For most people, the first step in gearing up for the 2010 Motorcycle Cannonball ride was tracking down a suitable pre-1916 motorcycle for the cross-country trip. For Dale Walksler, it meant choosing from among several possible candidates he already had in stock.
You see, Walksler is no ordinary antique-bike enthusiast. As the founder and curator of the Wheels Through Time museum in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, the world’s premier collection of rare American vintage motorcycles, Walksler has more than 300 motorcycles under his care, including 35 made before 1916. So he was in the enviable position of being able to audition various machines as potential Cannonball mounts.
“When Lonnie (Isam Jr.) came up with the Cannonball idea, I thought, ‘I’ve got to get involved in this,’” Walksler says. “My first thought was to run a 1915 Harley-Davidson, since the three-speed model they introduced that year revolutionized the industry. It was state of the art in 1915, and it’s the most advanced machine allowed under the rules of the Cannonball.”
Walksler had two ’15 Harley three-speed bikes in his collection, each in very different condition. One was restored years ago, giving it a more classic appearance. The other had been untouched since an owner made some modifications to it in the late teens, meaning it shows plenty of wear and tear from the past nine decades. So Walksler set up a testing program to choose the better Cannonball machine.
In most shops, that might mean running the two motorcycles on a test stand to see which one produces more horsepower. But the location of Wheels Through Time, in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, gave Dale a better alternative.
“The dynamometer we used is a big mountain right outside Maggie Valley,” he says. “That hill is seven miles at a nine percent grade, and if a bike will run up it in high gear, it’ll probably finish this event. The unrestored bike went right up that hill. The restored bike made it up the hill, but wouldn’t do it in high gear. It didn’t have as much zoot.”
And with that, Walksler’s Cannonball bike was chosen. “Yeah,” he says, “I’m taking an old, dirty bike, and it’s going to look like an old, dirty bike.”
When it comes to preparing an old machine for a 3,000-mile-plus journey, Walksler has an edge on almost every other Cannonball rider, since he’s done it before.
Back in 1917, a rider by the name of Alan Bedell crossed America in seven days, 16 hours on a 1917 Henderson. And to celebrate the 80th anniversary of that record in 1997, Walksler decided to match Bedell’s time on a nearly identical machine.
“We found a Henderson that had been set up for long-distance work,” he says. “It turned out to be a bike that had been ridden by (factory racer) Maldwyn Jones. And we rode that Henderson from L.A. to New York in six days and six hours.”
So that should make the Cannonball, which is scheduled to cross the country in 16 days, easy, right?
“Well,” says Walksler, “you have to remember that I was 13 years younger then.”
What that long-distance experience does, he says, is give him an appreciation for the challenge that will face all 70 competitors scheduled to start the Cannonball ride September 10 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
“I think some people are going to be there for the romance of saying they did it,” says Walksler. “But I don’t know if they know what it’s going to take.”
The primary ingredient for cross-country success, he says, is reliability.
“That’s the key to getting through a long ride like this,” he says. “I feel that 25 percent of the bikes will complete 99 percent of the miles. And I think another 25 percent will end up in California, having been ridden at least half of the miles. But I think 50 percent will fall out somewhere before the finish, and those guys will go home and get back to work.”
To make sure he’s in the 25 percent racking up all 3,325 of the miles on the route, Walksler is taking a conservative approach to his machine.
“We looked into an engine-development project,” he says, “and decided that the chassis and a lot of other parts really are not substantial enough to be able to handle a lot more power. So it’s not worth beefing the engine up in size. What we’re trying to do is fine-tune the engine—leaving it at a standard 61 cubic inches with standard compression, but making everything slick and smooth.”
The engine Walksler will use will contain a number of modern components. And that, he says, creates its own problems.
“When these engines were designed, they had no oil rings, and the oil pump was designed to put as much oil in as the engine used back then,” he explains. “When you use modern pistons, and the engine doesn’t use oil any more, then you end up with over-oiling, which isn’t a good situation, because it builds heat, and that slows you down.”
Walksler expects to uncover plenty of other mechanical challenges during the 16-day ride.
“When it comes to the three-speed Harleys, 1915 was the first year they offered that transmission, and they immediately changed the whole design in ’16,” he says. “Now, a ’16 transmission will fit right into a ’15 bike. In fact, on the bike I’m running, somebody installed a newer transmission—I think it’s an ’18—back then. But the guys who are running true ’15s, I think there’ll be some worn-out transmissions.”
“Plus,” he adds, “this is the first event where we’ll be testing all the modern components people have been making for these old bikes over the past 30 years. All these modern components may be great for running around at a swap meet or a short jaunt, but to get on a bike and pound down 300 miles, day after day, that’s a whole different experience.”
Beyond the engine and drive train, Walksler is working on a number of modifications to make sure he can go the distance on his Harley.
“Some of this may be stuff that a lot of people haven’t thought of,” he says. “For instance, our previous experience with long-distance riding tells me that fuel is a huge issue. These old bikes only hold about a gallon of fuel, which isn’t going to take them more than about 40 miles. And the gas caps are so small, you can’t get a standard fuel nozzle into them. So we’re opting for a fuel cell, instead of using the standard tanks.
“And of course, there’s the tire issue. Do you want to run the old clincher tires or go with drop-center rims? We’re going with drop-center rims for safety. Safety is a huge factor when it comes to brakes and lighting. None of these bikes came with front brakes, so we’re looking at ways to improve the rear brake and deciding whether we need to add one on the front.”
Even the frame of the motorcycle, which seems like a fairly maintenance-free component, will get attention.
“These things were designed for beating down lumpy old roads, and the routes we’re taking should be pretty smooth, so chassis impact should be less,” Walksler says. “But these are really old parts, and if you’re going down a road and hit a big old pothole going 40, it could be possible to break a frame. Over 16 days, I think there is going to be some chassis attrition.”
All of the work Walksler is doing will mean that the bike he rides in the Cannonball will be significantly different from a stock 1915 Harley. But, he says, that’s the surest way to increase the odds of making it to the finish.
“The purist who wants to take his early machine in judging condition and ride it across the country is going to have a much more difficult time,” he says. “And the types of things we’re doing are very much in the spirit of cross-country runs. Even in the era when Cannonball Baker was setting records, his machines were built particularly for the event.”
In addition to making sure his bike is ready for the Cannonball, Walksler is also focused on preparing himself for the long haul.
“Riding one of these old bikes all day for more than two weeks is a real human endurance challenge,” he says. “One of the big factors most people don’t think about is wind. If you’re traveling down a barren highway on an old motorcycle, and you’ve got a 30 mph headwind, it’s going to cause huge problems. I fought that when I did the thing back in ’97. I ended up riding that Henderson almost the entire way across the country bent over.”
Walksler’s preparation even extends to the clothing he plans to wear.
“When we were planning the ride in ’97,” he says, “I did a lot of reading about how Alan Bedell did it, which was very well documented. And it made me think about what to wear on a ride like this. A lot of guys will wear period clothes, which will look cool. But let me tell you what Alan wore. He wore corduroy pants. He said leather pants will chafe, and so will denim material. So when I ran that Henderson across the country, I followed Alan’s lead and wore corduroy pants. And by golly, my ass didn’t get too sore.”
While the ride won’t start for several months, Walksler notes that the race to win the 2010 Cannonball has already begun. And that’s why he’s pushing ahead with preparations for every phase of the ride.
“A lot of the guys I’ve talked to are still making their frames, so we’re little bit ahead of the game,” he says. “We don’t have a completed, prepared machine, but we have a plan and a timeline.
“And,” he adds, “we have a sufficient dynamometer to make sure our bike will go the distance.”
In addition to participating as a rider in the Cannonball, Walksler will also play host to his fellow cross-country competitors. On September 12, the third day of the ride, the route will end at Wheels Through Time for a dinner sponsored by the museum.