had quit, meaning he would need to be hauled to the finish.
But that was it. All the way up, we didn’t see another bike. Of the 77 bikes the attempted the Loveland climb, 75 conquered the pass.
Most impressive were the five small bikes in Class I that are still maintaing a perfect score after 10 stages of the 2014 Cannonball. They all started the morning with 2,145 points (one for every mile traveled prior to today), and they all finished the day with 2,425 points, having added the full 278 miles from Golden, Colorado, in the Denver area, to Grand Junction, on the western edge of the state.
And that raises the real possibility that a bike from Class I could win the overall championship in this year’s Cannonball. In the past two coast-to-coast events, all of the Class I machines experienced problems at one time or another, handing the championship to a rider from Class II, for 700cc to 1,000cc machines (for an explanation of the Cannonball scoring system, click here).
Regardless of the points involved, though, this was a true high point of this year’s Cannonball route. Loveland Pass takes you well above the treeline to an overlook of a tundra basin hemmed in by mountains reaching over 13,000 feet. And above, puffy white clouds seemed to float just inches over our heads in a vividly blue sky.
We got there after all the other riders had departed, so we unloaded Victor Boocock’s machine and sent him on his way down the slope. We then followed the riders over Fremont Pass at 11,318 feet to a food break hosted by the city of Leadville, which is the nation’s highest incorporated city, perched more than 10,000 feet above sea level.
We were still running late, so the festivities had concluded before we arrived. But we were told it was quite nice.
U.S. Route 24 from Leadville took us over the Continental Divide once more, at 10,424-foot Tennessee Pass, then hugged the sides of steep, rocky slopes covered with gold aspen trees at the height of their fall color.
John Classen, the course layout master behind the Cannonball rides, does his best to avoid interstates wherever possible, but the spectacular beauty of Glenwood Canyon, leading to the western part of Colorado, is only accessible on I-70, so old bikes met modern highway design for a stretch through there.
Before we arrived at our overnight stop in Grand Junction, though, the scenery changed again, with forested mountains giving way to rocky, barren buttes as we entered the rugged sandstone landscape associated with Utah, which we’ll visit tomorrow.
It all added up to a tour of Colorado’s best, served up in the midst of this cross-country competition.
But of course, there were points at stake, too, and some significant consequences for the championship that will be awarded in less than a week in Tacoma, Washington. Thirty-eight Cannonball riders started the day with a perfect score for far, but six lost that status during the course of the day.
One of the most heartbreaking losses came when Dottie Mattern had to park her No. 43 1936 Indian Sport Scout just five miles from the start of the stage. Dottie is using her ride to raise money for the Antique Motorcycle Foundation (sister organization to the AMCA), and the Colon Cancer Alliance. Every time she rides another mile, she raises more money for these two causes, so if you sign on with a pledge now, you’ll actually be getting a bargain for today (or you can just pitch in the full amount). To find out more, go to ridedottieride.org.
Meanwhile, Ken McManus lost his perfect status today when he turned over the controls of his No. 112 1936 Harley EL to another rider, incurring a 100-point penalty.
Among other previously perfect riders, Jerry Weiland, who has covered every mile except the first day with his wife, Debi, riding along on his No. 27 1925 Harley JD, came to a halt 70 miles into today, while fellow JD rider Randy Aron, aboard a 1929 JD, went just three miles farther, to the 73-mile point. And David Lloyd, who has been holding down third place in Class II, was caught out by successive flat tires, only one of which he was able to repair. He stopped for the day at mile 180.
That leaves 32 riders still perfect tonight, with only six legs of the Cannonball left to go. And with each day that passes, the pressure to stay perfect and record every mile from coast to coast grows. As David Lloyd noted while his machine was being loaded on the sweep truck this afternoon: “I really thought if we could get through today, we had a real shot at making it all the way.”
But Mike Bell, Lloyd’s teammate on the Carson Classic Motors team bringing together eight riders from Texas, responded that losing some miles on the course for the first time actually allowed him to enjoy the ride more.
“I spent all those days riding and nights keeping the bike running,” he said, “and I kept wondering if it was worth it. Now, I don’t need to worry about all that.”
Tomorrow, the Cannonball is scheduled to cover 289 miles from Grand Junction to Springville, Utah. And you can catch up with the riders at Legends Motorcycle Museum beginning at about 4:30 p.m. Look for me‚ I’ll be the one arriving last with a brand-new truck.—Bill Wood